In light of the ongoing Russia crisis, the Scowcroft Center’s Forward Defense (FD) practice will share weekly assessments of the latest force developments surrounding Ukraine, leveraging the expert perspectives of our senior military fellows.
The below opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied here are solely those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense or any other US government agency, says an article published in Atlanticcouncil.
The bottom line
The war has transitioned from a lightning offensive designed to take the capital (if not the whole country) to a brutal war of attrition designed to suffocate Ukraine. In the north, Russia is transitioning into siege tactics around Kyiv, and the immediate risk of Ukrainian defeat seems to have passed.
Still, Russia has adopted the so-called Grozny tactics of indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and near-complete razing of cities. In the south, Russia is using such tactics to demolish Mariupol, and it is nearly finished reinforcing the land bridge from Crimea to the Donbas.
Russia will soon turn to Odesa and try to establish a land bridge from Crimea to the Transnistria region of Moldova. Once these objectives are achieved, we assess that Russia will likely settle into a war of attrition, starving Ukraine of supplies, blocking access to the Black Sea, and eventually prompting famine as Ukrainian farmers are unable to tend to their harvest.
Russian military movement
Air and air defense:
Russia has still failed to establish air superiority and is suffering huge aircraft losses as a result. The Russian Air Force has noticeably increased its missile attacks on targets in the far west of Ukraine and will likely continue to back up threats against US and European resupply of Ukrainian forces with attacks near the Polish border. We find it highly unlikely that either side will establish air superiority over Kyiv in the coming week or that Russia will be able to successfully prosecute an air or missile attack against supply lines into Ukraine.
- Continued unsustainable loss of aircraft and helicopters. According to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, Russia has now lost eighty-one planes, ninety-five helicopters, and nine unmanned aerial vehicles. Though all Ukrainian kill claims cannot be independently verified, numerous photos and videos confirm many of the Russian aircraft losses. The bulk of aircraft losses are believed to be from surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), including from the mobile, long-range S-300 (aka SA-10) and from shoulder-fired man portable air defense systems (MANPADS) such as the Stinger missile supplied by the United States. Russia has not made the elimination of mobile SAMs a priority, nor has it pressed for the complete destruction of Ukrainian fighter aircraft. Finally, Russia has not modified its ground-attack tactics and is conducting many of its attacks at low altitude, which puts Russian planes in the lethal envelope of MANPADS. Taken together, these factors have prevented Russia from establishing air superiority and fully supporting a ground invasion force.
- Current air activity. Russia is still flying approximately two hundred sorties per day, though many of those combat missions remain outside of Ukrainian airspace, while the Ukrainian Air Force, which is down to approximately fifty-six combat aircraft, is flying just five-to-ten sorties per day.
- Russian air strike on Yavoriv training base. On March 13, Russia executed an air-launched cruise missile attack on a Ukrainian training base only ten miles from the Polish border. The base has previously been used by the United States and other NATO nations to train Ukrainian forces on NATO weapons standards. A detachment of Florida National Guard troops left the training base in February prior to Russia’s invasion. The Yavoriv strike demonstrated Russia’s ability to hit any target in the far-reaching corners of Ukraine, and we believe it was designed to send a clear message to the United States and NATO that the Kremlin will not accept further NATO intervention.
- Supply lines in the crosshairs. On March 12, Russia threatened to target US and European weapons supplies to Ukraine. Despite the aggressive rhetoric, Russia currently has almost no capability to successfully interdict supplies coming into Ukraine through its western border with Poland. So far, the Russian Air Force has shown almost no ability to find, identify, and destroy mobile targets. The fact that the mobile S-300 SAM systems are still operating is a powerful indictment of Russia’s ability to conduct dynamic or time-sensitive targeting. Additionally, attacks in the far west of Ukraine appear to be missile as opposed to air strikes. It is unlikely that the Russian Air Force would be able to hit supply convoys by air attack, and missiles fired from hundreds of miles away would not be able to hit mobile targets. Thus, Russia has almost no ability to prevent mobile resupply.
As the conflict transitions to a war of attrition, Russia is adjusting its strategy and has settled on siege tactics to exert maximum pressure. Russia will increasingly target external materiel and personnel support to Ukraine, including humanitarian aid shipments. Additionally, it will likely spin up its logistics systems to sustain its forces during a protracted war.
- Siege warfare. Russia is employing siege tactics against major cities to force Ukraine to capitulate. So far, Russia has demonstrated only minor concern for friendly casualties and no regard for enemy or civilian casualties. Russia recently stated that any weapons shipments from the West are legitimate targets, a statement likely meant to stoke NATO fears of escalation and slow down plans for further shipments.
- Russian logistics. There are reports that Russia requested military equipment and aid from China after beginning its invasion of Ukraine. This suggests that Russia has not fully mobilized its military-industrial complex to support an extended campaign. As the war drags on, we expect Russia will kick its materiel and personnel resupply systems into a higher gear to sustain its forces.
- Risks for escalation. As Russia increases its attacks on western Ukraine, the risks for escalation with NATO compound. NATO and Russia should redouble efforts to open lines of communication to protect against unintended consequences.
- Information warfare. Russia is mostly allowing humanitarian corridors into Russia or Belarus, places few Ukrainians want to go, and using them as a propaganda tool. Russia is also heavily limiting freedom of speech and the press for Russian citizens, manipulating public support in anticipation of a long war. Externally, Russia is losing the information war. Ukraine’s leadership is countering Russia with impressive strategic communications, resulting in a rapid acceleration of materiel aid that should help Ukraine extend its resistance.
Russian forces continue to enjoy the most success in the south, where they are aided by their naval superiority in the Black Sea. Russia will continue to attack west along the coast to complete the land bridge from Donbas. We predict that Odesa is the next target for Russian forces. As Ukraine’s largest port, it accounts for 80 percent of the country’s maritime commerce, and its loss would render Ukraine landlocked.
- Naval warfare. Ukraine claims to have hit a Russian naval vessel, the Vasily Bykov, the lead ship of the Project 22160 class of patrol vessels with BM-21 Grad 122 mm multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). If correct, this would represent the first Russian Navy loss of the conflict.
- Amphibious operations. We assess the likelihood of a Russian attempt at an opposed amphibious assault against Odesa as low. The Russians have no combat experience with amphibious assaults and lack the ship-to-shore connectors to effectively execute one against a well-defended position. A more likely scenario is that Russian Naval Infantry adds its combat power to the ground offensive already underway. If any landing takes place, it is likely to be unopposed and then require the landing force to move over land to join with the main effort before attacking. The only rationale for an unopposed landing would be to demonstrate the capability. The poorly planned and poorly executed Russian airborne assault on Antonov Airport early in the war highlighted the folly of trying to use capabilities ill-suited for the tactical reality on the ground. An amphibious operation against Odesa would be a similar error, but an even more costly one.
- Ground-based anti-ship missiles. The Norwegian Naval Strike Missile (NSM) is currently fielded by Norway, Poland, and the United States and could easily be delivered to the Ukrainians by one of those countries. The system is mobile and has a range of one hundred nautical miles. NSM deployment around Odesa has the potential to disrupt Russian naval support for the Kremlin’s southern offensive.
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