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A closer look at some of Russia's military failures in the war on Ukraine

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

After more than two months of war in Ukraine, Russian forces have been deeply undermined. A quarter of Russian units have been rendered combat ineffective. Now, that's according to a new intelligence assessment from Britain's Ministry of Defense. The ministry also said it'll likely take years for Russia to reconstitute some of its most elite units, including the country's airborne forces. Now, the Pentagon is not echoing the British assessment, saying only that a number of units have been degraded from the fighting. But for some, Russian failures have altered what had been the common wisdom regarding Russia's military power with future implications for the U.S., NATO and Russia's neighbors. Jeff Edmonds is a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. He previously focused on Russia and Central Asia as a member of the National Security Council. Jeff, welcome to the show.

JEFF EDMONDS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTINEZ: All right. The British say that a quarter of Russian units have been rendered combat ineffective. So if that's true, what does that mean for the war?

EDMONDS: I think what it means is that, you know, the operation that we're seeing now in the east, many military analysts believe that this is the last large operation that the Russian military is able to conduct right now. I mean, it really is staggering. You know, we often think that, you know, 10 to - you know, 20% to 30% losses, a unit is no longer able to conduct offensive operations, and that's where we think the Russian military is right now. And we're seeing this operation in the east, and it's really not producing a lot of results, and that's probably likely a result of these staggering losses.

MARTINEZ: So if this is a last operation for Russia, does it suggest that maybe their war in Ukraine, in particular, where it's focused in the east right now, might be something that they might dig in on?

EDMONDS: They might dig in on it, but there's a real solid chance that the Russian military will not be able to achieve even these revised strategic goals of taking over these two provinces in the east. It's not clear at all that they'll actually be able to, you know, break through and control both regions.

MARTINEZ: So it could be something that is not as prolonged as maybe we thought.

EDMONDS: It may not be. I mean, one big question is what do the Ukrainians want to do? Do they want to try to push the Russians completely out of the east? Or do they want to just push the Russians back to, you know, kind of where they were when they came into this conflict, which would actually be a staggering defeat for the Russians?

MARTINEZ: But if - OK, so Russia still has missiles and rockets. So couldn't Russia just still pummel cities in Ukraine and maybe force these places to surrender, even if its troops can't hold the ground?

EDMONDS: It can still target cities. One, it's, you know, fairly low on its reserve of long-range strike systems. And two, you know, the more the Ukrainians push them back from the cities, the less range their artillery has to actually target those cities. So they can't maintain that indefinitely if they're not close to the cities.

MARTINEZ: My uncle, Jeff, was a marine. And he would always say that a war is won once the boots are on the ground - won or lost. Is that something that kind of holds water in this case?

EDMONDS: I think it did. I mean, I think that - well, the Russians - you know, the - Putin and the military leadership clearly believed that they could drive into Kyiv in a couple of days, have boots on the ground, as you said, and the resistance of the military would just fall apart, and the political, you know, regime would just go away. And that's clearly not the case. And so if the Russians can't maintain boots on the ground, it's not clear what they're actually - there's - it's not clear what he can claim as a victory in this conflict.

MARTINEZ: Now, there was a brief cease-fire and an evacuation of civilians in Mariupol this weekend. What do those developments maybe suggest about Russia's control of that port city?

EDMONDS: So I think - so Mariupol is important for the Russians in that it's geographically located along that strip that goes from Russia to Crimea. This - a lot of people call it the land bridge from Russia to Crimea. And so I don't think the Russians care who's actually in that city as long as they control it. And I think that's why they're allowing this - you know, this evacuation, even though previous evacuations, they've targeted those, and they've targeted civilians there. So I think that, you know, in a real sense, the Russians just want to hold on geographically to the city and have little concern for who's inside of it.

MARTINEZ: If Vladimir Putin feels that his strength is being questioned as a result of, you know, these recent military failures and in traditional war fighting, I mean, how significant, then, do you think is the threat, maybe as an act of desperation, that he might escalate to chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons?

EDMONDS: So I don't think he's going to use - I mean, he might use chemical and biological weapons in this conflict in order to, like, clear areas or clear parts of a city. We haven't - I don't think we've seen that or verified that yet. I don't think he's going to use a nuclear weapon. I do think a real danger here is that if he continues to lose, he might try to escalate this into a Russia-NATO kind of war. And the point there would not be to, like, invade the Baltics or invade Poland; it would just be to kind of call our bluff in a sense and say, hey, I know you guys don't want a Russia-NATO war. If you don't stop supporting Ukraine and take off some of these economic, you know, sanctions on the Russian economy, I'm going to turn this into the very thing that you don't want.

MARTINEZ: But he'd have to. Wouldn't he have to invade a NATO territory to do that?

EDMONDS: Not really. Not really. I think what he could do is, say, a long-range strike with some of these missiles into, say, Poland, for example. And he could claim that, well, I'm just targeting weapons shipments that are inbound to Ukraine. And so he's literally - you know, he's attacking a NATO partner, but not, you know, a big ground war, say.

MARTINEZ: Yeah. But it still would be crossing a line at that point.

EDMONDS: It would definitely be crossing a line. And, you know, any strike into a NATO country would definitely warrant an Article 5 response. And that's what he would be looking for.

MARTINEZ: One last thing - I mean, with this potential weakened military, what are the implications for Vladimir Putin's leadership and his hold on Russia?

EDMONDS: It's not clear. I think, that, you know, the truth of the conflict is going to eventually come out, and I think it will eventually weaken his position. But for right now, he actually has a fair amount of domestic support for this.

MARTINEZ: Jeff Edmonds is senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. Jeff, thanks a lot.

EDMONDS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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