The Russian war in Ukraine has been going on for ten months, and the beginning of 2023 is a landmark point to describe its further contours. NV askedthe popular Azerbaijani military analyst Agil Rustamzade, who has been closely following the development of hostilities in Ukraine since February, to predict how the war might go in the coming months.
"It is impossible to win a war where not the army is fighting against you, but the whole people, and in Ukraine the whole Ukrainian people are fighting" Rustamzade says at the beginning of the interview, and then makes predictions about what Ukrainians should expect at the front line in January and February and for the first time names dates when the war may end.
- How can you generally describe the state of the Russian and Ukrainian armies after ten months of war?
- For the second time, this war is approaching a situation where the armies have a certain balance. When both armies are unable to conduct large-scale offensive actions. This can be explained by the weather conditions – this winter has been warm, the ground in the east of Ukraine is now sodden, and this is the main epicenter where the fighting is taking place. In addition, the Russian army is losing its advantage in artillery, and the entire power of the Russian army is based on the widespread use of artillery. This is the backbone of its firepower, and it is losing this advantage. And if earlier the Ukrainian army had a qualitative advantage in firepower, we are gradually coming to the fact that the Ukrainian army will soon have a quantitative advantage. Now there is a balance, but there is one "but": if the Ukrainian army has the ability to accumulate resources – combat-ready units, provided with ammunition and weapons for offensive operations – and Russia does not have such an opportunity.
Now the Ukrainian army with three to five brigades is ready to carry out tactical offensive operations within one to two weeks, but this is not enough. I believe that one of the reasons why Zelenskyy came to the United States was because you need a lot of weapons for a large-scale offensive in the south of the country. You need resources for at least ten Ukrainian brigades to be able to fight for a month or two, and these are ammunition depots, fuel depots, and all of this needs to be brought to Ukraine. The process is underway, but whether you have reached the level when you can afford to start these hostilities – I do not have enough facts to talk about it.
As for the Russian army, it has a reserve of 100,000 people, which they do not use yet, but they have no artillery, they have no military equipment. There are no MLRS to give regular armed units all the necessary support. So there is a balance on the battlefield, but Ukraine's ability to launch an offensive operation is higher than that of the Russian Federation.
- Now suddenly the word "negotiations" is in vogue again – it was mentioned by the U.S. president the other day. At the same time, it is clear that each side of the war desperately needs a major breakthrough to strengthen its positions. To what extent is the Ukrainian army able to make this breakthrough in the next two months?
- With the arrival of weapons, the Ukrainian army will be able to conduct large-scale offensive operations. As for the negotiations, I think you had a website called Mirotvorets, so it is high time to create its analogue for the network of "canned individuals" who still believe that negotiations with Russia are possible.
Yes, the word "negotiations" is also heard from U.S. President Biden, but we must understand that all three elements are at war in Ukraine: military, political and economic. Biden is very skillfully managing the political component – he knows what to say and how to say it, and it would not be quite correct for me, as a military analyst, to get into the jungle of politics. It is one thing when the political component works, another thing is when the very "tin" that wants "peace talks" is opened. Ukraine does not need any negotiations now, it needs weapons.
- Are large-scale breakthroughs by the Russian army possible during this period? We know from the interview of General (Valerii) Zaluzhnyi that there is a possibility of re-invasion of Russian troops from Belarus.
- The business of the military is to always prepare for bad scenarios, even if they have a low probability. Russia's ability to increase its power, to equip the army of 100,000-150,000 with weapons and all the necessary attributes is severely limited. They are also limited by the economic pressure of sanctions, because of which the Russian economy is sinking. We see a picture when the military-industrial complex cannot replenish the losses that Russia has already suffered in the war. We see the decline of the financial and economic capabilities of the Russian Federation as a country to wage this war. This is a big conventional war – it can lead to the collapse of even such a large economy as the United States, let alone Russia. And over the past fortnight, we have seen how clearly and confidently the Russian economy began to sink. All this leads to the fact that every day and every week Russia's ability to conduct hostilities is decreasing. Especially to conduct offensive actions with a large number of troops.
- However, Russia declares that it is launching a reform of the military sector, plans to introduce two new divisions of airborne troops, create motorized infantry troops, and further engage the military-industrial complex, which is relatively small in Russia. Where are the lies in these promises and where are the real opportunities?
- UK intelligence has already stated that it does not know where all this will come from in Russia. I will expand on the British intelligence: if Russia has not received some kind of tool that allows it to create 10,000 tanks, 20,000 pieces of artillery at the drop of a hat in a short period of time, then everything that was said there is a fake. It reminds me of the news coverage of the war, when Armenia was losing the 44-day war, they started talking such nonsense that it got ridiculous.
The reasons for Russia's defeat in this war are caused by the inept planning of the operation. Without the mobilization of the economy, it is impossible to conduct a large conventional war. Because the plant that manufactures shells produces them for peacetime, and for war, they will need ten times more. And if the plant needs to increase production tenfold, then it needs all adjacent industries to increase their production tenfold. Mobilization of the economy takes years, and Russia decided not to carry it out at all, so it faced the consequences. And it is impossible for it to accelerate the military-industrial complex now, as there is no machine tool industry in the country.
- Am I right in thinking that the fresh group that Russia can engage today stands at a maximum of 150,000?
- 150,000-170,000 are now involved in the Ukrainian territory. An additional 100,000 are currently undergoing training at various training grounds. By the way, Russia is now looking for ways to use these people armed with not quite the latest equipment, who have problems with the command staff, officers, who have problems with combat cohesion. That is, these are not full-fledged military units. What to do with this is not yet clear. It is evident that they can use this force in the east – in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Or – although this is a low probability and irrational scenario – that these 100,000 will be sent to Belarus in parallel with the involvement of the Belarusian army in the offensive on Kyiv Oblast.
- Assuming that Russia does try to repeat a large-scale invasion of Kyiv from Belarus, how much do the risks in this sector of the front increase?
- The Ukrainian army can now conduct defensive and offensive operations. The Russian army is not the same one that entered Ukraine on Feb. 24. Indeed, such an invasion will create tension for the Ukrainian army, and will require the use of forces and resources of its combat units, but I do not think that it will be critical for the Ukrainian army, because those 100,000 reservists, as I said, are units with reduced combat capabilities.
- And yet, what surprises can be expected from the Belarusian axis, judging by the equipment that is being transferred to Belarus?
- So far, there is no critical accumulation of troops that could pose a threat of invasion. And it will not be possible to move as fast as the Russian army did in the first days of a large-scale war as bridges have been blown up, and the area is mined. Therefore, such dynamics, when Russian troops were near Kyiv in a day, are no longer on the cards. They will not march in parade formation, and the terrain is not conducive to offensive operations. Therefore, even if they do manage to assemble an adequate grouping on the Belarusian axis, it will be very difficult for them to advance. Those units that are on the territory of Belarus mainly use the military infrastructure of Belarus for training. At the moment, I do not believe that there is a threat to Ukraine from there.
- Another fear that circulates in Ukrainian society is that Belarus will try to move to the west of Ukraine to break the chain of supply of Western weapons to the country. Is this possible?
- Here the terrain helps the Ukrainian army a lot. Volyn is a forested area with swamps. How do you imagine an offensive of a large number of troops from there? If the Russians had such a plan, they could have already complicated logistics through this area with small sabotage groups. But we do not observe this. So the Ukrainian army has strengthened its anti-sabotage defense, so I think this scenario is also unlikely.
- The battles near Bakhmut continue, they are heavy. How do you see the prospects of these battles?
- Last week we saw the apogee of the fight for Bakhmut. The maximum that Russian forces could do was to penetrate the outskirts of the city. After that, they were mopped up, and there is no longer sufficient manpower and ammunition that could increase the tension of the offensive capabilities of PMC Wagner on this axis.
What happened near Bakhmut will most likely go down in history books, and I think that this will not happen again in the 21st century. This is a massacre. This happened only during the First World War, but to fight like this now is absurd and cruel in its irrationality. The fighting will still go on, but there will be no such strong pressure as there has been in the last two weeks, and Ukraine has moved reserves there, so we can assume that by inertia these battles will continue for some time.
- You say that on the southern axis Ukraine needs a huge amount of ammunition to conduct counter-offensive operations. The latest international aid package includes a lot of Soviet-type ammunition. Is it enough?
- It is still not enough – about five such packages are needed. The army has to fight for two months, and the package will be enough for a week, for example. Lack of ammunition is the only thing holding back your army. Precisely speaking, there is ammunition, but not enough of it.
- Is it realistic to find this amount of ammunition in the near future? We know that this war has claimed almost all Soviet-type ammunition around the world by both warring groups.
- Soviet and Russian weapons were indeed purchased by both sides. Through American and British intelligence, there was a flow to Ukraine, and Russia, through its own channels, bought the same systems from all over the world. At the same time, few states agreed to sell them to Russia. People from different sides of the war often met in the same offices.
At the same time, Ukraine has more chances to provide, because the production of NATO caliber is increasing both in the United States and in Europe — ammunition has been delivered even from Hong Kong. For Russia, there is no such possibility even in the future. Therefore, it is quite difficult to pinpoint the moment of the beginning of the counter-offensive of the Ukrainian army in the south.
- Should Ukraine expect that Iran will supply ballistic missiles to Russia?
- There is such a possibility. But due to the fact that Iran itself is in a state of internal crisis, this is problematic. This Iranian crisis, in turn, will soon lead to a civil war, because this state is not able to overcome such a crisis. There is a distinct gap between the worldview of people and the government. At the same time, Iran is also at war with Israel and the UAE, it will need these missiles itself. Even if Iran transfers these missiles, there will not be many of them. But whether it will or not is hard to say. Russia can offer such "goodies" to Iran that Iran will not refuse. The transfer of nuclear technology is very important for Iran, and Russia can do it.
The question of the number of these missiles, if they are transferred, is also critical. Unlike Iskanders, these are quite precise missiles, they have a large warhead, and these missiles can damage many energy nodes. But over the past few months, you have greatly reduced the dependence on your energy infrastructure. So if these missiles are used against cities, it will be difficult, but not critical. The tactic of terrorizing cities has not worked anywhere – and it will not work in Ukraine. This doctrine of Italian General Douhet was recognized as erroneous in the 20th century – because the more civilians died, the angrier the soldiers became on the battlefield.
As for the utilization of these missiles on the battlefield, they are of little use. Due to Russia's superiority in long-range weapons, since the beginning of the war, Ukraine has not concentrated any significant batteries of weapons or large ammunition depots anywhere, so their purpose is questionable.
- General Zaluzhnyi says that Ukraine does not need mass mobilization today, is it really so?
- Of course, look at how the Russians manage their human resources, and how you manage them. Your General Staff says that 100,000 Russians have already died. Okay, let's take the most conservative option, that only 50,000 were killed, so the sanitary losses are somewhere around 150,000. And of these 150,000 people, at least 30,000 are seriously wounded, and will not return to service. You have not disposed of people like that – you have not thrown them against machine guns. You have no such losses, so there is no need for mobilization.
- Let's talk about Crimea. It will be easier for Ukraine to de-occupy Crimea than Donbas because of the particularity of the location of the peninsula and the fact that the Crimean bridge is not able to function at full capacity. What factors should be in place for Ukraine to start operations to liberate Crimea?
- I think I told you that it is necessary to enter Crimea carefully, otherwise you can get a tactical nuclear strike. I said that three or four months ago. Due to the fact that this war is stretching in time, the Russian leadership is getting used to failures, and the population of the country is getting used to defeats. Russia is now receiving strong blows in the economic plane: a drop in oil revenues, a drop in profits from all exports. The country is plunging into problems, and I hope that by spring, all the problems that will accumulate in the Russian Federation will allow Ukraine to enter Crimea without fear of tactical nuclear weapons being used. This strategy of slowly accustoming the enemy to defeat was right and proved to be correct.
- How do you assess the military effect of President Zelenskyy's visit to the United States?
- This visit was important in several ways. First, it was symbolic and it was compared to Winston Churchill's visit. This visit had a very strong media value for both Republicans and Democrats and for Biden's rating. I think the agreements that were concluded there will help Ukraine to gain a complete military and political victory over Russia. We cannot know the full significance of this visit. We will understand the full scale of this visit after the war. Then we will see all the decisions and all the agreements that have been concluded.
- In your opinion, will we still get ATACMS?
- Everything should be seen through the strategy of slow gradual accustoming of the enemy to defeats. I think the people with whom Ukraine is negotiating are quite pragmatic and rational. Most likely, at the right time, they will give ATACMS. Political, economic, and social circumstances should coincide for this. Russia is still a nuclear power – we must remember this.
- When can the war end? Are we facing an "endless war" today or does it have an end?
- The scenario of endless war would be possible if you fought only with military instruments. You could have had a war without end, if you had reached some frontiers, troops would have been restored on both sides, and everything that you have had since 2014 would have started: periodic shelling, escalations alternating with calm. But due to the fact that this war is waged not only by military means, but also by economic sanctions, and political decisions, all this is used for the collapse of the Russian Federation. The end of this war will come. At the latest, in the fall of 2023, the Russian Federation will lose any opportunities for military resistance.
- Russia, as a serious player in most hot and frozen conflicts in the post-Soviet space, is withdrawing from them, focusing on Ukraine. Does this mean that the absence of such an influential player will again exacerbate conflicts everywhere from Georgia to Kyrgyzstan?
- Russia has not left the regions of influence, it is still hanging on, although its influence is weakening. Even in Transnistria it is still there, albeit with a very small contingent. However, it will go. Indeed, all post-Soviet conflicts are tied to the Russian Federation, and with its weakening, it will lose first its tentacles and then its entire body. With each success of the Ukrainian army, Russia's capabilities will be less and less. Somewhere, as it seems to me, for example, in Transnistria, Russia's withdrawal from the conflicts will stop the conflict itself. In other places it will rather intensify – it will be difficult for Georgia, it will be difficult for Central Asia, it will be difficult for us, in Azerbaijan. We already see how Russia is trying to tear Karabakh away from Azerbaijan and even from Armenia by hybrid methods, using it as a lever of pressure on our countries, but it is weakening.
Big wars like this, the departure of such a big player as Russia from the scene, of course, changes the geopolitical realities of our continent. The world will be stormy for another five to seven years after the end of the war until a new security system is established.
Read the original article on The New Voice of Ukraine