Matt Gurney: What if Russia loses?
It probably won't. But a Russian defeat seems possible now ... and Putin must see that, too. What will he do?
By: Matt Gurney
What if Russia loses?
For right now, that's a hypothetical, and a bit of a stretch even then. Despite what the social media coverage might have led you to believe, Russian military forces are making slow but real progress in Ukraine, particularly in the south. Even in the north, where they've been frustrated by tenacious Ukrainian resistance and major logistical problems, the Russians still have a very powerful military force. The Ukrainians have destroyed hundreds of Russian ground vehicles of all types — which is impressive — but the Russians have many thousands more. Allied airlifts of anti-aircraft missiles have allowed the Ukrainians to bring down many Russian planes and helicopters, but still, again, only a fraction of what Russia can commit to battle. Meanwhile, Russia continues to make use of its massive artillery and rocket forces. Whatever logistics problems the Russians are undoubtedly encountering, they can yet make up for with massive bombardments, or at least they’ll try.
So, yeah. It’s still very possible that Russia wins, even likely.
But what if they don't?
As the conflict drags on, I find myself considering this more and more, both in terms of how it could happen and, more ominously, what that would mean for the rest of us. And increasingly, I’m fearing the conclusion I’m coming to: the more successful Ukraine is at repelling invading forces, the more perilous the conflict is going to become for the rest of the world.
Let's take the "how" part first. There seem to be two broad categories of how Russia can actually lose this conflict, and they're both more likely now than they were a week ago, and will get more and more likely as the conflict continues. The first possibility is that Russian military logistics collapse entirely.
Military historians and security experts are going to be studying the first two weeks of this invasion for years. Entire careers will be made of this, whole PhD theses written. Armies have always marched on their stomachs, but a modern army also needs massive quantities of fuel and lubricants, ammunition for hungry weapons systems, spare parts for weapons and vehicles, medical supplies and, yes, food for the troops, and also the ability to move wounded troops and prisoners backward down the supply line. This all takes an enormous amount of planning and specialized equipment and knowledge. Sustaining an army on the move means having the necessary supplies and items in abundant supply, but also having a sophisticated enough logistics system to get them to where they're needed in a timely way. This involves everything from having good warehouse inventory control systems to the vehicles required to ferry the supplies to where they're needed, plus a trained pool of manpower to run the whole operation. And the logistics system itself needs to be sustained — what good is a fleet of trucks to deliver supplies to the front if you can't fuel those trucks?
We knew Russian logistics were well below Western standards. Logistics units never get the attention they deserve compared to the more exciting frontline units, and in a cash-strapped, corruption-riddled military like Russia's, that means major problems in times of war — in an already poorly off military, the units that get even less TLC than most are going to be in rough shape indeed. Still, the Russians are underperforming what many Western analysts expected. We knew they’d be bad at this, but this is really bad.
There are reports of Russian troops running out of fuel and food, and abandoning their vehicles in place. There are other reports of long-expired Russian combat rations. In what was perhaps the nerdiest but most fascinating Twitter analysis thread of the war thus far, a retired American Department of Defence employee looked closely at photos from the battlefields in Ukraine and concluded that the tires on Russian vehicles were failing prodigiously, suggesting that the vehicles were not properly cared for when in storage. Again, given the known funding and corruption problems in the Russian military, that's extremely plausible.
So, what does this mean? It means two things: first, that the Russian military is struggling to sustain itself on the move, which explains a lot of what we've seen on the ground thus far. But, critically, it also means that Russia is going to get into more and more trouble as the war goes on. Warfare wears out equipment. It burns through supplies. It exhausts men. Since we knew before the war started that Russian logistics were poor, it was understood that Russia would have a fairly limited period of time to accomplish its goals before it began to exhaust itself. Beyond that early window, it would struggle to maintain a high pace. In fact, what we've seen is that Russia hasn't ever really been able to achieve a high pace of advance at all. It's been a steady but very slow advance in the south and a slow and not particularly steady advance toward Kyiv and Kharkiv in the north. So what's going to happen when the Russian invaders are hit by a double logistics whammy: the frontline units will start exhausting whatever war stocks they began the fight with (which many no doubt have already) as well as experiencing more and more mechanical failures, all while the logistics units tasked with sustaining them become equally exhausted and prone to breakdowns?
Making things worse for the Russians: the Ukrainians are clearly not idiots, and some evidence from the field suggests they're targeting supply convoys and logistics units. Every truck destroyed, every fuel tanker burned, every stockpile of spare parts seized and every driver and mechanic killed hurts Russia in a way that it cannot quickly recover from. We've all been wowed by videos and pictures of ruined tanks and crashing planes and helicopters, but if I may, the real sign that Ukraine is performing well is every clip of a destroyed or captured logistics convoy. Each one of those burned or abandoned vehicles would have kept a dozen combat vehicles advancing for a few more days. Can Russia quickly replace them, their crews and the fuel, supplies and spare parts they were carrying? Probably, eventually, yeah. But they have hundreds of thousands of men in the field now. Can Russia sustain them in place, let alone on the move, long enough to get their logistics units resupplied and moving again?
That's the first broad way that Russia could lose: it simply loses the ability to sustain its fighting forces, allowing the Ukrainians to whittle away at times and places of their choosing. Ukraine doesn't have the combat power to destroy the invading armies entirely, but it can absolutely exploit Russian weaknesses and harass their forces, exacting a terrible toll on the attackers. And that brings us to the second broad way Russia could lose: it could lose the will to fight, not just the means.
I'm not an expert on Russian domestic politics, but it's still not hard to imagine a way that this war becomes impossible for Putin to win, even if his forces are able to scrape together enough supplies to continue advancing on the ground. The sanctions could devastate Russia's economy to a level Putin simply can't ignore. The anti-war movement already bubbling up in Russia could tip over into a popular uprising that Russia's security forces are unable or, critically, unwilling to take on. The allies can continue feeding the Russian people information — unvarnished truth, propaganda or both — that undercuts the Putin narrative and further erodes support for the war. The economic pain of the sanctions could cause parts of the country's power structure to turn against Putin, or at least against his war. And all of these pressures will become more intense the worse the fighting on the ground goes. Thousands of dead sons and dwindling prospects for an outright military victory won't help Putin with any of the domestic challenges he's facing.
I really don't know how likely either of these outcomes are. But they're more likely now than they were two weeks ago, and as the ability of the Russian military to sustain itself erodes, they'll become incrementally likelier. And that's where we come to the ominous part: what does Russia do then?
We're seeing some of it already. The widespread bombardments of Ukrainian cities is well underway; at the time of writing, Kharkiv seems to have suffered a particularly brutal night's worth of attacks; reports from Mariupol, in the south, indicate that on top of massive damage from bombardments, the inhabitants are critically short of food and water. This can get worse, or even just continue, for some time. Logistics will still matter. All those rocket launchers and artillery tubes go through ammunition at a steady rate and new rounds will be needed in the firing areas. Russia’s air force, meanwhile, already seems to have burned through a big part of its inventory of precision-guided bombs, which is probably why sophisticated jet fighters are dropping dumb gravity bombs Blitz-style onto Ukrainian targets. These bombs are useless in precision strikes, but work just fine when the goal is to indiscriminately pound a city flat. And that's exactly what Putin seems determined to do.
It could work, either by clearing a path for ground forces to advance or (in theory) forcing Ukraine to surrender, but again, time is not on Russia's side. Their troops are already in the field, right now. As you read these words, Russian tanks are burning fuel and Russian troops are nibbling rations, and there is no guarantee that more diesel or biscuits are on the way to the front any time soon. What we do know is that the allies are pouring missiles and other weapons into Ukrainian hands, and those idling Russian tanks and snacking infantry could face a barrage of NLAW rockets at any moment. Or even just a pissed off grandfather with an old hunting rifle. If you are an invading soldier in a foreign land, the very last thing you want to be is stranded in the middle of angry locals.
So what's Putin going to do? He's already ramping up bombardment of Ukrainian cities. That could work, but it hasn't worked yet, and there's no guarantee it will if he just keeps trying. His economy is falling apart. His army seems frozen on the road to Kyiv, and unless the Russians can get their critical logistics sorted out fast, that army gets weaker every day.
Putin needs a win. Of some kind. Military or political. He doesn't have an easy path to either, but he does have a lot of nuclear weapons. I really don't like that I'm even thinking about this, and all things considered, I still think Russia can win on the ground with its conventional weapons. But it has to start winning soon, both to avoid the army collapsing under its own weight and further enflaming political unrest in Russia. The longer this drags on, the worse it'll get for Putin ... and that could make things very bad for the rest of us, too, if he reaches for the last trump card he has left.
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