Ukraine, the weight of the human factor in the Russian offensive in Donbass

“A lot of steel, few soldiers” is the definition chosen by some experts to describe the state of the Russian army. On the Ukrainian front, losses and poor coordination between the army and the Territorial are weighing

“Lots of steel, few soldiers,” is the definition chosen by experts Rob Lee and Michael Kofman for describe the state of the Army. That is, many armored and armored vehicles, without however having sufficient soldiers: a situation also seen in Chechnya in 1995. The various reforms introduced by the Russian defense have aimed at create a force suitable for intense and short-lived campaigns, supported – obviously – by the “queen of fire”, the artillery. The consequences have been units with reduced strengths. A brigade that should have about 3,500 men ranks 2,500 and of these – taking into account 30% of conscripts – it means that only 1,700 are well prepared. Documents found by the Ukrainians revealed that the famous Tactical Battalions which on paper had 700-900 military personnel actually they line up half of them: many armored vehicles had 3 crew members, but were without military personnel.

This explains why it often the tanks were sent to the front without the necessary “accompaniment” of footed platoons, an indispensable quota to increase effectiveness and counter the enemy. Always due to the lack of “arms”, the generals employed para, commandos and landing troops up to the limit in roles usually entrusted to the infantry, the role of Wagner’s private individuals subsequently grew. There is a problem of rotation, of substitutions, of preparation. That is why, not wanting to resort to general mobilization, the General Staff tries to involve veterans (older) by offering them a new contract, with a higher salary.

The Ukrainians used the Territorial and the army in tandem. Around Kiev the first component showed great skill, as well as in other areas where mobility was very important. The pressure of the invader in the East forced the command to move reservists and territorials alongside the “professional” contingent: not all of them – as can be seen from the stories that came out of the trenches – were ready for that type of confrontation where they were subjected to a massive bombing. Sometimes they did not have and do not have the means to replicate with the same intensity – ammunition is few -, some were better suited to fight in defense of their landin a literal sense: in the Lviv area there have been protests by families, against the move to the East.

In the disputed regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, moreover, the situation is dramatic: Zelensky himself admitted that the losses amount to 60-100 soldiers per day, a huge amount, and it is difficult to replace them. For every Ukrainian soldier, the president specified, there are 7 Russians. Severodonetsk is under siege, Ukrainian forces resist despite the rain of enemy artillery falling incessantly, but have been forced to retreat to more defensible positions. The General Staff hopes that the weapons arriving from the West will change the course of the fighting, allowing to drive back the enemy as has already happened in the North and in Kharkiv. However, the problems are not limited to the Russian advance and supplies: in particular poor coordination was highlighted between the regular army and the Territorial volunteerswhich in some cases denounced a difference in treatment by Kiev.

Compared to the first phase of the war, another aspect has also changed: morale. In the beginning, the Ukrainian iron will to defend the homeland was opposed to a lack of mood among the Russian troops, mostly young conscripts sent to the front without warning and without even knowing that they would end up in war, that they did not obey orders or ended up sabotage their own means. This “Psychological imbalance” between the forces in play – combined with the fundamental aid received from the West, which refreshed the military but also the spirit – had helped Zelensky’s army to repel the offensive in some areas of the country and to stand up to the invader. Now that the war has become of friction, that the Russians incessantly bomb military and civilian targets, wearing down the psyche of the resistance, that the Army has found its way to advance into the Donbass, this “moral imbalance” has somehow leveled itself off.

“The war in Ukraine confirmed what soldiers have known for centuries,” wrote John Spencer and Lionel Beehner in the Kyiv Post: troop morale is more important than any weapon or military doctrine, brings with it motivation, confidence, courage, cohesion, a sense of control of one’s destiny. The soldiers who for nearly three months fought in the tunnels of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol were a symbol of this and inspired the resistance. “Although vital, however, morale is an elusive and almost impossible to measure ingredient: all good leaders try to cultivate itnot everyone succeeds, ”say Spencer and Beehner.

The human factor also involves leadership. Kiev and Moscow have changed some of the commanders, because the confidence was broken, to try a change, to impose new lines. Not an easy task for the officers, caught between personal responsibilities, pressure from the political top, obstacles on the ground. In mid-May, just before the fall of Mariupol, Zelensky replaced, for example, the head of the Territorial Yuri Halushkin with Ihor Tantsiura, a move that raised several questions. On the Russian front, rumors of a replacement of General Dvornikov return: his place would have been taken by the Deputy Minister of Defense Gennady Zhidko. Not a few have also paid with their lives, including Russian generals Andrei Sukhovetsky, Vladimir Frolov, Kanamat Botashev, to name the established cases. However, they note on the New York Times Kofman himself and Andrea Kendall-Taylor, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, “Appearances can be deceiving”.

Much of the Army’s initial failures were due to Putin’s – erroneous – belief that the war would be short: Russian troops, the two analysts explain, were neither prepared nor organized for a serious campaign. In recent weeks, however, the Moscow army has adapted and corrected some of the errors, highlighting the precarious condition of the Ukrainian resistance in some areas. Above all, however, the army’s destructive force was not affected by the war: submarines, integrated missile systems, electronic capability and the nuclear arsenal. This is what worries NATO and the United States most of all, argue Kofman and Kendall-Taylor, who warn: beware of underestimating the Russians.


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