Putin’s war in Ukraine has been described by many as the first live-streamed war, and tuning into Twitter or other social media it certainly feels that way. While we have earlier seen embedded journalists get close access to combat units, this time the journalists – both local and foreign ones showing great courage by choosing to report from Ukraine right now – have received company by any number of Ukrainian civilians sharing images, texts, and videos from their neighbourhoods. However, due to this there is an evident risk that people outside of Ukraine (and to some extent inside the country as well) feel that they know exactly how the war is going.
It is easy to step into this trap. The main bias is that reporters, bloggers, and other people who like to hear their own voice have a tendency to tell stories based on things we know – as opposed to describing the unknown. In a war full of remarkable persons and events there are certainly more stories deserving to be told than there is bandwidth. The other bias is that Ukraine has been remarkably effective in shaping the information space. This stems both from the Ukrainian political and military leadership skilfully setting the agenda, as well as from the Ukrainian civilians being surprisingly OPSEC-savvy and not sharing much in the way of images depicting Ukrainian movements or losses. There is also the obvious issue of the fog of war giving us a false picture of events (i.e. we believe we know something that later turn out to be false).
Despite all of this, there is a number of things we recognise that we don’t know, which in my opinion doesn’t get acknowledged enough in the stream of information out there.
So here it comes, a list of important things we don’t know.
The Ukrainian losses
We don’t know the Ukrainian losses with any kind of certainty. While there have been some official figures published by Ukrainian authorities, these are best treated with a grain of salt. The Russian figures for the Ukrainian losses are simply a joke, and the western intelligence agencies and authorities who supply what probably are the most reliable estimates for Russian losses are less keen to discuss the Ukrainian ones.
Naturally, the Ukrainian losses are a key metric when trying to understand how much of their pre-war combat potential Ukraine has left. Speaking of which…
The Russian losses
We don’t really know the full scope of the Russian losses either. The Ukrainian figures published are almost certainly too high. E.g. the US estimate for total number of troops killed – though notably described as a “conservative” estimate – is at half the number. Again, the Russian figures are a bad joke that is disrespectful towards their own soldiers.
At the same time, the best open-source resource which lists equipment losses – the Oryx-blog post kept by Stijn Mitzer and team – and only looks at visually confirmed losses has listed approximately half the number of tanks and a third the number of rocket launchers as the Ukrainians claim. The methodology is obviously set to give a too low number, as it isn’t an estimate per se, but still point to a discrepancy.
At the end of the day, we probably have a better picture of Russian losses than we have of Ukrainians, but even here we don’t have a comprehensive picture. It is rather unclear what it means for the combat capability of individual units or formations.
The Russian capabilities
That Russia has seriously performed below expectation in this war is well-established by now. There is a solid argument to be made that the initiation of the war was made with suboptimal preparations on the side of the Russians, with little to nothing in the way of preparation for the individual soldiers or tactical formations. There is also the argument that morale among the average Russian soldier fighting NATO or a country that isn’t part of the Russian-proclaimed East-Slavic brotherhood would be higher, which might hold water as well.
At the same time, it is also true that this really should be the ideal situation for Russia. Being the sole aggressor, surrounding Ukraine from three sides, and not fearing any other neighbour taking the opportunity to sort out old wrongs, they literally had all the time they wanted to set up this one perfectly. Was the military leadership hamstrung by the whims of Putin? It certainly looks that way, but at the same time once the shooting starts, you can expect something akin of regression towards the mean when it comes to true combat capability once a unit is sent into combat, regardless of the surrounding circumstances. Instead we see presumed elite units such as VDV, the 4th Guards Tank Divsion (Kantemir), and the Arctic units such as the 200th Separate Motor Rifle Brigade do downright stupid stuff and lose equipment through what looks like a combination of disastrous incompetence, poor logistics, and faltering morale.
At the end of the day, we don’t know the combat capability of the Russian forces. They seem to be a mess on many levels (see points above, the word “seem” might be doing a lot of heavy lifting here), but at the same time it still is the Russians and not the Ukrainians that are advancing.
The level of control
But while Russia is advancing, we also see that in many places the Ukrainians aren’t looking like they are trying to hold a solid frontline. We are instead seeing some key locations, mainly urban areas, being defended determinedly, and in the areas not defended we see continuous attacks by small units, indirect fires, as well as drone and potentially air strikes against smaller Russian units and logistics trains. Exactly how much control the Russian units exert over large areas of the land that they have presumably occupied is an open question. It is also notable that the Russian forces available – including the Rosgvardiya – are way too small to be able to occupy and pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population according to both most academic measures as well as practical experience post-WWII. So how much of the country is really cleared from Ukrainian troops? We don’t know.
The lessons to learn
The tank is dead. As is light infantry on the offensive. Airborne and airmobile forces are also. And not to mention the amphibious landing.
The truth is that we have a very fragmented picture of the operations so far. Some ideas can indeed be said to have been proven to be less than stellar – such as sending tanks unsupported into urban combat, or airborne operations without adequate support. But truth be told these were disproven numerous times earlier as well. There are some interesting things to note, such as the issue Russia has with establishing air superiority, including stopping the relatively limited force of Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2s (36 vehicles and two fuel trains confirmed hit by the Bayraktars on the Oryx blog so far). However, these are still early days, and we don’t have the full picture of e.g. which weapons have been responsible for the spectacular images of some of Russia’s most modern armoured vehicles being reduced to burnt-out scrap metal.
Again, to some extent we are fed a curated version of the war by the Ukrainians, and it will only be in the years after the conflict when veterans and eyewitnesses on all levels are interviewed that we will start to be able to get a truly comprehensive picture of what worked and what didn’t in Putin’s latest war (and then we can start arguing about which lessons are general and which were due to the particular circumstances of this war). As such, for now we don’t quite know which lessons to learn.