Analysis: Intelligence Report Warns of “Absolute Inequality” on the Battlefield

“By not providing missile defence systems in sufficient quantities, the West will make a historic mistake that will cost hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives.”

Analysis: Intelligence Report Warns of “Absolute Inequality” on the Battlefield

“By not providing missile defence systems in sufficient quantities, the West will make a historic mistake that will cost hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives.”

Ukrainian tank crew trains with infantry nearby on May 09, 2022 near Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukraine.
Ukrainian tank crew trains with infantry nearby on May 09, 2022 near Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, Ukraine. © John Moore/Getty Images
Friday, 10 June, 2022

Ukraine’s army is under severe pressure in the Donbas, outgunned and outmanned by restructured Russian forces, and - according to a Ukrainian intelligence report - facing significant strategic losses unless increased western military aid reaches the frontlines quickly.

With intense fighting continuing over the Luhansk region pocket, the intelligence report – provided to IWPR by a senior official advisor to the Ukrainian government – predicts that critical towns straddling the rivers of Severodonetsk and Lysichansk could fall, allowing Russian forces to increase efforts to encircle fully the area around Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut.

 “The outcome of the defence of these three cities will be decisive,” the document reads. “Either the Russians will break their teeth on them and finally lose the opportunity to attack, going on the defensive, or they will continue their offensive in the east of Ukraine.” 

The implication, says the report, is a renewed attack on the major north-eastern city of Kharkiv. Already severely battered, life there has only recently begun to re-emerge, and a fresh threat to the city would be a significant blow.

The current military situation, the report underlines, “is extremely unfavourable for Ukraine”, particularly because of the disparity of arms, The Ukrainian army is outgunned 20 to 1 in terms of artillery and 40 to 1 in terms of ammunition, leading to losses and demoralisation.                               

Minister of defence Oleksii Reznikov stated recently that 100 Ukrainian soldiers were being killed a day, with 500 more injured. Mykhaylo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential aide, told the BBC that the number of daily fatalities might be as high as 200.

The intelligence report notes that cases of desertion are increasing, as Ukrainian forces begin to lose faith in victory in the face of Russia’s dominance in men and materiel.

With street fighting continuing in Severodonetsk, the intelligence report notes that the fall of neighbouring towns, including Popasna, have given the Russians significant military dominance over key supply roads. Severodonetsk, it concludes, “will have to be abandoned”.

A Ukrainian soldier previously told IWPR that the amount of ammunition provided by the West in a week was used up by Ukrainian troops within one day. If supplies have increased since then, so has the intensity of the fighting.

“To help Ukraine,” the report insists, “it will not be enough to use only stockpiles of ammunition, it is necessary to start mass production of them.” 

Combined with the “almost complete lack of aviation and air-defence equipment”, Ukraine’s main disadvantage is in long-range weaponry. This deficit is enforcing an “absolute inequality” on the battlefield. At the time of writing, in late May, the report noted that Ukrainian forces had almost entirely run out of stocks of Smerch and Uragan MLRS systems, which could deter Russian offensives at distances of up to 80 kilometres. This had left them with artillery and Grad missile systems limited to 25 kilometres.

By comparison, Russia retains stocks of Iskander tactical ballistic missiles (with a range of up to 300 kilometres), Smerch and Tochka-U missiles (80 kilometres) and Uragan systems (60 kilometres).

The much-lauded Javelin, NLAW and Stinger anti-tank and anti-aircraft systems remain vital, however are unable to counter Russian artillery and rocket launchers.

The US and UK have both promised fresh multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). Writing in The New York Times, US President Joe Biden pledged more advanced rocket systems and munitions, as well as helicopters, artillery and still more of the effective Javelins and Stingers.

Such support is vital, especially as some voices are beginning to emerge in the US and Europe casting doubt on such commitments and suggesting that Ukraine should be pressured to accept Russian territorial gains and sue for peace. 

Yet even with this support, the numbers do not meet the needs, and the time lag for delivery is always extended. Soldiers, the report notes, would rather hear fewer public pledges of new weapons and actually just receive them at the front where they are so needed.

To enable not only a defence but a counteroffensive, the report calls for a “mass transfer” of large-calibre and long-range artillery and high mobility rocket systems. The report argues that the weapons pledged by the Biden administration are “completely insufficient” and dismisses the concern in Western capitals that Ukraine would escalate the war by striking into Russia.

 Not all analysts would entirely agree with the intelligence report. While few would dispute the need of the Ukrainian force for more and more substantial arms, Ukrainian journalist and military analyst Yuri Butusov, editor of the popular online Censor.net, has raised questions about Ukraine’s military preparedness and the conduct of the fighting. As he wrote recently, “One should not simplify the war statistics and attribute any loss of men and equipment to the advantage of the enemy. Actually, this is not the case. A lot of losses come from tactics, organisation, preparation, security issues.”

Writing recently in Time magazine, Frederick Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute argued that instead of an inevitable juggernaut, Russia’s brutal, scorched-earth push in the east is in fact a last hurrah before its own men and material give out.

“The fight for Severodonetsk is a Russian information operation in the form of a battle,” he argued. “One of its main purposes for Moscow is to create the impression that Russia has regained its strength and will now overwhelm Ukraine. That impression is false. The Russian military in Ukraine is increasingly a spent force that cannot achieve a decisive victory if Ukrainians hold on.”

Certainly, the intelligence report is both a detailed assessment and, being shared publicly, its own effort to influence the situation on the ground.

The report's final warning, however, is stark.

“By not providing Ukraine with heavy weapons systems, and especially missile defence systems in sufficient quantities, the West will make a historic mistake that will cost hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian lives and the loss of tens of thousands of square kilometres of territory.”

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