Russian troop frustration mounts over slow gains in Ukraine

Tactical, strategic and technical problems seen in kilometre-a-day progress in Donbas offensive

Troops walk past damaged buildings in a Russian-controlled part of Mariupol in Ukraine. AP

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Russia’s mounting military losses are sapping the will of its soldiers to fight as an array of technical and strategic mishaps slow progress in Ukraine to capturing as little as one kilometre of territory a day, western officials have said.

Nine weeks into the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has yet to achieve the sort of military or propaganda triumphs that many believe he hopes for before a military parade in Moscow on May 9.

With that deadline approaching, western officials say the effects of Russia’s already questionable tactics and strategy are compounded by political interference and falling morale in the ranks.

Ukraine claims to have taken out 23,000 Russian personnel and although its allies have not confirmed such heavy losses, they say the rate of attrition remains high despite Russia refocusing its offensive on the Donbas region.

Those casualties may yet worsen as Russia has yet to reach urban centres in the Donbas region. Once in built-up areas, Russian units can expect to sustain heavier losses, based on what has occurred in other towns and cities in Ukraine.

“Those losses on Russian forces, we assess to be having a significant impact on the will to fight of wider Russian forces,” said one western official. “We’re still seeing some progress, but we’re seeing relatively slow progress, in some instances perhaps as little as a kilometre a day.”

The Russian failures that have surprised many military analysts and officials include the use of unsecured communications equipment, poor logistics, weapons problems and heavy equipment losses affecting supplies.

The Pentagon has spoken of overstretched Russian forces struggling to maintain a command and control structure, and using unclassified lines that are vulnerable to interception by Ukrainian forces and radio amateurs.

The humiliating loss of the warship Moskva has also damaged Russia’s naval supply options, although both sides say Ukraine has been hit by cruise missiles launched from submarines in the Black Sea.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is believed to want a military success to boast about by early May. AP

Ukraine is thought to have lost thousands of troops, and the UN says about 2,800 civilians have been killed and 3,200 others injured during the two-month conflict.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said it was too early for Ukraine to let its guard down after missiles flew into Kyiv on Thursday while a UN delegation was visiting, but said Russia was being repelled as it tried to seize the east.

Even one of Russia's relative successes — capturing most of the southern port of Mariupol — is not yet complete because of the troops and civilians holed up in the Azovstal steelworks.

With Russia making slow progress, Mr Putin has resorted to menacing hints about his nuclear arsenal as Ukraine's armed forces continue to receive weapons shipments from the West.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said a batch of new weapons recently offered to Ukraine “threaten the security of the continent”, a point taken with irony by western officials who blame Russia for doing exactly that.

Russian forces have also been known to misidentify targets and are now largely aiming for fixed targets such as railway infrastructure rather than moving ones such as weapons convoys, western officials said.

Ukraine has said that Russia is taking aim at railway junctions to thwart the transport of military aid from European allies.

Officials said there were examples of Russia using “antiquated mapping” dating as far back as the 1970s, when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, bearing little relation to targets that the invading forces could expect to find today.

Part of the problem, western officials say, is that Russian political leaders planned for a war lasting only days on the basis that Ukrainians would want to be liberated from a regime described by the Kremlin as being run by neo-Nazis.

More recently, the drive for what one European diplomat has described as a “trophy” to show the Russian public by May 9 has hung over the military leadership as it tries to take control of the Donbas.

“What that’s done is it’s compromised the Russian military significantly in terms of their execution of their operations, which has then been compounded by some tactical ineptitude over how they’ve been fighting,” the officials said.

Although Russia has learnt from some of its early mistakes, it has not yet fixed all its problems and there have been some “long, introspective moments”, they said, where “people are asking lots of questions over how this has all gone quite so badly wrong".

Updated: April 29, 2022, 4:38 PM