Russia has a grim, well-established playbook for fighting its wars.
Every country has one, but Moscow is notoriously iron-fisted in the way it wages its military campaigns. Just ask the Georgians and the Chechens.
From the use of massed artillery to turn cities into dust to the indiscriminate bombing of hospitals and apartment blocks to terrorize civilians and break their will, Russia’s military tactics have stayed roughly the same for decades, with the occasional modification for new technologies.
Western leaders and military experts who make it their business to study how Russia fights all agree on one thing — the war in Ukraine has not gone the way Moscow anticipated. And that raises the spectre of brutal escalation.
The question they’re all asking themselves now is — what comes next?
That question formed an anxious, often unspoken subtext to the talk of sanctions and allied unity this week during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s European tour.
Canada’s top military commander and his western counterparts have been taking copious notes on the failures and limitations of the Russian Army’s campaign in Ukraine — the first time they’ve seen their adversary fight a major war in decades.
To say Chief of the Defence Staff Gen. Wayne Eyre was startled by what he’s seen would be an understatement — given the size of Russia’s invading force, its heavy armour, artillery and airpower, and the reputation the Russians brought into the field.
“Yeah, very surprised,” Eyre told CBC News in an exclusive interview this week.
“What we were seeing before the war was an over-estimation of Russia capabilities and willingness to fight, and perhaps an under-estimation of the resistance the Ukrainians forces would put up.”
The apparent inability of the invading army’s infantry, engineers, tanks, big guns and fighter jets to work together (“combined arms” in military jargon) was one of the biggest surprises, Eyre said.
Most people have seen by now the drone footage of tank columns caught in the open being blown away, the social media video of Ukrainian farmers capturing mobile guns. Stories of logistics trucks running out of fuel and ill-fed Russian soldiers tell western commanders a lot about the adversary they might have to fight.
Russia’s problems include poor military logistics and lax equipment maintenance, said Eyre. He was quick to add that the valiant defence put up by Ukrainian troops — even when surrounded, as they are in Mariupol — has been the biggest factor frustrating the Russian advance.
“We knew the Ukrainians would fight, but boy are they ever. You can see their willingness to defend their homeland,” he said. “On the Russian side, a lot of questions about what they are doing.”
Western intelligence estimates that up to 5,000 Russian troops are dead, with an unknown number wounded. The Kremlin, which rarely talks about casualties in military operations, surprised many observers recently by acknowledging almost 600 dead. (Defence analysts like to say that whenever Moscow issues a casualty estimate, the real number is usually about ten times higher.)
And Russia has lost significant numbers of tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and fast attack jets — equipment that won’t be easy to replace or fix due to western sanctions and embargoes.
With the most combat-ready elements of the Russian Army bogged down and being chewed up by fighting on the snow-swept fields and slushy roads of Ukraine, western leaders have a host of questions to consider — along with some nightmare scenarios.
Ukraine could be in for a long fight
Eyre said we could “quite possibly” be in for a long war, depending on the West’s ability to keep the Ukrainians supplied and whether the Russians choose to escalate with even more horrific weapons.
“Warfare is constant adaption,” he said. “So, what’s coming next? What are the Russians learning? What are they going to change?”
In the short-term, Eyre said, the threat of Moscow launching tanks over the border into the NATO nations of eastern Europe has diminished — but that doesn’t mean there is no danger to the Baltic states, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, and Romania.
“We have to remember we’re dealing with a nuclear-armed power here. We have to be very, very careful [about] drawing too many lessons,” Eyre said.
“Russia is very committed in Ukraine. That’s where its focus is. In terms of a short-term threat, it’s diminished. What the mid-to-long term brings is anybody’s question. In terms of ground combat power, that threat has gone down. The threat of air attack, the threat of missile attack — perhaps not.”
Disinformation and war crimes
Many observers have warned that Russia might be trying to lay the groundwork for deploying chemical weapons in Ukraine through an online disinformation campaign — conducted with the help of the Chinese — that claims the U.S. and Ukraine are secretly developing biological weapons.
Officials at the Pentagon pushed back on that disinformation effort Thursday, telling a U.S. defence publication that the Kyiv biochemical labs in question manufacture diagnostics, therapeutic treatments and vaccines — not bio-weapons, which are banned by a five decade-old treaty.
Trudeau was asked twice during his overseas trip whether the use of chemical weapons or tactical nuclear devices by Russia in Ukraine would constitute a red line for the West. He avoided giving a direct answer.
“From the moment Russia violated international law by invading Ukraine, they crossed a red line,” he said. “And the response of the world, the response of NATO, the response of western allies was immediate and unequivocal, with crushing, punitive sanctions on Vladimir Putin and those who enable him, creating devastation for the Russia economy.
“What we have said is that we will continue to deliver military support and to do what is necessary to meet this challenge. As Russia commits further and further atrocities, we will continue to look at ways to do more, to stand stronger and to prevent this illegal, unjust war from continuing or escalating.”
Polish President Andrzej Duda was equally reluctant to engage the question.
When Canadian reporters in Warsaw asked what the West should do if Russia goes in that direction, Duda shrugged uncomfortably. “This is an allied decision,” he said.
Separately, NATO Sec. Gen. Jens Stoltenberg was reluctant to discuss what top western military commanders thought of the Russian campaign and where it might be going.
“We are learning every day and we will study and assess very closely the lessons to be learned from the military operations and an invasion of Ukraine, but I think this is not the time to conclude on those lessons learned,” Stoltenberg told CBC News in Latvia.
“Now is the time to provide support to Ukraine, impose heavy sanctions and to increase NATO’s military presence in the eastern part of the alliance to make sure that there’s no attack against NATO allied countries.”
For Canada’s defence chief, the wild card is China. Eyre said he has been asking himself many questions about Russia’s international partner.
“What is China’s reaction? How does China play in all of this?” he said. “What lessons is it garnering from what’s going on? What happens to Russia long-term? Does it become even more of a vassal [state] to China?
“These are things we need to be watching.”