As the Russo-Ukrainian war grinds into its sixth full month, we must reckon with strategic reality. Russia is losing ground, and its strategic position will only deteriorate in coming months; further military reversals will intensify its strategic quandary. Three possibilities exist — revolution, a palace coup, or horizontal escalation — and the United States should prepare for each.
Russia faces a structural strategic impediment that goes beyond war-planning errors and the inefficiencies of an authoritarian kleptocracy. It simply lacks the manpower and capabilities to conquer Ukraine, or even to hold its current strategic position.
Russia’s military planned its invasion poorly because of a series of flawed assumptions. Its high command believed Ukraine was brittle and feckless with a divided, poorly coordinated army; it assumed the West had no stomach for even a brief confrontation. Hence, only a push would be needed to topple resistance: A multi-axis invasion would overwhelm Ukraine and the West, President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee Kyiv, and — by May 9 — Putin could announce the reconstitution of the Soviet-Russian Empire, Belarus and Ukraine included.
In the event, Ukraine fought with skill and tenacity. Russia’s greatest success came in the south, where it appears Russia compromised Ukrainian intelligence chiefs to facilitate its rapid capture of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk. Russia’s invasion force, however, was too small to sustain a broad-front offensive for more than a few days. Although it captured much of Kherson and southern Zaporizhzhia oblasts, and took Mariupol following a vicious two-month siege, its momentum was spent. It withdrew from the north, abandoning its thrust towards Kyiv.
Since then, Russia has been stuck in an increasingly insoluble bind, stemming from two structural factors. It possesses tens of thousands of artillery pieces in various calibers, ranging from the 1960s-produced D-30 and 2S3 to the more modern Msta-b and 2S35, along with various multiple rocket launcher (MRL) systems. These systems are relatively inaccurate – Russian MRLs lack the precision guidance of Western-designed HIMARS and M270s, while Russian barrel artillery cannot match the American M777, French Caesar or German PzH-2000 with modern shells.
Still, many Western analysts and the Kremlin’s propagandists insisted Russia would shatter Ukrainian defenses if properly concentrated. And Russia did concentrate: It amassed well over half of its deployed combat power in the Donbas. But observers who predicted Ukraine’s collapse after an attritional conflict in June forgot the Great War adage, “Artillery conquers, infantry occupies.”
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