Fri 03 June 2022:
Western experts say Moscow’s limited territorial gains in 100-day-long incursion have come at an enormous cost.
The war in Ukraine has demolished the myth of Russian military might, cemented the Western alliance, bifurcated global finance and trade and devastated Ukraine’s economy.
The conflict, triggered by Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbour 100 days ago, has also re-taught military lessons learned decades if not centuries ago, according to experts.
“We’re realising that firepower is the basic factor determining developments on the battlefield,” said Konstantinos Grivas, a professor of geopolitics and modern weapons systems at the Hellenic Military Academy in Athens, Greece.
“We’ve seen how important artillery is on both sides – nothing terribly advanced – multiple launch rocket systems from the sixties, and rockets … with long-range and high accuracy and high destructive power,” he told Al Jazeera.
Russia fell back on its superior firepower because it has lacked good strategic planning. A month into the war, it gave up attempting to deliver a knock-out blow to Ukraine.
“Russia set a broad political goal that couldn’t be achieved with military means … it was impossible with the forces deployed,” says Panayotis Gartzonikas, a former armoured division commander in the Hellenic Army and lecturer at Greece’s National Defence College.
Its second strategy appeared to be an encirclement of all of Ukraine’s forces in the country’s east, as it established bridgeheads at Popanska and Izyum from which to effect a pincer movement. That, too, appears to have been abandoned in favour of a direct bludgeoning of Severdonetsk, the easternmost city in Ukrainian hands, and smaller encirclements elsewhere.
Sometimes Russia has lacked tactical competence. Ukrainian forces decimated the Russian 74th Motorised Rifle Brigade last month as it attempted to cross the Siverskyi Donets river in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces were caught in transit and reportedly suffered heavy losses. There have been reports of Russian mutinies amid the incompetence.
“Russia’s conventional military threat to Europe was overestimated,” said Grivas.
Russian forces unleashing ‘enormous firepower’
Where Russia has made most progress, it has done so by focusing overwhelming concentrations of firepower. Russian forces appear to have gained the advantage in the battle for Severdonetsk by raining down mortar, artillery and rocket fire simultaneously on defenders. The results of similar tactics are seen in Mariupol, where most of the city has been shot to rubble.
Ukraine’s more judicious management of resources defeated the Russian war machine in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv. It is slowly abandoning Severdonetsk in the east to push back into Kherson in the south. The Institute for the Study of War wrote in an assessment that this was “strategically sound”.
“Kherson is critical terrain because it is the only area of Ukraine in which Russian forces hold ground on the west bank of the Dnipro River. If Russia is able to retain a strong lodgement in Kherson when fighting stops, it will be in a very strong position from which to launch a future invasion,” it wrote.
“Ukraine must husband its more limited resources and focus on regaining critical terrain rather than on defending ground whose control will not determine the outcome of the war.”
But even fighting judiciously against Russia’s resources of firepower is grinding Ukraine down, according to experts.
“The Ukrainian resistance has begun to bend under the pressure of the enormous firepower the Russians are unleashing against it … We’re seeing a war of super-high intensity. To win in this environment you have to be prepared to unleash a lot of destruction and to suffer great losses. It’s a question of who holds out longest,” said Grivas.
A compromise seems difficult at the moment, but inevitable in the long term, says Gartzonikas.
“Time is not on Russia’s side. On the other hand, Ukraine’s reinforcement is incremental. It’s not a basis for a breakthrough,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Russia may make a few more territorial gains, Ukraine may have some successes, but the cost of war is very high, and… we might see a compromise for this reason, of cost, rather than any developments on the battlefield.”
Thousands killed, financial costs soar
The human cost of this war of attrition is beginning to become apparent.
The Ukrainian military estimates it has killed more than 30,000 Russian soldiers. Russia has not updated its military death toll since late March, when it said 1,351 soldiers had been killed. Al Jazeera is unable to verify military claims by either side.
The UN has said more than 4,000 civilians have been killed in Ukraine, and that it estimates the actual civilian death toll is much higher.
Ukraine has accused Russia of forcibly deporting almost half a million Ukrainians to Russia. More than 6.6 million Ukrainians have fled the country, according to the UN.
Then there are material costs to both sides.
Ukraine’s finance minister, Serhiy Marchenko, said the war has so far cost $8.3bn on military and humanitarian expenditures – an eighth of Ukraine’s annual budget. The Kyiv School of Economics reports that damage to Ukrainian infrastructure amounts to about $100bn, and some analysts put it higher.
But Ukraine has received donations of equipment and aid – $53.6bn from the US, and 4.5bn euros ($4.8bn) from the European Union. More is likely to be committed to reconstruction.
Russia has suffered less economic pain in the short term. Forbes Magazine tallied Russia’s cost through losses of equipment to $13bn, but this was paid for by energy exports, say economists.
“[Natural] gas has inelastic supply, so prices have gone up and you have had a doubling of revenues to Russia since the beginning of the war – something like $60bn,” says George Papakonstantinou, a professor of economics at the European University Institute. “So if you think the war is costing about $1bn a day and they’re bringing in $1bn a day, it evens out,” he told Al Jazeera.
The rouble has rebounded in the wake of sanctions against the Russian economy. Bans on exports of Western goods and services to Russia have given the country a healthy current account surplus and very low demand for foreign currencies, according to market analysts.
‘Russia is losing’
Longer-term, it is a different story, because Russia has no outside help. Western sanctions have cut off Russian banks from the global financial system, frozen half of Russia’s foreign currency reserves and stopped exports of sensitive technologies and key services to Russia. The US, Canada, Australia and UK have banned Russian coal and oil. The EU has announced a partial ban on Russian oil imports and has a five-year plan to stop Russian gas imports.
This is evident in the way trade routes are altering. Europe is importing energy and food from further afield.
“The potential growth rate in the Russian economy will be much lower than before. It will have fewer trading partners, fewer foreign investors, it won’t be able to source materials and inputs, therefore it won’t be able to produce what it did before. Compared with [Europe] the hit is much, much bigger,” says Papakonstantinou.
“It is clear that Russia is losing. Yes, it’s absorbing some areas at huge cost, but it has suffered enormous losses on many levels, and it has created a gulf between itself and Europe,” says Grivas.
Given another four months of war, Papakonstantinou believes Western corporations’ divestment from the Russian market will be irreversible. But he foresees a long-term danger as well.
“We’re weaponising the world financial system – we have to, there’s no other way – so we are prompting Russia, China and India to develop an alternative messaging system to Swift, alternative financial safety nets, bigger trade relationships, more investment between them,” he said.
“The more we freeze Russia out, the more it will turn to China. And China will use that to the extent that it can.”
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