The US (and Ukrainian) strategy now seems to be “bleed the Russians white.” Not in terms of manpower (impossible) but equipment (already well on the way to being done).
There hasn’t been much change on the ground lately in Ukraine. That is news itself. For the attacker, not much change = you are losing. As evidenced by the retreat from Kyiv, not much change eventually leads to collapse and retreat.
Russia’s lack of progress is almost a problem. If Russia had managed a big thrust, Ukraine could have cut them off and precipitated a retreat with massive equipment losses – Kyiv all over again. If Russian forces stay bogged down within a one-day supply truck drive of Russia, the risk is we see a static grinding war develop. Like the Donbas conflict from 2014 to today. That seems to be what a lot of people (particularly Putin) are expecting.
But this assumes Russia can keep up a long grinding war across a much longer front line. They have enough people to do it. But they are rapidly running out of equipment.
Putin is destroying the fighting capability of the Russian military for at least a decade. He’s used up ~70% of his precision missiles (per Bellingcat). 800-1,000 tanks destroyed** out of a functional force of maybe 2,000 t0 3,000 (ignoring storage parks of rusting armored hulks stripped bare of anything of value over decades of corruption). Note that Russia’s only tank factory can only produce 200 tanks a year (WSJ). Except it has shut down production for lack of foreign semi-conductor supply. Missile production is hampered by the same supply constraints. Aircraft production too. The above also ignores the structural and logistics investments now made obvious by the war. Putin can’t just re-build the military, he must re-make it. Under severe sanctions and with a struggling economy.
A mob without tanks, missiles, and air cover is not going to hold much for long. Especially as we pour weaponry into Ukraine. A few more months of losses at these rates and Russia will (literally) run out of tanks. To that end, it is worth looking what happened after the US Defense Secretary recently went to Kyiv. The result was a strategy to accelerate that Russian loss rate. I’d guess the conversation went like this.
US SecDef: So what you are saying, Volodymyr, is you will gladly keep fighting the Russians until they bleed white as long as we keep shipping in more NATO-grade weaponry? Even if that means major losses on your side?
Ukr Pres Zelensky: Lets face it Lloyd, we are going to fight this battle now or later. Putin has made that clear. So we might as well fight it out now. We are half-way there, my people are united, and we have your attention and support. If Putin is mis-informed enough to keep on destroying his army until it is past the point of no return, lets hurry him over that cliff. So yes, lets just get it over with and work hard to ensure the Russian military rebuild takes longer than Putin’s life expectancy (either as President or on this earth)
US SecDef: OK. I’ll go bang some heads together and shame the Germans to start sending heavy weapons. You won’t get any push-back from Congress if US defense contractors get big fat orders. And we are pretty sure the Chinese have let Mr. Putin know that using nukes would be a super big no-no, so I think we are OK on that front. Especially since they wouldn’t really do him much good given how degraded his military already is.
Ukr Pres Zelensky: And you do realize, Austin, we are going to end up in the EU (which has a mutual defense clause too) and probably NATO at the end of all this. So might as well get on with arming us up to NATO standards.
US SecDef: (Sigh). Yeah, we’ve kind’ve figured that out. With Sweden and Finland joining NATO Putin is going to be pretty steamed. But… him and what army are going to be able to do anything about it? (roars of laughter around the table). Although lets hope whoever replaces Putin realizes Russia’s best interests lie in extending NATO all the way to the Chinese border…. (sober silence).
I do worry what happens when someone finally has to tell Putin the game is up. He will be humiliated, angry, and looking to lash out. So he says “lets use a tactical nuke to blow a huge hole in Ukrainian defenses and take Kyiv!!!” And that poor someone will have to reply “We don’t have enough tanks and trucks to even get to Kyiv much less hold it. Even with a nuke. Also the Chinese have told us they’ll have to join the sanctions if we do. We’d have a revolution in the streets – especially if we announce conscription. The economy is already in free-fall. Besides, a lot of Russians have relatives in Ukraine and a nuke is a big step up from atrocities in Bucha. And if the wind blows fallout towards Moscow…”
I am genuinely worried about what happens after that conversation. We know Putin will have already lost any potential practical gains from nuclear or chemical escalation. I am fairly confident his military knows that. Putin will hopefully come around.
He will lash out. The Russian humiliation will be as (or more) devastating as the fall of the Soviet Union. That will be a rough patch to handle.
Then again, this is the path Putin chose. Geo-strategic nay-sayers seem to assume our actions could have chosen Putin a different path. This over-states our influence and under-estimates Putin’s mis-informed stupidity.
Against his own best interests, Putin has chosen to drive Russia into the ditch. All we can do is dig that ditch as deep as possible so he can’t climb out again.
** The 2,000 to 3,000 estimate is someone else’s guess, but we KNOW Russia is running out of tanks because they have started sending more, truly ancient Soviet-era gear into the fight. All the gear with little “Red Star” flags on this site is Soviet-Era while mreo modern stuff has the Russian flag. It isn’t that Russia didn’t produce a lot of fancy gear, but turns out Russia imposed a 2%-4% profit limit on sales to the Russian Army, so their weapons makers sent as much of their production as possible to higher-profit overseas markets. https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html
Taking my cue from smarter observers, I have also started taking the Ukrainian numbers of Russian losses seriously. Turns out the Ukrainians have a track record since 2014 of being too cautious in their claims. Their numbers also track pretty well to 3rd party data based on actual photos etc… For example, Ukraine claims they have destroyed 900 Russian tanks. This 3rd party site (which ONLY counts documented photos) sees 580 (and he’s backlooged badly right now – see https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/attack-on-europe-documenting-equipment.html). The other 320 tanks he can’t count could be behind enemy lines, damaged, or simply un-photographed. Point being the difference isn’t that great and, as others have noted, the two number sets have remained in synch with each other since the start of the conflict. Ukrainian numbers are likely too high in some places (esp aircraft losses), but that is probably over-hopeful reporting on missile strikes and simple “fog of war” stuff vs deliberate propaganda.