ROBIN HÄGGBLOM, HELSINKI
It’s easy to think we have a better idea what’s happening in Ukraine than we really do.
… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
You might think, if you tune in on Twitter, that every aspect of Putin’s war on Ukraine is being live-streamed. In earlier wars, we’ve seen embedded journalists get close access to combat units. These days, professional journalists—local and foreign, with both demonstrating great courage—are joined by countless civilians who share images, texts, and videos from their neighborhoods. Because of this, people outside of Ukraine (and to some extent, inside) risk mistakenly thinking that they know exactly how the war is going.
We can indeed say that some Russian ideas have proven less than stellar—like sending tanks unsupported into urban combat and conducting airborne operations without adequate support. But in truth, we already knew those ideas were stupid; it’s been proven many times.
It’s easy to fall into this trap. This leads to bias, chiefly because reporters, bloggers, and other people who like to hear their own voices have a tendency to tell stories about what they know, rather than explain everything they don’t. In a war full of remarkable people and events, there are certainly more stories that deserve to be told than there is bandwidth.
Ukraine’s remarkable effectiveness in shaping the information space distorts reality, too. The Ukrainian political and military leadership has skilfully set the agenda, and Ukrainian civilians are surprisingly OPSEC-savvy: They don’t share a whole lot of images depicting Ukrainian movements or losses.
Finally, the fog of war usually gives us a false picture of events. We often think we know something that later turns out to be untrue.
There are many things we know we don’t yet know, despite the flood of information. These unknowns have been insufficiently acknowledged, so let me offer a list.
We don’t have any kind of certainty about Ukrainian losses. Ukrainian authorities have published some official figures, but these are best treated with a grain of salt. Russia’s estimates of Ukrainian losses are a joke. The western intelligence agencies and authorities who supply, probably, the most reliable estimates of Russian losses are less keen to discuss Ukraine’s.
But if we’re trying to understand how much of their pre-war combat potential Ukrainians retain, Ukrainian losses are a key metric.
We don’t know the full scope of Russian losses either. The figures Ukraine has published are almost certainly too high; for example, the US estimate of the total number of Russian troops killed— notably described as a “conservative” estimate—is half the Ukrainian number. Russia’s figures are a bitter joke that disrespects their own soldiers.
For catalogues of lost equipment, Oryx Blog, run by Stijn Mitzer and his team, is the best open-source resource. They only list visually confirmed losses. By their estimate, Russians have lost only half as many tanks and a third as many rocket launchers as the Ukrainians claim. Their methodology is such that their number will of course be lower than reality; it’s not an estimate, per se. Still, it’s a discrepancy.
We probably have a better picture of Russian losses than we have of Ukrainian losses. Even so, we don’t have a comprehensive picture. It’s unclear what this means for the combat capability of individual units or formations.
Analysts widely accept now that Russia has performed vastly below expectations. There is strong evidence that Russia initiated the war with suboptimal preparation and little-to-no preparation at the level of individual soldiers and tactical formations. Possibly, morale is low because Russians are fighting members of their so-called East-Slavic brotherhood. It’s possible that if Russia were fighting NATO, or any country that isn’t part of that brotherhood, morale would be better.
That said, these should really be ideal fighting conditions for Russia. It’s the aggressor; it’s surrounding Ukraine from three sides, and it needn’t fear a neighbor seizing this opportunity to right old wrongs. Moscow literally had as much time as it needed to set this up perfectly.
Was the military leadership hamstrung by Putin’s whims? It looks that way—but regardless of circumstances, once a unit is sent into combat and the shooting starts, you can expect something like regression toward the mean. Instead, we’re seeing so-called elite units such as VDV, the 4th Guards Tank Divsion (Kantemir), and 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.
So we truly don’t know the combat capability of the Russian forces. They seem to be a mess on many levels (and the word “seem” is doing some heavy lifting here). But still, it’s the Russians, not the Ukrainians who are advancing.
#Ukraine: It is alleged that a Russian convoy attempting to leave Mykolaiv for Kherson fell into an ambush near #Snigurovka, and crashed their vehicles, leaving behind a BM-21 Grad pattern MRL and a supply truck. As can be seen, a TDF fighter is inspecting the aftermath. pic.twitter.com/IjIJE7KCpC
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) March 18, 2022
THE LEVEL OF CONTROL
Although Russia is advancing, we also see that in many places, the Ukrainians don’t appear to be trying to hold a solid frontline. We’re instead seeing them defend key locations, mainly urban areas, with determination. In the areas that aren’t defended, we see small unit attacks, indirect fire, drone attacks, and perhaps air strikes against smaller Russian units and logistics trains.
So it’s an open question how well Russian units are controlling the large areas of land that they have, presumably, occupied. According to academic studies and many practical experiments in the wake of the Second World War, the Russian invading forces—including the Rosgvardiya—are far too small to occupy and pacify a country of Ukraine’s size and population. So how much of the country is truly clear of Ukrainian troops? We don’t know.
The tank is dead. So is light infantry on the offensive. So are airborne and airmobile forces. Not to mention the amphibious landing.
Too soon to say. Our picture of the operations is still fragmented. We can indeed say that some Russian ideas have proven less than stellar—like sending tanks unsupported into urban combat and conducting airborne operations without adequate support. But in truth, we already knew those ideas were stupid; it’s been proven many times.
There are some interesting and unexpected developments worth noting, such the problem Russia’s had in establishing air superiority, including its inability to stop he relatively limited force of Ukraine’s Bayraktar TB2s (According to the Oryx blog, the Bayraktars have scored confirmed hits on 36 vehicles and two fuel trains.) But we don’t yet have the full picture: Which weapons, exactly, have been responsible for the spectacular images we’ve been seeing of Russia’s most-modern armored vehicles reduced to burnt-out scrap metal?
Ukrainians, to an extent, are feeding us a curated version of the war. In the years after the conflict, veterans and eyewitnesses at every level will be interviewed. Then we’ll begin to get a complete picture of what worked and what didn’t in Putin’s latest war. Then we can start arguing about which lessons have general applicability and which were particular to this war’s circumstances.
As of now, we don’t yet know which lessons to learn.
The Cosmopolitan Globalist is grateful to Finnish defense blogger Robin Häggblom, M.Sc. (Tech.), for his permission to feature this essay, originally published at Corporal Frisk.