weeks of war in Ukraine
After two weeks of war in Ukraine, two defense experts take stock. Their conclusion: the Russians are demotivated, suffering heavy losses and are surprised by the opposition of the Ukrainians, but will – albeit with delay – achieve many of their goals.
At the front near the city of Kharkov, Russian Major General Vitaly Gerasimov was killed in battle last Tuesday. He led the fighting against the Ukrainian army around the metropolis. The general’s death is striking for several reasons.
First of all, what does a general do at the front? Is there no one else who can lead the troops? “It seems as if in the Russian army the middle managers are running out, soon they will have to send the commander in chief himself to the battlefield to give the orders,” bellingcat editor-in-chief Christo Grozev wrote on Twitter.
Defence specialist Ko Colijn of the Clingendael Institute is a bit more cautious in his analysis. “It doesn’t go smoothly there,” he says. “Otherwise, the Russians would not send a general to put things in order. But for the Russian clout, Gerasimov’s death doesn’t make much difference in the end, they have a thousand generals there.”
Russians call with unsecured Chinese phones: ‘Very vulnerable’
Another striking detail: an officer of the FSB secret service informed his superior on the other side of the border about the general’s death via an unsecured line.
Just last year, the Russian army introduced era cryptophones with much fanfare, but they do not seem to work in Ukraine because the 3G masts have been blown up by their own troops. And so they have to make calls with unsecured phones and local Ukrainian SIM cards.
So these conversations were overheard by the Ukrainians. Bellingcat got his hands on those talks and found that the FSB agent at the front was calling his colleague Dmitry Shevchenko in the Russian city of Tula. When he heard that the general had been killed, there was a long silence. Then Shevchenko started swearing heavily.
Han Bouwmeester is a lecturer in military strategy at the Dutch Defence Academy and holds a PhD on the modern deception techniques Russia used in the annexation of Crimea in 2014. He follows the war in Ukraine closely.
According to Bouwmeester, the fact that the Russians cannot communicate with each other via secure connections makes them “very vulnerable”.
Bouwmeester: “I understand that Russian soldiers even call each other on very cheap Chinese mobile phones, which you can easily break into. Then you make it very easy for your opponent to find out what you are doing.”
weeks of war in Ukraine: Russians lose top men and equipment but not yet the war
Logistical problems slow down the advance, but do not prevent them
On social media, not only many videos appear of abandoned and burned-out Russian tanks, but also of trucks transporting fuel and other goods.
There are also stories about Russian soldiers who are looking for food and therefore plunder shops and houses. “These logistical problems will slow down rather than completely prevent an advance,” says defence specialist Colijn.
Bouwmeester sees “absolutely logistical challenges”, but you have them in every war. According to him, you should not deduce too much from burned-out trucks and jammed tanks. “We form our judgment based on the images we see, but that is only part of reality. It may well be that there are far fewer problems elsewhere.”
Ukrainian army hands out pinpricks and retreats to cities
The Ukrainian government distributed propaganda images of Russian prisoners of war who all said they thought they were doing a military exercise. Furthermore, there are rumors that units from Belarus refuse to take action against the Ukrainians. “Young soldiers who do not want to fight lead to delays, but can easily be replaced,” says Colijn. “Or they use planes with pilots who have had a much longer training and may be more motivated.
You also see that in Syria and you saw it at the time during the war in Chechnya.”
Bouwmeester points out that the “masculine” Russian command structure can lead to demotivated troops. “In the Russian army, the commander is all-powerful. It determines in detail what needs to be done, lower officers and soldiers only carry out.
If things don’t go well in an operation and you can’t change the situation, you quickly walk with your soul under your arm.”
Great unknown is the Ukrainian army, which does not face the enemy in a traditional way, but rather distributes pinpricks left and right and then retreats back to the cities. “It is difficult for the Russian army to fight against this,” says Bouwmeester. “As an army, you don’t want to go into a city, it’s very difficult to conquer.
There can be a sniper in any building, so you need a huge force.”
When Russians took Crimea in 2014, they used saboteurs, forward units that disabled installations and held politicians hostage. As a result, the Ukrainian government soon had its back against the wall. “They can forget about a repeat of those operations in Kiev,” says Bouwmeester. “If such saboteurs make themselves known, they will face the population.”
Parties want to strengthen positions for negotiations in Turkey (weeks of war in Ukraine)
On Thursday, the negotiators of Russia and Ukraine meet again, this time in the Turkish resort of Antalya. According to Bouwmeester, the Ukrainians have a strong position, because they are difficult to grasp on the battlefield, show that they are able to resist and have a united population behind them.
The Russians have gained a lot of ground in southern Ukraine at the cost of a lot of human suffering and large flows of refugees and are in the process of encircling Kiev. So they certainly do not arrive in Turkey empty-handed either.
According to Colijn, despite their losses, the Russians are still able to occupy and control Kiev and they can defeat the Ukrainians militarily. “The fact that they lose men and equipment is against the expectations, but on the big total that is not so much.
That setback could encourage the Russian army command to continue the war dirty, so with a lot of violence and civilian casualties.”
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