Frustrated Russian war reporter: Why can't we push these Ukrainians back?

There’s no schadenfreude quite like “Russia’s fascist war is going sideways” schadenfreude.

Meet Alexander Sladkov, nominally a “war correspondent” but actually a nationalist propagandist whose job it is to reassure viewers that the glorious Russian army continues to achieve the Kremlin’s goals. Things need to be going very, very badly for this guy to sound a discouraging note.

Sounds like they’re going very, very badly. I can’t find a subtitled version of his video spiel here, which made headlines as far away as the UK, but there’s a translation below the clip.

He’s right about a battle between equally sized forces being suicidal for an occupying force. I remember reading military experts saying at the start of the war that an invader should aim for a three-to-one advantage in manpower to offset the advantages the natives will have in morale and familiarity with their land. Instead Russia went in with a force of 200,000 or so, comparable to the Ukrainians. In the past two months, it’s believed that around a tenth of that force has been killed and some larger number has been wounded.

That’s one big reason why they’re struggling to advance in the Donbas and actually in retreat around Kharkiv. How can they sustain an advance against an army of equal or greater size that’s now operating quality NATO weapons?

Another key reason why they’re floundering is their shockingly poor performance in the skies over Ukraine. That deficiency has been flagged by experts since day one, when Russia was supposed to quickly achieve air superiority over Ukraine, but after two and a half months they still haven’t achieved it. The Russian way of war has always preferred artillery, tanks, and infantry, write Phillips O’Brien and Edward Stringer today, a preference they got away with in Soviet days thanks to the sheer size and firepower of the Red Army. Against an equally matched force like the Ukrainians, however, weak air power is a significant flaw.

Unfortunately for the Russians, the recent modernization of the Russian air force, although intended to enable it to conduct modern combined operations, was mostly for show. The Russians wasted money and effort on corruption and inefficiency. Though much was made of the flashy new equipment, such as the much-hyped SU-34 strike aircraft, the Russian air force continues to suffer from flawed logistics operations and the lack of regular, realistic training. Above all, the autocratic Russian kleptocracy does not trust low-ranking and middle-ranking officers, and so cannot allow the imaginative, flexible decision making that NATO air forces rely upon.

All this meant that when the invasion started, the Russian air force was incapable of running a well-thought-out, complex campaign. Instead of working to control the skies, Russia’s air force has mostly provided air support to ground troops or bombed Ukrainian cities. In this it has followed the traditional tactics of a continental power that privileges land forces. Focusing on ground troops can work if you have almost endless numbers of soldiers and are prepared to lose them. But so wedded is Russia to its history of successes on the ground that it fails to understand the importance of airpower.

The rigidity of the Russian command structure is also a liability. As with infantry, Russian pilots are given their orders from on high and carry them out with no room for improvisation if circumstances on the ground warrant a change of plans. But part of the reason the Russian air force looks bad is because Ukrainian countermeasures have been surprisingly good, and not just because they’re getting tech from NATO. One retired U.S. general told O’Brien and Stringer that the U.S. Air Force should learn from some of Ukraine’s creative defensive operations, like using a drone as a decoy against the Moskva before attacking the ship with missiles. Ukraine’s devastating use of drones against Russian tanks has left some western militaries wondering to what extent modern armor is obsolete.

Lack of manpower, high attrition, and poor air support adds up to bad morale. Yesterday a Pentagon official told reporters he’d seen anecdotal reports of some Russian soldiers refusing to obey orders. Audio purporting to be of intercepted phone calls involving Russian troops points towards weakening morale as well:

“Where is air support? Where is air support?” a man, identified as a Russian crew member, can be heard saying frantically amid what sounds like sirens in the background.

“This Bayraktar is already pissing me the f*** off,” the man says, before apparently becoming more desperate as he says “they have fired a fourth missile at us! A fourth missile!”

Despite the man’s pleas, the Russian service member on the other end simply promises to “pass along” the information to military leadership. It was not immediately clear if the man in the recording was on any of the three boats that Ukrainian authorities say they sank.

Unthinkably, even Sladkov has begun to consider the possibility of defeat in Ukraine. Although he’s vowing to make the enemy pay if it comes to that:

“We’ll nuke Ukraine out of spite after we lose” seems a long way away from Russia’s early optimism about the war. But the through-line between then and now is the belief that Ukraine can’t be allowed to exist as a sovereign nation. Either it gets swallowed up by Russia or it ends up a cinder more radioactive than even its most famous nuclear plant.

We’ll see. Let’s enjoy the schadenfreude while we can.