In looking at this article in the Ukrainian edition of Forbes, the biggest concern the author displays is about the consequences of losing Severodonetsk and the possibility that thousands of Ukrainian troops could be cut off and destroyed unless Ukraine pulls back in time. However, the sentence that is likely to be both frustrating and frightening for many Western readers may be this one:
Russia’s superiority in manpower, heavy weapons and air support poses significant problems for Ukraine.
Three months into Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion, Oryx has definitively recorded the loss of 4192 pieces of Russian equipment. That includes 742 tanks, 1453 armored infantry transports and fighting vehicles, and 251 piece of artillery or MLRS. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Russia has lost over 27,000 soldiers. According to the UK Ministry of Defense and the Pentagon, Russia has lost between one-third and one-half of all the forces it sent into Ukraine.
Every single day we’re getting images of Russian equipment going boom and stories of Russian forces being shuffled back into the motherland after losing so many men, machines, or both that they’re no longer effective — and this is no longer effective by the standards of people who have been feeding units piecemeal into a sausage grinder for months. These are units that are pre-ground. So ground-down they’re not worth grinding again.
With all that in mind, how in the seven hells can Russia still have a “superiority in manpower, heavy weapons and air support”?
Well, they started with more. And for all Russia’s much-deserved reputation for being unable to juggle the logistics of a children’s birthday party, they’ve proven they can maintain a supply line so long as the length of that line is effectively zero. Russia is fighting Ukraine in an area directly adjacent to the territory it has controlled for eight years, right on top of stockpiles of equipment and ammunition, at a point where “fresh” tanks can roll right in over Russian rail lines … so long as “ fresh” means last seen outside a warehouse before the fall of the Soviet Union. They’ve also demonstrated that, while Ukrainian pilots may easily take down a Russian pilot in a dogfight, and Ukrainian air defenses may be far from dead, Russian planes can still contribute to a fight, especially if they can do so while still flying over Russia.
It doesn’t matter if all your equipment falls apart before it can go 30 miles if it only has to go ten.
Russian equipment is poorly maintained and subject to both the depredations of greed and incompetence. Russian troops are poorly trained and short on leaders who have expertise in anything other than ordering yachts. Russia has been pushing their forces to make advances while lacking the necessary numbers to overcome dug in defenses and as a result, taking heavy losses. How many people and how many machines can they still have?
Enough. The answer is that, so far at least, they have enough. There is a point at which a tactic of overwhelming the opponent by hurling bodies at their guns fails, but Russia is not there yet. They may not get there before Ukraine is forced to surrender significant areas in the east.
A big part of the reason is that Ukraine has also been suffering heavy casualties. We don’t know the numbers, other than the 1,116 pieces of equipment lost. But we’ve known from the beginning that they were outnumbered, and while the West has been pouring weapons into Ukraine since the invasion began, kos was upfront about what that meant from the beginning: Every one of those systems comes with its own issues with supplies, maintenance, and training. Systems don’t get to the battlefront overnight, and if they do, they’re largely ineffective.
The list of heavy weaponry supplied to Ukraine is starting to look pretty healthy, and some of it—like 270+ tanks—is very similar to the gear that was already in service with the UA military. But dealing with everything from four different families of APCs to seven different types of self-propelled guns doesn’t come without effort. There is no instant fix.
In addition to tracking the gear that’s been destroyed during the invasion, Oryx took a look all the way back in March into what equipment the Ukrainian military really needed to match up with Russia. The conclusion then was the same as that voiced by Ukrainian officials now:
… to protect Ukrainian assets on the ground and make sure Russia does not attain aerial superiority, it is in direct need of more potent air defense assets. Although MANPADS (both foreign-delivered and Ukrainian) have been devastatingly effective in the conflict, longer ranged systems would allow defenders more freedom on friendly territory, in effect enabling more effective defense and counter attack.
Right now, Russia has more planes and helicopters, and when operating from positions along the border, they can provide support while experiencing relatively lower risk (though, as the two Russian helicopters taken out in the last two days would illustrate, “lower” doesn’t ‘t mean “low”). That needs to change, and getting more long range air defense weaponry near the front line is the way to do it. Ukraine also needs to be able to effectively take out Russian air defenses if it is going to be effective in launching counteroffensives.
But the even more important weapon category where Ukraine comes up short continues to be in the artillery / MLRS camp. Right now, it seems that every NATO member has promised Ukraine some form of artillery—either towed or self-propelled. Fortunately, a lot of those systems are throwing the same NATO-standardized ammo, so the supply chains are as complicated as the number of models might suggest, but when Ukraine is getting: 20 152mm ShKH vz. 77 DANA, 20+ 122mm 2S1 Goździk, 6 155mm Caesar, 12 155mm PzH 2000, 20 155mm M109A3GN, 18 155mm AHS Krab , and 8 155mm ShKH Zuzana 2 … how do you arrange this gear? That’s just the self-propelled guns, and the complexity of training, supplying, and supporting them is already daunting.
That’s not to suggest that any of this equipment is less than vital, that Ukraine doesn’t need it all, or that NATO allies are drowning Ukraine in white elephants. It means that rushing down the road to deliver some mixed collection of gear to forces that are desperate for the means to shoot back, but unfamiliar with what’s coming off the back of the truck, may not be helpful.
MLRS systems may be even more vital. The US appears to be ready to box up some systems, but exactly which one they’re sending it’s clear. As absolutely necessary as that equipment may be, it will not be an overnight game changer.
If NATO had started delivering this gear two years ago, Ukraine would have it effectively disseminated throughout its forces and integrated into their tactics. But NATO didn’t and Ukraine doesn’t. It’s all happening under the gun and everyone is going as fast as they can to make up for lost time.
In addition to all this, NATO is not supplying the one thing that Ukraine needs most of all: people.
Throughout this invasion, we’ve all loved seeing Ukrainian forces displaying impossible levels of courage and verve. We’ve watched them dancing while artillery exploded around them, singing under fire, and laughing in the rubble of the cities they were there to defend. They have been incredible. But they are exhausted. They’re tired of being scared and scared of being tired. They need an opportunity to pull back, to eat a meal where they don’t have to worry about artillery raining down. They need a shower and a good night’s sleep. They need a break.
The only people who can give that to them is Ukraine. Whether Ukraine can give that to them in time is a really good question.