Mikhail Khodarenok’s article about the course of a possible Russian war on Ukraine appeared in NVO last week. He’s a knowledgeable and realistic analyst.
And he’s a Russian patriot given his military career and service in the General Staff. But he’s one who says what the Kremlin doesn’t want to hear, but needs to.
Khodarenok points to the danger of Russia’s overconfidence about military action even with its significantly revamped and upgraded forces. His piece resembles what many Western observers write when the U.S. contemplates war. But, in Russia, Khodarenok is a lonely voice.
War on Ukraine, he argues, won’t be easy like Moscow’s hubris would indicate.
We can hope Putin won’t opt for war. But, if he does, it will change everything, including for Putin himself. He probably can’t even imagine how right now.
In either event, here’s a translation of Khodarenok’s timely article:
Predications of bloodthirsty pundits
Of rapturous hawks and hasty cuckoos
In Russia’s expert community recently a sufficiently powerful opinion has taken root that it won’t even be necessary to put troops on Ukraine’s territory since the armed forces of that country are in a pathetic state.
Some pundits note that Russia’s powerful fire strike will destroy practically all surveillance and communications systems, artillery and tank formations. Moreover, a number of experts have concluded that even one crushing Russian strike will to be sufficient to finish such a war.
Like a cherry on top different analysts point to the fact that no one in Ukraine will defend the “Kiev regime.”
IT WON’T BE A CAKE WALK
Let’s start with the last. To assert that no one in Ukraine will defend the regime signifies practically a complete lack of knowledge about the military-political situation and moods of the broad masses in the neighboring state. And the degree of hatred (which, as is well-known, is the most effective fuel for armed conflict) in the neighboring republic toward Moscow is plainly underestimated. No one in Ukraine will meet the Russian army with bread, salt and flowers.
It seems events in south-east Ukraine in 2014 didn’t teach anyone anything. Then they also figured that the entire left-bank Ukraine in one fell swoop and ticked-off seconds would turn into Novorossiya. They already drew the maps, thought out the personnel contingent for the future city and regional administrations, worked out state flags.
But even the Russian-speaking population of this part of Ukraine (including also cities like Kharkov, Zaporozhe, Dnepropetrovsk, Mariupol) didn’t support similar thoughts by a huge majority. The “Novorossiya” project somehow imperceptibly deflated and quietly died.
In a word, a liberation crusade in 2022 in the form and likeness of 1939 won’t work in any way.1 In this instance the words of Soviet literature classic Arkadiy Gaydar are true as never before: “It’s obvious that now we won’t have an easy battle, but a hard campaign.”
“WITH LITTLE BLOOD, A POWERFUL STRIKE”
Now about “Russia’s powerful fire strike,” by which “practically all surveillance and communications systems, artillery and tank formations of the VSU2” will supposedly be destroyed.
Only in this single expression it’s apparent that only political workers could say such a thing. For reference: in the course of hypothetical military actions on the scale of a theater of military operations [TVD] strikes on priority targets and mass fire strikes are delivered. We note in the course of operational-strategic planning the adjectives “powerful” (and also “medium,” “weak,” etc.) aren’t used.
In military science it’s emphasized that strikes can be strategic (this for the most part relates to strategic nuclear forces), operational and tactical. According to the forces which will participate and the targets which will be destroyed strikes can be mass, group and individual. And it’s altogether better not to introduce or use other definitions even in works of a political nature.
Strikes on priority targets and mass fire strikes can be delivered in the bounds of a front (fronts on Russia’s western borders still haven’t been formed) or a main command of armed forces in a theater of military operations (such a thing also hasn’t yet been established in the South-Western strategic direction). Anything less than this isn’t a mass strike.
And what is, for example, a front mass fire strike (MOU)? For starters we note that the maximum number of combat ready forces and means of aviation, missile troops and artillery, EW systems at the disposal of the commander of a front (an operational-strategic large unit) are engaged in the MOU. The MOU is one mass sortie of aircraft, two-three launches of OTR3 and TR4 systems, several artillery fire bombardments. It’s good if the degree of fire destruction to the enemy in this is 60-70%.
What is the main thing in this question as it applies to a conflict with Ukraine? It goes without saying that the MOU will visit heavy losses on a probable enemy. But to count on only one such strike to crush the armed forces of an entire state means that simply unbridled optimism has appeared in the course of planning and conducting combat operations. Such MOUs have to be delivered not once and not twice, but much more often in the course of hypothetical strategic operations in a TVD.
To this it’s certainly necessary to add that supplies of prospective and highly-accurate weapons in the VS RF5 don’t bear any kind of unlimited character. “Tsirkon” hypersonic missiles still aren’t in the armory. And the quantity of “Kalibrs” (sea-based cruise missiles), “Kinzhals,” Kh-101 (air-launched cruise missiles) and missiles for “Iskanders” in the very best case number in the hundreds (dozens in the case of “Kinzhals”). This arsenal is completely insufficient to wipe a state on the scale of France with a population of more than 40 million from the face of the earth. And Ukraine is characterized by exactly these parameters.
ON AIR SUPERIORITY
Sometimes in the Russian expert community it’s asserted (by the followers of Douhet’s doctrine6) that since hypothetical combat operations in Ukraine will be conducted in conditions of full Russian air superiority the war will be extremely brief and will end in the shortest time.
But it’s somehow forgotten that the armed formations of the Afghan opposition in the conflict of 1979-1989 didn’t have a single aircraft or combat helicopter. And the war in that country stretched out for a full 10 years. Chechen fighters didn’t have a single airplane. And the fight with them continued several years and cost federal forces a great deal of blood and victims.
And the Armed Forces of Ukraine have some combat aviation. As well as air defense means.
In fact, Ukrainian crews of surface-to-air missile troops (scarcely Georgian) substantially stung the Russian VVS7 in the course of the 2008 conflict.8 After the first day of combat operations the Russian VVS leadership was obviously shocked by the losses sustained. And it wouldn’t do to forget about this.
MOURNED IN ADVANCE
Now on the thesis “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are in a pathetic state.” Naturally, the VSU have problems with aviation and modern PVO9 means. However, we have to recognize the following. If the VSU represented fragments of the Soviet Army until 2014, then over the last seven years a qualitatively different army has been created in Ukraine, on a completely different ideological foundation and largely on NATO standards. And very modern arms and equipment are coming and continue to come to Ukraine from many countries of the North Atlantic alliance.
As concerns the VSU’s weakest spot — Air Forces. It’s not possible to exclude that the collective West could supply Kiev with fighters in a sufficiently short time, as they say, from what their armed forces have — speaking simply, used ones. However those second-hand ones will be fully comparable with the majority of aircraft in the Russian inventory.
Of course, today the VSU significantly lag the VS RF in combat and operational potentials. No one doubts this — not in the East or in the West.
But you can’t treat this army lightly. In this regard it’s necessary always to remember Aleksandr Suvorov’s precept: “Never scorn your enemy, don’t consider him dumber and weaker than yourself.”
Now as concerns assertions that western countries won’t send a single soldier to die for Ukraine.
We have to note that most likely this will be the case. However this hardly excludes in the event of a Russian invasion massive assistance to the VSU from the collective West with the most varied types of arms and military equipment and large volume supplies of all kinds of materiel. In this regard the West has already exhibited an unprecedented consolidated position, which, it seems, was not expected in Moscow.
One shouldn’t doubt that some reincarnated lend-lease in the form and likeness of the Second World War from the USA and countries of the North Atlantic alliance will begin. Even the flow of volunteers from the West of which there could be very many can’t be excluded.
PARTISANS AND UNDERGROUND FIGHTERS
And finally, about the protracted hypothetical campaign. In the Russian expert community they say several hours, sometimes even several dozen minutes. Meanwhile somehow they forget we have already been through all this. The phrase “seize the city with one parachute regiment in two hours” is already a classic of the genre.10
It also pays to remember that Stalin’s powerful NKVD and the multimillion-man Soviet Army struggled with the nationalist underground in Western Ukraine for more than 10 years. And now there is a possibility that all of Ukraine could simply turn into partisans. Additionally these formations could easily begin to operate on Russia’s territory.
Armed struggle in large Ukrainian cities is generally poorly suited to forecasting. It’s commonly known that a big city is the best battlefield for the weak and less well-equipped side of an armed conflict.
Serious experts note that in a megapolis it’s possible not only to concentrate a grouping in the thousands and even tens of thousands of fighters, but also to protect it from the enemy’s superior fire power. And also supply it with material resources for a long time and replenish losses in people and equipment. Mountains, forests, jungles don’t present such a possibility today.
Specialists are convinced that an urban environment helps the defender, slows the movement of attackers, allows the deployment of the highest number of fighters per square meter, compensates for the gap in forces and technology. But in Ukraine there are more than enough big cities, including ones with a million in population. So the Russian Army could meet far from a single Stalingrad or Groznyy in the course of a hypothetical war with Ukraine.
Generally, there won’t be any kind of Ukrainian blitzkrieg. Utterances by some experts of the type “The Russian Army will destroy the greater part of VSU sub-units11 in 30-40 minutes,” “Russia is capable of destroying Ukraine in 10 minutes in a full-scale war,” “Russia will destroy Ukraine in eight minutes” don’t have a serious basis.
And finally, most important. Armed conflict with Ukraine now fundamentally doesn’t meet Russia’s national interests. Therefore it’s best for some overexcited Russian experts to forget their hat-tossing fantasies. And, with the aim of preventing further reputational damage, never again to recall them.
1“Liberation crusade” of 1939 refers to Moscow’s conquest of western Ukraine under the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.
2Abbreviation for Armed Forces of Ukraine.
3An operational-tactical missile generally capable of striking targets to the depth of a front’s responsibility up to 500 km.
4A tactical missile with shorter range.
5Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.
6Italian strategic bombing theorist Giulio Douhet, 1869-1930.
7Abbreviation for Air Forces.
8Khodarenok is saying Ukrainian troops participated in the air defense of Georgia during its Five-Day War with Russia.
9Abbreviation for air defense.
10Reference to former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev’s claim that Russian forces would easily take the Chechen capital Groznyy in 1994. They were decimated during an ill-advised attack on the city over New Year’s.
11Tactical forces below regiment-level.