The current state of the Ukrainian army

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By MICHAEL VLAHOS*

Results favor Russia over Ukraine 10 to 1

A defeated army and a prostrate army are two different things. An army only defeated in battle can often make successful withdrawals, restore itself and rebuild its strength - as Rome did after its humiliation at Cannae, finally destroying its great rival, Carthage. But when entire armies are prostrated, when they lose the will to fight, the whole nation can also prostrate itself. That's what happened to the great empires in the First World War. And it is also the fate that surrounds the Ukrainian army.

How does a nation at war reach a point where its combatants refuse to fight?

Part of what “breaks” an army is attrition, which results from both casualties and the trauma that accompanies battlefield losses. Trauma among the still living erodes it. Its vitality, its fighting vigor, oozes from the wounded and the uninjured alike, while ardor and hope – the energies on which its performance in combat depends – are drained away. Thus, the wear is prostrating, both physically and psychologically.

How much attrition can an army take before it collapses? About a million men served in the Confederate army in the American Civil War: 350 died and another 200 were wounded. That was truly mind-boggling attrition: half of all the men who fought in an army that, in the end, capitulated to the still-unbroken Union. Its commander preferred to surrender rather than fight a losing war; and the soldiers, who would have followed him into hell, laid down their arms.

Again by way of comparison, from 1914 to 1918 six of the seven great power armies disintegrated, leading to mutinies, surrenders and revolutions. Their battle losses were impressive, though none came close to the Confederate apocalypse (equivalent to 5,38% of the population of the southern United States). Germany lost 3,1% of its population; France, 3,6%.

Casualties, however, are only part of the attrition equation. Over time, they drain the ardor and hope that had peaked when war was declared, before blood began to be shed. However, even an exhausted and disheartened army will fight on as long as its soldiers remain committed to the cause. Thus, in World War I, armies that suffered tens of thousands of casualties in a single day – Britain suffered 60 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme; Italy lost 350 in 17 days at Caporetto – somehow they kept fighting.

However, the commitment will buckle and falter if and when three other factors manifest themselves; factors that can be seen as a breath of feedback negative, which ignites the embers of anguish already established by wear and tear.

The first breath of feedback A negative one is the one that occurs when you see a war that started with high hopes suddenly seem invincible. The first victories are now old memories. More battles are lost than won, and the cost of each battle continues to rise to the limits of human endurance. And then they increase again. The second blow comes when the external support of the allies starts to evaporate. And this is an especially acute negative factor when Allied support is the emotional foundation of the army's belief in its ultimate victory.

Third and finally, it is the moment when those who started the war, those who promised a paved road to victory and who swore that the world would support the army until it was won – it doesn’t matter.”how long it took” – begin to be seen, first of all, as liars and fakes. The army and the entire nation will have been betrayed by their leaders.

All this has fallen on Ukraine in the last six weeks.

For almost a year, there were no victories, not even bloody and debilitating victories like that of Fourth Battle of Karkhov. Western leaders still claim their support will continue, but the Western Alliance now recognizes that it could not provide the Ukrainians with good enough material for even modest tactical gains in its ongoing sacrificial offensive, and that it knew it. And, increasingly, Ukrainian unit-level commanders are accusing senior leaders of simply using them as cannon fodder to satisfy NATO overlords. Not just platoons, but entire larger units are surrendering to Russian forces. Troop morale is crumbling.

This is the attrition of the war of attrition coming to fruition. The empires that fell in 1918 – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia and the Ottoman Empire – needed four years to reach that point. In a third of that time, Ukraine has lost 2,5% of its population. This calculation corresponds to what the old Soviet historians called “irreplaceable losses”, that is, the amount of soldiers who will never return to the ranks.

In reality, real Ukrainian losses may be higher. Calculating them is a complex assessment, based on a meticulous methodology, as much as in indiscreet admissions by NATO, Ukraine, and the Western media; all of this weighted by the indisputable main factor in the production of casualties, consecrated from the First World War: the proportion in the use of artillery by both sides.

The results favor Russia over Ukraine 10 to 1. Add to this the Ukrainian command's unyielding devotion to high-casualty attacks, as well as Russia's equal devotion to "conservation of human combat force," and the picture will look downright bleak for Kiev. Now, new evidence of the scale of the Ukrainian catastrophe, from many indexes, begins to accumulate: the census of Ukrainian obituaries, published in newspapers and social networks, or even of chips of cell phones from subscriber lines that stopped working.

This raises the question: are Russian forces in better shape? Decidedly yes. After more than 500 days, the Russian war effort now benefits from: (i) a much lower casualty ratio, by a factor of at least 5 to 1; (ii) the widespread confidence in the army, resulting from its resilience in the face of losses; (iii) the successful test of adaptation to real combat, accompanied by the rapid evolution of its operational art; (iv) a series of successes along the front line, which instils a strategic impetus (“strategic momentum”); (v) a nationwide feeling that Russia has the fighters, tools and hard-won battlefield skill to get the job done; and (vi) the blatant image of the last NATO-built Ukrainian army burning before their eyes. What adds up for Russia is subtracted from Ukraine.

Despite Ukraine's high casualty count, some argue that the overall situation is still salvageable. However, the consequences of casualties are the deciding factor, because losses in war must be weighed against the health and stability of the whole society. Ukraine has a fertility rate [between 0,7 and 0,9 children per woman] which is in lowest level in the world, and a demographic pyramid tapered in the most fertile age groups. Stated more bluntly, males lost in the last 500 days will not produce progeny.

This is why a calculation of Ukrainian “irreplaceable losses” is significant. It's not just the dead, but also the male cripples who can bring a society down. This is the spiral into which France succumbed after the First World War. Several hundred thousand men lost one or more limbs. We now know that Ukraine is replicating the French horror. Fifty thousand Ukrainians lost one or more limbs, close to Germany's 67 in World War I. In 1914, there were 39 million French. In 1940, there were still 39 million.

Ukraine in 1994 had 52 million inhabitants. Then disaster struck. First, the brightest young people went to look for a better future in the European Union and Russia. Then the political terror after 2014 accelerated the flight. Now, the war has effectively driven half the population out of its geographic space. Ukraine was a nation of around 33 million at the start of 2022. Today, a quarter of the country's already small population has fled to the European Union, and another quarter is now in the oblasts Russians or residing as new migrants in the Russian Federation itself. Ukraine, with 20 million, is slightly larger than the Netherlands and slightly smaller than Taiwan.

However, in terms of casualties to the population, Ukrainian military losses, after more than 500 days of war, are approaching those suffered by Germany in World War I in more than 1.500 days. This is a catastrophic wear rate, compounded by all three cycles of feedback negative that can break an army and a nation. Throughout the boreal spring and summer, Ukrainian forces were thrown into battle and ground. By autumn, the fighting army will be depleted, and that will be the tragic fate of “the best of Ukraine” in 2023. By September, what will remain will be twisted and bent until it breaks, by the merciless winds of war.

*Michael Vlahos is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Naval War College. Author, among other books, of Fighting Identity: Sacred War and World Change (Bloomsbury Publishing).

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in the magazine Compact.


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