Russia’s army needs 10-15 years for reconstitution and is no longer capable of conducting large-scale attacks, deploying F-16s in Ukraine is stymied by the need to have pristine airfields, and Ukraine’s engineers have startled allies by successfully jury-rigging Western missiles like HARMs onto Soviet-era jets once deemed incompatible.
Nevertheless, full exploitation of advanced arms requires mastering complex skills from piloting to maintenance over a longer timeline. This, as well as the West paying the “price of democracy” for making complex decisions, are the main limiting factors of military support for Ukraine, says Andras Racz, defense and military expert, Senior Research Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.
You argued that long-term defense cooperation between Ukraine and European countries is well-established for the long term. Do you believe this collaboration will endure even in the worst-case scenario of war development?
Absolutely, yes. The Russian army is no longer capable of conducting large-scale attacks. Whichever way the war goes, there is an independent Ukraine, and there will be an independent Ukraine with a large experienced army. And that is why all established defense industrial ties will prevail.
Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi mentioned 150,000 killed Russians. We don’t know whether it’s exactly 150, 145, or 155, but it is a big amount, and they have lost a decisive majority of their modern land weapon systems. 95% of Russia’s losses are suffered either by the land forces or by the VDV.
It would take Russia 10 to 15 years to reconstitute its army, even if the war stops today. That is why the Russian army is not able to conduct large-scale attacks like at the beginning of the war.
Currently, three battalions at most are attacking at the same time. 22 months ago, Russia attacked with nearly 200,000 people in all directions. Last spring, they already shortened the front line to the Donbas. Thereafter, they shortened the front line to Bakhmut. Now even shorter section of the front line when they are attacking Avdiivka.
Being unable to conduct large-scale attacks does not mean Russians can’t put up a good defense. They are still strong in defense. But I don’t think that this Russian army could conquer any big Ukrainian cities. Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv — no chances.
Counteroffensive and challenges
The discourse in Ukraine is shifting, focusing more on the challenges ahead rather than those that have been overcome. What about Ukrainian capabilities, especially given the densely mined front line?
First, about the pessimism. It’s absolutely natural. Ukraine has been in a full-scale war for 22 months. Really few European countries have this experience. If you count the whole war combined from 2014 on, it’s nearly 10 years.
The last time when Europe had a 10-year-long war was 300 years ago, the War of the Spanish Succession. Nobody in Europe had such a long war like you have. Being tired is absolutely normal.
The fact that the counteroffensive failed doesn’t mean that Ukraine lost. Many people think that these things are the same, but they are not. It only means that you couldn’t liberate more territories at the moment. 18% of Ukraine’s territories are still occupied, but it’s not a strategic defeat. It is leading possibly towards a stalemate, but not towards a debate.
When it comes to the actual status of the Ukrainian armed forces, I respect secrecy. I know very, very few details, but I don’t speak about them. The only thing I can say is what has been said publicly.
Russian mines and demining techniques
The Soviet and Russian armies had standards on deploying minefields – how many square meters, how many mines. Russians have exceeded these standards.
Former minister Reznikov mentioned that there are four or five mines per square meter. In some instances, they don’t even bury the mines. Literally, there are millions of them. This is unprecedented.
Western heavy demining vehicles encounter situations where Russians place two, three, or four anti-tank mines stacked below each other. When these mines detonate together, even the sturdiest demining machines get damaged. This is essentially mine warfare.
Deminers on the frontline can only operate during the night to avoid being targeted. They crawl forward and engage in manual demining. In a single shift, one sapper can clear 100 meters, but only in a 60-centimeter-wide path. It’s an intense process and very dangerous, obviously.
Can the demining drones developed by small teams in Ukraine play a role?
Absolutely. Mechanized demining is the way to go forward. Land drones, aerosol-based demining or other technologies. But these things take time.
Once you develop the model – let’s say a land drone – the army has to test it. After approval, mass production must start. Then you need to train crews and deploy it.
EU and NATO strategic interests and cooperation with Ukraine
I heard from a retired Ukrainian general that the West will persist in aiding Ukraine, driven by its interest in the Ukrainian Army, its capabilities, and experience. In your view, what are the specific aspects that pique the West’s interest in the Ukrainian Army?
When joint training in west-Ukrainian Yavoriv training ground started [after 2014 – ed.], many Western soldiers arrived to teach the Ukrainians how to fight. As it turned out there is a lot for Western instructors to learn as well. This cooperation has been mutually beneficial.
Right now, globally, the Ukrainian Army knows how to fight the Russian Army the best.
But let’s start from the strategic level. Ukraine’s security is inseparable from the security of the EU and NATO. If Ukraine falls, or had Ukraine fallen last February, then we would have Russian border guards at the Polish, Slovak, Hungarian, Romanian borders. And we know that the Russians wouldn’t stop.
On a strategic scale, Ukraine is clearly defending the EU and NATO countries. Their vast strategic interest is not only in keeping Ukraine in the fight but helping Ukraine to win.
Since 2016, there is a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU. There is massive economic cooperation and interest. If Russia wins, all this goes up in smoke.
Ukraine is a huge market for European business. It possesses significant innovation, research and development potential, offering ample room for growth. Prior to the full-scale escalation, Ukraine was an integral part of the German automotive supply chains. Cables and components crucial for car production in Slovakia and Hungary were manufactured in Ukraine.
In terms of agricultural goods, Ukraine has been one of the largest exporters of grain, corn, wheat, and various food products to the world market. Had Ukraine fallen, a void in the world market would have emerged, leading to famine, migration, and numerous problems.
It is no coincidence that the West is helping so much to operate the grain corridor. This corridor, which now extends beyond the Danube and includes Odesa ports, is made possible because Ukraine successfully countered the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Ukraine regained control of the so-called Boiko Towers, which are water and sea gas draining facilities near Zmiinyi (Snake) Island. These facilities were captured by the Russians in 2014. They installed numerous sensors there. With these sensors, they had surveillance over the entire western basin of the Black Sea.
However, during the summer of 2023, a special operation conducted by Ukraine liberated the Boiko Towers and removed the sensors. Russia found itself practically blind in this area, allowing cargo ships to navigate freely. The Black Sea Fleet is no longer present in the western Black Sea.
Russia could attempt certain actions, when cargo ships are in transit, but American drones are typically monitoring the situation. These drones aren’t armed but are equipped with sensors.
If a Russian ship attempts to approach, the American drone relays information to Ukrainian coastal defense, triggering the launch of Neptune missiles. It’s a successful cooperation in information sharing.
That’s why the Russian Black Sea Fleet is unable to hinder the grain export corridor. Instead, they try to destroy port infrastructure, which has unfortunately seen some success.
Technical aspects of delivering F-16s and other sophisticated weapons
You mentioned Western interest in supporting Ukraine for border safety. But why is Western aid to Ukraine so slow? Many in Ukraine just don’t understand why this support is, as Neil Ferguson called it, being drip-fed?
Drip-feeding means that you only give small drops and the amount doesn’t grow. In fact, the amount grows really fast both in terms of diversity and financial resources.
A year ago, the debate was still going on about tanks. Fighter jets were not even in the making. Everybody was afraid of what would happen if the grain corridor collapses. Ukraine had no weapons of longer range than HIMARS.
Where are we now? Training on the F-16 is already going on. Storm Shadow is here, SCALP is here. Taurus will hopefully come soon, with a 500 km range, in a few months. You already have the ATACMs, still the short version, but Ukraine could give fairly inconvenient moments for the Russian helicopters in Berdiansk. That was an ugly surprise for them. The EU is already discussing a EUR50 billion of financial support for the next four years. This is not drip feeding.
- The first problem is bureaucratic and political inertia. In democratic countries it takes a lot of time to make a joint decision. And Ukraine knows a lot about political debates, this is not Russia, you always have debates. If we decide to invest EUR50 billion for Ukraine, we either have to take that 50 billion from somewhere, or we have to increase our own budget, to which every member state has to agree.
- Second, when it comes to logistics, the more modern weapon systems, the more complicated logistics become. Giving the Javelins was very easy, because Ukraine had Javelins already since 2016. The Trump administration provided Ukraine with a small number of them. Ukrainian soldiers were trained to train other Ukrainian soldiers. In February 2022, handing over these weapons was simple, and people could use them almost immediately.
The same goes for the NLAW, the British-made light anti-tank weapon: if you are trained on one man-portable anti-tank weapon, you can learn to use a new one in two weeks. If you’re a sniper, you can learn another sniper rifle in a very short time.
When it comes to artillery, it’s already more complicated. You have to deploy the maintenance, the fuel, the lubricants, and the spare parts. You have to retrain Ukrainian artillery from Soviet weapons to Western weapons. Tanks are even more complicated – much heavier, much more complex logistics. When you give a Javelin, you need one soldier, one Javelin. For deploying artillery, not only the artillerist should be trained but also maintenance guys. And you have to organize the constant supply of shells.
When it comes to F-16s, the process becomes more complicated. Not only do the pilots have to learn to fly the aircraft and the maintenance crews have to learn to service them: airfields have to be modernized.
Soviet-made aircraft like the MiG-29 are designed to tolerate primitive airfields with potential debris and can operate even with some dirt or stones ingested into their engines. The F-16 has a more sensitive engine that requires clean, prepared airfield surfaces to prevent any foreign objects from being sucked in and causing damage. Western military thinking has traditionally emphasized air power more, not considering that aircraft may need to take off from improvised airfields.
That is why you must modernize the airfield for the F-16s; literally, nothing can be on the ground. There are separate units dealing with keeping the airfield clean. Because if the jet engine takes in a single stone, you’re done. Not only do you have to modernize your airfield, you must keep those airfields protected. Russians would be happy to strike the modernized airfields.
Finally, in order to start learning to fly the F-16, pilots had to learn English – not the type of English you use in the shop, the type of English you’re able to understand in a combat situation on the radio.
The interesting aspect is that within every training program, particularly concerning anti-tank missiles, artillery, and tanks, the recurring theme from open-source information indicates that Ukrainian soldiers grasp the material at a much quicker pace than what the training program originally anticipated. For example, when you have a training program for eight weeks, Ukrainians have been able to learn it in five weeks. But still, you need to learn the five weeks. And that’s still the basics.
With more complex weapon systems, if you operate it improperly, it breaks down. To be honest, many Western weapons were operated improperly in the beginning; it was inevitable. When you’re fighting to protect Kyiv, you don’t count shots made to fight the tank. The problem is that these kinds of mistakes can be very well used for disinformation purposes to shape public opinion.
At the same time, so many things were done by Ukraine that nobody expected. Nobody ever thought that it was possible to integrate the AGM-88 HARM anti-radar missile into Soviet aircraft. Ukrainian engineers did it, and it’s indeed operational. This was an unpleasant surprise for the Russians.
I think all politicians have a lot of responsibility in explaining to the public that we are slow with the F-16s not because we want Ukraine to bleed. F-16s are slow to deliver because they are really complex systems.
Policy of the West towards Russia
A widespread argument in Ukraine is that the West doesn’t have a strategic policy towards Russia. Do you think it’s a problem as well?
Politics is also there. We would be very happy to be one collective West, but we aren’t. And there is a lot of inertia.
Look at Finland and Sweden. The two countries have been neutral for several decades. Decades of neutrality changed instantly after the feeling of being directly threatened. For other countries that don’t have a direct neighborhood with Russia, let’s say, like Portugal, Spain, or Italy, the priorities are different.
When the European peace facility was designed more than two years ago, nobody ever expected that we were going to buy ammunition and send it to Ukraine via something called “peace facility.”
Yet, we are doing it. It’s just slow. But being slow is the price you pay for democracy.
Russia’s nuclear blackmail failed
Of course, there are scenarios planned and exercised for extreme cases. Let’s say nuclear escalation. There are very definite plans. But these are the things that will hopefully never be activated. As long as the war remains in its current intensity, and this is the most likely scenario, the probability of a nuclear escalation is very low, not zero, but very low, and much lower than at the beginning.
Because of Russia’s capabilities or because of the price Russia would pay?
And not only from the West.
China and India as well. Last autumn, details are not known, but both the Chinese and the Indian leadership explicitly told the Russians that any kind of nuclear escalation or man-made nuclear disaster (Zaporizhzhia NPP) would be unacceptable. And the US promised the Russians, again details are not known, a conventional but extremely destructive reply, meaning strikes with high precision weapons against key Russian military assets.
This is not something Russia would risk. From Moscow’s perspective, a single tactical nuclear weapon wouldn’t even change the situation because the front line is too spread. Risking US military strikes, Western sanctions, Indian sanctions, and Chinese sanctions for Avdiivka?
Russians are very good at information deterrence. Medvedev speaks about nuclear strikes all the time. But if you look at the key players, the people who really matter – Putin, Patrushev, Shoigu, Gerasimov – they don’t speak about nuclear escalation.
Concerning Western deterrence, the Russians may be stronger in tactical nuclear weapons, but escalation is not feasible with tactical weapons alone: it requires a strategic approach. The West significantly outmatches Russia in air force and naval power. The only domain where Russia in Europe was previously stronger — land forces — diminished due to losses in Ukraine.
In the Baltic states, there were concerns about a potential Russian attack. Back then, NATO wouldn’t have been able to protect the Baltic states swiftly enough because Russians would have been too quick to occupy these countries, even at the cost of heavy losses.
The discussion within NATO had been not how to defend the Baltic states (it had been impossible) but how to liberate the Baltic states after the Russian occupation.
While it’s still an issue, the strength of the Russian Western military district has declined. The Russian army is no longer capable of launching a successful land attack against NATO.
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