The first big war of the 21th century

The first big war of the 21th century
The first big war of the 21th century

The first big war of the 21th century

The return to the era of “big” wars – bloody, intense conflicts waged with the use of the entire arsenal, not counting nuclear weapons, can be considered a sign of the final end of the thirty-year era of the unipolar world order. The journal Russia in Global Affairs, together with the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies of the National Research University Higher School of Economics,  continues to publish a series of articles on changes in the international arena.

The Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine is the first major military conflict in the last thirty years, which is being waged by comparable forces. For the first time, it uses almost the full arsenal of available means of warfare on land, not counting nuclear weapons.

Many types of weapons, in particular hypersonic missiles and possibly artificial intelligence weapons (in the form of the Russian loitering munition “Lancet”), were first used in full-scale hostilities.

After 1991 and until now, interstate conflicts have been characterized either by a pronounced imbalance of power (USA-Iraq in 2003, Russia-Georgia in 2008) or politically determined limited frameworks (the Kargil War in 1999).

With these exceptions, the unipolar world that arose as a result of the collapse of the USSR and the victory of the United States in the Cold War led to the temporary predominance of a specific type of armed conflict – counterinsurgency wars waged by regular armies against an irregular enemy.

For a moment there was a feeling that this would always be the case. In the 2000s and early 2010s, against the backdrop of difficult and unsuccessful counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States reduced purchases of heavy and high-tech weapons and cut many promising programs.

The victims of such measures were the program for the production of the world’s best F -22 fighter at that time, as well as the Future Combat Systems ground forces equipment modernization program . This was done in order to purchase more mine-protected armored vehicles and other equipment in demand in the “police wars”.

Thirty years of counterinsurgency operations have had a profound effect on societies and militaries around the world, including Russia’s. They seriously deformed ideas about the war, forcing many basic truths to be forgotten.

Military conflicts, which were fought with a clear technical superiority of one of the parties, formed extremely unrealistic ideas among societies and politicians about the level of risk and losses, the degree of uncertainty that accompanies war.

In wars with an irregular enemy, generations of officers were brought up who had to participate in the first full-fledged war in generations. As a result, the conflict revealed serious shortcomings in strategy, tactics, technical equipment and combat training of troops both on the part of Russia and on the part of Ukraine and its Western allies supporting it.

The return to the era of “big” wars – bloody, intense conflicts waged with the use of the entire arsenal, not counting nuclear weapons, can be considered a sign of the final end of the thirty-year era of the unipolar world order.

The beginning of such a war was initiated by at least two factors: the failure of the instruments of “economic deterrence” on the part of the US and the EU and the emergence of a military force capable, albeit indirectly, of confronting the entire Western world.

The balance of power in the conflict zone

The decision of the Russian leadership to conduct military operations against Ukraine not just with a peacetime army, but also without the involvement of conscripts meant that with the start of a full-scale conflict with Ukraine, the Russian group would have to conduct military operations with an enemy many times larger in number.

The ground forces and air assault troops of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), in combination with the National Guard and Border Troops of Ukraine, had a peacetime strength comparable to the strength of the Russian ground forces and airborne forces, even without mobilization in Ukraine.

200,000 people served in the pre-war Armed Forces of Ukraine (of which 126,000 people were in the ground forces and another 30,000 in airborne assault), and in total 255,000 people were employed in the Armed Forces of Ukraine. It makes sense to take into account civilian personnel since, in the conditions of a defensive war on their territory, they continued to play an important role in ensuring the actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

There were up to 60 thousand people in the pre-war National Guard of Ukraine. More than 50 thousand people were registered in the border service of Ukraine. Special forces of the police and the Security Service of Ukraine were involved in military operations, where several thousand more professional fighters served.

Before the start of hostilities, mobilization began, which was fully developed already during the special military operation (SVO). The number of various Ukrainian military formations was brought up to 700 thousand people with further prospects of increasing it to 1 million or more.

Given the Russian moratorium on attracting conscripts, the superiority was overwhelming. For example, in mid-May, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov estimated the Russian grouping in Ukraine at 167,000 people.

This figure did not take into account the aviation, navy, and some rocket and artillery units operating from the territory of Russia, as well as the reserves located there.

At the same time, Ukrainians in their calculations do not distinguish between the Russian troops themselves and the forces of the LPR and DPR, where, unlike Russia, mobilization was carried out.

Some parts of the people’s militia of the two republics proved to be the best in the conflict, but the technical equipment left much to be desired even in the oldest and most honored formations of the LPR and DPR.

The Lugansk and Donetsk reservists, who constituted a significant part of the allied forces, at the early stage of the conflict were often given outright rubbish, including elements of weapons and equipment from the Great Patriotic War. There are many scandalous photos of Donetsk reservists armed with three-line rifles dating back to March and even April. Many problems with equipping the reservists of the “people’s republics” and paying them monetary allowances have not yet been resolved.

The Russian Army before the North-Eastern Military District: Problems of a Paradigm Shift

The nature of the war follows naturally from the structure of the armed forces of the parties. Russia came into conflict with the smallest ground forces in its new and recent history.

For example, the army of Peter the Great, with a population of 13 million, included more than 200 thousand regular troops and about 100 thousand people in irregular formations (Kalmyks, Cossacks, Bashkirs, and others).

The Russian ground forces, according to available publications, numbered 280 thousand people in 2021 with approximately the same size as the country’s territory and an order of magnitude larger population. The ground forces accounted for about a third of the total strength of the Russian Armed Forces.

This structure of the Armed Forces reflected the forces formed in the 2000s–2010s. specific views of the Russian leadership on the nature of threats. A large-scale land war was considered an unlikely catastrophic event, possible only in the event of a clash between Russia and NATO, and this prospect was supposed to be contained through investment in strategic weapons.

General Forces were to play their part in the early escalation of a hypothetical (and highly unlikely) conflict between Russia and NATO. But an increasingly important role in their tasks began to play the fight against all sorts of hybrid threats, as well as participation in various kinds of expeditionary operations designed to support Russian foreign policy in different parts of the world.

An example of a successful expeditionary campaign is the operation of the Russian Armed Forces in Syria . At the cost of moderate costs and losses, it brought concrete benefits to Russia in the form of strengthening its positions in the Middle East, including when discussing the oil issue. The terrorist threat was reduced due to the targeted extermination of people from the former USSR who left to fight for ISIS [1] . The regime friendly to Russia was saved. The result was achieved by a grouping approximately equal in number to a reinforced brigade, with the support of several dozen aircraft and helicopters operating from the Khmeimim base.

Another example of successful actions is the participation of Russian troops in the CSTO operation to stabilize the situation in Kazakhstan in January 2022. Russia turned out to be able to quickly deploy a significant contingent in a neighboring country, which, without entering into direct clashes with the enemy, made it possible to stabilize the situation in an important neighboring country and prevent it from sliding into a civil war.

One of the consequences of this model of development of the Russian Armed Forces was the high number of airborne troops (Airborne Forces) in relation to the ground forces (SV), which surpassed the SV in mobility due to worse security and lower firepower. At the same time, the key property of the Airborne Forces – the ability to parachute – was not in demand even once in our military history after the Second World War.

Meanwhile, it is precisely this strange passion for parachuting that explains the development and production of a separate line of armored vehicles for them, as well as other features in their structure and weapons that reduce their firepower and security. Parachute training itself is also extremely expensive.

The high prestige and political status of the Airborne Forces were reinforced by their role as an indispensable tool in conducting expeditionary operations both in the post-Soviet space and far from it. As a result, the number of “heavy” formations of ground forces available to the Russian leadership, which could be involved in the war in Europe, was further reduced.

Fleet problem

Another consequence of the current model of the Russian Armed Forces was the persistence of a bloated Navy that far exceeded the economic capabilities of the country, based on large Soviet-built ships that had impressive size and cruising range, as well as an even more impressive cost of maintenance.

The presence of such ships allowed Russia to maintain the illusion that it was the world’s second naval power , capable of a global military presence. The illusion was deceptive: an extremely significant proportion of nuclear multi-purpose submarines, as well as surface warships of the first rank, at any given point in time, were under lengthy repairs. Russia had neither money, ship repair capabilities, nor adequate basing infrastructure for the maintenance of the “high seas fleet” that was on paper.

The preservation in the fleet of a mass of obsolete ships that devoured human and material resources, in addition to creating the appearance of maritime greatness, gave hope for the preservation of naval personnel in the expectation of future rearmament. In fact, the pursuit of status and hopes for a distant bright future significantly limited the current development of the fleet and military shipbuilding in Russia.

The funds spent on the maintenance of antique Soviet “ships of the 1st rank” aged 30-50 years could be used with great success for the construction of really necessary corvettes, frigates of new projects with modern weapons, which Russia currently lacks in the Black Sea.

A direct confrontation with a country possessing modern naval weapons and reconnaissance equipment for many years, apparently, was considered not very likely. In the world of the 2010s, this approach probably had its reasons, but around 2020 the situation changed dramatically.

As the story of the sinking of the Moskva cruiser has shown, in conditions of full-scale military conflicts, the value of 30-40-year-old Soviet-built warships is expressed not even by zero, but by a large negative value. The loss of any of them is associated with a severe blow to the prestige of the country and the morale of the Armed Forces.

“Moskva” was sunk the day after the surrender of a large group (more than 1,000 people) of Ukrainian marines in Mariupol, an event that took the Ukrainian authorities by surprise and made them ineptly dodge and lie. As a result, a serious blow to the morale of the enemy was completely leveled. Instead, a psychological blow was dealt to our society and army.

The fleet that our country had at the beginning of the NMD had, on the whole, a dubious combat capability and combat value. At the same time, the fleet diverted huge human and material resources. According to available data, the number of its personnel at the beginning of the year was more than 50 percent of the number of ground forces, and the share in the state defense order in recent years was much higher than that of the SV and Airborne Forces combined.

Moderate Global Fleet

  • Ilya Kramnik

The key trend in the development of the Navy is the shift of the center of gravity of the development of world maritime power to the East, primarily to the Asia-Pacific region.

The role of aviation

The key advantage of the Russian army in such conditions was modern and combat-ready aviation, which gained extensive combat experience in Syria. However, the size of this aviation group in relation to the scale of the theater of operations is so small that it does not allow for an air campaign like the American one in Iraq in 1991 and Yugoslavia in 1999.

The limited number of modern operational-tactical and army aircraft in the Russian Aerospace Forces has the same reasons as the limited number of ground forces. The need for them was determined, in general, based on the orientation towards expeditionary campaigns in the spirit of the Syrian.

Speaking about combat aircraft of the Aerospace Forces (VKS), which could be used as part of the NWO at the time of its launch, we, judging by the available publications on the purchase of aircraft by the Ministry of Defense, mean several Su-57s, about a hundred Su-35s, about 110 Su-30s of various modifications, about 120 Su-34 fighter-bombers and about 140 modernized Su-25s. Even up to three dozen Su-30s are available in fleet aviation.

In total, this gives somewhere around 500+ modern strike and multi-purpose aircraft that could be involved in NWO with sufficient efficiency and without monstrous losses. The rest of the aircraft of the Russian Aerospace Forces are either highly specialized vehicles (for example, MiG-31BM interceptors) or outdated models that cannot be used in the Ukrainian theater of operations saturated with air defense (AD) systems.

In reality, given that the percentage of serviceable aircraft is always significantly lower than 100 and it is impossible to completely expose other strategic areas, we are talking about a very limited number of aircraft that, in principle, could be used in the NWO. The published daily data of the Ministry of Defense on the strikes inflicted suggest that we are talking about a grouping of a few hundred tactical and army aircraft.

It can definitely be argued that in relation to the area of ​​​​the theater of operations (the area of ​​​​Ukraine is about 600 thousand square kilometers) and the length of the front line (more than 2 thousand km), the number of Russian aviation is negligible. Meanwhile, its role in ensuring the offensive activity of a small Russian group is very large.

In fact, the Russian aviation group can achieve operational air supremacy in one direction, which is the main one for the Russian troops at the moment (in recent months, this is the Donbas). In other areas, it acts episodically, as a “fire brigade” when an urgent need arises.

Moreover, according to MoD briefings, it can be assumed that a significant part of the strikes inflicted by Russian long-range bombers-carriers of cruise missiles are also carried out on tactical targets in the Donbas, which brings to mind parallels with the practice of using long-range aviation of the Air Force of the Workers ‘and Peasants’ Red Army during the Great Patriotic War.

For a complete understanding of the situation, it is important to take into account that at the time the conflict began, Ukraine had one of the densest and most powerful air defense systems in the world, which included dozens of combat-ready S-300 divisions of early modifications, as well as a large number of anti-aircraft missile systems (SAM) Buk- M1, Osa-AKM, Thor and the like. These are all exhaust systems from the 1980s, outdated, but quite dangerous even for modern aircraft.

Ukrainian aviation was also of much lesser, but completely non-zero value. It is difficult to establish the number of its combat-ready vehicles at the time the conflict began. But a large number of machines that were in storage (most likely, much more than 200 at the time of the outbreak of the conflict) allowed the Ukrainian side to constantly put new aircraft into service – either as spare parts for Soviet aircraft from Eastern Europe arrived, or assembling one out of three faulty aircraft serviceable.

Ukraine inherited from the USSR a gigantic airfield network (more than forty airfields). The airfield is a large, area target, the complete destruction of which requires a huge expenditure of ammunition, no matter how high-precision they may be.

Russia obviously lacks the resources to destroy the Ukrainian airfield network, the enemy can use it to disperse their combat aircraft and drones, which they do with relative success, relying on Western intelligence.

Any attempt to compare the Russian air campaign in Ukraine in 2022 with Iraq in 1991 and 2003 or Yugoslavia in 1999 is simply ridiculous. In 1991 and 1999, the United States and its allies tackled the task of suppressing obsolete enemy air defense systems, possessing not only very large technical, but also overwhelming numerical superiority.

In 1991, only about 1,800 jet combat aircraft operated against Iraq, supported by a significant number of tankers, reconnaissance aircraft, electronic warfare aircraft, and other special vehicles. Russia has probably 10 to 15 percent of those forces in the Ukrainian campaign, with a much more powerful enemy air defense system and similar sizes to Iraq and Ukraine.

Under these conditions, the Russian Aerospace Forces proved to be much better than one would expect from them. Having a limited number of modern reconnaissance platforms (for example, early warning aircraft, and electronic reconnaissance aircraft), not having specialized machines for breaking through air defense, and lacking modern aviation weapons, the Russian Aerospace Forces managed, however, to radically weaken the capabilities of Ukrainian air defense and turn into the most important tool to support the Russian offensive.

Their losses, apparently, so far are relatively small for this kind of conflict. Available interviews with Ukrainian military personnel suggest that aviation (along with ballistic and cruise missiles) is perceived as a key element of Russian superiority, an important source of Ukrainian losses, and a serious threat to the morale of the troops.

But for large-scale air campaigns that can quickly and radically change the course of the war, the Aerospace Forces simply do not have the strength. Fantasies about “destroying bridges across the Dnieper” or “destroying the Ukrainian railway network” that are widespread in Russian social networks are fantastic, which will immediately lead Ukraine to collapse.

Ukraine occupies the 15th place in the world in terms of the length of railways, the Dnieper on Ukrainian territory is crossed by about three dozen crossings – bridges and hydroelectric dams, along the crests of which roads are laid. Each major bridge requires dozens of heavy munitions to be directly hit for its destruction, the destruction of hydroelectric dams is hardly feasible at all, in addition to this, some of these objects have powerful air defense.

Naturally, the meager forces of Russian aviation and limited daily limits for the use of sea-based cruise missiles are spent on the Ukrainian transport network only in individual cases when transport facilities deserve it (for example, the bridge in Zatoka, Odesa region, destroyed with great difficulty).

In fact, Russia does not have any magic wand that would allow you to instantly win the war, but which is not used under the influence of the world behind the scenes and all kinds of “traitors”.

Tactics and equipment

As befits the first full-scale war against an equal opponent, which broke out after a long break, the NMD revealed a huge number of weaknesses in the quality, combat training, and technical equipment of the troops participating in them – both Russian and Ukrainian.

The main problem often mentioned by both sides is the unpreparedness of some commanders to act in conditions of a full-scale war against a comparable enemy. Curses against the stupid command are heard from the trenches on both sides, and more often from the Ukrainian than from the Russian.

In this context, numerous interviews of citizens of NATO countries – veterans of local wars participating in the conflict are indicative. They constantly emphasize that what is happening in Ukraine is completely incomparable to what they saw in Iraq and Afghanistan and that their previous experience did not prepare them for this. In the face of conflicts like the Ukrainian one, the value of many aspects of the combat experience of recent decades may be questionable.

Complaints are being heard from both sides about constant problems with communication and control, frequent forced use of unsecured communication channels, and violations in control.

Military personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine mentions these problems quite often, despite large shipments of Western communications equipment and thousands of Starlink satellite terminals. The Russian side, in addition to complaining about the quality of the supplied communications equipment and their lack, complains about the use of different communications standards used in different departments (the Armed Forces and the National Guard), as well as the generally low level of interspecific interaction. Both sides have difficulties with communication discipline: secrecy of control can be violated even with modern equipment.

Complaints about supply also occur on both sides. The supply is insufficient and inflexible, it does not respond to the needs of combat units that suddenly arise in war. Moreover, the complaints of the Ukrainian side about the supply and provision of units with weapons are more acute than those of the Russian side, although the situation on both sides can vary significantly in different sectors of the front and in different parts.

On both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, volunteers play a significant role in supplying the troops with the necessary supplies, primarily because of their ability to respond flexibly to the real needs of the troops. Lack of communication with volunteers can in some cases undermine the combat capability of units.

As one of the major problems of the Russian side, one can note the insufficient number of drones in general and attack drones in particular. Particularly acute is the shortage of small drones, the presence of which, as the conflict showed, directly affects the combat capability of infantry units. However, complaints about the lack of drones are also heard from the Ukrainian side. Ukrainian unmanned aircraft suffer constant high losses from Russian military air defense, and drones are the same expendable material of this war as missiles.

The problem of the Russian side is the lack of technical intelligence, which hinders the realization of superiority in firepower. In particular, there is an insufficient number of radar stations (RLS) for artillery reconnaissance. The range and quantity of precision-guided weapons in aviation and the ground forces are perceived as insufficient, although in this case, the Russian military compares itself not with the enemy, but with the West.

Some elements of Russian equipment, in particular personal first-aid kits, are perceived as frankly backward and even miserable. There are a shortage of modern surveillance equipment, primarily thermal imagers. Obviously, the problem for Russia is the lack of armored vehicles of the latest generation in the troops and the active protection of armored vehicles developed by the Russian military-industrial complex (MIC), which would significantly reduce losses.

On the Ukrainian side, numerous difficulties are recorded with the maintenance and development of weapons coming from the West. The variety of types of weapons flowing from different countries brings additional confusion to the supply of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

The decisive influence on the course of hostilities will be the ability of each side to quickly respond to inevitable problems and miscalculations and take tough and decisive measures to overcome them.

 Why is SVO like this?

NVO is a risky campaign waged by Russia against a numerically superior adversary who has combat experience and receives supplies, funding, equipment, and intelligence from NATO countries led by the United States. It should be noted that the total amount of military and economic assistance allocated only by the United States to Ukraine through all channels exceeds $50 billion.

Russia is campaigning by relying on its technical advantages (long-range precision weapons, aviation, artillery firepower, navy), and higher training of some parts of the Russian Armed Forces. These advantages are not enough to quickly crush the enemy.

Of great importance for the preservation of Russia’s strategic initiative is the use of the weaknesses of the Ukrainian defensive strategy of protecting “fortresses” in the form of large cities, which led to the separation of Ukrainian forces in several directions even before the start of the conflict.

Initially, Russia did not have the strength to quickly complete the NMD and does not have it now. Nevertheless, the fighting is carried out with a clear superiority of the Russian army, which continues to gradually seize territories and inflict extremely heavy losses on the enemy, still avoiding mobilization.

The nature of the SVO is determined mainly not by the tactics and technical equipment of the parties, which are favorite topics for discussion on social networks. To a much greater extent, it is predetermined by the political and strategic plans of the parties to the conflict, which have been developed over many years.

Ukraine at the time of the beginning of the NMD is a country of almost 40 million people, which is not a member of NATO but has: numerous armed forces with combat experience, significant mobilization reserves, capable of receiving significant Western assistance in a short time, possessing significant stocks of dangerous Soviet weapons and a significant military-industrial complex.

With the strengthening of the Armed Forces of Ukraine with the help of the West and the nationalist mobilization of the Ukrainian society, Ukraine began to turn into an intractable problem for the compact “expeditionary” Russian Armed Forces. This problem was bound to reveal itself before Russia could rebuild its army. The preemptive strike on 24 February was probably seen as the best possible course of events.

Now the actions of the Russian troops, apparently, do not allow Ukraine to implement the scenario of the accumulation of sufficient forces in the west of the country with the subsequent transition to a counteroffensive. The latter is especially unlikely given Russia’s continued air superiority.

The supply of Western weapons does not make up for the losses incurred by the Armed Forces of Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict. Apparently, the incoming weapons are mainly sent “from the wheels” to the Donbas, directly into the furnace, and do not accumulate in the west of Ukraine. The Armed Forces of Ukraine have lost a significant, probably most, part of their pre-war trained personnel and are facing a decline in the quality of recruits coming into the army. The situation is aggravated by the growing economic problems in Ukraine.

Given the available information, it is possible to predict the further gradual advance of Russian troops in the Donbas, and then on other parts of the front over the coming months with the start of negotiations and the chances of a truce in late 2022 – early 2023. The truce will lead to the fixation of the front line as a de facto border between Ukraine and Russia, but will not solve the political problems existing between the countries. The result will be a long period of cold military confrontation in Europe, costly for all parties involved, but inevitable and irreversible

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