In an interview with NV, renowned Azeri military expert Agil Rustamzade evaluates Russia’s chances of capturing southern and eastern Ukraine, and talks about the developments on the ground.
NV: Several days ago, Russia announced its new war aims: to capture Donbas and southern Ukraine, and establish a land connection to Moldova’s Transnistria region, landlocking Ukraine. How likely are they to succeed in this?
Rustamzade: Russia is known for making grand pronouncements that rarely correspond to reality. Its newest war aims are in no way proportional to its capabilities. On March 25, as you will recall, Moscow said it aimed to capture the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
One month later, and there are no major offensives to be seen. I suspect the same will happen with their most recent announced plans. While the Kremlin has certain forces and resources in Donbas, their reserves in the south are not enough to reach Mykolaiv, let alone Odesa and Transnistria. Most likely, it was a purely political claim, in line with their traditional diplomatic modus operandi. The Russian military does not have the capabilities to enact such a plan.
NV: What about Zaporizhzhia, where they are also trying to advance?
Rustamzade: Under the present circumstances, with all the forces at their disposal, Russia could hope to achieve some limited success in Donbas, capturing one or two medium-sized settlements – at most. We can see that Ukrainian and Russian military forces are at parity levels. Russia still holds an advantage in long-range artillery, but that won’t last.
Regarding Zaporizhzhia – I don’t think the Russians will have any success there. The flow of Western arms to Ukraine is huge. The weapons systems that are arriving will significantly increase the firepower of the AFU – howitzers and MLRS. I think that in two weeks Ukraine will suppress the offensive capabilities of the Russian army, and will transition to offensive operations, relentlessly striking at the enemy forces.
NV: Meaning that the Armed Forces of Ukraine need to hold out for 10-12 days more?
Rustamzade: That’s right, 10-14 days.
NV: What do you think about Russian attempts to encircle Ukrainian troops in Donbas?
Rustamzade: They (the Russians) were planning two encirclements there. The larger one was supposed to envelop the AFU in the area of Joint Forces Operation, with the smaller one around Severodonetsk. Under the least favorable circumstances for Ukraine, the worst case scenario would be Russians encircling or pincering the AFU near Severodonetsk. But there’s no chance of Moscow pulling off the larger encirclement and achieving a major victory.
The advantage in anti-tank weapons Ukraine enjoys is negated by the superior numbers of Russian long-range artillery. Ukrainian troops destroy any enemy vehicles that get closer that five kilometers. This means that neither side can decisively defeat the other. Force parity has been achieved, albeit an asymmetrical one.
NV: Recent weeks we’ve spent awaiting a large-scale battle for Donbas, that is yet to materialize. Is it because Russia changed its tactics, or do they simply lack the numbers?
Rustamzade: I no longer pay any attention to their scary posturing. How can 100,000 troops conduct a major offensive? I saw their preparations, how they were gradually deploying their forces. Instead of concentrating them for a single breakthrough, they dispersed their forces along six or seven axes of attack.
NV: Is there a military rationale behind this approach?
Rustamzade: No. It’s contrary to military thinking. Both in planning, and in executing this operation, I was puzzled by how they went about it militarily. It can be explained by the primacy of political motives over military ones in this war. When the leadership suddenly issues new demands, the army struggles to adapt. It takes a month or two to prepare an operation involving 100,000 troops. Precisely those politically-motivated tactical changes are preventing the Russian military command from properly planning and conducting its operations.
NV: Self-propelled artillery is being supplied to Ukraine by our allies. Are these shipments too late?
Rustamzade: War is unpredictable. It could be that some event could cause a regiment of the AFU to have logistical problems, or maybe high-ranking officers will be killed.
That would enable the Russians to have some tactical success, maybe they’ll manage to capture a town. Anything more significant is unlikely, since Russia doesn’t have an advantage in manpower. Superior Russian firepower is powerless against multi-layered Ukrainian defenses that are designed to withstand artillery fire.
NV: UK PM Boris Johnson recently said that the war could last until the end of 2023. Do you agree with this assessment?
Rustamzade: I assume Johnson was talking about the marginal scenario. Next week, the U.S. House of Representatives is expected to pass the Ukraine Lend-Lease Act, meaning that Ukraine will have access to unlimited quantities of highly-effective weapons.
In my assessment, if the AFU manages to continue striking at the Russian forces for a month, Moscow will be left with nothing with which to continue prosecuting the war in Ukraine. What Ukraine’s military and political objectives will be after that – I don’t know. Winning the campaign will not put an end to the overarching Russia-Ukraine conflict.
NV: That much is clear.
Rustamzade: Perhaps, Johnson meant that the war won’t end after the Ukrainian army pushes the invaders to the de-facto borders of Feb. 24, or even Ukraine’s actual borders circa 2014. The war will become a positional one, with the eventual resolution of the conflict taking much longer.
NV: Do you think Putin can prolong the war without declaring a general mobilization?
Rustamzade: No. Russia has already committed all of its active units. They could, at great expense, recruit 30,000-50,000 mercenaries from private military companies or some other sources. But it would only prolong the death throes of the Russian army, and won’t give it an upper hand against the Ukrainian military.
NV: Could Ukraine cut through the Russian positions in the south, isolating them from Crimea, or is too early for that?
Rustamzade: The first thing Ukraine should do after the victory in Donbas is relieve Mariupol, and push the Russians away from Kharkiv, so that people there can be free from constant artillery barrages. Next, AFU can advance towards Kherson and from Zaporizhzhia, cutting Russian formations in half. It will all depend on the tactical situation on the ground. But it’s clear that the priority is Mariupol; it can even be done concurrently with Donbas operations, given favorable circumstances.
NV: How would you describe the situation around Mariupol? The city is being heavily bombed.
Rustamzade: The fortifications underneath the Azovstal steel mill were built by the Soviets to withstand tactical nukes.
The Azov guys are likely unfazed by the Russian bombardment. It’s a vast, fortified underground complex. Sure, they can feel the explosions, but their lives are not in danger. While they had enough supplies and ammo initially, now that they are joined by the marines, border guards, and civilians, their stockpiles are getting stretched thin.
We can’t be sure, without knowing how much food, water, and rounds they have on hand. With supplies, they will hold out for two weeks, a month, a month-and-a-half. There’s no way to clear out the complex without assaulting it, and that’s very difficult to do.
NV: How reasonable, do you think, are the suggestions to strike at the Crimea Bridge?
Rustamzade: Just as Russia can’t knock out Azovstal, it’s difficult to do so with the Crimea Bridge. Structures like those are made with enemy attacks in mind. According to my military experience, it takes at least 12 Su-24 war planes, armed with 500-1,500-kilogram bombs to take out a regular railway bridge. And this one is much more formidable than that.
A precise hit with a 1,500-3,000-kilogram bomb could damage it, but not destroy. It would take bombs like the one Russia is dropping on Azovstal, and Ukraine doesn’t have bombs or missiles like that. AFU can’t even seriously damage the bridge, let alone destroy it. It was built to withstand fire from much more powerful armies than the Ukrainian one.
NV: Let’s try and take account of the two months of this war.
Rustamzade: As it stands, we’re talking about a strategic Russian defeat. In 60 days, they’ve changed their war aims twice, and didn’t manage to accomplish any of them. Much ink has been spilled over the shortcomings of the Russian forces. I’d like to mention the weak points of Ukraine’s military. As we finally see Western weapons pouring into Ukraine in large quantities, the sluggish reaction of the civilized world is obvious. But I think that some responsibility also lies with the Ukrainian command, who were drawing up lists of requested arms.
I kept saying that you were short on artillery, but were asking for jets and tanks. I think that your army waged war well, even wonderfully well, but there’s room for improvement. You should have focused your requests on weapons that could deliver victory on the battlefield, as opposed to asking to “close the skies” – which basically meant “please wage the war for us.” Or asking for tanks: you have around 800 tanks, why do you need 200-300 more? Tanks aren’t effective in modern wars.
Instead, you should have been asking for the howitzers since day one. I mean this as positive, constructive criticism. I admire the Ukrainian army for managing to stop the world’s second military. But it’s prudent to try and draw conclusions from one’s own missteps.
NV: Does Russia have enough missiles to keep bombing our cities?
Rustamzade: It’s difficult to say, but they are clearly using them sparingly. The missile strike on Odesa is tragic, but we should realize that the Russians aren’t trying to hit civilian targets, their aim sucks. Their missile systems are crooked and inaccurate. They have nothing to gain from killing a baby as the world watches.
They could have launched a light, cheap naval missile at Odesa. Instead, they tried to hit a military target with an air-launched cruise missiles, and missed. These missiles are Soviet-made, how could they possibly be precise? They prioritized accuracy, since these missiles were supposed to bear nuclear warheads. That’s how I see it, I’m certain they were aiming at a military target.
NV: So, you think they are counting their missiles now?
Rustamzade: Of course. Recall the first days of the war – the intensity of Russian missile strikes has decreased dramatically. It means they’re trying to conserve their stockpiles. Another piece of good news – they don’t have parts to make new ones. Their Kalibr missiles were made with foreign components. Their air-launched cruise missiles were fully domestically-sourced, but the production was halted a long time ago. X101 missiles are built with modern parts, of which they have none. Similarly, Russia doesn’t have components for Iskander missiles.
This lack of parts, lack of productive capacity to make the missiles is a boon for Ukraine. Hardly anyone besides maybe UK or U.S. intelligence knows how many they have left.