Reports of Ukrainian counter-attacks forcing Russian troops into defensive positions has become a running theme over the last couple of weeks. Ukrainian troops appear to have reclaimed territory to the north-east of Kyiv while the Russian army is said to be suffering from depleted morale amid mass casualties. And after initially making rapid gains, the Russian advance in the south of Ukraine appears to have stalled.
Such reports have led many to wonder, could Ukraine be turning the tide on Putin’s army? Or are we overestimating how much trouble Russia is really in?
Dr Marina Miron, an honorary research fellow in the Defence Studies Department’s Centre for Military Ethics at Kings College London, shares her views with Reaction.
Why are Russians troops having a harder time capturing territory than many anticipated?
“A lot of commentators are saying that Russia is losing as it wasn’t [militarily] prepared for this kind of war. I beg to differ,” says Miron.
“Russia has prepared in Syria for urban warfare. Before that, its armed forces were not prepared – as we saw in Georgia in 2008. Since then the military doctrine has changed and they have modernised and restructured their armed forces.”
What Moscow was not properly prepared for, however, was the reaction of Ukrainian civilians.
“Russian forces are seeing a situation similar to what the US experienced in Iraq in 2003. They come in there thinking people are going to act as if “the liberators are here” and then not just the armed forces but also the civil population starts resisting too.”
“I think that’s one of the major shocks for Russia and its armed forces. That fierce resistance from civilians is something it underestimated.”
Morale is another problem for Russian troops – a factor Miron describes as “very, very important in warfare – sometimes even more so than military equipment.”
“While there will be different opinions amongst those in the armed forces, troops have to maintain the narrative that they are actually doing something good by fighting there.
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“There were some Russian generals who said pre-invasion that it would be barbaric to invade Ukraine. And there are reports of some soldiers saying they felt tricked into even being sent to Ukraine in the first place.”
The close cultural and historic ties between Russia and Ukraine make it harder still. “Of those sent to the frontlines, many of them may have family in Ukraine, the second language is Russian, it’s like fighting your own in a way. When you think of preludes to wars – like World War One – there is a dehumanisation of the opponent that is taking place and this makes it easier for the troops that go out there. But when the troops are facing people who look exactly like them and speak the same language, it becomes psychologically very, very challenging.”
How much can we read into the reports of Ukrainians reclaiming territory through successful counter-attacks?
We must bear one thing in mind, says Miron: “It’s from the Ukrainian side that we are hearing reports that Russian forces are running out of ammunition and that morale is low.”
Statements from the Ukrainian MOD, much like statements from the Russian MOD, are intended “to make it seem like their side is winning the war.”
“It’s a public statement, it’s not designed as internal information for commanders in the field. It’s PR. So when they say we have destroyed x number of drones or x number of tanks and so on, we have to take those messages with a pinch of salt.”
It’s not hard to see why they do this, Miron adds. “It’s important for maintaining the morale of the troops. If they don’t believe that they can win the war, then their operational effectiveness is thereby reduced.”
But it does mean that this information doesn’t always paint an accurate picture.
In the UK, we are hearing much more from Ukrainian intelligence than Russian intelligence.
“Russia has been very inactive when it comes to its own PR in the West. It has scaled back its information warfare here and is focussing instead on Asian and Arab countries.”
With the Ukrainian narrative dominating the West, reports of successful counter-attacks and reclaimed territory may feel more prominent, says Miron.
What about the reports of the Russian army being depleted? Militarily, how much trouble is the Russian army really in?
It’s very difficult to get accurate figures about the scale of losses on both sides, cautions Miron. “The Russian MOD is saying the number of deaths is below 1,000, Western sources say it’s over 5,000 and so on.
“Battlefield death is a metric that is very difficult to compare here because we have to look at the relative size of the army. And the Russian army is significantly bigger.”
According to estimates from the Institute for the Study of War, Russia is close to exhausting its available reserves, while conscripts will require months to train.
But we must remember, says Miron, that they may well recruit from abroad.
“While the Russian armed forces matter, what is also important is non-state actors who are imported to support the Russian cause. We don’t know exactly what’s happening with Belarus but we see Chechens fighting on the Russian side. And allegedly some forces from Syria have already joined the war in Ukraine.
“In the West, we think Russia is alienated now, but it’s not. Putin is not out of friends in the Middle East and South Asia.”
If Putin starts to rely more heavily on proxies, this will further obscure military losses.
“Deaths of those unofficially participating in war won’t be included. In fact, we already saw this in Syria. Russian forces used proxies extensively and those who were unofficially participating in the Syrian war, their deaths have never been mentioned.”
Private military companies will also be used, Miron predicts, to keep the official number of casualties down. “These companies are officially banned in Russia but they were used in Syria and sure enough they will be in Ukraine too.”
While we may have underestimated the fierce resistance of Ukrainians, “we may also have underestimated Russian resolve in this sense. Because, many countries would say, OK this is costing us too much, I’m pulling out, it’s not worth it, my domestic population doesn’t want even more coffins coming back. But with Russia it may well be different.”
Will the spirit of Ukrainian resistance endure?
Ukrainian civilians have been admired for their raw resolve and bravery. But as the war grinds on, attitudes in the country may well shift.
Mounting Russian casualties could threaten Putin’s domestic popularity, but the same also applies to Ukraine, says Miron. “Putin can lose popular support but so can Zelensky.”
“Right now, Zelensky has unified all of the news channels so Ukrainian citizens are getting all of their information from just one source. If the source is saying ‘we’re winning the war and Russian troops have been forced into defensive’ and then people are witnessing that is not actually what’s happening, and if forces and citizens start to feel they’re being lied to by official statements, it will cause anger. And troops could lose morale.”
And if the West fails to step up its support, “Others might start to say, ‘Zelensky promised us that the West would protect us but they didn’t – he failed.’ They won’t be holding the West accountable, they will be holding the President accountable for making false promises.
“There might be growing popular pressure on Zelensky just to reach a deal and stop this nightmare.”
And, if the war and horror grinds on too long, Miron predicts, “There will be some who will just want anything to live in peace. They might start to think it doesn’t even really matter who is ruling as long as they and their families are safe.”
We must also remember, she adds, “It’s not some ideal democracy that these people have been living under.”
Ukrainians were living under a Russian puppet government – or at least, someone very willing to cooperate with Putin – as recently as 2010.
“For a lot of people living there, I don’t think that things have improved much since.”
Corruption is still rife in Ukraine. Even internal documents Miron has looked through, such as MOD national security strategy documents, criticise the government. “These documents admit themselves, ‘yes we have this huge issue of corruption… and money is disappearing’.”
Indeed, this was one of the major barriers to Ukraine joining NATO. “For Ukraine to become a NATO member, problems of corruption had to be solved, meaning addressing very fundamental issues with the whole political system.”
That’s not to say Ukraine doesn’t have its fair share of “staunch nationalists who will fight to the end to prevent Russian takeover.” Particularly in the West of the country, Miron adds, “the national identity is much more pronounced.”
But “others will get tired, and just want safety. They may decide that life might not be so different under a Russian puppet government and resistance may dwindle.”
When it comes to these two camps, “morally speaking that is quite a difficult choice. It’s admirable if someone says I’m willing to die for my country. But this kind of idealism will not apply across the board.”
If Russia does grind Ukraine down militarily, what next?
We must remember, says Miron, that “gains on the battlefield don’t always translate into the achievement of political goals.”
Judging the success or failure of an invasion by military losses has a long history. “In Vietnam for instance, the US used to do body counts as a metric of success. But that’s a prime example that winning militarily is not everything. The US didn’t achieve their political goals. So they failed to link their military success with political aims. For Russia, it might be the same.”
“It’s not just the military victory but what happens after.”
If Russia does conquer Ukraine, it remains to be seen how it will handle the humanitarian situation it has created. Some Ukrainians might eventually resign themselves to a puppet government, but bombing people into submission leaves behind a stark humanitarian crisis.
“A phase of rebuilding will need to happen – where administration and social justice needs to be established. Because if people see that they are worse off under Putin than they were under Zelensky, that’s not going to end well for the Kremlin.”
If we look again to Iraq, says Miron, “the US removed the ruling government and ‘liberated’ the population fairly quickly. But then the country descended into chaos.
“Does Russia have the capacity and know-how to handle, or prevent, a similar situation like that? We cannot be sure.”