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“Putin Is Not Stupid”: This Expert Spent 182 Days on the Russia-Ukraine Battlefields

Ukraine
Image of Russian TOS Unit. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

American Who Spent 182 Days on the Battlefield Speaks Out on Ukraine and Russia: One US civilian has been to Ukraine and seen the border skirmish between Moscow and Kyiv up close and personal. Policy institute president and defense and national security expert Dr. Phillip Karber has visited Ukraine 36 times in the last eight years and has spent a total of 182 days at the front lines of various battlefields observing combat.

1945 caught up with Karber, who heads the Potomac Foundation, for a wide-ranging, detailed, and insightful interview about the situation in Ukraine and Russia. 1945 Defense Editor Brent Eastwood conducted the interview.

You have traveled to Ukraine many times over the years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Can you tell us the overall state of readiness when it comes to Ukraine’s military? 

Considering the terrible shape the Ukrainian forces were in at the beginning of 2014 after two decades of utter neglect, their resurrection as a fighting force has been nothing short of miraculous.

At the beginning of the conflict on paper, they had 15 ground force brigades with an authorized strength of 55 maneuver battalions. In reality only 16 of the latter were “ready” (defined as having at least two-thirds of required manpower and operable equipment). Moreover, only 25 percent of the ready battalions were deployed on the east side of the Dniepr River opposite Russia (and two of those were lost with the occupation of Crimea).

Neither Western analysts nor Russian planners expected the Ukrainian Army to be able to fight for more than several days. But they mobilized, redeployed their forces to the east, repaired and upgraded old weaponry, and have been fighting for eight years. They have lost some battles and won some battles, but in the process inflicted as many casualties as they have suffered.

Today, Ukraine fields the strongest active Army in Europe — it is larger, more ready with more combat experience than the armies of the last ten countries to join NATO — combined.

The active force equals 40 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), backed up by 100,000 reservists with experience at the front, and units at every level led by a new generation of young aggressive officers who have fought the Russians, know their weakness and are not afraid to exploit them.

Ironically, in terms of stabilizing Eastern Europe, providing a bulwark to Russian revanchism, and significantly improving the defense of Romania, Poland, and the Baltics — NATO would gain more from having Ukraine on its side than Ukraine would get from being in NATO.

We do not appreciate their contribution now, but we will miss them when they are gone.

There is a common line of thinking in Washington that Kyiv would be beaten very quickly by Moscow. What is your take? 

If the Washington, DC “desk-commandos” would get off their derrières and go to the front, they would get a more realistic perspective.

The Ukrainians can hold the current 500km line of engagement until the cows come home — in terms of the area covering the Donbas front against the 1st Donetsk and 2nd Luhansk proxy Corps and the causeways from Crimea against its 22nd Corps. And, in defending those prepared positions, they will stack Russian body bags like cordwood.

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Map of Military Forces In and Around Ukraine. Image Courtesy of Dr. Karber.

The difficulty they face is not at the current line of contact but from a multi-directional threat on a six times larger perimeter and exacerbated by danger of multi-domain attack from the air and sea, as well as a large second-echelon backed up by chemical and tactical nuclear weapons. It is this wider and more intense threat that endangers Ukraine’s defensibility.

First, Putin has reinforced his front-line units with three additional Armies:

— the 8th Guards Army (8GA) at Rostov as a second-echelon behind the Donbas.

— the 20th Guards Army (20GA) at Voronezh opposite the city of Kharkiv.

— the 1st Guards Tank Army (1GTA) to the northeast of Kursk, aimed directly at Ukraine’s capital Kyiv.

These three armies — with reinforcements brought in last spring and this fall plus the existing front-line Donbas and Crimean Corps (plus available Airborne/Air Assault Divisions) — are equal to about 60 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) and available to fight now.

While the aggressor would not have more than a 50 percent advantage in quantity of units, Russian weapons have a qualitative edge and the area north of Kharkiv favors the offense — it is classic tank country with few terrain obstacles and wide opportunity for rapid maneuver.

Moreover, in the current build-up, the second shoe has yet to drop. It appears that units from the Central and Southern Military Districts (2nd, 41st, 49th & 58th Armies) may be loading up for forward movement which could bring the Russian invasion force up to 100 BTGs giving them more than a two-to-one force ratio by the end of January.

Second, Ukraine’s small air force with Cold War-era aging fighters and helicopters is overshadowed by Russia’s larger and modernized air offensive potential. If preceded by a “shock and awe” strike with missiles (as done in Syria) followed up by bombers against key airbases and fixed air defenses, Russian fighters, and attack helicopters will own the skies and be able to not only add disproportionate attrition to the Ukrainian ground forces but seriously interdict their forward movement and counter-maneuver on the battlefield.

Third, to the north, Russia’s large exercise against NATO last September – Zapad 2021 – involved a Russian Army deployed forward into Belarus, which could drop down and cut Ukraine off in the West. Even without crossing the frontier, the prospect of an attack on the rear or flank draws off defenders that are badly needed in the East and South.

Fourth, to the south, Russia’s large fleet in the Black Sea along with amphibious ships brought into the Sea of Azov from the Caspian pose the threat of landings along the coast supported by Air Assault troops from Crimea, while Russian “peacekeeping” units in Transnistria could conduct sabotage and small unit raids. Another flanking danger tying down additional Ukrainian ground forces.

Lastly, and not to be ignored, Russia has already deployed along Ukraine’s border, the 400-500km range SS-26 Iskander-M missiles as well as heavy caliber long-range self-propelled guns (2S7 Pion and 2S7M Malka 203mm), and self-propelled mortars (2S4 Tyulpan 240mm) — all of which can deliver both tactical nuclear weapons and chemical warheads. Given the utility Russian chemical agents demonstrated in Syrian urban fighting their use cannot be ruled out if stiff resistance is met in Ukrainian cities.

Do You Think Russia Would Use Thermobaric Weapons Like the TOS-1? 

We should not be surprised to see them use those fire-weapons because they favor an offensive breakthrough and are deadly even to entrenched infantry.

Russia has already fielded the TOS-1 in the 27th Nuclear/Biological/Chemical (NBC) Regiment near the Ukraine border, and similar TOS systems are in NBC units to the north and east of that. Interestingly, south of Rostov the enhanced/longer-range TOS-2 has been introduced.

TOS-1

TOS-1 Rocket Launch. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

They also have deployed opposite Ukraine with several hundred multiple rocket launchers and the new versions are capable of firing both thermobaric warheads, as well as submunitions and scatterable mines. Combined with accurate targeting by UAVs, they produce a highly lethal battlefield.

Can Ukraine mount a successful insurgency if Moscow does invade and annex new territory? 

Yes, and they will.

Today all over Ukraine, territorial units are being formed and civilians preparing to resist. However, insurgencies are by their nature an indecisive and attritional form of war. So realistically, while they may make an occupation miserable, their impact will not significantly impede an armored invasion. Given the civilian fear and loathing of Russia, what will be immediately pressing on NATO is five to ten million refugees streaming West across the border to escape into Europe.

What is Russia’s goal when it comes to Ukraine and this latest buildup of forces? Does Putin really intend to invade? 

Clearly, Putin manufactured this crisis to achieve something, but it remains vague as to what it is. Surely he knows:

— That Ukraine will fight if he renews the aggression he started in 2014 and he is undoubtedly aware that the highest percentage of enlistments in the Ukrainian Army are soldiers from the east, who despite Russian ethnic and linguistic background, do not want to be forced to live in Putin’s kleptocracy.

— That the more massive the attack and heavier the damage caused, the greater the number killed, and deeper the territory conquered — the greater and longer-lasting enmity he will engender in the Ukrainian people and more costly the occupation to subdue them.

— That his demands on the US and NATO are outrageous and he is unlikely to get them all.

But, if one of his objectives was to convince Ukrainians that the West would not come to their aid with military support — he has already achieved that with the pre-emptive declarations of President Biden not to commit U.S. forces or even send military aid.

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Russian T-90 Tank Firing. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

How impactful would tough financial sanctions like kicking Russia out of SWIFT be on Moscow? 

Whatever else you say about him, Putin is not stupid.

If he thought that the diplomatic and economic costs of renewed aggression against Ukraine outweighed the gain of getting Ukraine back under control and demonstrating U.S. and NATO impotence to East Europeans and former Soviet Republics, he would already have been deterred from fielding a force he is not willing to employ. He knows that previous sanctions caused substantial pain to our European allies and that there is no stomach for the dislocation a SWIFT ban will cause the global financial sectors.

He also knows that his “strategic ally” China would like to fill in the gap by creating an alternative monetary system to the dollar. Likewise, threats to reduce energy purchases from Russia will literally leave Europe in the cold.

What sorts of help can the US and NATO provide Ukraine if Moscow does attempt an invasion? For example, would more Javelin missiles help? 

The U.S. has sent Ukraine about 120 Javelin launchers, which should give them enough to help hold the current line of engagement. Clearly, evidence of Russia adding make-shift covers for their tank turrets demonstrates that Javelin has both a tactical and deterring impact disproportionate to the small numbers delivered.

But, to cover a frontage six times larger, Ukraine will need a hell-of-a-lot more Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGM) than they have now or what we have supplied. The U.S. Army is putting M-2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles in storage and the U.S. Marine Corps is replacing armored Humvees — both mounting TOW-2 anti-tank missiles which, while not Javelins, remain potent anti-armor weapons. Sending 500 Bradleys and TOW-2 Humvees along with another couple hundred Javelins would be a fast and cost-effective means of coping with the Russian threat of horizontal escalation.

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A U.S. Marine with 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, fires a shoulder-fired Javelin missile during exercise Bougainville II at Pohakuloa Training Area, Hawaii, April 18, 2021. Bougainville II is the second phase of pre-deployment training conducted by the battalion designed to increase combat readiness through complex and realistic live-fire training. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Jacob Wilson)

Likewise, the Russians learned to fear the Stinger man-portable air-defense system (MANPADs) in Afghanistan. Supplying several hundred Stingers as point-defenses for key positions (like airfields and bridges) as well as for mobile protection of Ukrainian maneuver forces would add a lot to offset Russia’s aerial dominance over the battlefield. While the U.S. has sent surveillance aircraft flying over Ukraine air space to monitor the daily Russian buildup, they have not been backed up by deploying F-15/F-22 fighters to Romania and Poland or F-18s with Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Bulgaria. In combination, that would help counter Russia’s aerial and naval multi-domain bullying along with sending a powerful message of U.S. commitment to East European peace and security.

In the Obama Administration, it was popular to say as an excuse for not sending lethal aid to Ukraine, that they were deterring a 19th Century threat with 21st Century methods that minimize the risk of military escalation. But that gambit did not stop the aggression, end the conflict, or inhibit the current crisis Putin has unleashed. Now, the same mantra is repeated once again extolling “Diplomacy” and “Sanctions.” Putin is a bully whose strategy is based on the 20th Century currency of deployable armed force and does not seem to be impressed with post-millennial epiphenomenalist rhetoric.

The people of Ukraine stood up to Russian domination in order to be part of the West. They have had the courage and endurance to hold the bully at bay for eight years of war. With the US and NATO now refusing to support them militarily in this crisis…how long can they hold on?

Tragically we have left them dangling in the wind with nowhere to go and their survival dependent on Putin’s whim.

Dr. Phillip A. Karber is President of the Potomac Foundation. Dr. Karber is an internationally recognized authority on defense and national security matters; an accomplished business executive; and a university professor. He has prepared studies and recommendations on defense strategy for the highest levels of the U.S. government; advised many NATO governments on defense issues; headed BDM Corporation’s International Division; served as JFK International Air Terminal’s Chairman of the Board; and teaches courses in national security and military affairs at Georgetown University.

Written By

Dr. Phillip A. Karber is President of the Potomac Foundation. Dr. Karber is an internationally recognized authority on defense and national security matters; an accomplished business executive; and a university professor. He has prepared studies and recommendations on defense strategy for the highest levels of the U.S. government; advised many NATO governments on defense issues; headed BDM Corporation’s International Division; served as JFK International Air Terminal’s Chairman of the Board; and teaches courses in national security and military affairs at Georgetown University.

26 Comments

26 Comments

  1. Commentar

    January 12, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    Putin is the smartest political person on the planet. Period.

    Nato’s war gnomes are the ‘stupidest’ people on the planet, equivalent to the ones that planned the June 22 1941 fiasco.

    Putin DOES’NT NEED to send tanks to Kharkiv (Kharkov in 1941) and beyond. He just have to watch out for NATO provocative acts near Kaliningrad and any movement of arms (including B61 tactical nukes) to Kyiv.

    Meanwhile, he can just quietly allow mercenaries to join the Donbass freedom militias and observe nato’s knee-jerk reaction.

    If NATO and/or Kyiv goes ahead and attacks the militias, Putin can then go for the jugular.

    Obliterate Kyiv with hypersonic weapons, such as Avangard and kinzhal, on the first day and NATO will swirl and collapse. Putin should avoid the mistake made by the US in WW2 when it bombed japanese civilians countless occasions but avoided the emperor prolonging the war and incurring needless casualties.

    When the enemy has fired the first shot, GO FOR THE JUGULAR. No need to waste time and lives. Send the Kyiv leaders to the pearly gates STRAIGHTAWAY.

  2. Deasun

    January 12, 2022 at 7:16 pm

    Wow – I hope this advice is not followed. Russia / Putin seeks to greatly reduce US influence on the EU in general terms. I don’t think anyone in the EU will join a fight against Russia. There will be no invasion, unless perhaps the US arms the Ukraine with weapons that are unacceptable to Russia and diplomacy fails. If there is a fight involving Russia and US personal are involved, no EU country will join a fight against Russia. Simply, the US could not fight a war on the ground with Russia and everyone would recoil from such a horror. Not least because the US would not be able to defeat Russia. There is only one solution and that is a diplomatic one. A Treaty which at the least removes heavily armaments from Eastern Europe and which Russia most reasonably demands.

  3. Dole

    January 12, 2022 at 7:46 pm

    Karber: “ Clearly, Putin manufactured this crisis to achieve something, but it remains vague as to what it is.”
    Karber lied as usual.
    The crisis began with an unconstitutional coup in Kiev. Nationalists who fought on Hitler’s side in 1941 came to power.
    Some residents said we didn’t want to live in the Nazi state and took up arms. They were supported by Russia.
    The Russians lost 27 million in World War II. They can’t recognize the power of Hitler’s accomplices in Kiev.
    Therefore, the Russians supported the rebel provinces.
    The author does not say how many percent of Ukrainian soldiers will defect to Russia if there is a conflict. And we’re telling you: 30 percent minimum.
    Half of the residents of Ukraine hate the authorities and would be happy to join Russia , as Crimea did
    But the author will never tell you about it because he has never been to Donetsk or Lugansk.

  4. Alex

    January 13, 2022 at 6:16 am

    An expert who has seen Russian troops in Ukraine, I strongly advise you to change or find a good attending physician.

  5. Bankotsu

    January 13, 2022 at 6:24 am

    I get the feel of Ghani saying that Afghan army will “fight to the death” to defend Afghanistan from Taliban in this article.

  6. jg

    January 13, 2022 at 11:52 am

    Do you even know you’re pushing one-sided propaganda?

    The conflict, we are to assume, began when “after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.” Oh, why would they do that? Putin must have woken up in a bad mood. Nothing could have provoked that action–of the PEOPLE of Crimea voting over 96% to leave your fascist coup client state.

    Yes, your country aided and abetted literal Nazis, who remain in control of the Ukraine military to this day. And that part isn’t worth mentioning…

  7. Michael Veritas

    January 13, 2022 at 11:08 pm

    Karber Is a classic neocon. This guy is more than willing to send other peoples sons and daughters to fight for Ukraine. He will not be sending his relatives. Furthermore, his solution naturally involves us send free missiles and other expensive weapons to Kiev. This is after the blatant lie about Ukraine having one of largest armies in Europe. More obvious anti Russian propaganda from the 1945 blog disguised as legitimate news source.

  8. David Chang

    January 13, 2022 at 11:10 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    Democratic party and Russia (soon to revert to be USSR) violate Ten Commandments and sell war to people in the world. War and death are the democracy and progress of socialism.

    God bless people in the world.

  9. Lsi

    January 14, 2022 at 7:25 am

    The uniparty is busting a gut to get us in a new war. The Middle East has calmed down somewhat so it’s time to crank up the war machine again. The Ukraine is NOT our problem in spite of what the uniparty wants. Let the EU take care of the Ukraine!

  10. Dan T

    January 14, 2022 at 11:24 am

    I cannot stand our foreign policy. They hate Russia and want to overthrow them. And they will do it the same way they did it on Syria, Libya and etc causing millions of innocent people to die. We are the bad guys!

  11. Cerebus

    January 15, 2022 at 12:11 am

    Wow the Putin trolls are swamping the board tonight with hyperbole and revisionist history. It’s like the circus is in town. The Putinistas could at least try to be a little more subtle and demonstrate a modicum of understanding of actual events.

  12. Alex

    January 15, 2022 at 8:47 am

    It is a pity that the author could not find the time to answer a simple question: where did he see Russian troops in Ukraine. Lies, lies and more lies.

  13. Ted B

    January 16, 2022 at 3:01 pm

    Ha ha ha. I hope the editors did not pay this expert for an interview.

  14. GASTON MACIAS

    January 16, 2022 at 5:51 pm

    VIVA LA MADRE RUSIA CARAJO 👏👏👏

  15. ADM64

    January 16, 2022 at 6:43 pm

    “The crisis began with an unconstitutional coup in Kiev. Nationalists who fought on Hitler’s side in 1941 came to power.”

    They must have been in awesome physical condition because – assuming they were 20 in 1941 – they’d be 101 now. If that’s the case, the Russians best not mess with them.

  16. Alex

    January 16, 2022 at 8:30 pm

    ADM64: Why are you writing about being a little goofy?

  17. D. Fuller

    January 17, 2022 at 10:09 am

    I laughed when I read, “Given the utility Russian chemical agents demonstrated in Syrian urban fighting”. Despite overwhelming evidence that CW use in Syria was perpetrated by by American supported Al Qeda (under various new names) proxies and Saudi affiliated ISIS proxies under the banner of Saudi Wahhabist state religion. To provoke an American, UK, and French intervention by air. Which Obama refused.

    As for SWIFT, that author is seemingly unaware that Russia and China have already devised an alternative that will be fully operational from day one. Adoption of which would be an existential threat to dollar hegemony. Russia and China could leverage such a system to demand that trade partners resolve payments through a Chinese-Russian system. The author is seemingly unaware of such a development, either through ignorance or deception.

    As for Ukrainian forces, while they may look capable on paper? They would most likely be a speed bump to the Russian military on the way to Kiev.

    The Ukrainian government? Neo-Nazis and anti-Russian politicians installed by an illegal Western-backed coup using snipers to shoot their own in the back. Politicians who have entertained ideas such as concentration camps for Russian speaking Ukrainians, banning the Russian language used by 30% of Ukrainians, etc. Nevermind that the SS Galicia division is still celebrated in Lviv. Coupled with endemic corruption in Ukrainian institutions and Western corporate desires in Ukraine.

    At best, without 15-30 forward deployed US/NATO battalions, NATO would provide a “peacekeeping” force for parts of Western Ukraine. At best.

    The author reminds me of when Sen. John McCain arrived in Baghdad on a sanitized trip. McCain was shown only what The US Army brass wanted him to see, while McCain saw only what he wanted to see. Perhaps the motivation is more $$$ than sense. The paychecks of too many consultants and Pentagon brass (later to be defense company executives) rely on perpetuating rosy PowerPoint presentations and fantastical articles that defy reality.

    It would take little effort to shred this article’s other fine deceptions. The above is enough to the professional credibility of the author.

    As a side note, Victoria Nuland of Ukrainian coup fame along with SecDef Blinken (a disaster) descend from ethnic Ukrainian ancestry. Their anti-Russian policies perhaps include latent Ukrainian nationalist tendencies. Their personal efforts are counter-balanced by the rest of the NSC who favor a more rational approach. With Congress running their own agenda, most notably Republicans.

    Disclaimer: From 2007 to 2012, I was present in Ukraine, including Crimea.

  18. Joe Comment

    January 17, 2022 at 4:30 pm

    It’s pretty hard to predict the military scenario, but one thing’s for sure – the Russians can easily achieve internet troll dominance whenever we try to discuss these problems on a web site. (laughs)

  19. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    January 17, 2022 at 11:21 pm

    What is this bullshit about B-61s in Ukraine? This totally obsolete weapon was never positioned in Eastern Europe. As a Frenchman, I am surprised that gravity bombs of this type are the only American tactical nuclear weapon. When to those who call the Ukrainians Nazis, should we remember the millions of deaths that Moscow’s policy caused in the region in the 1920s/1930s? No wonder the population briefly welcomed the Germans as liberators. But they fell from one dictatorship to another.

  20. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    January 18, 2022 at 1:09 am

    To the ignoramuses who talk about “Nazis”. I remember this:
    * German–Soviet Credit Agreement: 19 August 1939
    * Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact: 23 August 1939
    * Soviet invasion of Poland: 17 September 1939
    * First Soviet-Finnish War: 30 November 1939
    * German–Soviet Border and Commercial Agreement: 10 January 1940
    * German–Soviet Commercial Agreement: 11 February 1940
    * Occupation of the 3 Baltic states : June 1940
    * Soviet occupation of Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina of Roumania: 28 June
    * German–Soviet Axis talks concerning the Soviet Union’s potential entry as a fourth Axis Power: October/November 1940

    Without the help of Russia, Hitler’s tanks would NEVER have been able to invade Western Europe. The German war machine could hold out in mid-1940 only because of the delivery of Soviet raw materials and oil. And the Red Army did not liberate any country in 44/45, they exchanged Nazi extremist brutality for Russian police brutality. So why has NONE of the Warsaw Pact countries signed an alliance with Russia in over 30 years? Simply because they know her too well.

  21. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    January 18, 2022 at 1:29 am

    Regarding the map of Russian and Ukrainian units. The border between Ukraine and Romania under Transnistria was forgotten.

    I also take the liberty of reminding those who speak of Neo-Nazis that the communist secret services have been partly activating them since the 1950s with false flag actions. In France, the terrorist attack against the prefecture of Strasbourg on May 17, 1956 to disrupt a session of the European Coal and Steel Community is an example of this.

  22. Alex

    January 19, 2022 at 6:02 pm

    For a Nazi airplane lover: learn some history, you look pathetic.
    Russian proverb: “Russians don’t start wars. Russians end wars.”
    I am a Pole and I am sincerely happy for the inhabitants of Crimea, who have made their choice to live better. I hope that the inhabitants of the east of the country will also soon begin to live better in Russia. I hope that our native Galicia will soon return to our home. I hope that the Romanians will get their Volyn back. I hope that there will be no more Nazis left in Ukraine who crawled out of their holes at the sight of blood. Glory to Ukrainians and Little Russians!

  23. Radar Operator

    January 21, 2022 at 5:04 pm

    I didn’t not see the Ukrainian air defense even mentioned. Ukraine has a solid multi layer albeit old Soviet air defense. Starting with S-300 for the long range, BUKs for the mid range, and gazzilion of Shilkas, Osa and Strela MANPADs for short range.
    Russian all out air assault is not as easy to make as it sounds from the article.

  24. Alex

    January 21, 2022 at 6:50 pm

    Air defense of Ukraine is the last century.

  25. https://dobovoua.blogspot.com/

    February 11, 2022 at 3:39 pm

    Good article. I definitely appreciate this site. Stick with it!

  26. John

    February 20, 2022 at 1:36 am

    Your arrogancy is unbelievable.

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