MOSCOW BLOG: The calculus of war

MOSCOW BLOG: The calculus of war
Russian troops outnumber Ukraine's 7-1 in Donbas, but Ukrainian troops outnumber Russia's attacking force by the same 7-1 overall. Russia is making advances in Donbas, but for how long? / wiki
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 26, 2022

There are reports that some Russian troops were inside Severodonetsk yesterday (which reports are starting to call Sievierodonetsk, which is the Ukrainian spelling of the name, the PC way to spell it given we are all using Kyiv now not Kiev). The city has not fallen yet, but probably will very soon. Russia is concentrating all its forces on this front in the Luhansk region.  

The war in Donbas has not been going Kyiv’s way this week. The Ukrainian troops are under intense pressure and slowly being pushed back. Russia achieved a breakthrough at Popasna and has been pushing northwards while Severodonetsk, in the bowl of the cauldron surrounded on three sides by Russian forces, is being shelled non-stop. A reported 15,000 civilians are trapped in the industrial city.  

The comments coming out of Kyiv are getting more pessimistic. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, who perfectly predicted the start of the war in 2019, said that Ukraine has “now lost to Russia in terms of pace, which has managed to accumulate its reserves before we did”. Ukraine’s high command has begun to withdraw some troops from frontline positions before they get encircled.

However, two interesting titbits of information came out yesterday that suggest the Russian gains are not as big as they seem.  

First, I was speculating yesterday that the Ukrainian forces are outnumbered in the Donbas region 10-1; Kyiv said it's actually 7-1. That is a lot, as in the standard war calculus an attacking force needs a 3-1 advantage to have any hope of advancing.  

The second thing is that Russian forces are advancing by about 1 km a day. That is very little. Again in war calculus, an attacking force can expect to advance by 15-25 km a day. The number is determined by how much fuel trucks need and how fast they can drive over bad roads as they ferry supplies up to ammo dumps near the front line and then go back to get more.

Given the large headcount advantage but the very slow progress, this suggests the Russian forces could become exhausted. The longer the supply lines get the more difficult it becomes, so the range of Russia’s advances is not a lot.  

Even though Ukrainian forces are starting to retreat from advanced positions in the bowl of the cauldron to prevent them from being encircled, if Ukraine gets more Western weapons it can use its vastly superior manpower – Kyiv has 700,000 active soldiers now countrywide against Russia’s total attacking force of circa 100,000 – to launch a counter-offensive to reclaim some of the ground it is losing now.

However, there are also reports that one of the reasons the advance is so slow is Russian soldiers are digging in and fortifying their positions in Luhansk as they go, so it looks like the Kremlin intends to take Donbas and then hold it forever against any Ukrainian attempt to take it back. It seems to me this will end up looking like the border between North and South Korea very soon.

Finally, in a response to this week’s poll that found 84% of Ukrainians don't want to give up territory to Russia, a Levada poll found that Russians are equally stubborn: 87% don't want to make any concessions to the West to get sanctions removed. We are going to be here for a while.  

This article first appeared as the blurb in bne IntelliNews’ EDITOR’S PICKS, a daily email digest of the best articles from the last 24 hours delivered free to your inbox. Click here to see the back issues and to sign up.