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Before the war everyone was saying Russia would just walk right in; now everybody makes a big kerfuffle about every Ukrainian tactical victory. What are good analyses on what the strategic situation is like?

My understanding is Russia still has an overwhelming advantage in the medium and long term?

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    There is a missing point. This is not a balance between two opponents, but a balance between three: Russian, Ukrainians and the separatists in the contested regions (Although the Russian propaganda claims that they want to become Russians they would rather be independent).
    – FluidCode
    May 2 at 16:06
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    The answers are going to be inherently opinion-based. Even the question itself can be seen as "pushing" an opinion (in the last sentence). But wars are inherently unpredictable. Even material advantages don't necessarily get materialized on the battlefield. The history of warfare is a history of both tactics and instruments of war getting more advanced in unpredictable leaps. Trying to approach it as a series of business transactions is only useful when wars remain limited in scope. When a lot of untested technologies/methods get used, winning or losing can turn on a dime.
    – wrod
    May 2 at 16:23
  • I guess there is not enough information available for an independent analysis of the balance of power. Russia and even not Ukraine do not reveal such sensitive information (like for example how many soldiers and equipment they really lost and how much they are able to produce). As for personal understanding: my guess is that Ukraine gets propped up by arms deliveries so much that the front line will not move much either way from where it is now in the next months. But I may be wrong.
    – Trilarion
    May 2 at 17:04

2 Answers 2

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I've been reading the ISW updates, after finding them quoted repeatedly on the BBC. One could argue that they are partisan because of their ties to the United States, which is technically not at war with Russia but certainly biased towards one side. But then articles which go for raw data are limited by not being on the ground, and also hard to put into context.

Regarding the medium and long term, this depends strongly on the kind of aid Ukraine is getting from the West. Currently Ukrainian infrastructure is under intensive attack, Russian infrastructure is getting attacked on the margins but mostly safe, and Western infrastructure enjoys sanctuary. Russia has more tanks, presuming those in storage haven't been cannibalized by corrupt officials (see below), and more tank factories -- which seem to suffer supply chain issues because of sanctions. In the long term, the West can out-produce Russia if it wants to.

Another important issue is morale and professionalism. It appears as if Russian soldiers are both unprofessional and badly motivated. There has been a news report that Russian troops looted agricultural machinery, using military trucks. Even if Russian officials do not care about theft from Ukrainians, they should be seriously upset that their military trucks were used carry farm implements to Chechnya and not damaged tanks to the repair depot. (If one does not dismiss CNN as partisan and hence unreliable.)

The defeat of the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Vietnam was not a defeat in battle. The superpowers lost because the domestic populations were no longer willing to accept the dead troops, and the economic expense -- but mostly the dead troops. While the Vietnamese, and the Afghans, and now the Ukrainians fought for their homes. It appears as if Russia has been downplaying the extent of their fatalities, even if one assumes that Ukraine has been inflating their claims.

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  • Re:Afghanistan I believe the Russians understood from the cold war that guerilla warfare beats conventional warfare so are not taking any chances. If they suspect combatants are hiding in civilian populations, they will just attack the civilian population. This does explain the civilian collateral stats, but not why they seem to be pushed back in conventional battles. That's likely explained by Russia having to absorb their losses while Ukraine has a 30 country factory resupplying them.
    – uberhaxed
    May 2 at 17:57
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    @uberhaxed, my point regarding Afghanistan are the different stakes. Ukraine believes it fights for national survival. President Putin may also believe that the long-term national survival of Russia is at stake, if it doesn't recover the lost Czarist empire now. But does a Russian mother believe that her son died for Russia, or does she think he died for Putin's 'special military operation' which he will not call a war?
    – o.m.
    May 2 at 18:15
  • I think when the soviets invaded Afghanistan they (Afghans) believed they fought for national survival so I don't think that's different. As for the "special military operation", the information Russians get is that Putin started an operation to save persecuted Russians living in former Soviet lands. So they genuinely do not believe it is a conventional war.
    – uberhaxed
    May 2 at 18:29
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TLDR:

There's not that much and the better quality sources are pretty clear that the situation is very fluid and hard to call.


Like o.m. I'll nominate ISW. Their daily updates have been pretty good at gauging evolution on the battlefield. However, they seem mostly interested in the short term, i.e. what's up in the next week or so. What's happening now.

The War on the Rocks podcast, esp the Kofman episodes which are weekly updates of about 30 minutes. He tends to have a one week back + 3 weeks front focus but occasionally lapses into longer term prognostics, all the while hedging his capacity to calling it accurately. Kofman is of Ukrainian descent but is pretty good at reminding us when we tend to dismiss Russians too quickly (more so than much of press coverage).


I've tried to look for non-aligned coverage, but it is of very uneven quality. Straight out I'd dismiss anything of Russian origins (whic could have provided an alternative, if partisan, viewpoint): the level of censorship and propaganda means you'd need a solid background in military affairs and deep access to likely classified info to even begin to discern the wheat from the chaff.

Then I looked at India, but on the few times I did their coverage also didn't seem all that strong. It either relies on Western sources or parrots the Russian side.

Al-Jazeera seems firmly on the Western side. Until Lavrov's claims of Jewish ancestry for Hitler, Israeli press might have been a bit better.

The trouble is that military analysis is a fairly narrow field involving not that many knowledgeable players. For example, take this article on The Guardian. Guy looks impressive, has Russian coverage credential, but of political content previously and knows little about military (and has sometimes appealed to appeasement).

Sources like Defence News or Jane's generally are gung ho about equipment analysis. But equipment is not the only thing that's driving this war, much more morale, strategy and tactics. And equipment quality as well, LOL (I wonder how much I should believe that vid btw).


Russia still has an overwhelming advantage in the medium and long term

Yes, and no. On paper their army dwarfs Ukraine's. But Ukraine is mobilized, while Russia is fighting a war with a conscription+reserves-based army staffed at peacetime levels. If Russia mobilizes, which would require declaring a state of war, putting the lie to "special military operation", then they get their numerical edge back. Until they do, they are progressively running out of steam.

Kofman's take on his most recent one is that the current "special military operation" approach has one offensive left in it: what they're trying to do in Donbas. He says it can succeed or it can fail but they can't really attack more after that. Which is not to say it can't just develop into a war of attrition - trenches, artillery duels, etc. At that point, Kofman puts his future prognostics hat back on and says it's difficult to gauge whom a war of attrition favors. He calls the, current, Russian army equipment-rich but personnel-poor. i.e. they lack enough boots. He figures for example that their BMP infantry vehicles may right now be operating mostly with a 5 people payload: 3 crew + 2 infantry. That's... just not what armored infantry is supposed to be like (BMP2s should carry a 7 man squad plus crew).

Then, if Russia does mobilize, that shifts the calculations all over again.

And a big part of this is very, very, intangible so necessarily relies on opinions: how quickly can Russia improve its tactics from their current nadir? For example, they got their butt whupped by Finland for 3 months but eventually learned and won. Will they this time? Ukraine is getting much more support than Finland ever did, Ukraine is much bigger than Finland and the Red Army in 1940 was massively bigger than Russia's. Then again, wars, at least ones of aggression, against Russia have been losing bets so far.

Even if Russia does win, it risks only getting to what everyone expected on February 25th: a military occupation of an Ukraine with significant armed resistance movement. Look at Afghanistan 80-89, 01-21 and Vietnam for how that can work out.

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