Clear picture of war in Ukraine clouded by large areas of unknowns

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Clear picture of war in Ukraine clouded by large areas of unknowns” was written by Peter Beaumont in Lviv, for The Guardian on Sunday 6th March 2022 15.37 UTC

In conflict, where information is everything, what is striking about the war in Ukraine is not what is known but the very large areas of unknowns.

And even as commentators have picked over and analysed everything that is known about the Russian military’s operations and performance in Ukraine in an effort to predict the trajectory of the conflict, it’s what is poorly understood that may yet be more significant still.

One issue that has come under the spotlight is the rate of loses of soldiers and equipment on the Russian side in the week and a half so far of fighting. In that period, images of dead and captured Russian soldiers and destroyed or abandoned equipment have become commonplace as it has become clear that Russian forces have lost everything from aircraft to main battle tanks and even whole convoys.

But attrition is not a one way street, and what is far less clear is the level of losses sustained by Ukrainian forces, with no equivalent social media avalanche from the Russian side parading this, and Ukraine understandably not wanting to advertise its losses.

While some images of equipment losses have appeared – most strikingly the Ukrainian navy’s flagship, which was scuttled in port over the weekend – observers have been left to guess what might have occurred through what is not visible and what is not happening.

One case in point has been the Ukrainian air force and air defences, which were hit heavily in the opening days of the conflict. While Russia claimed to have neutralised Ukrainian air defences, it is clear some capacity survives, but not how much.

This matters because attrition is not a symmetrical problem. Because it is more difficult to attack than defend a position, traditionally – and with other advantages such as technology set aside – military planners have thought that attacking forces need roughly a three-to-one advantage.

What that means in practical terms is that the Russian military planners drawing up the design of the invasion of Ukraine should have built into their planning losses of soldiers or equipment.

A satellite image shows a large Russian military convoy near Ivankiv, Ukraine
A satellite image shows a large Russian military convoy near Ivankiv, Ukraine. Photograph: ©2022 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images

Again what we don’t know is whether what we have been seeing is within those calculations or exceeding it.

Another issue that has seen a lot of attention is the question of Russian progress on their offensive timetable, much talked about in defence and intelligence briefings in western capitals. While it has been treated as a given that the Kremlin thought Ukraine would fall easily in the early days of the invasion, we don’t actually know what the Russian military assumptions were or continue to be or even whether those plans have changed.

In other words, when Russian forces do not seem to be advancing, does that mean they are “stalling” because of problems or are we seeing an operational pause? Or a combination of the two?

That prospect was raised on Saturday in the latest update by Frederick Kagan and his colleagues at the Institute for the Study of War thinktank when they suggested Russian forces in Ukraine “may have entered a possibly brief operational pause on 5 March as they prepare to resume operations against Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, and possibly Odesa in the next 24-48 hours”.

One intelligence assumption from before the invasion – that Moscow would be content with a limited campaign in Donbas and Crimea – turned out to be wrong as Russia has attacked in a far more substantial way, not least in its attempt to take the capital, Kyiv, and depose the government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Then there is the issue of how meaningfully Russia is in charge in the areas it is claiming. While maps widely published in the media and elsewhere have shown large areas now under Russian military control, the reality is that these maps in large parts of the country are an exercise in simply colouring in between the roads controlled by Russian forces.

Then there is the biggest unknown of all. One of the key concepts in understanding conflicts and their potential outcomes is where states stand on the spectrum from fragility to resilience, an issue that takes in everything from social cohesion in conflict to the ability to sustain a protracted war effort, particularly national mobilisation for a war effort.

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