This is the first in a three-part series on the Ukraine war.
EARLIER this year, advertisements for memorial services appeared in Ukrainian towns. People were implored to ‘remember the 400,000’ men who would never return from the battlefields in the east. This statistic, believed to have been leaked mistakenly from a Ukrainian state database, was never meant to be released into the public domain. Indeed, Ukraine’s casualty toll is a guarded secret of Zelensky’s government, withheld from his citizenry and Western allies alike. The posters were removed immediately by local officials, who denied the startling claim.
Many Western experts argue that the figure is accurate. It is corroborated by forensic analyses of cemeteries, as well as knowledge of widespread losses among Ukrainian units and the recruitment of vast reserves. Moreover, evidence from satellite imagery is increasingly being used to reveal the extent of battlefield devastation. Prior to Kiev’s utterly catastrophic offensive of early June, it was assessed that between 300,000 and 350,000 Ukrainian soldiers had died. The offensive, in its turn, is assessed to have incurred more than 1,000 Ukrainian casualties per day for significant periods of the four-month campaign, many of whom have been killed. This, very quickly, has amounted to a staggering human toll, the true extent of which has been elided by mainstream Western reportage.
The offensive has focused the minds of Western policy-makers. It has failed, not partially, but totally. Its purpose was to punch through the immense Russian defensive line and drive wedges deep into the territory seized by Moscow last year. As I argued in July, it was militarily and logically absurd to presume that such an outcome could be achieved. So it has proved: to date its defining achievement has been a temporary breach of a single layer of the Russian defensive system in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. The Russian defensive line itself, built over months while the Ukrainian army was sucked into a pointless, life-sapping defeat in the town of Bakhmut, has not once been penetrated.
This should not surprise the Western officials who planned and financed this campaign. Zelensky cautioned in May, only three weeks before the offensive was launched, that his forces needed more time, weaponry, ammunition and manpower before an attack could succeed against a Russian line of such strength. His warnings have been borne out in a summer of blood. The combat brigades of the Ukrainian army, many of which began the offensive with depleted stocks of men and equipment, have been disintegrated and engulfed by the manifold overmatches of the Russian military. Even the most prized Ukrainian brigades, equipped with modern Nato tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery, and frequently accompanied by foreign advisers, have been stopped dead long before the main Russian line.
There are five core reasons for this terrible defeat:
1. Russia possesses overwhelming superiority in numbers. There are close to 800,000 men in and behind the main defensive line. Furthermore, Putin holds 300,000 troops in immediate reserve. By contrast, due to death and wounding, and vast emigration from a population less than a third the size of Russia’s, Ukraine ran out of men to recruit months ago. Kiev would be incapable of building a defensive position of this length and depth, let alone manning and defending it. As the historian Niall Ferguson observed recently: ‘Wars of attrition do not favour the smaller combatant. It is hard to see how many more offensives Ukraine is capable of mounting between now and 2032 – or indeed between now and this time next year.’ Ferguson is understating the case: we will simply not see a Ukrainian offensive of this scale again. Kiev’s human resources are all but exhausted.
2. Russia possesses roughly eight times the artillery capacity of Ukraine. Following the initial battlefield failings of early 2022, the Kremlin reorganised its artillery into entire brigades, allowing immense firepower to be concentrated against Ukrainian forces. The West, meanwhile, has been unable from the start to provide Kiev with enough artillery pieces or ammunition. Estonian officials complained recently that Russia produces seven times as much ammunition as Western arms manufacturers. Importantly, Moscow’s military-industrial base is held beyond the Ural Mountains, out of Ukrainian missile range. Consequently, Kiev’s troops have been launched into formidable Russian defences without adequate support and have been repelled by terrible barrages.
3. Russian aerial and satellite assets enable the constant surveillance of almost all Ukrainian troops. Moscow has launched a series of further satellites this year, deepening its targeting capabilities. Once found, men and vehicles fall prey to precision missiles, artillery strikes and armed drones. Major combat groupings advance to battle in full view of Moscow’s forces, resulting in untenable attrition from the air before troops even reach the enemy’s lines.
4. The 25km-deep ‘security zone’ in front of the Russian line is a vast labyrinth of minefields and complex booby-trapped trench systems. This terrible quagmire has proved impassable to Western-provided vehicles, forcing soldiers to dismount and pick a path through the carnage on foot with almost no protection. Critically, Western senior officers and advisers who have helped Ukraine to plan this campaign have themselves no experience in attacking defences of this magnitude and sophistication. The campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, grim as they were, have not prepared senior officers for the scale or the intractable complexity of modern conventional warfare. The Cold War era, in which vast conventional operations were routinely planned and exercised, is a distant memory for the modern Western military. Indeed, this obvious void in knowledge and experience has been a ratcheting source of tension between Ukrainian and Western officials.
5. Crucially, Russia has air superiority. This is the decisive factor in modern warfare. Moscow possesses 4,200 aircraft, while Kiev can employ only 310. Although fixed-wing aircraft have been used cautiously due to the threat from Western-provided air-defence systems, the Russian drone capability has surged over recent months. The skies above advancing Ukrainian troops are aswarm with predatory air assets. Footage shows Russian attack helicopters and the new lethal ZALA Lancet drones destroying US Bradley fighting vehicles and German Leopard tanks that have become lodged in minefields. By contrast, Russian electronic warfare assets are jamming and disabling 10,000 Ukrainian drones per month, many of which are merely small Chinese commercial craft that have been retrofitted for pseudo-military use. Not only does Moscow have overwhelming superiority of numbers in the air – it has a widespreadtechnological advantage over Kiev’s forces too.
The point is not that the Russian military is invincible: it has its well-documented weaknesses and discontents. Yet the irrefutable, implacable fact is that, by every military metric, Russia is tremendously more powerful than Ukraine in this war. That is not a moral opinion: it is demonstrably and objectively true.
In fact history tells us that we ought to have expected this. Moscow’s juggernaut-like resurgence in Ukraine is but the latest iteration of a centuries-old pattern in Russian warfare. One invader after another, from King Charles XII of Sweden in 1707 to Napoleon in 1812 to Hitler in 1941, has discovered that, whilst the Russian nation appears initially to disintegrate against the aggressor, it eventually springs forth in a terrible torrent of attritional power and resolve.
In his brilliant essay Have We Forgotten the Russian Way of War? the eminent American classicist Victor Davis Hanson explains that the Russian army undergoes this same transformation when it is on the offensive outside its own borders. The Finnish-Russian ‘Winter War’ of 1939-40 is usually referenced as an example of Finnish heroism against Moscow’s numerically superior, clumsy and badly led force. Yet the outcome was a grinding Russian victory in spite of 400,000 casualties.
We are seeing this quintessentially Russian way of war again in eastern Ukraine. The initial weeks of incompetence and blunder so evident in the early spring of 2022 are long gone. There is now a massive and resolute force entrenched along a vast frontage, bolstered with immense support in materiel and modern weaponry.
The critical first step in ending this war, and alleviating the inconceivable human suffering it has wreaked, lies in our honest acknowledgement that Ukraine and its Western backers are losing terribly.
Indeed, as will be explored in the next essay of this series, even the neoconservative ultra-hawks who have willed this war on from the very start are now admitting that a Ukrainian – and thus Western – defeat is well within view. The true extent and meaning of that defeat will be felt not just in Kiev, but in the great capitals of the West.
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