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Ukraine’s Fog of War

Let’s peek into the fog of war, mostly on the Russian side. Who are the Russian troops invading Ukraine? What do they do and not do? After all, it is good to know who is actually responsible for all the carnage. We should also endeavor to differentiate between perception and reality, no matter how hard it may be.

We know very little about the Russian personnel, and what we do know is oftentimes obfuscated by Russian, Ukrainian, and foreign propaganda.

Incidentally, the Ukrainian side is perhaps more forthcoming about itself, but there is also disinformation, deception, and fake news. Do you remember the superhuman superjet “Ghost of Kiyv” that really did not exist? How about the heroes of the Snake Island, who either fought to the death with cheeky expletives in their mouths or rather meekly surrendered to the Russians? Such stories can be multiplied.

So can the stories of the Ukrainian atrocities with the Azov battalion usually singled out as the main culprit. There are rumors that Ukrainian forces execute captured Russian artillerymen in some localities. Foreign mercenaries are paid bounty for killing Russians.

What the truth is, we can’t tell at the moment. A few days ago, I watched a deep fake video with a background soundtrack inserted to suggest that the Azov was responsible for shooting Ukrainian civilians. The clip of an Azov commander circulated on social media right before the Bucha story of mass murder allegedly by the Russian troops broke out.

On the other hand, I also watched a video of the Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman blaming the war on the Ukrainians being unwilling to share their borscht, beet soup, with the Russians. That in itself was proof of “extremism, Nazism, xenophobia,” she ranted. The video was either doctored, or Maria Zakharova was drunk.

Perhaps we should take our daily dose of news from Ukraine with a pinch of salt. That is not to say that we know nothing.

Let’s start with the ordre de bataille right before Vladimir Putin rolled into Ukraine. There were almost 200,000 troops brought in from all over the Russian Federation.

In the south, namely Crimea, the Russians deployed their 58th Army from Vladikavkaz, veterans of the Chechen wars. Its units were pulled in from North Ossetia-Alania in the Caucasus.

In the east, harking from Novocherkassk and around Rostov on the Don, the 8th Guards Army positioned itself along the border with the Donbas.  When the war broke out, the 8th marched into Luhansk and Donetsk separatist enclaves.

In the northeast, against Kharkiv, the Russians dispatched their reinforced 1st Tank Guards Army with the post-Soviet armed forces’ most famous panzer Guards divisions: the 4th Kantemirovskaya and the 2nd Tamanskaya.  The 1st came from Moscow to Belgorod, while the 6th Army traveled all the way from St. Petersburg to deploy in its support near Kursk.

Further north of them, the 36th Army from Transbaikal’s Ulan-Ude showed up. Adjacent to it, the 20th Guards Army from Voronezh was poised to attack Kyiv. A little behind them, in Yelnya, the 41st Army from Novosibirsk came in support of both. This seems to be a strategic reserve force.

To the north, and on the territory of Belarus, we have the 35th Army from the Amur in the Russian Federation’s Far East. Its units are scattered between Pinsk and Brest, while the elements of the 5th “Red Banner” Army from Ussuriysk, also in the Far East, have been placed around Mazyr.

Some of those units from Belarus surged into Ukraine only to retreat back after the siege of Kiyv was lifted: at least for now.

To assert that the Russian armies have failed to reach their strategic objectives of taking the entire country in a swift sweep is an understatement. They miserably failed to clinch the deal in a couple of days, as most expected. The Ukrainians have put up quite a show.

Now the Russians have regrouped to concentrate on eastern Ukraine. This is perhaps both a consolation prize and a face-saving device for Putin.

Apparently, there is a new Russian commander in chief of the forces in Ukraine: General Aleksandr Dvornikov. He boasts of extensive combat experience in Syria, which shows. Collateral damage seems to be increasingly a rule. Targeting civilians abounds. Is it state policy?

But when we hear about Russian generals in Ukraine, they tend to be dead heroes – killed in action, about ten of them. Such high casualties among general officers suggests, first, that Putin’s fury sent them straight into combat; second, the war is going less than well and the generals believe that only their personal attention, and that of the high-ups in the chain of command, will remedy the situation. Thus, they put themselves in harm’s way.

Generally speaking, the Russian army has a very weak NCO corps and junior officer corps, and it tends not to delegate tasks down the hierarchical ladder, forcing the brass to meddle and intervene constantly to get results. Thus is the nature of post-totalitarian armies.

What about the rank-and-file? It seems that most of them are draftees. They have performed poorly, just as in the dress rehearsal in two Chechen wars.

Putin supposedly has relieved many draftees to avoid a backlash at home. Now professional soldiers will replace them as well as Chechen allies and Syrian mercenaries. The only exception is the Donbas, where the Russians immediately instituted a universal draft. All men were sent to fight on the Kremlin’s orders against the Ukrainian armed forces.

The Russian combat performance is lackluster. The troops are convinced they are fighting Nazis, though some Russian POWs claim that they were not told they were going to war against Ukraine.

Initially friendly, the Russian troops have turned sour toward the civilian population. There are serious allegations of atrocities and even genocide in Bucha, Borodianka, Mariupol, Irpin, Hostomel, and elsewhere. That includes mass executions.

Reportedly, brutality increases with drunkenness.  In addition to killings, there have been rapes, including of children. At least one pedophile rapist filmed himself in action and posted his performance on the net.

The troops lack provisions; the Russian army logistics are largely absent, and the supplies intended for the front get purloined back home. The crooks sell them via the Russian internet, including items plainly marked as military and “not for sale.”

So, on the ground in Ukraine, the Russian soldiers loot. This is not just robbing for survival.  Ukrainian products and goods resurface in Belarus. “They take the ‘trophies’ looted from Ukraine and offer to sell them to locals. Refrigerators, household appliances, tires, and whatever comes to hand.” The leftovers are shipped to Russia by the looters. That is quite a tradition in the Russian armed forces, last seen on a massive scale during the invasion of Georgia in 2008.

An unknown number of Russian troops have deserted to the Ukrainians, including with heavy equipment. There is apparently a  volunteer “Freedom of Russia” legion being set up to fight against Putin.

Lastly, let us look at the very nature of fighting. If mainstream media and social media were to be believed, it looks like the Ukrainians are winning. In fact, they are on the defensive in most places. Also, asymmetric warfare, while important, does not seem to have been the decisive tool for the Ukrainian side.

Ubiquitous pictures of javelin-toting triumphant Ukrainian territorials should not blind us to the fact that the great Ukrainian victories, tank extermination in particular, should be chalked up to well-entrenched Ukrainian armored brigades and artillery. True enough, the territorials mop things up. But it is most likely professional and regular troops who do most of the heavy lifting.

In conclusion, all of the above will have to be investigated properly and in depth. I cannot vouch for the veracity of most of my extrapolations, suppositions, and deductions. It is extremely hard to get the facts under the circumstances.

The fog of war today is information overload, in particular on social media, as anyone who follows the war in Ukraine can plainly see. Or can he?


Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 13 April 2022
This lecture was delivered at IWP’s Army War College conference on April 13, 2022.