Total Victory for Ukraine Pt. I
This is my prediction, and I anticipate it will occur before the end of the year (I actually think it could occur as soon as end of summer). While it is easy to dismiss such predictions as fantastical Ukrainian cheerleading, allow me to present my case:
Overview of Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs)
Russia started the war with about 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), the "modern" Russian maneuver formation. Each BTG contains about 600-800 soldiers (about 200 infantry, officers, and equipment operators...tank drivers, MLRS gunners, etc.) and some number of support personnel (supply truck drivers, radio operators, etc.).
Now, when news stories said that Putin had amassed ~180,000 troops around Ukraine, this appears to be much more than 120 BTGs (up to 300!). But note that each fighting soldier is supported by additional non-fighting soldiers (i.e., supply truck drivers). This is called the "tooth to tail ratio" (T3R), and in modern times, the US military has maintained between 5 to 8 "tail soldiers" for each "tooth soldier". As far as I know, Russia's T3R is not publicly available; but if we assume BTGs are staffed with 600 "teeth", and 120 BTGs comprise 180k total troops, then we are looking at ~72k "teeth" vs. a 108k "tail", or a 1:1.5 ratio. As you can see, Russia's Armed Forces are running with very lean logistics.
Furthermore, each BTG fields 10 tanks, 40 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), towed artillery, rocket artillery, anti-aircraft (AA), and support units.
BTG Loss Rate
If you have been following the war at all, there is one irrefutable fact that stands out quite clearly: Russia has been taking heavy losses almost continuously for the entire invasion. The loss rate is unprecedented for modern warfare. I will go so far as to say it is unsustainable, and that this fact alone justifies my optimism.
As of May 12, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense (MoD) claims to have eliminated 1,195 tanks, 2,873 IFVs, and 26,650 Russian soldiers. Many believe these numbers are significantly inflated for propaganda purposes. However, open-source intelligence (OSINT) source Oryx reports at least 664 Russian tanks lost, 356 armored fighting vehicles (AFV), 705 IFV, 108 armored personnel carriers (APC), among numerous other losses. These are all photographically documented and geolocated (evidence is deduplicated to avoid overcounting from multiple reports of the same vehicle). These counts can be considered absolute minimums, given that not all losses will be photographed, documented, and published publicly. Even so, we see that Oryx numbers are about 50% of MoD counts. It is not hard to believe that actual losses are 2x visually documented losses.
As far as troop losses are concerned, earlier in the war, the Pentagon estimated Russian losses to be about half that reported by the UA MoD. However, NATO later reported their estimates to be very close to the MoD numbers. Given the performance of Russian BTGs on the battlefield, it would be hard to explain the complete withdrawal from the northern Kyiv attack axis if troop losses were as low as the lowest estimates. What we see on the ground is far more consistent with the MoD estimates, even if they are somewhat optimistic (say, 10-20%, rather than 100% high).
If we assume 600 troops per BTG, and take the MoD estimate at face value, then we can say that Russia has lost about 45 BTGs of troops in the 78 days since the war started. This is a loss rate of 1.7 days per BTG. 660 tanks is closer to 60 BTGs. We can reconcile the difference in a few ways. First, we can see that tanks are targeted far more than artillery, MLRS and other rear-echelon targets, so they are somewhat over-represented. Second, the MoD troop estimate is a KIA count. Historically, most armies suffer a 2:1 or 3:1 wounded:killed ratio. In that case, we would say that the MoD would imply about 66k troop casualties. Because of the poor logistics support and the nature of many casualties, it is possible and likely that the Russian ratio is very low, as low as 1:1. About 20 days ago, NATO estimated about 40k casualties. This implies a loss of 60 BTGs, in line with the tank numbers. That gives us a loss rate of 1.3 days per BTG. It also implies that Russia has lost at least half of its total committed invasion force.
Of course, losing a BTG's worth of troops does not mean that an entire BTG has been eliminated. It can always be replenished with fresh troops and vehicles. After all, Russia is estimated to have upwards of 3,000 active tanks and up to 10,000 in storage. On the other hand, one of the glaring problems plaguing the Russian military is rampant corruption all up and down the chain of command. There's an unconfirmed report that one Russian commander committed suicide when he learned how many of his reserve tanks were not operational (like 90%). Many observers note that the tanks in storage include older models that are less combat capable, and that many to most of them are likely missing the most critical and valuable components.
Even worse than that, one of the largest Russian tank manufacturers, Uralvagonzavod, shut down its assembly lines for lack of critical components that can no longer be imported due to sanctions. So replenishment from storage suffers from rampant thieving, and replenishment from the factory line suffers from sanctions in place since 2014. As far as armor goes, when Russia loses a BTG, it is, for all intents and purposes, really gone.
As of weeks ago, even the Pentagon assesses that Ukraine now fields more tanks than Russia in country. If RU were able to competently replenish their BTGs, it is hard to explain how they would allow this situation, given that they committed basically every available BTG to the invasion (every BTG not performing a critical defense function).
The SBU (Ukrainian security service) has posted countless intercepted phone calls of Russian soldiers complaining bitterly about conditions, from lack of winter supplies leading to frostbite, to lack of food, to poorly maintained vehicles, to friendly fire. If there is one universal truth we can say about the RU infantry, it is that their morale is abysmal. There are numerous videos of Russian POWs clearly not under duress (sitting well-clothed, no restraints, well-fed, no obvious wounds, with appropriate medical care) giving a candid account of the war, their unit's morale, and the hopelessness of their cause.
On the flip side, we can find just as many videos of Ukrainian soldiers celebrating their victories large and small, cheering every possible victory from destroying a Russian armor column to rescuing a dog from a collapsed building. There are videos of civilians in Odessa partying to impromptu concerts to volunteers in Kyiv smiling while assembling Molotov cocktails for the Territorial Defense units. Kitchens full of babushkas mass-producing borscht, pickles, and other homemade foodstuffs for their soldiers. Women weaving camouflage nets, troops in bunkers playing violins, and civilians under occupation standing up to Russian troops. The morale of Ukrainians is sky-high, to the point that they shrug off artillery attacks and nearby gunfire like it has no real significance. This is not to say that there is a lack of extreme suffering and pain in UA. Of that there is no doubt. But it's quite clear that UA soldiers are motivated, optimistic, and surprisingly cheerful, given the totality of the circumstances. Their attitude betrays their sense of impending victory, and this attitude can be seen in countless videos, both formally produced by UA gov't media and candid impromptu TikToks made in the field.
Russian combat doctrine is to conserve BTG strength by using local partisans as front-line screening troops (read: cannon fodder) to protect the more valuable BTG infantry. For this reason, the Russian forces have been continuously drafting "volunteers" from the Donbas region to serve this function. Although a certain portion of the Donbas residents were enthusiastically pro-Russian before the invasion, it is clear by now that they are mere cannon fodder for the RU army, resulting in widespread desertion, evasion of forced conscription, and mass surrender.
When we consider troop replenishment for the battered BTGs, we have to ask where they will come from. Recall that Putin already committed 100% of his available fighting force, which includes the conventional 30% conscript infantry which is, by Russian law, not allowed to be deployed to war zones (and one of many reasons why it is a "special military operation"). The only real options are to call up reserves, or to trigger mass mobilization.
Reports indicate that RU is attempting to quietly call up reserves while avoiding a full mobilization, which was speculated to be announced during the May 9 parade, but was not. Although the RAF is currently conducting its regular semi-annual conscription drive, whatever conscripts it brings up since the beginning of April will have mere weeks of training if they are to be sent to the UA front (and indeed, there are some reports that conscripts are being sent with less than a week of training).
Even so, this regular-order conscription event is being met with numerous firebombing of conscription offices across the Russian Federation.
On the Ukrainian side, citizens are gladly volunteering for the Territorial Defense Forces (TDF). Foreign fighters were invited into the country and have swarmed it to the level of some 20,000 fighters. UA received so much interest that it had to get very selective and turn away all but the most qualified applicants. While 20k soldiers don't sound like much compared to the 200k or so RU started with, it is quite significant if you consider that most of these are "tooth" soldiers and not "tails" (which can be more easily recruited from the civilian population). Given the paltry compensation the UA MoD is able to offer (between $300-3000/mo), it is clear that the vast majority of these soldiers are volunteering because they see a fight with moral clarity that is unparalleled in modern history. This is not a bunch of mere mercenaries a la Blackwater/Academi or Wagner Group.
Furthermore, UA is calling up reserves and continues to staff and replenish battalions on an ongoing basis. UA does not publish their casualty rates, but the gov't did give a one-time snapshot of about 3k KIA and 10k wounded. If we take 13k vs 40k at face value, then UA is scoring a 3:1 casualty rate vs. RU, which is pretty phenomenal considering that at many points in the war, UA forces were met with a 5:1 onslaught of enemy forces or worse (because they were spread thin and much of UA had not mobilized yet).
When we ask: "How has Ukraine managed to put up a stiff resistance?" the answer is manifold. But at least one major factor is small unit tactics. Russian fighting doctrine depends heavily on a centralized command & control structure where field commanders make all the important decisions and front-line units follow them without question or deviation. This system requires a lot of officers, and requires officers to be perilously close to the front lines. It also requires general staff to be present on the field.
By contrast, UA spent 8 years starting from the 2014
invasion of Crimea training with Western/NATO forces and learning their doctrine. NATO in general, and the US in particular, depend heavily on a deep NCO (non-commissioned officer) corps to lead units at the squad level to adapt to battlefield conditions and achieve objectives creatively.
The RU army has displayed a lack of tactical discipline that is shocking by modern military standards. Early in the war it maneuvered long convoys with vehicles bumper-to-bumper, clustering so closely that a single bomb or artillery shell could take out multiple vehicles. Russian artillery similarly sets up with multiple howitzers "shoulder to shoulder", and quite vulnerable to airburst munitions.
But nothing betrays the incompetence of Russian tactics more than the devastating loss of armor due to infantry-fired anti-armor weapons. Many armchair generals on the internet have declared "The End of Tanks" based on the countless pictures of burnt-out T-72 husks littering the roads of Ukraine. While Ukraine has certainly lost its share of tanks, it has fared far better, but most importantly, with virtually the same tanks. Clearly, the problem is not the hardware. The real problem is that all armor is vulnerable to anti-armor rockets, and it is impossible to design a tank impervious to such. The proper way to deploy armor on the battlefield is alongside dismounted infantry which screen the surrounding area for anti-armor troops.
However, the Russians have ignored this best practice and rolled across Ukraine fully mounted in their BTR-80s and BMP-3s, completely exposed to every NLAW, Panzerfaust, and Stugna hiding behind a tree or a fence or a house. This fact alone has accounted for the lion's share of RU tank losses. The Russian soldiers are too scared to leave their IFVs, believing they are somehow safer in them, when the reality is that they become metal coffins in the absence of proper combined-arms tactics.
But tactical failure manifests at nearly all levels and areas. Virtually no portion of the Russian forces is exempt or immune. Many Russian vehicles apparently got stuck in the mud because of tire failure, with observers noting that there were characteristic failures due to not rotating the tires on a regular basis (resulting in consistent sun damage to the rubber, weakening the sidewalls).
However, the brilliance of the Ukrainian tactics is on display at the Seversky Donets river crossing. UA forces allowed a large contingent of Russian armor to cross two pontoon bridges set up to advance in the Donbas region. After the tanks and armor finished crossing, they blew up the bridges, trapping the Russians on the near side of the river, cutting off escape and relief troops. They then proceeded to shell them into oblivion. Clearly, RU did not perform adequate reconnaissance to determine whether the crossing was actually secure.
In this case, the Russians aren't entirely to blame. Both sides are using drones extensively, not only for attack, but particularly for intelligence gathering and targeting. Unfortunately for Russia, sanctions have prevented them from deploying as many drones as they would like, and a common complaint on intercepted calls from front-line soldiers is that they don't have enough drones to see what is going on, and command will not (cannot) provide them. On the other hand, Ukraine is getting drones donated through formal military channels, through private purchases, and even through random private foreign donors. Ukraine is awash in drones, and even Western observers say the troops have become quite adept at maximizing their value on the battlefield. Quite a bit of the OSINT battle damage assessment comes from simple quadcopters with cameras flying over the smoking remains in a field somewhere.
At the highest levels, Russia deployed its forces incompetently by spreading them out all over the country, rather than focusing them for decisive victories in their most valuable goals. Now, in hindsight, it may be that their approach was rational, but depended on a very shaky assumption: that Ukrainian leadership was as corrupt as Russian elites. There are rumors that the FSB allocated billions in bribes to Ukrainian officers, governors, mayors, and the like, but that the vast majority of these Ukrainians simply took the bribes without turning their coats as expected, ripping off the FSB in the biggest heist imaginable.
The one large city that Russia managed to capture is Kherson. The details are still unclear, but there is reason to believe that its mayor was ultimately a Russian collaborator, and that there may have been more collaborators within the local security service (SBU). It may be that Kherson is the only city which fell according to Moscow's real plan. After all, the initial invaders only had about 3 days of supplies and brought parade uniforms, being told that they would be greeted as liberators. All indications are that the Kremlin believed its own hype and assessed Kyiv to be as hopelessly corrupt as the siloviki.
But even if we concede that much of the abject failure of the RAF to achieve their objectives was due to a massive intelligence failure, you still have the infamous Chernobaivka Airport, which has become a meme. Like in Kyiv, Moscow planned to take the airport outside Kherson to ensure an endpoint for airlift logistics and staging of air assets like helicopters and attack jets. Since they took Kherson with barely a fight, they waltzed into the airport and set up like they owned the place. And then Ukrainian artillery tore it up like shooting fish in a barrel, destroying several helicopters on the ground. At that point, you would assume that Russian commanders would dedicate enough BTGs to eliminate the UA threat from the area. But this is not brilliant Russian strategy. Russian strategy is to obey order of commander to letter. Commander comrade say deploy helicopters to Chernobaivka, we deploy helos to Chernobaivka. Helos get destroyed, we order more helos. The first 2-3 times even the armchair generals across the world got in a few good belly laughs. After a dozen attempts going on 2 dozen, it is clear that Russian incompetence runs very, very deep.
Although Putin famously avoids electronic technology, depending instead on daily paper briefings, even he has come to see that the war is not going as planned, despite his public proclamations to the contrary. As expected, he has furiously cleaned house, starting with the FSB. Shoigu, the Minister of Defense, took a suspicious week-long vacation, and Valery Gerasimov, the Chief of Staff, was sent to the front lines in Izium. Multiple oligarchs have met with suspicious and untimely ends, both in Russia and abroad. But none of this has changed one remarkable fact: Russia was compromised by Western intelligence for months before the war started out. In fact, the war started out with the US and UK intelligence community calling out Putin's invasion plan despite the protestation of expert observers that Putin would never do such a thing, because it is so patently irrational.
The VDV (Russian airborne troops) were dispatched to capture Hostomel airport NW of Kyiv so that troops and supplies could be rapidly airlifted in. However, one of the transport aircraft was shot down, presumably with a full load of troops. The troops that did make it captured the airport briefly, but were unable to hold it, as UA recaptured it soon after, although control changed hand several times thereafter. It turns out that the VDV suffered one of their biggest losses because Western intelligence warned UA of that particular attack, and UA deftly prepared to defend against it while the intel was actionable.
One of the most humiliating losses for the Russians was the sinking of the Moskva. Again, US intelligence helped locate it, even though Ukrainian Neptune missiles ultimately sunk it.
But perhaps the biggest intelligence failure of all was when Russian troops destroyed 3G and 4G towers inside Ukraine. Russia developed the ERA cryptophone for secure communications in the field, but it depends on local 3/4G towers for its operation. Since Russian troops enthusiastically leveled everything in sight, they defeated their own secure communications, forcing them to make calls in the clear and enabling the SBU to trivially intercept all kinds of calls, from simple soldiers calling their moms/wives to complain about the war to critical battlefield intelligence reports about troop movements and casualties.
Russians also have an encrypted radio system, called Azart. But good ol' corruption means that they only have a few hundred per thousands of troops, meaning that most troops have to communicate over consumer-grade walkie-talkies in the clear. This opens them up to interference, jamming, and eavesdropping. Russian military operations have practically been an open book for these reasons, and amateur HAM radio operators have been listening in since the start of the war. One OSINT source has been preserving all broadcasted communications for posterity.
Many observers look at the ruble or RU oil/gas exports at $1 billion/day and say: "See? Russian economy is doing just fine. They can wage this war indefinitely." But they can't. The Russian economy is in free-fall. The ruble is being propped up artificially, and oil exports are, on some level, irrelevant. What most observers don't understand is the degree to which Russia is primarily a raw materials producer. Energy and mining account for the lion's share of Russia's exports, with agriculture coming in a distant third place. In turn, Russia imports virtually all of its manufactured goods, and especially anything that requires substantial technology.
Consider the Orlan drone. This Russian homebrew UAV performs reconnaissance. As you can see in this teardown video, rather than have the RU military design its own optics to milspec, they literally strap a consumer-grade Canon camera into the drone, making sure to glue the power switch into the "on" position so it doesn't get jostled off during flight. The thermal sights in the T-90 and friends is provided by the French Thales. Russians are being mocked for stealing everything from women's underwear to washing machines. Given that many troops are conscripted from poverty-stricken regions, this should not be too surprising. But it turns out that poor conscripts are not the only ones stealing washing machines: the Russian military industrial complex has resorted to using consumer-grade electronics in lieu of import sanctions.
But nothing can be more decisive than the proclamations of Russia's top Central Banker, Elvira Nabuillina:
The period when the economy can live on reserves is finite. And already in the second and third quarter we will enter a period of structural transformation and the search for new business models...
The main problems will be associated with restrictions on imports and logistics of foreign trade, and in the future with restrictions on exports.
What Ms. Nabuillina is talking about is the dramatic end to major container shipping traffic. Russian warehouses and factories and stores have a few months of inventory on hand, but once that runs out, there will be nothing to replace it. This is why the Russian economy is in free-fall. We are currently in the middle of the 2nd quarter of her "structural transformation". By the 3rd quarter (i.e., summer), we will finally see the full effects of this widespread separation from the Western economic sphere.
And if you think the central banker is not sufficiently persuasive, then you need look no further than Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov:
Lavrov said at a meeting on Friday that “a real hybrid war, total war was declared on us.” He said the goal was “to destroy, break, annihilate, strangle the Russian economy, and Russia on the whole.”
These are the starkest admissions that the widespread Western sanctions are a veritable threat to the Russian economy. No amount of oil money will suffice if containers full of western goods are unwilling to unload their wares in Russian ports. At best, Russia can hope that India and China will be willing to smuggle in Western wares at ungodly markups, but certainly not at volume. And you can absolutely bet that Chinese and Indian smugglers will take advantage of the situation to substitute cheap knockoffs and fakes while charging full price + smuggling premium. Do not envy the Russian consumer...there is no good future in store for them.
(Continued in Pt. II...)