Stephen Bryen, a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Security Policy, former under secretary of defense and author of six books on technology and national security, titled his April 20 Jewish Policy Center webinar “The Russia-Ukraine War: A Preliminary Assessment.” But that assessment was more than preliminary: “I don’t think Ukraine can survive the offensive” Russian forces are now fighting in the Ukrainian east and south, Bryen said.
Russian troops probably will soon number 90,000 or more along the active front, supported by heavy artillery and virtually undisputed control of the air, Bryen said. Ukraine, after successfully resisting Moscow’s initial attacks on the country’s north, including the capital of Kyiv and second-largest city, Kharkiv, musters the bulk of a remaining estimated 70,000 soldiers—minus long-distance air defenses and significant long-range artillery—in the east and south, according to Bryen.
“I think it’s limited how long Ukraine can hold out,” he added, doubting recent projections by British officials of a long war. Unlike the forested terrain in the country’s north, which U.S.- and NATO-trained Ukrainian troops used successfully in hit-and-run and ambush attacks after the Russians invaded on February 24, flat and rolling land in the east may prove more advantageous to Russian armor, Bryen noted.
In addition, President Vladimir Putin’s appointment of Gen. Alexander Dornikov as new commander of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, bodes ill. Dornikov “headed Russian operations in Syria and … flattened Aleppo,” Bryen said. “I think that’s what we’ll see in eastern Ukraine,” major, sustained destruction.
The battle in the east will be fought largely with the personnel and materiel Ukraine now possesses, Bryen believes. Additional Western aid, including long-range artillery air defenses, won’t arrive soon enough in large enough quantities to change the balance.
So, Bryen added, “I think [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky has to decide if he wants to make a deal … which will be a tougher deal than before.”
The Minsk 2 agreements, for example, were reached in 2015 after Russia invaded Ukraine’s Crimea and its eastern Donbas region, fomenting separatist movements there. Signed by Russia, Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they called for, among other things, autonomy under Ukrainian administration for the two regions, Ukraine not to join NATO (the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization) and Ukrainian control of its border with Russia.
Critics, like those at London’s Chatham House think tank, called Minsk 2 “convoluted” and “contradictory,” noting it did not mention Ukrainian sovereignty. Nevertheless, positing Russia’s original objectives in invading Ukraine as trying “to force a settlement in eastern Ukraine” ensuring Donetsk and Luhansk autonomy and “a large corridor that takes them to Crimea,” Bryen said that in a war of attrition or stalemate in the east “Ukraine has a small force getting eating up. … The whole Ukrainian state could collapse.”
Russia’s military failures early in the war showed a number of shortcomings, Bryen said. These included vulnerable tactical communications, lack of “friend or foe” identification complicating urban operations, design flaws in tank armor, command-and-control failures, absence of targeting pods on aircraft and lack of sensor integration.
Bryen said results of the war so far likely include Taiwan worrying about how much aid it can count on from the United States, Japan and South Korea in the event of a Chinese invasion—which satellite imagery shows China to be rehearsing—and second thoughts by Finland and Sweden about joining NATO.