What is surprising about the war in Ukraine is not what is known but how much is unknown about a conflict where information is everything. In an attempt to predict the course of the conflict, analysts are reviewing and analyzing everything that is known about the Russian military’s operations in the country, but what is not known could be even more relevant.
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In the week and a half that we have been fighting, the rate of casualties and material losses on the Russian side has been one of the issues in the spotlight. In this period, images of dead or captured Russian soldiers, as well as destroyed or abandoned equipment, have become commonplace. It has become clear that Russian forces have lost everything from planes and tanks to entire convoys.
But the attrition does not affect only one side and what is much less clear is the level of losses suffered by the Ukrainian forces. There is no equivalent avalanche of images on Russian social networks, and Ukraine naturally does not want to publicize the setbacks it has suffered.
Yes, some images of lost Ukrainian military equipment have appeared, such as that of the sunk navy flagshipaccording to the Ukrainians, by order of their own defense minister in the port of Mykolaiv this weekend, but analysts are trying to guess what may have happened by what is not seen and what is not happening.
Hard hit during the first days of the conflict, Ukraine’s air force and air defenses are an example of the former. Russia has reported that it neutralized the country’s air defenses. Although it is clear that they still have some capacity, it is not known how much.
This is important because attrition is not symmetric, as it is more difficult to attack a position than to defend it. Leaving other advantages, such as technology, aside, military strategists often think of a ratio of three attackers for each defender.
In practical terms, what this means is that the Russian strategists who designed the invasion of Ukraine had included in their plans the loss of soldiers or equipment. What we do not know is if what has happened so far was within those calculations, or if it has exceeded them.
Another issue that has received particular attention is Russia’s progress on its offensive schedule, a topic that has been much talked about during intelligence and defense briefings in Western capitals. It was taken for granted that the Kremlin thought of an easy victory against Ukraine during the first days of the invasion, but the truth is that we do not know what Moscow’s military hypotheses were or still are. We don’t even know if those plans have changed.
When Russian forces don’t seem to be advancing, does that mean they are “stalling” because of some problem? Or is it an operational break? Or a combination of both? On Saturday, the possibility of rest was raised in the latest update by Frederick Kagan and his colleagues at the Institute for the Study of War. They suggested that Russian forces in Ukraine may have “entered a possibly brief operational break on March 5 as they prepare to resume operations against Kiev, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and possibly Odessa in the next 24-48 hours.”
western intelligence blunder
Western intelligence services were wrong to assume, before the invasion, that Moscow would be content with a limited campaign in Crimea and Donbas. Russia has struck much more significantly in its attempt to take the capital, Kiev, and to overthrow the government of Volodymyr Zelensky.
In addition, there remains the question of understanding what control Russia exercises over the areas it claims to have taken. Maps published in the media and elsewhere show large areas now under Russian military control, but many of them have simply colored in the areas between roads controlled by Russian forces. But controlling the roads does not necessarily mean controlling the territory that surrounds them.
Then there is the biggest unknown of all. One of the key concepts for understanding conflicts and their possible outcomes is to know how countries position themselves on the line that goes from fragility to resilience, an issue that is influenced by factors such as social cohesion during the conflict or the ability to sustaining a protracted war effort, where the mobilization of the nation for that war effort especially counts.
Translated by Francisco de Zarate.