Mercenaries and massive troop call-ups won’t win Putin’s war
18 Jan 2023|

Fresh threats of a major military offensive and the use of mercenaries, many recruited in Russia’s jails, are unlikely to bring victory to Vladimir Putin a year after his invasion of Ukraine, says retired Australian Army major general Mick Ryan.

Ryan tells The Strategist that it’s clear Russia wants to launch a major offensive in Ukraine—but there’s less evidence that it can carry out such a campaign. ‘We need to temper our expectations. Size does not imply quality or capability about the Russians.’

Russia has moved trains full of old tanks into the pro-Moscow nation of Belarus, north of Ukraine, but that doesn’t mean it will invade from there, says Ryan. ‘It’s evidence that the Russians are conducting a deception campaign to draw more Ukrainian forces to the border.’

Putin’s mobilisation of men for his war in Ukraine would give Russia some capacity to undertake offensive operations, he says, ‘but it does not give you the ability to do the complex planning and orchestration and execution of large-scale military offensives. So they will be able to undertake some offensive activities in a couple of locations concurrently, maybe. But I think the expectation that the Russians have now built this big army of mobilised troops is just not reality.’

However, Putin is clearly putting a lot of pressure on his military commanders to launch a major offensive, says Ryan. ‘Putin has no military knowledge, as has been very clear over the last year, and he thinks just because he’s mobilised 150,000 troops, all of a sudden that gives him this massive capability to conduct operations to take the provinces he annexed. Once again, he’s demonstrating the massive disconnect between politics and military capacity in the Russian system.’

Days ago, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, claimed success in Ukraine’s Soledar area and had himself photographed there with some of his troops in a cave some distance from the front. Ukraine insists it has not been defeated at Soledar. ‘We should be very careful about Russian claims,’ Ryan says. ‘They are desperate for some kind of victory.’

Three weeks ago, the Kremlin announced that the chief of Russia’s general staff, General Valery Gerasimov, had been appointed to lead Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine. Gerasimov replaced General Sergey Surovikin, who became commander of the operation only in October.

Decision-making in Russia is ‘pretty murky’, says Ryan, and anyone who says they know the exact reasons behind the latest change probably doesn’t. ‘We can speculate on potential reasons. Personally, Putin remains dissatisfied with the pace of progress in Ukraine, and as he comes up to the first anniversary, he wants to show some kind of decisive victory. Even dictators have domestic audiences they must please to ensure that pretenders to the throne aren’t able to get some breathing space,’ he says.

Putin and his defence minister, Sergei Shoigu, might well be putting the pieces in place to have a good fall guy for all the disasters of the past year, says Ryan. ‘It has to be someone senior who’s also dispensable—and who’s more senior and dispensable than the commander-in-chief of the military?’

And, says Ryan, there’s clearly palace intrigue going on. ‘The Russian military versus Wagner is a significant issue now, not just on the battlefield, but in Moscow. At the battle for Soledar, you’re seeing Prigozhin basically saying, “This was all Wagner Group. We did it ourselves.” That could make him more powerful, but it could also make him more dangerous to Putin, and more vulnerable to Putin striking out as well. So, I think there’s a whole range of reasons here. I think battlefield reasons are less of an issue. It’s more politics in Moscow than anything else.’

After being used in Russia’s overseas operations in Africa, Syria and elsewhere, the Wagner Group has become extraordinarily powerful, says Ryan. It’s influence in Ukraine is growing and Putin has given it the power to go into Russian prisons, recruit inmates and give them pardons. That’s probably about 80% of the group’s main power now. ‘They have a constituency among young bloggers and others in Russia and, to be fair, Surovikin and the Wagner Group got on reasonably well. They are an alternative source of violence for Putin to use in other scenarios, beyond Ukraine.’

The fighters in the Wagner Group are much better equipped than the troops Putin has mobilised in recent months. They are probably at the equipment level of an elite Russian organisation like the airborne forces, Ryan says. That would give them sufficient small arms, tanks, artillery, infantry fighting vehicles and helicopters to be a fairly powerful combined-arms force on the battlefield.

Could the Wagner Group be a match for Ukrainian forces in a way that the Russian forces are not?

Ryan thinks not. ‘The Wagner Group has the same problem that the Russian army has: what’s the motivation for it being in Ukraine? It will never have the same motivation as the Ukrainian army, so there’s certainly an asymmetry there. And the Ukrainian military is becoming better equipped while the Wagner Group and the Russian army are not. I think that asymmetry will play out.’

In addition, says Ryan, the Russians have used up much of the reserves of equipment created over decades of the Soviet system and they have the industrial capacity to replace some, but not all of it. This has become a battle of industrial systems, and if Europe and the US decide to scale up their commitments, there’s no way Russia could compete industrially.

In the weeks after the invasion, the world saw lines of wrecked and rusted Russian armoured vehicles and the Ukrainians seemed to be knocking them out at will. Now Ukraine is pleading for more tanks. What does this say about the use and the future of armour in battle?

Yes, says Ryan, lots of tanks were knocked out. But lots of helicopters were shot down and many soldiers were killed, yet ‘no one’s talking about the end of helicopters or the end of soldiers,’ he points out.

The Ukraine experience provides no evidence that the era of the tank is over, Ryan says. ‘There is evidence that we will need to change how we use them, that’s obvious. But everything on the battlefield is vulnerable if it’s used stupidly.’

He says he would like to see a debate in Canberra on the future of crewed aircraft penetrating enemy airspace. ‘There’s none of that going on, even though there’s more evidence that crewed aircraft are far more vulnerable now than tanks are. You’re not seeing the Russians fly crewed aircraft over Ukraine, because of the very good air- and missile-defence regime it has.

‘If you are looking at tanks, you need to look at a whole range of battlefield systems. I think attack helicopters are very vulnerable and have an uncertain future. I think crewed fighter aircraft are unlikely to penetrate enemy airspace and complex air-defence regimes in the future. I think that’s an important conversation to have.’

Ryan says the role of autonomous systems should not be overemphasised because over the past two decades investment has gone into autonomy and not counter-autonomy.

‘Smart countries will look at this and see they have counter-autonomy systems that are cheaper than the autonomous systems being used against them. Clever nations will come up with counter-autonomy systems that are cost-effective against those who decide to heavily weigh towards autonomous aircraft or maritime systems.’

Ryan says no army on earth is better at all forms of military operations at the moment than the Ukrainians. ‘When they are begging for more tanks, maybe that should be an indicator that they still have a future.’

Overshadowing the conflict from the start has been the possibility that Putin might resort to using tactical nuclear weapons to overcome a level of Ukrainian determination on the battlefield he didn’t expect.

How likely is that now?

Ryan says Russia’s military doctrine contemplates the use of these weapons in defence of Russian territory and some have proposed that the five areas of Ukraine annexed by Russia now fall under that definition. ‘I think that’s a long bow to draw at this point,’ he says. ‘Even Putin has walked back the nuclear sabre-rattling of earlier in 2022. But you can never take your eye off nuclear weapons because they exist, and when people have them you must consider the implications of their use.’

Ryan believes there’s a very low probability of Russia using nuclear weapons at this stage unless there’s a major incursion into Russia, and ‘the Ukrainians are just not going to do that’.

If Putin does opt to cross that nuclear threshold, Russia is likely to use enough bombs to achieve its military aims, given the international sanctions it would suffer, he says. ‘If they were to use them, they would not, as Michael Kofman has said, just use one.’

The international community would be likely to respond with a whole range of mechanisms. ‘Even the Chinese have made it clear they’re not keen on the Russian use of these weapons to break all kinds of international norms, and the last thing we want is for it to establish a new normal in conventional operations.’

It’s likely, says Ryan, that the Americans have war-gamed many different options on whether Russia might use nuclear weapons, and what might follow if it did. Other nations might opt to obtain nuclear weapons. ‘There’d be follow-on impacts that would be surprising in very unpleasant ways.’