Heavy casualties and low morale hamper Russia’s war effort in Ukraine

With the war raging in eastern Ukraine, there is a divide between the war aims declared by the Russian high command in Moscow, and the reality of the war on the ground. Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a Washington-based think tank, joins Amna Nawaz for more on the state of the war in Ukraine.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And a reminder. The "NewsHour"'s coverage of the war in Ukraine is supported in partnership with the Pulitzer Center.

    With the war raging in Eastern Ukraine, there is a divide between the war aims declared by the Russian high command in Moscow and the reality of the war on the ground.

    Amna Nawaz has that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    For more on the state of the war in Ukraine, we turn once again to Dmitri Alperovitch. he's co-founder of the Silverado Policy Accelerator. That's a Washington-based think tank.

    Dmitri, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for joining us.

    Let's start with your assessment of that Russian war effort on the ground. I spoke earlier with the Pentagon spokesman, John Kirby. He said, yes, Russia is learning from earlier missteps, they are better at resupplying forces in the field, better at combining their air and ground capabilities, but their progress has been slow and uneven.

    What's your read on how they're doing?

    Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Founder, Silverado Policy Accelerator

    The reality is that the Russians have learned from their mistakes, and they're using overwhelming fires, as we have just heard from the report, shelling indiscriminately the Ukrainian positions, killing, of course, many civilians in the process, but they're still making very little progress because they're up against very well-armed Ukrainians now.

    They're getting supplies from the West. They're entrenched in their defensive positions. And that's making it very, very difficult for the Russians. And they're taking heavy casualties.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Admiral Kirby also mentioned specifically the role of conscripts in this case, that they're sort of being inundated with propaganda back home about how well the effort is going, and then they get there on the ground and find a very different situation. He says that's contributing to Russia's lack of success.

    Have you seen that as well?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Absolutely. The morale is very low.

    The majority of the fighting force is still professionals who are getting paid, contractors in the Russian military. But we have seen, of course, conscripts being put into this fight. And the difference sometimes is really in the name, because a lot of these conscripts are sort of forced into signing contracts once they're trying to get out.

    And we're seeing that no one really wants to fight in Ukraine. And they're making very little progress as a result.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dmitri, what about the Ukrainian response? As you just heard reported there, they are getting supplies of more and heavier weaponry from the U.S. and NATO.

    Admiral Kirby said, look, they get it in, and then the Ukrainians have to figure out how to move it wherever it needs to go. Are they able to get that weaponry to the places they need it?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    The logistics are very challenging.

    They're relying on rail. And the Russians this week have started to target rail infrastructure. They targeted a number of substations in Western Ukraine to try to shut down rail. They have only been temporarily successful, caused about two hours of outage in some of these locations.

    So the Ukrainians are still able to resupply. And that is why you're seeing the Russians make such a big push in the Donbass so quickly, before they have been able to really send all their reinforcements into this fight, which the doctrine would dictate they should. And, as a result, they're rushing because they really want to cut off those supplies from coming into the Donbass region.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Tell me a little bit more about what's at stake in the Donbass and, of course, the Mariupol target that they're still trying to capture there, which would give them a crucial land bridge connecting those territories they control.

    What's at stake there, beyond just the military play?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Well, at this point, it's prestige. It's the ability to say that we have won this fight, even though the initial objectives, of course, of taking Kyiv, changing the government have not panned out.

    But they're trying to say that, never mind, we didn't want to do that anyway. This was all about protecting the Russian population in the Donbass. And if they can claim that they have been able to take what were the old boundaries of Donetsk and Luhansk, at least two statelets that they have created, if they can say that they now have the land corridor to Crimea, they can proclaim victory politically. President Putin can.

    But here's the reality for the Ukrainians. Even if they manage to hold the Donbass and prevent the Russians from capturing much of that territory, the remaining territory, they still face a very tough situation economically. The Black Sea is blockaded by the Russians. That means all the ports that the Ukrainians have both in the Azov Sea and in the Black Sea are not functioning.

    And that was the majority of their exports, the vast majority. Over 135 million tons a year would go through those ports. Now they're hoping to get about a million tons a month through the rail infrastructure down into Poland and Romania, just about a 10th of what they actually need. And that's 40 percent of their GDP. So the Ukrainian economy is really being starved to death right now by the Russians.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Dmitri, in just the 30 seconds or so we have left, do you even know what victory looks like for Ukrainians at this point?

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Well, obviously, they have been able to preserve their government, preserve their freedom, but can they preserve their economy?

    That is the question right now. They require about $5 billion to $7 billion in aid a month right now. The West, of course, is supporting them, but how long can they go? Can they go for years? Can they go for decades? They need to get that back — economy back up and running, their exports back through the maritime ports.

    And if we can't block — if we can't an break the blockade that the Russians are instituting in the Black Sea, it will be very, very tough to do.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Dmitri Alperovitch of the Silverado Policy Accelerator joining us tonight.

    Dmitri, thanks for your time.

  • Dmitri Alperovitch:

    Thank you.

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