The fighting in Ukraine could turn into asymmetrical warfare, which would put Russian forces at a disadvantage.
In a word
- Russia made crucial strategic mistakes during the invasion of Ukraine
- Moscow underestimates the importance of irregular conflicts
- Russian forces are unprepared for asymmetric warfare
What we have seen in Ukraine since February 24 can be described as a classic high-intensity conflict, in which no weapons of mass destruction have been used – until now.
Most likely, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s initial hope was to secure an almost immediate surrender from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and put a pro-Russian puppet in charge of the cabinet. This would have made it possible to control the new kyiv government from Moscow, while leaving appearances almost unchanged. It is not certain, under such conditions, that an independence referendum was held in the Donbass region like the illegal one held in Crimea. In that case, there might not have been a need for it.
The Ukrainians, though outnumbered and outgunned, have clearly learned Western lessons from NATO trainers over the years.
However, this scenario did not materialize. The Russians found themselves mired in a bitter war, in difficult climatic conditions and on difficult terrain, faced with a population that was mostly hostile and determined not to yield a single centimeter of land. Old people, women and children fled in large numbers, leaving the men to fight. Most of Ukraine’s 44 million citizens are on the move. At least 5.4 million people have left for other countries and many of them have moved to safer areas inside the country. Others headed for the front line.
Until now, the Russians faced the Ukrainian army and the national guard, which many civilians joined. After the lackluster performance of the Russian Armed Forces in Georgia in 2008, President Putin decided to implement sweeping reforms. This was a continuation of a trend started in 2006, with reductions in the number of conscripts and higher ranks in favor of a higher percentage of professional soldiers. But the reality on the ground today shows that there is a clear gap between ambitions and results. The Kremlin’s defense spending in 2019 was around $61 billion, which isn’t much compared to France’s $54.8 billion or the UK’s $52.3 billion, but if purchasing power parity is applied to these numbers, that brings the figure to around $150-180 billion.
Russia tested its capabilities in Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015, but in both cases the clashes unfolded under different dynamics. In Syria, Russian forces moved freely, supported by the local dictator, waging war against the rebels in theory but against the general population in practice. Entire urban areas were flattened. Nothing has been spared, not even hospitals, which have become frequent targets in flagrant violation of all international laws. Similar tactics are applied today in Ukraine. Every urban landmark is devastated to inflict both a physical and psychological blow on civilians.
And this, in addition to the initial miscalculations of the Kremlin, was the big mistake of the Russian armed forces: hitting the population mercilessly, harassing them in every way possible, raping them, robbing them and killing them in the most horrible and leaving dead bodies in the streets, as the events in Bucha have shown.
This modus operandi not only aroused strong protests from international public opinion, but above all created widespread resentment among the Ukrainian population. President Zelensky himself, initially inclined towards talks and negotiations, has said in recent weeks that he no longer has any hope of reaching an agreement with President Putin. His intention is to fight to the last man to liberate his country and keep the territorial borders of February 2022 to a minimum.
The Ukrainians, though outnumbered and outgunned, have clearly learned Western lessons taught by NATO trainers over the years, notably in Afghanistan, where they routinely participated in operations against the Taliban. This experience, which the Russians did not have, left its mark. Moreover, thanks in part to foreign aid, they managed to create a stalemate which could prove tragic for Russia.
The first Russian attempt to break through the Ukrainian lines to push deep into the central-eastern sector of the country failed. Nor could the Kremlin prevent arms shipments from the West, which will play a key role in the coming weeks. The Russians are not even capable of locating them, let alone destroying them. For now, the situation does not seem favorable to the occupants.
Learn more about the Ukrainian crisis:
Still, the Russian armed forces are more numerous than the Ukrainians and have a much larger arsenal. It is therefore conceivable, if the conflict becomes a war of attrition, that the Ukrainian forces give in and that a compromise is found.
But after what happened to the people, peace is hard to imagine. Russians becoming more grounded could lead to more resistance. Ukrainian units have already started ambushes and a kind of “active defense” with numerous counterattacks against enemy forces, causing heavy casualties. Sources disagree but, at the time of writing, there are estimates of between 15,000 and 20,000 dead on the Russian side.
Moreover, attacks on energy infrastructure are taking place inside Russia, and little is known about what is happening in Belarus. There was at least one Ukrainian helicopter gunship raid that destroyed a major oil storage site in Russia. At least three other major sites were burned down. Whether it is drone attacks or direct sabotage remains to be determined. And if some sites have certainly been attacked, in other cases the explosions could be due to the terrible state of maintenance of Russian critical infrastructures. As the war drags on, there could be more and more attacks inside Russia against energy centers and transportation infrastructure, key bridges and intersections, especially railways and airports. , to impede or impede Russian forces from moving and resupplying. There may even be targeted assassinations of Russian military leaders associated with the appalling war crimes inflicted on the Ukrainian people.
In response to this and other operational difficulties, the Russians have already begun calling home mercenary units scattered around the world, particularly on the African continent. The famous Wagner Group seems to be increasingly used to make up for losses and there are persistent rumors that the company is organizing 10 battalion-sized units.
In war, numbers matter – and men matter more than guns. It is estimated that in an insurgency, the aggressor needs 10 soldiers for each insurgent. Simple calculations show that a counter-insurgency in Ukraine is unthinkable for the occupiers. And not only because the 44 million Ukrainian citizens are spread over a vast territory. The Russian army lacks the means to counter a long rebellion, lacks motivation and above all lacks training.
Should the conflict become erratic, the ill-prepared Russian contingent would face a crushing defeat.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian soldiers trained for 20 years of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan alongside NATO troops. And even Russian forces conducting professional irregular operations, like the Wagner Group, are not necessarily capable of handling what might happen inside Ukraine’s borders in the coming months, judging by past results.
In Africa, the Wagner Group served weak and corrupt regimes in an effort to control the population and preserve strategic locations. However, when it was no longer confronted with civilians but with well-trained troops, things changed, as evidenced by the events of February 7, 2018, in the Syrian area of Deir ez-Zor near the Iraqi border. . About 500 Wagner units, in support of Syrian government forces, clashed with about 40 Delta Forces, Green Berets and Marines. The battle was a debacle for Russian and Syrian government forces and claimed hundreds of lives.
Sources have reported the presence of Russian mercenaries in Ukraine, even in Bucha, and according to some 3,000 of them are already dead. The use of these units has several advantages: in Russia, having been declared illegal, they claim to have no contact with the government; they are probably better trained to fight in an urban environment than, for example, regular troops made up of simple conscripts; and their losses fly under the radar of the media and public opinion.
These forces cannot replace those of an army trained for irregular operations, especially in a vast and densely populated territory like Ukraine. The importance of unconventional conflicts continues to be underestimated by Russian military leaders, who have learned little from operations in Afghanistan, Chechnya and Syria.
These experiences have not been adequately institutionalized by doctrine capable of addressing the tactical differences between conventional and irregular warfare, or of managing conventional and unconventional warfare simultaneously, as will almost certainly be the case. It is therefore extremely plausible that, should the conflict become irregular, the ill-prepared Russian contingent will face a crushing defeat.