In the latest sign of growing frustration over the poor performance of its forces in Ukraine, the Russian military has fired or replaced several field commanders recently, according to the British Defense Ministry.
The British findings, which were described in a May 19 intelligence update, suggest growing setbacks and disarray for the Russian military in its nearly three-month war, which was launched on February 24 amid predictions that its forces would be able to take control of Ukraine in a matter of days or weeks.
In reaction to tougher than expected Ukrainian resistance, Russian troops have revised their war aims and remain focused on Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, where a slow, fluid, and costly campaign of incremental gains and swift counterattacks is under way.
Despite its litany of problems and shortcomings, Russian forces still maintain an advantage in terms of numbers and firepower and appear to be adapting to Ukrainian tactics by shifting towards smaller-unit attacks, the Pentagon said on May 18. The tactical shift could potentially lead to further small gains by Russian forces, but could also be a sign of increasingly modest ambitions on the part of Russian commanders and for the Kremlin’s broader political goals for Ukraine.
To better understand what’s to come on the battlefield, RFE/RL spoke with Liam Collins, a retired U.S. Special Forces colonel and the executive director of the Madison Policy Forum.
RFE/RL: What’s your assessment of where things currently stand in the war? Ukrainian forces control Kharkiv and have made some recent pushes in the northeast, but Russian forces are continuing to make incremental gains in the Donbas and still have an advantage in terms of numbers on the ground. How do you see things now and where are they going?
Liam Collins: Going forward, the way it's been playing out for the last few months is what I think you can expect. You’ve got this larger military force that the Russians have, but [it’s] a poorly trained and poorly led force with poor logistics. [It’s] bad in every other respect, minus size.
It's [Russian] size against a tactically proficient [Ukrainian] military. So you're going to have some gains by this larger [Russian] military force, but ultimately, at the tactical level, the Ukrainians are always going to outperform them. That's what we've seen to date.
The Russians make some advances, but then the smaller force slowly chips away at them ,like the [Ukrainians] did up in Kyiv, and now up at Kharkiv, and I would expect to see that play out probably in the Donbas eventually as Ukrainian forces will be able to push back some of the Russian advances that they’re leading to gain at this point.
RFE/RL: Russia continues to downgrade and change its war aims. New analysis from the Institute for the Study of War says that Russian forces have likely abandoned their goal of encircling Ukrainian soldiers from Izyum in the north and from the city of Donetsk in the south and will instead focus their eastern campaign on capturing the province of Luhansk. What does that tell you about Russia’s ability on the battlefield? Could they succeed in doing this?
Collins: The fact is that Russia has [essentially] accomplished nothing. [It] had really broad goals at first and then has been scaling them down each time it's not having success or [is] failing with its operations.
[The Kremlin] has got to come out of this with some kind of victory, and so they just keep lowering what their goal is in order to achieve something that can be sold as a victory. But it's hard to see that even if they’re able to make gains in Luhansk and could even grab the entire [province], where does that lead to?
Ultimately, you've got to get to some kind of negotiated agreement in the end. And Ukraine is not willing to concede more territory, because after eight years of never getting the Donbas back, they're not willing to negotiate an agreement that allows Russia to retain territory.
From Russia's perspective, they’re willing to scale back what [they] want, but it's hard to see in the long term how this is sustainable for either side, since both have to reach an agreement [to end the war]. Right now, there is no agreement that will work between the two nations.
RFE/RL: So in your view, is it safe to say that right now what we're seeing is fighting to get to a better position at the negotiating table?
Collins: That’s what war is at the end of the day. Whether it's an internal conflict, a civil war, or an interstate war, [the] negotiation going on is fighting until one side just decides it's unsustainable.
For the Ukrainians, that's if they eventually lose so much combat power that they just can't sustain the ability to fight, because they’ve shown that they will never lose the will to fight. It’s really about capacity for them, and I believe even if they did lose that capacity, they’d just resort to some kind of guerrilla warfare at that time.
On the Russian side, [it] would be realizing that these losses are going to be catastrophic. They're taking significant losses. But again, it's really hard for an authoritarian like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin to pull out with a loss, no matter how he’ll try to spin it at home.
RFE/RL: There’s been a lot of focus on Western-supplied more advanced weapons being able to give Ukrainian forces a major advantage. Have you seen any instances of that being the case yet?
Collins: I think we've seen some of that with the advances they've made at Kharkiv by having more artillery weapons systems, or even with attack drones that have already given them -- and will continue to give -- more success.
The United States and maybe other Western nations really didn't expect Ukraine to survive, so they were really providing them [with] limited weapons systems before the start of the war, like some anti-tank weapon systems to really inflict some harm on the Russians. None of it was really enough, though, that [it] would allow them to be successful because I think there just wasn't the belief that the Ukrainians would perform so well.
Now that Ukraine has demonstrated how it can perform, there's less of a fear of handing these weapons over [and] that they're going to be lost or ultimately fall into Russian hands. These weapons systems without a doubt are helping Ukraine advance on Russian positions and [allowed] them to push back [Russian troops] in Kharkiv.
RFE/RL: The Russian military obviously has had lots of problems, but they still have a lot of firepower and they still have more soldiers than on the Ukrainian side. Is it realistic to expect that new weaponry can allow the Ukrainians to decisively overcome these obstacles?
Collins: That's the great mystery, right? That's what we’re watching to see play out.
I think the evidence that you would look for to show that it can be successful is to look at how they [pushed] them away from Kyiv and they [pushed] them away from Kharkiv. But again, the Russians [also] advanced along 20 axes with their poor logistics and poorly maintained weapons systems. So the question is if the Russians consolidate into a smaller and smaller space, can they achieve that success or hold the gains that they have?
At the same time, Ukraine is also concentrating on a smaller and smaller space, just like Russia. And if you look at the tactical level, they’ve been able to outperform the brunt of the Russian force. [Although] I think it's going to take months or years before Russia can get worn down to that level.
But again, there's still a lot of fighting to go and Russia has superior numerical forces. So the battle needs to play out, but Ukraine can be successful without a doubt.
RFE/RL: Looking into the summer, where is your attention and what are the things that you're following?
Collins: I think it's really looking at some of the things we’ve already brought up: What is Putin saying? How [are] Russia’s rhetoric and goals changing in regard to the war? That's all a telltale sign and clear indication of how things are going and whether they will continue to be scaled down.
I'd also say not to look at the war on a day-to-day basis. [Of course], you have to follow it on a day-to-day basis, but like with trading stocks or investing, you're in for a longer period of time. You need to look over a course of a week or a multi-week period at the actual successes that Russia is having -- or the lack of successes. So taking a longer kind of view towards it and focusing on [the] success Russia is having in terms of actual combat [and] not in terms of its rhetoric.
[Moscow] can declare a semiautonomous republic or claim to annex parts of Ukraine, [but] that doesn't mean that they've actually made any progress. That's just pure Russian rhetoric at the end of the day. Keep your attention to how things are changing on the ground.