Even for well-reported 20th century wars, decades later, historians are still seeking to improve our understanding of them. With the Ukraine conflict, we’re in the midst of the unprecedented experience of being able to discern a remarkably high proportion of what is afoot, albeit with a great deal of noise in the signal between aggressive propagandizing and issues of sourcing with various purported close-to-the-action accounts.
But the war has gone at a seemingly slow pace, due to Russia shifting strategy to attrition (rather than trying to force negotiations), the time required to break extremely well-fortified lines (without incurring huge and unnecessary human costs), and Russia choosing to grind down other elements of Ukraine’s military, notably its air defenses. That’s lead commentators to focus on battles and even hot spots on the line of contact, in part because that’s where the action has been, in part because close observers hope they’ll be able to find clues of when and where the fighting might shift into bigger, more decisive-looking campaigns.
However, the ongoing focus on comparatively local contests, and even the watch for the start of the Great Overanticipated Ukraine Counteroffensive appears to have distracted commentators from what will drive the broad timing of the resolution of the conflict, absent a nuclear escalation.
It’s the stuff, as in how much, or more accurately, how little Ukraine has. A tacit assumption has been, since attritional wars (per John Mearsheimer in his latest talk) are artillery wars, that artillery will serve as the limiting reagent. From LibreTexts:
When there is not enough of one reactant in a chemical reaction, the reaction stops abruptly. To figure out the amount of product produced, it must be determined which reactant will limit the chemical reaction (the limiting reagent).
The assumption that lack of artillery will constrain Ukraine sooner rather than later is probably still valid but bears monitoring.
The Discord leaks, for instance, showed Ukraine running critically low on ammunition in the March time frame and its air defenses on a trajectory to be fatally depleted by end of May. Admittedly, that sort of forecast would serve as a call to action to round up more supplies. But we know the West was already scraping the bottom of the barrel even as of then. It’s been sending disparate weapons systems that create a huge training/manning problems as well as logistical messes. Many have been hauled out of mothballs and don’t work properly. And some are not fit for purpose, witness Moon of Alabama’s discussion of the F-16, which can take off and land only on golf greens.
Recall that Scott Ritter had predicted the war would be over by the end of summer-early fall. That may seem ludicrous in light of all the Western noisemaking until you remember that Ukraine really is running out of ammo. Even worse, the firepower gap seems to have widened. Earlier, Ukraine was reportedly firing 3,000 to 4,000 rounds a day to a typical Russian day of 20,000 rounds.
There have been more recent reports of Ukraine rationing ammo. For instance, from a fresh New Yorker story:
The major in charge of artillery for Pavlo’s battalion told me that in Kherson his mortar teams had fired about three hundred shells a day; now they were rationed to five a day. The Russians averaged ten times that rate.
The article tries to suggest this unit isn’t as well provided as some others. Regardless, if anything, Russian shelling has increased. Russia used to surge to an occasional 50,000 to 60,000 rounds a day. Some reports suggest the former surge levels are coming closer to being a new normal.
Remember, as Alexander Mercouris has reported, based on (among other things) Medvedev being put in charge of arms production and regularly shown touring factories, Russia is clearly making a big push to further increase output on an urgent basis and looks to be succeeding, as shown not just in increased shelling but more frequent missile and drone strikes. In the last two days, Russia engaged in what is widely agreed was its most fierce and sustained drone and missile attack so far, with Kiev a major target. A result was a shock that registered on the Richter scale (2.8 to 3.4, depending on the source), which had to result from hitting explosives, possibly a big underground ammunitions cache. The drone attack was widely described as a swarm, and some believe it heavily featured newly produced Garan 2 drones.
Admittedly, due to the difficulty of reaching firm conclusions from conflicting claims, it’s hard to know how much more damage Russia has done with the intensification of these drone and missile strikes, but it sure seems like a lot. Russia had some weeks back been focusing on taking out counter-battery systems. It has also been targeting ammo dumps, with some impressive hits. And now
Note also that the heavy use of drones, including during the day, suggests that Russia judged Ukraine’s air defenses to be so depleted that it could use them as offensive weapons, and not merely to get Ukraine to waste yet more expensive and scarce air defense missiles to take down cheap and easily replaced drones.
Dima and others say Russian has now impaired not just one but two of the Patriot systems the US sent. That’s before getting to the fact, as Simplicius the Thinker suggested in his latest sitrep, that Ukraine has fired so many Patriot missiles that it’s running through supplies:
Ukraine is said to have already fired off, in only a month or two of time, upwards of 40% of U.S.’s annual production. Think that’s sustainable?
Mind you, that annual production is meant to supply quite a few countries, including the US, not just Ukraine. And keep in mind that even though the West is making noises about needing to manufacture more weapons, all it has done is throw some more contracts at current pork-y US arms merchants, with the result that there will be more supply…..in about 3 years. At the rate of Russian output increases, the gap will only be greater by then. I’m old enough to have heard of Sputnik. Even as a grade-schooler, I was aware of the sense of urgency about the need of the US to respond, and even some of the measures, like beefed up engineering and science programs.
One wonders why Russia is firing so far behind the front. Part of this may be a sort of pinning operation, to force Ukraine to tie up more resources defending Kiev. But recall Russia has also been shelling Dnipro and other spots believed to be staging/supply locations closer to the anticipated location of the overdue counteroffensive.
Simplicius contends that Russia has been taking out not just supplies but supply lines. Keep in mind Russia has been sparing in taking out bridges (in fairness, Dima did point out one in southern Ukraine and showed how its removal blunted an expected attack route). Nevertheless:
Also, countless reports of Russian strikes now hitting not only AFU staging areas but railroad junctures and train stations where materiel is being offloaded for the war. These are not just speculative rumors but in fact some photos have emerged showing several of these…
It isn’t as if Ukraine is doing nothing in response, but its propaganda-oriented attacks confirm its weak position. Ukraine (or if we are to believe it, Ukraine-friendly Russians who just happened to be using US equipment like Hummers) made an incursion into Belgorod that was made to look like it covered much more terrain due to some outlier drone strikes. As Lambert noted, that lasted about a news cycle. Today, some drones targeted Moscow and apparently 2 or 3 hit a residential area, killing no one but damaging some pretty buildings. From some wits on Twitter:
Drones in Moscow:
1) It could easily have been a false flag – mobilization, or another terrorist attack.
2) Or UA decided to test the air defense of Russia and it shot down several drones that fell into residential buildings (by the way, there are no victims, strangely 🤔)
— MAKS 23 👀🇺🇦 (@Maks_NAFO_FELLA) May 30, 2023
Schrödinger’s drones over Moscow
One side of pro NATO shills say it was a humiliating and so successfully executed (PR stunt)
The other side (after seeing the results) insists to the theory of a false flag…
Idiots – you can’t have it both ways.
— — GEROMAN — time will tell – 👀 — (@GeromanAT) May 30, 2023
Perhaps Ukraine will still manage a big terrorist strike. It is clearly very keen to cause Russia and its liberated oblasts a world of hurt by triggering a nuclear incident at the Zaporzhizhia nuclear power plant. But so far, despite the focus on name recognition (strike on the Kerch Bridge! the Kremlin! Russian territory, and now Moscow!), the IRA in its heyday was much better at actual terrorism without the benefit of NATO backing and weapons.
Ukraine may be pinning its hopes on dragging NATO into the conflict. But unless Russia attacks a NATO member (recall that was why Ukraine was so eager to depict its errant S300 missile as a Russian strike into Poland), it’s hard to see Russia going there. And the most belligerent potential belligerents (as in willing not to look to hard at a false flag), meaning Poland, is already cool on the idea. Its military has signaled it know it’s not up for the fight, and more and more of the public is unhappy about the massive influx of Ukraine refugees, and sees a prolongation of the war as worsening that problem.
But the current trajectory still is that the West runs so critically low on materiel that it decides it needs to find a mumble shuffle way to leave Ukraine to its own devices while pretending otherwise. Blinken in his interview with David Ignatius actually signaled that he expected Ukraine to be stalemated or lose when he talked of continuing to arm Ukraine after the war was over. That was months ago and Ukraine’s prospects have not improved.
There is also a timing issue. It is hard to see how the collective West keeps pumping enough air into the Ukraine leaky balloon so as to not have it become apparent that it is totally deflated before the 2024 elections. Maybe the Biden Administration thinks it can keep up enough cheerleading and amplification of pinpricks so as to keep up the illusion of non-defeat that long. Maybe it will heat things up so much with China as to distract the memory-of-goldfish public from Ukraine.
But regardless, my betting is on critical limits in supplies causing the crisis in military operations in Ukraine, as opposed to a major battlefield win. Or more accurately, here a highly visible success, like an encirclement of of Odessa or Dnipro or a march to another point on the Dnieper, will be proof of the fatally weakened state of Ukraine’s forces, and not a cause.
Mind you, even then, Russia will still have the very big problem of what to do about Western Ukraine. But the degree of remaining Western commitment to Project Ukraine will be more evident and will help inform Russia’s next steps.