Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine was an attempt to stop the spread of Western influence to the east and potentially weaken NATO. Three months into the Russian invasion and it appears that Putin has not only failed to achieve any of his goals but has made the situation worse for Russia.

Former US Army General Curtis Michael Scaparrotti said that the drawn-out fighting had left Russia “vulnerable” with the barrage of sanctions dealing significant blows to its economy and resources.

He believes that Russia needs to come to terms with the consequences of its aggression and that Putin has lost all chances to regain the status of a “respectable leader” among the international community.

After failing to make significant advances in Kyiv, Moscow has shifted its war goals from blitzing the Ukrainian capital to occupying as much of Ukraine’s eastern region as possible.

Scaparrotti, a former commander of NATO deployments in Europe, predicted that the next phase of the war would be”grinding and destructive” but said that there is still a chance for the underdog to win in a war of attrition.

“I think normally you’d say [time is on the side of] the larger country with the greater resources available — that being Russia. But Russia has committed a substantial portion of particularly their ground forces to this campaign, and they’ve not done well,” Scaparrotti said, noting the effective use of asymmetric warfare tactics by the Ukrainian forces.

He also advised Ukraine that they should opt out of a peaceful resolution until it has a significant advantage on the ground.

“I think Ukraine should not seek that until it’s in a position of advantage, one that provides it a position to go into negotiations with the belief they can achieve what’s acceptable to them as an outcome of this conflict,” he said.

Meeting of the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation - First Deputy Minister of Defense General of the Army Valery Gerasimov with the Supreme Commander of the Allied Armed Forces of NATO General Curtis Scaparrotti (Mil.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Valery_Gerasimov_and_Curtis_Scaparrotti_(2018)_03.jpg
Russia’s Chief of the General Staff General Valery Gerasimov, with the Supreme Commander of the Allied Armed Forces of NATO, General Curtis Scaparrotti. Gerasimov is believed to have been badly wounded at the command post in Ukraine that was hit with a rocket attack over the weekend 2018 (Mil.ruCC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Making Changes in the East

Reports from US and NATO officials say that the Russian military is trying to learn from its failures in its initial advance to Kyiv in preparation for the next phase of the war. According to sources, Russia has placed command and control centers east of Ukraine, a sign that they are attempting to address previous coordination problems.

There are also indications that Russia is using fewer, more efficient forces in the east. During the start of the invasion, Moscow deployed around 125 to 130 battalion tactical groups (BTGs) but showed little capability of coordinating the large force. Now, there are only 92 left in Ukraine, with around 20 in reserve across the border.

“The attacks are somewhat better coordinated but with small formations. Company size units with helicopter support,” a European defense official said. “The lowest level of mutual support. In NATO, this would be basic stuff.”

Two T-80 tanks of the Russian Army destroyed, likely somewhere in Eastern Ukraine (Ukraine Weapons Tracker). Source: https://twitter.com/UAWeapons/status/1519787697212166146
Two T-80 tanks of the Russian Army were destroyed, likely somewhere in Eastern Ukraine (Ukraine Weapons Tracker/Twitter)

Officials noted that the terrain in Donbas would better serve the Russian military given its reliance on tanks and armored vehicles. The proximity of Donbas to the Russian border also allows for shorter supply lines, making them easier to maintain and defend.

The Russian military has a significant size advantage against the Ukrainian defenders. According to a US assessment, approximately 75% of the initial invasion force remains intact, and the Kremlin has expressed willingness to commit more resources to the war.

On paper, the Russian armed forces have roughly twice the number of troops in uniform, but while Ukraine can commit almost the entirety of its ground troops to the battle, Russia has enormous borders to defend and has perhaps half its armed forces just on the border with China. An invading force would generally like to have a two to three to one advantage over their adversary, but in Ukraine, the Russian army is actually outnumbered on the ground by a factor of at least four by Ukraine.

Russia and Their Battle Woes

Nonetheless, Western experts and officials remain skeptical whether Russia’s recent changes will be sufficient to make significant progress in Donbas. According to a senior US defense official, progress has been “slow and uneven,” with the Russian army only being able to advance “several kilometers or so” every day.

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“I don’t know how many lessons they can actually operationalize. It’s not a simple thing,” a senior NATO official said. “You don’t just move tanks and personnel and say, ‘Now go back into the fight!'”

The Russian army has already taken serious casualties in manpower, weapons, and leadership. Some BTGs were forced to refit using outdated equipment to stay in battle, which degrades a unit’s ability to move on the battlefield efficiently.

Even with new conscripts, more troops do not necessarily result in a better fighting force. Many of Putin’s new soldiers have been inactive for some time or have no fighting experience at all, which may hurt the overall performance of a unit. Units that train together for some period also have good unit cohesion which makes a big difference in a fight, while units full of green replacements will fight at a much-reduced efficiency until they gain combat experience.  Assuming they survive long enough to gain such experience.

“Reaching into the reserves aren’t going to help … in fact, I’d suggest that’s going to hurt. It may provide ‘bodies’ but not trained soldiers who will make a difference,” CNN military analyst and retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling said.

Another consideration is the Ukrainian fighters themselves. Ukraine’s forces have years of experience fighting Russian-backed separatists in Donbas. If they were able to show such stiff resistance in Kyiv, they were likely to put the same effort into defensive measures in the east.

International support for Ukraine has also been growing exponentially. The West, particularly the United States, has committed billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, including crucial weapons, ammunition, and other military equipment.

“Russia is really not in a position to challenge the West and expand this war, so we should lean forward and give the Ukrainians what they need now, with the intent that they can be successful and place themselves in a position of strength from which to negotiate,” Scaparrotti said.

“They’re brave — a brave people — and we need to provide them all the support they need.”