Military expert Zhdanov on Russia’s 'worse than expected' performance in Donbas

21 April, 05:41 PM
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Russian military vehicle in Donetsk Oblast (Photo:general staff of the Ukrainian army)

Russian military vehicle in Donetsk Oblast (Photo:general staff of the Ukrainian army)

Since the Russian army began its war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, it has lost almost 21,000 personnel on the battlefield, as well as 815 tanks and more than 15,000 military vehicles. That’s a huge number.

But it didn’t stop Russians from attempting to subjugate Ukraine’s Donbas.

Oleg Zhdanov, a Ukrainian military expert, spoke to Radio NV to explain why the Russian army has made this many mistakes while losing an enormous amount of men and material, and what kind of logic stands behind Vladimir Putin’s planning of the Donbas operation.

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NV: What’s going on in the Donbas? Is this something that Ukrainian military commanders prepared for? Or are the Donbas developments unexpected for Ukraine?

Zhdanov: The Russian army in the Donbas is performing worse than we expected.

NV: Why do you think this is so?

Zhdanov: The Russian Federation, in fact, failed to accomplish its conscription of new recruits, which was not even really public and transparent. Russia could deploy its army reserve, units that could join the battlefields in the Donbas, but even in the beginning of the war it didn’t have enough of those. The Russians are trying to regroup, collecting as many personnel as possible in Donbas area. I’d like to emphasize, around one third of Russia’s Donbas group is not yet ready to join the fight – it is still undergoing the replenishment process, trying to attract more soldiers and stays mostly stationed on Russian territory.

NV: Russian forces in the Donbas are dispersed: there is Mariupol where fighting goes on; then Lughansk Oblast, Kreminna where control over the town was almost taken away; and other villages. Yet the Russian army has not concentrated its troops in a single place – like Mariupol. Why?

Zhdanov: Yes, good observation. Mariupol continues to play its role of taking away the focus of the Russian troops. Also, we are trying to attack the Russian army on the territory where Kherson and Mykolayiv Oblasts intersect – and this is the reason why Russians can’t relocate their own forces from there to Ukraine’s East. Near Kharkiv, we are attempting to soak the Russians with fire, while they keep up their attempts to perform counter-offensive operation. So the Ukrainian army has its own group there too.

The Russians are indeed somewhat dispersed, but their key focus so far has been dualistic – Izyum/Slovyansk, Huliaipole/Kramatorsk. This way, they want to form two groups to invade Slovyansk and Kramatorsk – from the South and from the North. We’ve managed to hold our positions as of now, and the Russians haven’t really advanced in those directions.

NV: How the situation could develop in the future? Vladimir Putin’s sacred date – May 9 (On May 9, 1941 Soviet Union announced own victory in the World War II and the capitulation of Germany). What kind of “victory” are Russians preparing this time?

Zhdanov: It’s hard to say yet. The thing is, today the Kremlin is seeing conflict between Putin and the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Putin expects to have more quick wins, while the General Staff clearly understands that any victories are hard to win, especially if you want to do it quickly. There was even an opinion expressed to Putin that Russia should stop at least some part of its offensive operation to keep some reserves within the Armed Forces. But Putin didn’t change his mind, and said the offensive should keep going, everything is based on a plan which is being realized. “Let’s win” – he said. I think, this might lead to a major crisis of political processes in Russia, and especially in its Defense Ministry.

NV: There’s an expert consensus that the army which is doing an offensive operation should have at least three times as many men as the army that is doing defense. But it looks like in the Donbas both – Ukrainian and Russian armies – have almost exact amount of troops. What kind of a story does this tell?

Zhdanov: If you take a look at statistical figures of how many troops are fighting this war, then you can clearly see that in some regions, in some locations, the Ukrainian army does have an advantage in manpower. But on those directions where Russians are trying to break through our defense, the number of their soldiers deployed to battlefields is five times larger.

Here’s what I want to say. Winning the war is not about having a statistical advantage – it’s about fighting the right way. The Russian advantage in the number of personnel is balanced by how well Ukraine’s Armed Forces are prepared for defense, and how much fire they can use against Russians. That’s the reason why the Russian army hasn’t succeeded so far. While overall, both sides – ours and theirs- have approximately the same number of soldiers present on the battlefields.

NV: Do you think it’s realistic that Russians will face another failure with their Donbas offensive operation – just like they failed in their operation near Kyiv? Then, they’ll have just to walk away.

Zhdanov: This is our main goal. Our goal is, firstly, to keep our defensive operation within the territories that we control and, secondly, soak the Russian troops with as much fire as possible. Our minimum task is taking away the battlefield initiative from the Russian invaders. And then comes the next task – moving on to the third phase (of our defensive operation) and launching our own counter-attack to liberate our territories. Therefore, first we should devastate Russian Armed Forces with fire, and then liberate Ukrainian territory.

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