As we approach the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s immoral and, at least so far, ineffective assault on Ukraine, there are signs that Russia will mount within days its largest offensive action yet.
The Atlantic Council, a respected think tank founded over 60 years ago, recently released its assessment of the expected Spring offensive:
“This widely anticipated offensive is an attempt by Moscow to regain the initiative following months of battlefield defeats and humiliating retreats in Ukraine that have undermined Russia’s reputation as a military superpower. Vladimir Putin is now desperate to demonstrate that his invasion is back on track. He has reportedly massed huge reserves for a new push to overwhelm Ukraine’s defenses. However, after a year of catastrophic losses that has left many of Russia’s most prestigious military units seriously depleted, doubts remain over the ability of untested replacement troops to carry out large-scale offensive operations.
“Initial indications are not encouraging for the Kremlin, to say the least. Thousands of Russian soldiers including elite marines and special forces troops are believed to have been killed in late January and early February during a badly bungled attempt to storm the town of Vuhledar in eastern Ukraine. The failed attack sparked widespread dismay and anger among pro-Kremlin military bloggers, with many accusing Russian army chiefs of incompetence. The disaster contributed to what British military intelligence said was likely to be ‘the highest rate of Russian casualties since the first week of the invasion.’”
The UK Independent estimates Russia is massing around 1,800 tanks, 700 aircraft and 500,000 men for its Spring assault on Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal estimates that Russia has lost 50% of its best tanks and is now relying on Soviet-era tanks in storage, many of which are in poor operating condition. There may be as many as 300,000 to 500,000 troops involved, but a large portion of them are convicts released from prison that have been referred to as “cannon fodder.” They have had little military training and reportedly many suffer from acute alcohol abuse, further reducing their reliability. Still the tanks and troops are in such large forces that they may capture a substantial amount of Ukrainian territory, but they are unlikely to be able to hold it. If there’s one lesson modern military planners learned from the US military in Iraq, it’s that winning territory in urban street-fighting is much easier than holding it.
Aside from the military statistics, there is a much larger moral problem for Putin. With videos from literally millions of hand-held phone cameras, depicting the human rights abuses by the Russians will be easier than ever before in history. The entire world will be repulsed on such a scale that Putin will begin to lose support from his remaining allies Belarus, China and India. The Russian people will finally turn on Putin, although I am astonished at how long he has retained their popular support. As the number of missing Russian men presumed dead mounts, Russia’s mothers and sisters will eventually realize that they have been deceived by Putin’s propaganda, and they will turn on him.
And how worried should we be that an increasingly desperate Putin will turn to some form of nuclear weaponry to obliterate what he cannot conquer? I think it’s less of a concern than many in Biden’s defense establishment fear. I don’t want to appear unrealistic in minimizing that risk, but the very nature of military command and control means that he would need to rely on a long chain of military professionals to trigger nuclear weapons. Even though riddled with alcoholism, Russian military leaders are professional enough and intelligent enough that they are likely to balk at carrying out orders to employ even so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons. I’m convinced he will be toppled before he is able to detonate nuclear weapons on any large scale.
Casualties on both sides will be tragically high in the next few months, but as long as the US and other NATO countries and allies provide enough weapons and ammunition, the Russian offensive will stall as a combination of poor training, poor maintenance and inadequate supply lines take their toll, and Ukraine will prevail. There’s no justification for negotiating peace with Vladimir Putin. A negotiated peace is no answer because it would give Putin some of Ukraine’s territory. He deserves none of it.