Opinion | Ukraine war proves Russia is no longer a superpower

Day One of Putin’s Folly, Feb. 24, is highly revealing in hindsight. Russia opened its invasion with a page from the superpower playbook as written by the United States and its allies in the 1991 Gulf War. Having amassed a large ground force, the Russians fired off precision-guided missiles to take out radars, antiaircraft batteries and runways across Ukraine.

The goal of such surgical strikes is to blind the enemy and ground its planes, giving the attacking force control of the skies. Air power then protects tanks and troops as they roll ahead with confidence.

As Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute — one of the world’s oldest and best military think tanks — has observed: That never happened for Russia. Step 1 hasn’t led to Step 2. Russia did not establish air superiority. Its tanks and infantry immediately bogged down, allowing time for Ukrainian fighters to lay mines, fortify positions and plan ambushes.

In pondering the mysterious case, Bronk offered this data point: Russian air force pilots spend perhaps 100 hours per year in the air. That’s all a third-rate economy can afford. One hundred hours per year averages out to less than 20 minutes per day .

Russian “leadership may be hesitant to commit to large-scale combat operations which would show up the gap between external perceptions and the reality of their capabilities,” Bronk suggested. Despite huge expenditures for modern aircraft, Russian generals would rather leave them parked menacingly on runways than have them flown incompetently in battle.

The inability to follow up on its initial display of modern might illuminate another Russian weakness: Its precision munitions appear to be in short supply. Whether laser-guided or steered by GPS, smart bombs are increasingly the coin of the realm in 21st-century warfare . Even smaller Western militaries are amply stocked. Britain, for example, has roughly nine smart bombs for every dumb one in its arsenal, according to Exeter University defense expert Michael Clarke, who estimated in iNews that Russia’s ratio is the inverse: nine dumb bombs for every smart one.

This might explain recent Russian operations in Syria. As in Ukraine, Putin ordered indiscriminate bombing using outdated weapons. But some Western analysts speculated that Putin was doing this to sow confusion over whether Syria, rather than Russia, was inflicting the damage.

Now, Putin is showering dumb bombs on Ukraine, and the confusion is gone. His initial volley of precision munitions was, evidently, an exercise in let’s-pretend. And it might have worked — if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had not stood fast. Instead , it appears Russia’s military is mired in 1970.

This brings up yet another weakness. Lacking precision-guided munitions, Russia must rely on relatively low-flying bombers and ground-based artillery for its assaults against Ukrainian cities. Inevitably, that means more targets for the Ukrainian resistance, which will produce more corpses of Russian soldiers and pilots — and more grief in the motherland.

No wonder Putin is reportedly pleading for help from China’s Xi Jinping. If he had sufficient strength in his own war machine, we would have seen it by now, for even the misguided Moscow dictator understands he is in the fight of his life. There are fears that Putin, in desperation, will turn to chemical weapons — the dumbest bombs of all.

And this is as strong as Russia’s going to get. Putin built this force when the world was a relatively friendly place — and the result has proved to be as hollow as a piñata. He has no hope of filling the yawning gaps in his forces while unprecedented economic sanctions choke off his access to money and technology.

Russia’s nuclear arsenal will protect it against direct military aggression. (Not that anyone is threatening to attack.) But the debacle in Ukraine is the end of Russia’s superpower status. In his obsession, Putin has revealed, unprovoked, the extent of his nation’s decline .

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.