The Soviet Russian assault on Berlin in 1945 is not something which is widely studied, outside of military academies, and the small community of military nerds who pore over World War Two battles. To most people, the facts are simple enough: The Russians drove the Germans out of Russia, smashed a weakened German Army, and marched into Berlin, where Hitler committed suicide. All of that is true, at a high level, but the human cost of that advance is often forgotten.
The battle for Berlin was, indeed, fought between a well-equipped Russian Army and a shattered rag-tag remnant of the once-mighty Wehrmacht. The Russians outnumbered the Germans by more than three to one: 2.3 million soldiers of the Red Army faced off against little more than 700,000 Germans. The differences in quality between the two forces was even greater – the Russians equipped with the most modern tanks and artillery, and with total air superiority. The Germans, by contrast, were pressing children as young as 12 to the front lines, to fight alongside pensioners.
The fight took two weeks. The Russians eventually forced Berlin to surrender. In so doing, the Red Army shipped 81,000 dead soldiers, and almost a quarter of a million wounded. They lost almost 2,000 tanks and artillery pieces, and 917 aircraft were shot down by the German defences. By modern standards, that battle, in the last days of the war, was a bloodbath of unimaginable proportions for the Russian Army.
This is relevant because it is useful to make a comparison between the battle for Berlin, and the Russian Army’s prospects for success in Kiev. There, according to western military experts, the Russians have massed just 70-80,000 soldiers. There is no air superiority. The Ukrainians are vastly better equipped, compared to the Russians, than the Germans were in 1945.
To have any chance of winning his war in Ukraine, President Putin must either take Kiev, or kill everyone in it. This is self-evident: While the Ukrainian Government continues to operate within the borders of Ukraine, the war continues. There is no way that the fighting stops, from a Russian perspective, without the fall of Kiev, and the deposing of President Zelenskyy. Taking Kiev does not guarantee a Russian win – the Government of Ukraine might simply move west and continue the fight – but it is a prerequisite to a Russian win. This is not a controversial thing to say, and is something that anybody with a brain can figure out. While Kiev stands, Russia cannot “win”.
All of which makes the current state of play so desperate for Russian forces. Almost three weeks into the war, Russian advances into Ukraine remain limited to a pocket in the South around the city of Mariopol and the black sea cost, an advance to the outskirts of Kharkiv in the East, and a slow bloody attempted encirclement of Kiev in the North. Russia has yet to secure any critical military objectives, and it is taking losses of men and materials at a tremendous rate.
All of the things outlined above are not facts that are in dispute: The Russian losses may be more, or less, than what each side claims, but the evidence before our eyes that they are real is obvious. Putin is resorting to calling up reserves of Syrian fighters to bulk up his lines, and bringing Chechen fighters in from the Caucasus. At a minimum, from this we can deduce that the initial Russian invasion was not enough to win the war, and that Russian losses have left their forces short of the men necessary for victory. That’s not western propaganda – it’s just what is obvious to anybody with a brain.
What’s more, every day that passes makes the situation worse for Russia: Remember that Ukraine has mobilised every fighting age man, and is now training many of them. Remember that western supplies of guns, artillery, anti air, and anti-tank equipment are flooding into Ukraine. Remember that Russia faces crippling economic sanctions (and the possibility of a debt default) while Ukraine is benefitting from economic and military aid.
Add all that to what you know about the battle for Berlin, above, and ask yourself: How likely is it that the Russians will take Kiev this week? Or next week? Or the week after that?
The longer this war goes on, the greater the suffering of the Ukrainian people. But also: The harder it becomes for Russia to win.
Already, for example, even the Chinese newspapers – who, broadly, report what they are told they may – are reporting concern in Beijing about the course of events. China is the last major power on earth which is not overtly hostile to Russia:
Ukraine war: Xi Jinping ‘is unsettled’ by invasion, CIA director says | South China Morning Post https://t.co/mFNk5Q8RLj
— toomas hendrik ilves (@IlvesToomas) March 13, 2022
Even Peter Hitchens – perhaps the most western-sceptic commentator on the war on these islands, is arriving at the same conclusion:
Perhaps the single biggest thing we have learned from this attack is that Russia is (as I have long argued) not very big, not very rich and not very strong. Its army cannot achieve its aims.
Putin has, without meaning to, destroyed the Russian bogeyman which we have been told to fear for so long. It would be good if somebody learned something from that, but I don’t suppose they will.
There will be those, in the comments of this piece, who make an alternative argument: “John”, they will say, “Putin doesn’t need to win – he just needs to get Ukraine to accept that Crimea and the Donbass are Russian, and that Ukraine will not join NATO”.
The problem with this is that it ignores several factors: First, Russia’s problems are not only military in nature. Putin increasingly needs an easing of sanctions. He needs, ultimately, a peace that both the Russian people, and western countries, will regard as fair. It is not clear that a land grab will meet the second objective.
Second, peace on those terms would represent a reverse, not an advance, for Russia: It already had control of Crimea before this war, and functional control over much of the contested area in the east. Such a settlement would leave Russia in the same place as it was before the war, but with crippling sanctions in place.
Third, peace on those terms would actually heighten the long-term threat to Russia: The Ukraine that remained would be a country of over 40 million, with significant anti-Russian sentiment, that had just received western aid to win a war against the Russians. Are they more, or less, likely to align with the west in the future?
There simply is no way that anything about the situation in Ukraine at the moment can be presented as good for Vladimir Putin. For several years, some commentators in the west have presented him as a genius strongman, who was running circles around the weak and feckless west. In three weeks in Ukraine, he has, perhaps, irreversibly destroyed his country’s status as a great power. Because as of today, this war has become unwinnable, at least so long as it remains a conventional war.