Vladimir Putin’s Donbass offensive is faltering due to heavy casualties and Ukrainian resistance, and may even collapse if Russia is unable to muster significant new combat capability, military expert Justin Bronk writes today.
Although the Russian president has redirected efforts from his failed offensive in Kyiv to eastern Ukraine, Russia has so far failed to gain significant ground in the Donbass region.
Putin’s troops remain frustrated by an impassioned last-ditch defense of Mariupol – seen as key to allowing Putin to create a “land bridge” between western Russia and Russian-held Crimea.
And while the Russian army managed to capture several villages along the main roads to the south and south-west, and the town of Popasna to the east, their main goal – encircling Ukrainian forces in the west – is not yet in sight cities of Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Severodonets.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces are launching counter-offensives, particularly near the northern city of Kharkiv – which threatens to cut off key Russian supply routes.
Russia also suffers high losses. The Russian death toll is now more than 25,000, according to the latest figures from Ukraine’s Land Forces.
A total of 25,500 Russian soldiers have been killed in fierce fighting, while Putin’s forces have lost 1,130 tanks, 199 aircraft, 156 helicopters, 509 artillery systems and 2,741 infantry fighting vehicles, the land forces claim.
The numbers have not been verified by Russia, which is keeping a low profile on its losses. Last month, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov gave the first real insight into the scale of Russia’s war casualties, going so far as to describe them as “significant.”
The Kremlin was also forced to admit the humiliating loss of its Black Sea flagship Moskva after it was hit by a Ukrainian missile. The Department of Defense said one crew member died and 27 were missing after the sinking, while the remaining 396 were rescued. Previously, it hadn’t mentioned any casualties.
Experts, meanwhile, believe Russian casualties could be even higher than Ukraine’s claimed — up to 60,000 if you include those killed, injured, captured or missing.
Despite the casualties, Putin did not call out a national mobilization — as some had expected — on Russia’s Victory Day earlier this month — a move that would have allowed him to bolster his forces with reservists.
Here is Mr Bronk, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), analyzing the current situation in an op-ed for MailOnline:
President Putin’s much-anticipated Victory Day speech in Moscow on Monday, May 9, did not include a call for mobilization, meaning Russia still cannot legally enlist conscripts and reserves en masse to counter ongoing heavy troop losses to replace in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have shifted from local counterattacks to broader counteroffensives east of the northern city of Kharkiv, potentially threatening to cut key Russian supply routes crucial to their push in the Donbass.
Since the beginning of the second phase of its invasion, in which its forces are concentrated in the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, the Russian army has managed to capture several villages and slowly advance south and southwest along the main roads from the main base in Izyum in the Northeast, has taken the town of Popasna to the east and reduced the forces defending the long-besieged port city of Mariupol to the south to the tunnels and bunkers of the Azovstal Steelworks.
However, it has not broken through the Ukrainian secondary defense lines and its main objective of encircling Ukrainian forces in the cities of Kramatorsk, Sloviansk and Severodonets is not yet in sight.
In essence, it has made modest territorial gains that are of little strategic importance if they cannot be used to facilitate a broader eruption – and it has continued to take heavy casualties for every kilometer of ground conquered.
By the time Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022, President Putin had massed nearly 190,000 to 200,000 troops for combat operations at the borders.
These included about 150,000 regular troops and about 40-50,000 second-line “Rosguardia” forces, more suited to peacekeeping and counterinsurgency duties than front-line fighting.
By the end of April, however, Russia had already killed an estimated 15,000 soldiers in the fighting, according to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace.
A view shows the Azovstal Steel Plant in the city of Mariupol May 10, 2022 amid ongoing Russian military action in Ukraine
Putin’s troops remain frustrated by an impassioned last-ditch defense of Mariupol – seen as key to allowing Putin to create a “land bridge” between western Russia and Russian-held Crimea
Total casualties, including wounded, captured and missing personnel, will likely be 3 to 4 times that figure, meaning that after another two weeks of heavy fighting, Russia could well have suffered somewhere in the region of 50 to 60,000 casualties .
Confirmed Russian vehicle losses now include a staggering 640 tanks and at least 700 other armored vehicles.
This is even worse for Russia than it looks on paper. Each Russian Battalion (BTG) tactical group has around 700-900 soldiers (often reinforced for combat missions with several hundred additional support troops and equipment).
Of these, around 200 are infantrymen and another 150 vehicle crews for the 10 tanks and around 40 other armored vehicles that make up the BTG’s mobile offensive strike.
The Russian Army’s tens of thousands of casualties will be heavily concentrated among these infantry and vehicle crews, who are by far the most vulnerable and key to generating combat power.
The casualties and vehicle losses therefore represent a punishing attrition rate that must have serious implications for the Russian Army’s ability to sustain effective offensive combat operations.
Destroyed Russian military vehicles destroyed by Ukrainian forces defending Kyiv and now dumped outside of Bucha in a makeshift “tank graveyard”.
A total of 25,500 Russian soldiers have been killed in fierce fighting, while Putin’s forces have lost 1,130 tanks, 199 planes, 156 helicopters, 509 artillery systems and 2,741 infantry fighting vehicles, Ukraine’s land forces claim
The lack of a declaration of war and a national mobilization is important in determining Putin’s likely path forward.
Russia sent around 120 BTGs to Ukraine and has since bolstered its operations there with around 10 additional BTGs from other parts of Russia.
This is close to the limit in terms of additional regular boosts it can generate to continue operations.
Justin Bronk, Research Associate in Air Force and Technology at the Royal United Services Institute in London
The Russian regular army of 280,000 is said to be able to field 168 BTGs without national mobilization and must also maintain forces in Syria, in its occupied territories in Moldova and Georgia, and on the borders with NATO in the west and China in the Far East.
In addition, most of the BTGs now fighting in Donbass and Mariupol are severely undermanned after months of attrition, and many were formed by merging battered formations from previous operations around Kyiv in March.
In short, the Russian army is limited when it comes to generating large amounts of concentrated combat power for offensive operations.
At the same time, the Russian Aerospace Forces have only managed to achieve, at best, localized air superiority in the Donbass and are struggling to effectively deploy most of their combat troops against Ukrainian forces on the battlefield.
Russian doctrine never emphasized close air support as a core mission for fighter pilots, since the Russian army should have enough advantages in firepower and armor to outperform its rivals on a tactical level.
As a result, its fighter fleets lack the target pods, large numbers of suitable precision-guided weapons, and pilots trained for the complex task of close air support.
This picture would be bad enough for Russian commanders if the only concern was that their major offensive in Donbass would lose momentum without achieving any of their key objectives, or even finish off the defenders at Mariupol.
Confirmed Russian vehicle losses now include a staggering 640 tanks and at least 700 other armored vehicles
Despite the casualties, Putin did not call out a national mobilization — as some had expected — on Russia’s Victory Day earlier this month — a move that would have allowed him to bolster his forces with reservists
However, there are growing signs that Ukraine has made significant gains in its counter-offensive around Kharkiv to the north-east – recapturing several villages and finally driving the Russian army out of artillery range of the city.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian counterattacks to the south-west continue to threaten the Russian position at the strategic border crossing city of Kherson.
A major breakthrough by Ukrainian forces at either location could disrupt key Russian supply and reinforcement routes along main roads and railways, and thus forces badly needed to try to maintain offensive momentum in the Donbass will need to be redeployed in order to defending Russia’s flanks.
Without a massive influx of new combat forces — something the Russian army is increasingly unable to provide — Russian leaders face the prospect of not only failing to take the Donbass and failing their second offensive phase, but also being cut off again from the tough have to withdraw from positions they have fought for.