The Time Factor: Possible Avenues of the Conflict in Ukraine

The self-defense forces in Donbass likely do not have the capability to win. Kiev will simply outlast the republic’s fighters. Ukraine still has many mobilization resources. The most important thing for self-defense fighters is not to win the war but rather not to lose it.

The Malaysian plane crash has moved the crisis in Ukraine to a new level. Konstantin Makiyenko, Deputy Director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), talks about the current military situation in Ukraine and the possibility of ending the crisis.

Soviet-type mobilization versus self-defense forces

Kiev has dispatched nearly all of its available units to the “antiterrorist operations” in eastern Ukraine, including six mechanized brigades, one tank brigade, one airborne and three airmobile brigades, as well as special forces. There are also volunteer National Guard units and private armed groups financed by Ukrainian oligarchs. In all, there are between 32,000 and 35,000 military personnel and hundreds of armored vehicles and artillery systems in the conflict area. However, infantry troops capable of waging offensive operations number only about 10,000-12,000.

It is more difficult to estimate the self-defense forces’ numbers, but it is unlikely that they have more than 5,000-7,000 troops.

The main advantage of the Ukrainian armed forces is absolute superiority in heavy weaponry, primarily artillery guns, multiple-launch rocket systems and tanks. This determines their strategy. They have been trying to deliver irreparable fire damage to the opponent, which has no equipment to suppress the Ukrainian army’s superior artillery systems. The latest example is the siege of Slavyansk. At the same time, the Kiev forces are disrupting communications to blockade the self-defense forces and to cut their connection with Russia.

One of the biggest drawbacks of the Ukrainian armed forces is the shortage of trained and motivated infantry personnel with combat experience. The available infantry is sufficient for holding the territory and roadblocks and for blockading the defense fighters, but not for assaulting cities. So far, the Ukrainian armed forces have not taken a single city or village in a head-on offensive. The self-defense forces are being forced out due to heavy artillery and rocket fire or because they fear encirclement. However, Kiev has held several mobilization campaigns, while the accumulation of combat experience helps deal with the problem of insufficient training.

In general, the self-defense forces have been fighting more competently or have been lucky, winning a number of local battles nearly every week. But the Ukrainian army holds the strategic initiative, and hence the territory controlled by the self-defense forces is gradually becoming smaller.

The past four months have exposed both the obvious weaknesses and the strengths of the Ukrainian armed forces, such as the ability to quickly mobilize available resources and to improve organizational standards and combat planning. The Ukrainian armed forces have learned to deal with the lack of material and technical supplies and poor logistics. The defensive actions of the Ukrainian garrisons that were blocked in the Lugansk and Donetsk airports and of the semi-encircled southern group that was advancing along the Russian border showed that the motivated Ukrainian units fought staunchly. On the other hand, they had overwhelming superiority in personnel and absolute fire superiority.

And finally, the Ukrainian armed forces have shown high psychological resistance to losses, although there could be a problem with numbers. According to official Ukrainian statistics, the Kiev forces have lost slightly more than 300 military personnel, which should not seriously affect the morale and combat readiness of a 35,000-strong group. But if it’s true that they have lost over 1,000 personnel in the past four months, then the Ukrainian forces’ morale is very high indeed. In general, the Ukrainian armed forces have the advantages that were traditionally ascribed to the Soviet army and to the pre-1917 Russian Imperial army: modest requirements, fatalism and perseverance.

The Soviet-era mobilization system, although inefficient, has been used in Ukraine, helping Kiev increase its military capability quicker than the self-defense forces. Kiev has won the battle for time against Donetsk and Lugansk. The Ukrainian state, although weakened by political crisis, has proven to be more efficient than the patchwork organization of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics.

“Russian spring”

The developments in Ukraine have given rise to a very interesting social phenomenon, a “Russian spring.” It is the spontaneous patriotic movement of the people that was not encouraged by the Kremlin spin doctors or political analysts. It is mostly volunteers who provide assistance to Novorossiya, the union of self-proclaimed republics in eastern Ukraine. They donate money to buy humanitarian aid for people in Novorossiya and risk their lives to deliver it to the besieged cities. Hundreds of Russians with military experience have gone to the war as volunteers in what is the largest mobilization of the patriotic side of society in post-Soviet Russia.

On the other hand, many Ukrainian nationalists fought in the Chechen wars on the side of separatists, and Kiev did nothing to stop them. According to the military intelligence service of a third country (not Russia or Ukraine) that has strong positions in the Caucasus, 800 Ukrainian volunteers took part in the two Chechen wars, and about 400 of them are physically and organizationally capable of taking part in the current hostilities. In other words, we are witnessing a mirror reply to Kiev’s policy of the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

Possible impact of sanctions and severed relations with Ukraine on Russia’s defense industry

If the Russian and Ukrainian defense industries completely sever their military-technical relations, then the latter would lose its largest market and hundreds of millions of dollars or as much as $1 billion annually. It looks like Kiev is deliberately disabling the national engineering sector that sells its products on the Russian market in order to completely destroy the social base of pro-Russian political forces. At the same time, within three to five years, Russia will have trouble implementing its state defense contracts. Russia receives about 3,000 types of goods from Ukraine under these defense contracts. Most of these easy-to-make goods are manufactured in small runs. Plus, Russian companies have not been interested in manufacturing them. Aside from this category, Russia relies heavily on Ukrainian engines for helicopters, combat trainers and gas-turbine ship propulsion units, and this could be a major problem. The operation of military-transport aircraft, especially the An-124 airlifters, could also be jeopardized.

As a result of the crisis, Ukrainian goods will be replaced by more sophisticated Russian equivalents. This is only a matter of time, money, production organization and corporate governance. Russia can manufacture any product being offered by the Ukrainian industry.

However, this situation could have been easily predicted in 2004 when the anti-Russian regime of Viktor Yushchenko gained power after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. It is possible to implement even the most difficult and ambitious import substitution programs over ten years, all the more so as 50% of this period was marked by rapid Russian economic growth and the country’s rapidly expanding financial potential. An inability or reluctance to safeguard Russia from the political risks of its co-production arrangements with Ukraine shows the lack of efficiency of the federal Government’s policy and expert assessments, as well as the unimpressive managerial potential of nationalized companies in Russia’s defense industry. It may sound odd, but the science-production association, Saturn, a private engine manufacturer, was the most consistent advocate of programs to develop substitutes for Ukrainian products. However, this company was eventually nationalized along with most other private companies in the industry.

It is possible that Western sanctions will jeopardize the technological modernization of Russia’s defense industry and its entire economy. However, Russia has substantial Soviet-era experience in working under conditions of a technological blockade. Moreover, the global economic situation differs greatly from the Cold War era. The United States and Europe no longer possess a financial and technological monopoly, and various countries facing sanctions have ample maneuvering room. This crisis should persuade Russia that the center of civilization is shifting to the Asia Pacific Region, and that the focus of Russia’s economic and political life should also relocate there. Perhaps we should even consider moving the Russian capital from Moscow to a Siberian university city like Tomsk or Novosibirsk.

Although China can replace Western suppliers as an alternative source of some manufactured goods, Russia must continue to rely on its own defense industry. Some European countries and partially Israel will also try to continue cooperating with Russia, and the extent of this cooperation will be determined by the scale of their dependence on the United States.

The purchase of French-made Mistral class amphibious assault ships is also fraught with risk. Paris will do everything possible to fulfill its contractual obligations because it would otherwise suffer a major financial loss, and its reputation would also be damaged. The latter would prove even more negative than direct financial losses.

Prospects and expectations

With regard to the prospects for the conflict in Ukraine, the self-defense forces in Donbass likely do not have the capability to win. Kiev will simply outlast the republic’s fighters. Kiev’s military operation is improving in terms of quality and management, military experience is increasing, the equipment is getting better, and the morale of the personnel is building up. It is a natural process for any fighting army. The leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics, on the other hand, have not demonstrated a lot of skill in military operations or state building. And this is understandable to some extent when we remember that the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics movement was basically improvised as oligarch Rinat Akhmetov tried to pressure the new Kiev officials. Both Akhmetov and Moscow soon lost control of this process. The level of political and social support for the Novorossiya project in Donbass and the Lugansk Region remains limited and will be declining even further with more military setbacks. Novorossiya has lasted this long mainly because of factors that could not be predicted, such as the surprisingly good military skills of the field commanders, especially Igor Strelkov.

Ukraine still has many mobilization resources. Apparently, a third wave of conscription just initiated by Kiev will recruit up to 50,000 people, if not more. Due to the loss of many trained pilots, the air force will not be as intense as before, but this could be compensated for by the artillery units. A possible fuel and ammunition shortage will occur only after three to five months when the most intense phase of the military operation is over.

There are, however, factors that will prevent the government forces from easily defeating the self-defense fighters. First, the Ukrainian army does not have sufficient personnel for efficient control of a territory with six million people. Second, military operations are taking place in mostly urbanized areas, which is difficult for offensive maneuvers. In an urban environment, even scarce and poorly equipped forces can stand up against a much stronger opponent for a longer time. Kiev immediately pulled together all of its technical and human resources. Therefore, the conflict in eastern Ukraine escalated quickly. The ambitious mobilization by Ukraine in April and May was partially provoked by Russia’s demonstration of military strength which gave Kiev the false impression of imminent intervention.

The fact is, the most important thing for self-defense fighters is not to win the war but rather not to lose it. If there is no defeat it is already a victory. When the death toll reaches 5,000 to 7,000 people and the GDP falls by 10-12%, we can expect anti-war sentiment and public protest to take center stage in the country. This is usually the strategy of weaker non-government activists when fighting a stronger government machine in any similar conflict. 

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.