It occurred to me (after a conversation with a friend today) that looking for signs of Russian military collapse might come across as wishful thinking. Perhaps I’m letting sentimental attachment to the Ukrainian cause bias me? Except that isn’t how I got myself there. It was just a depressing elimination of other, less-grim outcomes. So let me detour away from China for a sec and lets go though the various ways this war might end.
- Russia has gotten as far as it can get. So there is no likely master-stroke blow that wins this for them. If you don’t agree, just leave that for now and see below.
- Ukraine will not back down. That seems pretty obvious. It is a fight for survival. They know they must fight the battles now (with strong global support) or risk fighting them later without being certain of that support. Besides, so far they are holding out OK.
- Ukraine would sign a reasonable peace settlement. But that probably requires
- All its pre-invasion territory back and retaining its territorial claims on the Donbas and Crimea (although maybe leaving Russia occupying them until some sort of referendums or etc…).
- Explicit security guarantees from major powers. Not official NATO membership, but pretty darn close.
- Russia won’t voluntarily sign a “reasonable” peace agreement. They can’t/won’t meet Ukraine’s terms. Even Putin’s PR machine couldn’t sell that as a win for Russia. Putin is still looking for a win.
- Putin has already lost, but he won’t accept that loss. Probably partly because no-one will tell Putin he has already “lost.” So his cronies will keep pressing the war and hoping for a miracle until something operational finally breaks.
Something must break. The Russians probably break before the Ukrainians do.
Ukraine understands this is a war for survival. They are fighting like it. So they will just fight on with abundant supply (and open supply lines) from the West. If the Ukrainians were going to break, they would have broken already. With the Russians already on their back feet, the critical moment for Ukrainian morale has already passed. They will just keep grinding away.
How many Russian soldiers believe this is a war for survival? They certainly aren’t fighting like it. Putin and The Cronies barely made the case before sending them in. Most went in because it is their job and are now fighting mostly because the Ukrainians are shooting at them.
Russian motivation/morale will only last so long. How long? I have no idea. It depends on events. If Ukraine pulls off a few high-profile victories, the Russians will break quickly. If it settles down into a grind, they will break slowly. But they likely collapse before the Ukrainians do. It takes a lot more energy to attack/invade than it does to defend.
I mean “collapse” like a souffle. A step-function change just like most human group dynamics; the tiny shift in energy that tells you and everyone else a party has crested and the night is winding down. Time to start collecting your coat and making your goodbyes. Or go for that bathroom break and just never make it back to the unit.
Non-linear, impossible to predict in advance, and unstoppable once it starts.
Enough individual Russian Army soldiers and (eventually) whole units desert, surrender or just plain malinger to a tipping point where the whole effort falls apart. That is what I mean by collapse.
How many soldiers losing how much heart is “enough” to precipitate collapse? I have no idea. You never do in advance. But in an instant, everyone knows the party is winding down. Then they all, collectively, wind it down. The souffle collapses. We’ll know it when we see it. The average Russian soldiers will know it before we see it. Putin will likely see it last. I feel sorry for whoever has to tell him.
Why Russia has gotten as far as it can get. They…
- …haven’t encircled Kyiv and won’t.
- …can’t supply the army they have, much less a necessarily larger occupation force. Supply problems are widely documented already. An occupation force would have to assert broader control over a broader area. Requiring more supply. Requiring more troops to guard/protect/deliver that supply. Which requires more supply…. The math doesn’t add up.
- …don’t control the air. Yes, they are flying 200 sorties a day but most of those flights never leave Russian airspace (per the Pentagon). They have already fired over 50% of their air-to-ground missile inventory (per the Pentagon) and have very little industrial capacity to build more even if they had the time (sanctions on semiconductors, raw materials, etc…).
- …are running out of troops. They have lost 40,000 killed, wounded, or captured out of a force of 190,000. They are depleting remaining units to replace losses and scrambling to find more soldiers in Russia, Syria, Belarus – anywhere. Hard as it may be for some people to accept, Russia’s 1 million man army on paper only had about 200,000 – 300,000 effective soldiers in reality. 40,000 are now lost and many are needed elsewhere.
- …running low on equipment.
- They have lost more tanks than the entire British Army has in total. Nor do they have modern tanks in reserve (a lot of tanks already deployed were 30-40+ year old Soviet-era gear).
- Tank/vehicle tracks wear out fast. So do the engines. Off-road capable trucks also wear out (even if the tires aren’t sun-rotted as widely noted already). All that stuff is built to go hard for a short burst, then get a complete rebuild in a well equipped mechanics shop. Or it breaks down in the middle of a field and gets abandoned (as we’ve seen in how many photos already?).
- High performance aircraft engines wear out even faster. Those will also need a total rebuild.
- …running lowest on morale. No army anywhere can keep people in combat indefinitely (except maybe a hyper-motivated guerilla army like the Viet Cong). Humans wear down from cold, crap food, poor hygiene, and stress (if they avoid being wounded or killed). You have to rotate troops out of the front lines to keep them effective. Russia doesn’t have the manpower reserves to do much of that.
- …don’t “control” anything beyond the narrow stretches of road and local structures their troops hold. The newspaper “blob” maps are highly misleading this way. They don’t really “control” occupied towns (why protests still happen). They don’t control any territory off the main roads at all. If they do “dig in” their pitifully few troops, Ukrainian soldiers will just make a short walking detour and go around them (to attack their supply lines). If they fall back and concentrate in territory they can actually hold, they will have effectively retreated most of the way to the border. That retreat would be pretty much the same as losing and they’d know it.