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This is an audio transcript of the Rachman Review podcast episode: Who’s winning the war in Ukraine?

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Gideon Rachman
Hello and welcome to the Rachman Review. I’m Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator of the Financial Times. This week’s edition is about the war in Ukraine six months after the Russian invasion. My guest is Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at St Andrews University. At the beginning of the war, when most analysts expected Russia to win easily, Professor O’Brien was one of the first analysts to cast doubt on the capabilities of the Russian military. So, six months in, is the war now at a stalemate or might Russia actually lose?

One of the most dramatic recent developments in the conflict has been a series of Ukrainian attacks behind Russian lines, including a destructive raid on a Russian base in occupied Crimea, witnessed by startled tourists on a nearby beach.

News clip
[People speaking in a foreign language. Sounds of explosions]

Gideon Rachman
Last weekend, violence hit the suburbs of Moscow when a car bomb killed Daria Dugina, a nationalist journalist and the daughter of Alexander Dugin, a well-known far-right thinker.

News clip
Dugin was saved by a last-minute vehicle change as he left a cultural event. His daughter, Daria Dugina, took his place and the bomb that was probably meant for him.

Gideon Rachman
Russia was swift to blame Ukraine for the killing, something the Ukrainians have vehemently denied. At the same time, there are questions over whether Ukraine has the manpower and the equipment to stage a long-promised counter-offensive against Russia. The Biden administration has had to fend off criticism that it’s being too cautious in supplying weapons to Ukraine. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, explained the administration’s thinking in an appearance at the Aspen Security Forum in July.

Jake Sullivan
We have moved billions of dollars of equipment in . . . at what by any kind of reasonable historical analysis would say is lightning speed, and we will continue to do so. There are certain capabilities the president has said he’s not prepared to provide. One of them is long-range missiles — ATACMS that have a range of 300km — because he does believe that while a key goal of the United States is to do the needful to support and defend Ukraine, another key goal is to ensure that we do not end up in a circumstance where we’re heading down the road towards a third world war.

Gideon Rachman
To understand how the war’s likely to develop, I consulted Phillips O’Brien. I started by asking him for his assessment of the current state of the conflict.

Phillips O’Brien
I mean, we’re in this phase where the front line isn’t moving a great deal, but I think we have to stop looking at the front line and seeing that as an indicator of exactly what the war is. In fact, the front line hasn’t moved that much since April. I mean, the Russians made some small incremental advances in the Donbas. The Ukrainians regained a little territory in Kherson but when you look at it within the context of modern war, the change in the front line for four months of pretty hard fighting is minimal. The big change, and I think what has happened in the war, is that there is a trend line that’s been going on since the first day and continues to now. And the trend line is that Ukraine is getting better systems. So the Ukrainian army is better armed, better trained and with more capability than it had on February 24th. The Russian army is less well-armed. It’s losing a lot of its best equipment. It’s losing its best soldiers. It doesn’t seem to be training the new ones as well. So the war has been shifting through those trend lines more in Ukraine’s favour. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy for Ukraine to knock Russia back. It does mean, however, the Russian ability to go forward does seem to be winding down, and Ukraine now has the ability to do some quite serious attacks behind Russian lines on Russian logistics, command and control. And we’re going to see if they can set up the conditions for a Ukrainian advance.

Gideon Rachman
Yeah, I mean, that does seem to be the kind of latest striking development is these attacks that Ukraine has carried out, particularly in Crimea on Russian military bases a long way behind the lines. What do you make of that?

Phillips O’Brien
People talk about systems like Himars. And that’s often, I think, why a lot of the pre-war analysis was wrong because we looked at weapons. You have to look at what it is. What Ukraine now has is a range and accuracy advantage. It can hit things far more accurately than the Russians, farther behind Russian lines than the Russians have the ability to do that to Ukraine. The Crimea is the greatest example of this in terms of distance. I mean, they really are able to hit a long way behind Russian lines and from what we can tell, hit very accurately. And that’s one of the reasons there’s this debate about what they use, because it was extraordinarily accurate, some of the hits. And what that has meant is that Ukraine has flexibility in what they attack. And what they’ve decided to do is instead of attacking the Russians directly, banging their head against the Russian front line, they’re going to try and weaken it before they do anything. So it’s really a case of depriving it of reinforcements, depriving it of supplies. And now in some ways, we see signs that they’re trying to attack Russian troop concentrations to damage the fighting spirit of the Russian army.

Gideon Rachman
Meanwhile, this week, we’ve had this extraordinary bombing near Moscow, the killing of Alexander Dugin’s daughter. The Russians have blamed this on the Ukrainian secret services. Now people are talking about the Russians then using this as an excuse to further escalate the war. What kind of thing might they be thinking of doing or capable of doing?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, this is an odd thing. I mean, because Putin’s had plenty of excuses to escalate if he wants and he’s had plenty of excuses to mobilise if he wants. I mean, the Ukrainians have attacked Crimea. That was actually originally a red line for Russia. You know, Crimea is Russia in their mind. They’ve attacked Belgorod. They’ve attacked over the Russian border. So the Ukrainians have done things that had Putin been looking for an excuse to mobilise, they’re far more powerful than the attack on Dugin’s daughter, who was not a huge, influential figure in Russia. So I think we have to be careful to say, “Ah yeah, this is now a false flag for Russia to escalate”. They could have escalated at any time and they haven’t wanted to. And I think it’s more interesting as to why they don’t escalate, why Putin doesn’t escalate? I think it’s down to two things. One, he doesn’t actually believe his population is willing to fight for this war if forced to. There’s been a huge reluctance to go for conscription mobilisation, which you would normally do if you say you are in an existential fight for your life. I mean, there’s a real weird disconnect between Russian rhetoric and the reality. Russian rhetoric is everyone’s out to get us. The world is going to crush Russia. Nato is trying to destroy us. The United States, Britain, Ukraine are all part of this alliance to destroy Russia. But then they won’t mobilise and they won’t put their population under arms. And I think that reveals a great deal about the worries that actually they have about mobilising. So I think they might use it to increase their domestic control. Putin is trying to stamp out enemies and this is an old Stalinist trick, an old Bolshevik trick. They would take advantage of something to crush your political opponents, even if they had nothing to do with it. But until they actually mobilise and start drafting the young men of St Petersburg and Moscow and the Russian cities to go fight against their will, in many ways, I think this is more hot air than anything else.

Gideon Rachman
So to put it the other way, if you’re sceptical that they will actually mobilise for the reasons you set out, how much trouble are they in? I mean, the picture you paint is of a Russian army that has, you know, incapable of going forward, that has taken enormous casualties and that is now facing Ukraine, that’s using more sophisticated tactics and weapons. Can Russia keep it up?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, they can’t go forward anymore. I mean, Russia is running into its own problems now that it’s running short of soldiers themselves. I mean, the Russian army isn’t that large for trying to hold a really large and unwieldy piece of territory. You know, what they’ve taken from Ukraine is this sort of crescent moon shape, which has an enormously long front line and is very difficult to hold. And they went into the war with, what, 200,000 combat soldiers? Even by desperately scouring the country for soldiers here and there and raising mercenaries, they have to have a considerably smaller army now than the army they went in with.

Gideon Rachman
What is your estimates of Russian casualties?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, the Pentagon said a week or two ago between 70 and 80,000, and that was killed and wounded. And that, by the way, the spokesperson said could be more or could be less. The Pentagon when it comes to Russian casualties is probably, on the whole, being conservative. They haven’t been endorsing the Ukrainian figures, which are now at 45,000 dead. If you added twice that wounded would be over 100,000. But I think we can say that, you know, the Pentagon figures would be on the more cautious estimate end.

Gideon Rachman
That’s extraordinary. So essentially, if the Pentagon are right, they’ve lost almost half the fighting force they had at the beginning of the war.

Phillips O’Brien
Oh, yeah! And often their best troops, too. I mean, a lot of the Russian losses have come in their paratroop formations, their elite formations, the ones that have been fighting longest. This is a bloodbath for Russia. And if you do lose 70 or 80,000, you also have a lot more that are combat ineffective. You know, even if you haven’t been shot, if you’re in the Russian army and you’ve experienced this kind of combat for months, your combat effectiveness will be degraded. And I think that we see that now in a real reluctance to go ahead. The Russians-only advances in the last few weeks or months really have been where they’ve been able to just blast the area in front of them with artillery and clear the Ukrainians out and move in to that area. If they can’t blast an area free in front of them with artillery they really don’t seem to have the ability to advance. And a lot of that, you would assume, would be soldier reluctance. They’re just a bit worn out and they’re not going to expose themselves to any kind of real firefight if they can help it.

Gideon Rachman
So to come back to the question before I interrupted, do you have a sense of how long they can keep this going? I mean, if they’ve lost half their force, as you say, some of the most elite troops, they’re reluctant to conscript.

Phillips O’Brien
They can keep going now, perhaps because they’re gonna stay on the defensive more and more. I think we can assume Russian offensive advances are over, except in a pretty small area. Being on the defensive is a little more manpower-efficient. But the problem they’re going to have is that they are trying to fight this war by generating troops without mobilisation. They’re paying big bonuses. They’re paying money. That might keep them going for another six months, maybe into next spring, summer? But you can’t see them getting through, say, another summer campaign. A really difficult, bloody summer campaign based on generating these troops from here and there, and basically forcing people to fight for them, that’s not gonna work. So they might get through the winter and into the spring, but it’s hard to see a major summer campaign based on the troop strength they have now.

Gideon Rachman
But what about the other side, the Ukrainians? I mean, they were openly saying they were losing a couple of hundred people a day at the height of the fighting in the Donbas. They’re a smaller country. Some of their most productive land and industrial land is occupied or destroyed. How much longer can they keep going?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, they actually probably have more soldiers under arms now than the Russians. They went into it with, I think, was it 80 to 90,000 in the regular army, but they had 400,000 reserves. And Ukraine has mobilised. The Ukrainians have conscription. If you’re a young person in Ukraine, you’re probably in the armed forces unless you are in some kind of position which allows you not to go. So in terms of numbers of soldiers, Ukraine probably has more fighting in Ukraine than the Russians have. And by the way, we did get the first Ukrainian admission of casualties for a while and they said about 9,000 killed, which again would be, wounded, twice that. Somewhere from 2 to 3 times that, one would assume, in wounded. So Ukrainian losses would be around 30,000 if they’re telling the truth. It might be a little bit higher. So that certainly is quite considerable losses for Ukraine. But the issue they’re gonna have is not numbers of soldiers. The issue they’re gonna have is getting them trained. I don’t think, by the way, we’re paying enough attention to things like the training exercises that are happening in the UK and Poland, even in Germany, that Ukraine is taking time to train its soldiers. Now, that means that they can’t fight for a while. But I think the Ukrainians have decided that’s a sacrifice worth making. The Russians don’t seem to be training. They just seem to be getting these people, giving them a few weeks and then sending them to the front line. Now, one would think, the longer the war goes on, the training advantage will start helping Ukraine. And they’ll need it, because if they do want to try and go forward, say, in the Kherson area, you’re gonna need well-trained and motivated soldiers to do that.

Gideon Rachman
Do you see preparations for an offensive in the Kherson area going on? I mean, they seem to be essentially trying to isolate the Russian troops on that bank of the river.

Phillips O’Brien
Yeah, the offensive is underway. It’s just we have to change our mindset about what an offensive is these days. We have an idea of an offensive, but I think most people who think about what war is, they have an idea of offensive that has come out of the second world war and by the way, was reinforced by the US Army in the Gulf war 1 and Gulf war 2 — the two invasions of Iraq. And that is this idea of a mass army breakout, sundering the lines, surrounding the enemy, forcing them to surrender and achieving what you want with sort of a lightning attack — that’s not happening here. And maybe it actually couldn’t happen anywhere except with the US. I mean, from an analytical point of view, I think one of the most interesting things is that the US experience has been deeply deceptive to our understanding of war. Basically, the US can do things because it has spent so much money and built so many systems. The US can do things that just no one else can. And one of the problems we have with the Russians is certain people looked at them as sort of a smaller version of the US. They’re nowhere near, they’re not in the same league. The Russian armed forces are generations behind the US armed forces when it comes to war. So what the Ukrainians are doing is probably more typical of what state-to-state war would be like. Going forward is a problem in the way war has developed, that the tank is far more vulnerable than it was. They can’t gain air superiority. So the kinds of things you would need to do to have, say, a second-world-war kind of offensive, that’s not gonna happen for Ukraine. So what they’re doing, the offensive is underway. They’ve actually been open about it, they are offensive and Kherson is underway. But it’s starting with a long period of degrading Russian forces before they do anything. It’s one of destroying logistics, destroying command and control, taking down the bridges, taking down the rail lines, weakening Russian forces to such a degree that an attack can succeed later when they decide to do it.

Gideon Rachman
Now, in the US, which has been obviously critical to supplying the Ukrainians with the most important weapons, including the Himars that you referred to, the missiles, there’s now been open criticism of the Biden administration by some pretty senior former military people, including Philip Breedlove, the former supreme commander of Nato, saying that they’re being too cautious in what they’re giving the Ukrainians. What is going on there?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, it’s been, it’s interesting. (Laughter) It’s a great question, because to begin with, there were some people, of course, saying from the more Trumpist wing over there being far too supportive of Ukraine and, you know, this is gonna escalate to nuclear war, it’s far more dangerous. Those voices are less intense than they were. And the real pressure has gone up, say, well, why are we holding back? Why is the United States not giving the long-range ammunition? Though it might be. There’s a whole question about whether the US is being actually honest about what they are giving to Ukraine, but why aren’t they giving them, say, fixed-wing aircraft or more advanced anti-air systems? So that’s an interesting one. I think it is interesting to see how the voices on “help Ukraine more” are in many ways becoming more vociferous. Now the Biden administration has been in certain ways very supportive of Ukraine, but very supportive up to a point. And the up-to-the-point is they’ve been giving them things to basically damage the Russian army in Ukraine, and they’ve been very effective without the Ukrainians. It’s now whether they wanna start giving them more of the kinds of weapons that would allow the Ukrainians to have, you might say, a more aggressive counterattack. And the Biden administration seems to be heading in that direction, but very, very slowly. And there are those who think the Russians’ army is on the ropes, this is the time to attack them. This is the time when they’re actually in serious trouble. And that’s what we’re seeing play out. And I would say it seems to be having a modest effect on the Biden administration, but not changing overnight.

Gideon Rachman
But one of the striking things to me is the threat of the use of nuclear weapons is something that Putin has constantly waved around. How seriously do you take that threat?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, I don’t believe there will be a nuclear exchange out of this because I don’t see what Russia gains by it. But they need to have threat. In many ways, I think, of course, Putin has perhaps over-threatened or the Russian media has over-threatened the use of nuclear weapons. But at some point you talk about it so much that it actually loses its impact. The issue with nuclear weapons, if the Russians really wanna go down that road, is do they wanna end the world? Which is one of the horrible fallouts about that. But if they don’t wanna end the world, what do they gain from it? They would start a nuclear exchange on their own army. And their own army is in Ukraine. They would be fallout that would hit Russia itself. Their ally, I mean, I can’t believe the Chinese, who are, by the way, the decisive power for keeping Russia in the war — Russia couldn’t fight without China right now — would be ecstatic about a nuclear war breaking out in Ukraine. This is not anything China wants. So might Putin do it out of desperation? I think there is a tiny but not nil chance of it, but I think it’s quite unlikely.

Gideon Rachman
So looking at the other things that might improve Russia’s situation, you mentioned that they can get through the famous Russian winter and problems might really begin to pile up in the spring. Europe’s problems economically are clearly gonna pile up in the winter. There’s talk that, you know, the lights may go out in Germany. Indeed, in Britain, we’ve got 18 per cent inflation and not possibly on the horizon in the UK, a lot of it driven by energy prices. Do you think that really is almost Putin’s last hope that Europe loses the will to continue, can’t cope with the economic fallout and puts pressure on Ukraine to settle and indeed cede some territory?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, I mean, it would be interesting, because partly this war also has to change our perception of what matters within Europe. I would say the thing that’s come out of this war that is quite striking, almost stunning, is the rise of eastern Europe, the Baltic states and Scandinavia. And they have a very different view of Russia. The Baltics, Poland, Finland, Sweden or in Nato, even Romania, are not going to stop their support of Ukraine because of the price of oil. They’re just not. I mean, to them, this is an existential threat. What Germany and France do in many ways is less important than we thought. We thought they would really matter going into this war. But what’s interesting is how they haven’t mattered to Ukrainian resistance. If Ukraine is still gonna be supported by the US, they really need American support. That’s the foundation of their resistance beyond their own ability to fight, which is, number one. So beyond Ukrainian resistance, one, they need the US and then they need the eastern European states with the Baltics and the Scandinavians and the UK. So the UK is, you know, outside of eastern Europeans, I think then by far the most important state backing them. It’s hard to see under a Truss government that we assume will be in power that that would weaken. So I wouldn’t get that focused on Germany at this point because Germany hasn’t aided Ukraine that much. Look at the states that are aiding them and say, will they be willing to change sides because of a bad winter? And I think those states, it is very unlikely that they will.

Gideon Rachman
Okay. To finish, I mean, I know that war is inherently unpredictable. Very few people, with the possible exception of you, actually, predicted that the Russians would fail so badly in their effort to get to Kyiv. So by all means decline this last question. But if you have to predict where we’ll be in the next six months, what do you think’s gonna happen?

Phillips O’Brien
Well, I think the Russian army is gonna get in very bad shape. And it depends whether Putin actually mobilises his people and sends a large army in to try and hold it. My guess is Ukraine will get better and better at degrading the Russians. It’s not gonna be a blitzkrieg. You’re not going to see the Russian lines be sundered by a large armoured advance. But when the Russians stop going forward and they seem to stop going forward, they then become targets. And they have a line that’s there and they become a target behind the line and Ukraine would be better to hit that. And so I think the Ukrainians will continue what they’re doing, which is attriting the Russians down. If the Russians don’t mobilise, I don’t see how they hold. This doesn’t seem to me possible. So it’s, at some point that Putin will either have to mobilise his population or he’s going to have to pull his army back, or his army itself will lose the ability to hold the line and be forced back by the Ukrainians. So I would think, it’s hard to see the Russians going forward anymore. The question is what the Ukrainians can do going forward. They will continue attriting the Russians and then Putin has to decide how he’s gonna respond.

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Gideon Rachman
That was Professor Phillips O’Brien of St Andrews University in Scotland ending this edition of the Rachman Review. Thanks for listening and please join me again next week.

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