After the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow did everything it could to maintain its status as a superpower – including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Although the country’s gross domestic product did not give it the prominent position among the states, the Soviet Union could not keep up economically with many western countries.
The Kremlin has always justified Moscow’s claim as a great power in military terms: Russia, it has been said for decades, has one of the largest and most powerful armies in the world – including nuclear weapons.
As a constant reminder, President Putin regularly provided the world with images of perfectly choreographed military parades in Moscow or maneuvers by his armed forces.
However, how powerful an army really is is not demonstrated by goose-stepping on Red Square, but in the trenches on the battlefield.
And there the Russians are being paraded in eastern Ukraine by a much smaller army, one that didn’t even exist a few years ago. How can that be?
On paper, the Russian armed forces would have a target size of one million soldiers, and in the future even 1.1 million, according to Margarete Klein from the German Science and Politics Foundation. But the real size is lower, she explains to Deutsche Welle.
A large part of the Russian units that are ready for action have already been deployed in Ukraine. “They have suffered heavy losses from killed or injured soldiers,” said the defense expert. There are no exact numbers. But the US secret service CIS believes that Russia has suffered tens of thousands of dead and injured.
So far, regiments stationed in the Asian part of Russia during peacetime have suffered, says George Barros of the US think tank Institute for the Study of War. The idea that Russia has reserves of soldiers ready for action has nothing to do with reality, he told the German foreign broadcaster.
According to Barros, the course of the war so far shows that the world has long overestimated the strength of the Russian army.
Margarete Klein from the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik explains that Russia must now call up reservists to fill in the gaps that have arisen as a result of the losses. Ultimately, according to Barros, Putin’s goal in calling up the reservists is to hold the current front line.
The state of Russia’s military strength is shown by who is currently being drafted into military service. “There are men who are over 50 years old and have health problems,” said the defense expert. Numerous examples on social media confirm this observation.
Reservists must be trained and equipped before they go to war, says Barros. However, many would only receive a month or two of training, which is not enough.
Others are sent to the front in Russia with no training or equipment at all, he says. He hardly believes that military successes can be achieved with such reservists. Only the number of dead and injured is likely to increase.
Russian security expert Pavel Luzin agrees. He is currently residing in the United States. In his opinion, Ukraine will continue to fight, despite the sham referendum that Putin’s henchmen held in the east of the country.
Furthermore, Luzin thinks that Russia’s armaments industry is not in a position to provide supplies in the short term; certainly not for the currently called up reservists. Margarete Klein says there are still old weapons and projectiles from the Soviet era that are stored in Russia.
But here, too, it is not certain whether a large part of these weapons have not already been resold due to corruption or whether the material can be used in war at all. According to Klein, the Russian defense industry lacks chips for high-precision weapons and other spare parts.
However, Russia has the advantage of having more people at its disposal and thus being able to send more and more reservists to war in the long term, Ted Galen Carpenter from the CATO Institute in Washington told DW.
Many components are needed to be successful in war, says George Barros of the US think tank Institute for the Study of War. Soldiers, modern weapons, good training, leadership, motivation, logistics, its just a few of them.
“Simply sending more men to the front won’t solve the problem the Russians have.” The Ukrainian forces would continue to advance even now. “Your offensive is not over,” says Barros.
The Russians, on the other hand, are currently happy if they can hold existing positions. In the past, Russia’s forces were clearly superior to those of Ukraine, also in terms of the quality of weapons and the number of soldiers.
But Moscow’s military leadership was unable to use this tactical superiority to achieve strategic goals in the war, he analyses.
Incidentally, not with well-trained and well-equipped mercenaries, like the so-called Wagner group. Their number before the war was about 8000-9000 fighters. But they would not only be used in Ukraine, my Barros. In eastern Ukraine they fought like simple infantry soldiers. He doesn’t think they would significantly affect the course of the war.
The experts agree that the threat of nuclear weapons is intended to intimidate the West. “This threat is not new,” said Margarete Klein from the Science and Politics Foundation. The aim is to undermine Western support for Ukraine. The use of nuclear weapons is of no use militarily.
The mission can only make sense politically; for example when the regime in Moscow faces a military defeat. Nevertheless, Margarete Klein considers the use of nuclear weapons to be unlikely. It would mean that Putin would lose support from China or India.
On the other hand, Ted Galen Carpenter of CATO says: “If Putin is faced with the choice of either using nuclear weapons or facing charges for his crimes in an international court, he will choose the nuclear option.”
Barros and other experts believe that after the sham referendums currently underway, Putin will annex eastern and southern Ukraine. After that, he could also use conscripts and troops from the Ministry of the Interior in these areas, which is currently prohibited for legal reasons. “Russia’s forces need a rest, they are exhausted,” says Barros. He expects further offensives from the Ukrainian side this winter.
CATO’s Ted Galen Carpenter says Russia wants a quick end to the war. Ukraine and the West should show themselves willing to negotiate. Margarete Klein and George Barros, who do not believe in a quick end to the war, see things very differently.
Putin hopes the West will drop its support for Ukraine. According to Klein, the outcome of the war actually depends on this ongoing support.
This war can only really be ended if Russia suffers a total defeat, says Russian security expert Pavel Luzin.
Author: Miodrag Soric
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The original of this post “The Overestimated Power” comes from Deutsche Welle.