This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.
Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.
1. Marking Russian Equipment Losses in Ukraine
Monitoring the attrition of certain weapon systems helps the West estimate the Russian military’s ability to prolong its invasion. Having inherited the Soviet Red Army’s doctrinal foundations, the Russian Army runs on fire and steel. Its premier capability is its ability to use, produce, and expend overwhelming amounts of armor and artillery.
Ukraine has scored a large number of kills on Russian heavy armor, surprising many observers. Traditional Soviet-Russian tank design philosophy leaves Russian main battle tanks extremely vulnerable to top-attack anti-tank weapons like the Javelin and NLAW. US-supplied Remote Anti-Armor Mine (RAAM) systems, which use 155mm artillery shells to scatter anti-tank mines, have also become a significant factor in the more recent stages of the war.
Ukraine has become a massive cemetery for Russian armor. Observers have visually confirmed over 1,900 losses, and the real number is likely higher. According to the Ukrainian General Staff, the Russian Army had lost 3,511 main battle tanks by March 2023. Although Ukraine’s officially announced numbers might be overreported, losses likely exceed 2,000 platforms.
The Russian military has responded by fielding obsolete platforms like the T-54 and T-55. Though the inferiority of these platforms has become a source of ridicule among the Western strategic community, the Russian Army has thousands of units in storage that it could pour onto the battlefield with adequate maintenance and repair.
Another factor to monitor is the Russian defense industry’s production capacity. Dmitry Medvedev has claimed that Russia can produce 1,500 modern main battle tanks per year. Realistic assessments of the Russian industrial base estimate that Russia’s Uralvagonzavod and Omsktransmash can produce 250 tanks per year and restore some 600 Soviet-remnant tanks. Though considerable, this will not replace the roughly 148 tanks the Russian military is losing each month.
Artillery numbers are less clear. While official Ukrainian numbers count more than 2,500 pieces of artillery destroyed, open-source monitoring marks just 640 pieces of Russian equipment lost.
Tracking artillery ammunition production capacity is not easy. The Russian defense industry produced around 3.5 million Soviet-Russian standard 152mm-class artillery shells between 2014 and 2021—roughly 500,000 per year. While the numbers can vary for the 122mm and 203mm classes, it is clear that the Russian military can no longer afford to fire 20,000 shells per month, as it did at times in 2022. This is why Ukrainian defense intelligence predicts a serious artillery ammunition crisis for Russia in the forthcoming months.
It is also difficult to track Russia’s artillery acquisitions from its allies. China has transferred arms to Russia through Belarus, albeit in limited numbers. Iran has also supplied tens of thousands of artillery shells to the Russian military. Perhaps the most interesting arms transaction is the transfer of artillery shells from North Korea to Russia’s infamous Wagner Group. In the worst-case scenario, Beijing can ramp up its artillery transfers through third parties like Myanmar and Iran, which are already sanctioned and thus have nothing to lose.
The Kremlin aims to continue expending resources long enough to wear out the political will and defense arsenals of Ukraine’s NATO allies. This plan appears at least somewhat feasible. This is why Ukraine’s forthcoming counteroffensive marks a critical turning point in the war. Kyiv will have to score a decisive military breakthrough to renew the West’s optimism that support for Ukraine does not simply prolong a bloody stalemate.
2. Worrying News for NATO: The Nuclear Threat from Belarus Is Getting Serious
The Russian Foreign Office announced the nuclear certification of the Belarusian Air Force’s Su-25 attack aircraft. This upgrade seems to reveal the Kremlin’s plans to upgrade Belarus’ tactical nuclear deterrent, which will feature SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles, Su-24 frontline bombers, as well as the Su-25 attack aircraft.
Putin’s plans for a nuclear Belarus and the ongoing invasion of Ukraine are the last nails in the coffin of the 1997 NATO–Russia Founding Act (NRFA). The Siloviki—Russia’s ruling elite—see Belarus’ nuclearization as a step toward Soviet-inspired expansion of the Russian empire. Wargames with Russia and Belarus typically have a pronounced nuclear dimension. These displays are traditionally accompanied by nuclear warmongering rhetoric from Belarusian and Russian policymakers.
Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, nuclear brinkmanship has gradually become part of Alexander Lukashenko’s everyday parlance. On March 31, 2023, in his annual address to the nation, the Belarusian strongman placed the nuclear agenda at the epicenter of his national security paradigm. More worryingly, in the same speech, Lukashenko threatened Russian use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Lukashenko has also adopted a sharp anti-NATO stance following the 2020 mass protests, whichhas led to a drastic shift in Belarus’ post–Cold War nuclear architecture. In 2022, Belarussian constitutional amendments renounced nuclear-free zone status and enabled Lukashenko’s reign for another decade. Moreover, the new military doctrine of the Union State (the supranational political-military union of the Russian Federation and Belarus) calls for Minsk’s renewed nuclear role.
Previous editions of this report called for NATO leaders to officially renounce the NRFA to counter Moscow’s escalatory moves in Belarus, and to declare that Belarus’ nuclearization would trigger the extension of NATO’s tactical nuclear posture to the Eastern European members of the alliance. Hudson will continue to closely monitor nuclear developments in Belarus.
3. Bradley Fighting Vehicles Spotted in Ukraine
According to US officials, the Ukrainian Armed Forces will receive some 100 M2 Bradley IFVs under the Presidential Drawdown Authority, which is faster than the Department of Defense–funded Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.
While IFVs are not as glamorous as main battle tanks, these platforms are vital to the success of Ukraine’s forthcoming counteroffensive. First, IFVs give mechanized infantry the critical capability to conduct armored maneuver warfare alongside advanced main battle tanks. Second, IFVs provide the utmost force protection to mechanized combat formations, something that the Ukrainian military will need when assaulting heavily fortified Russian positions. Last, lessons learned from the 1973 Yom Kippur War, which saw the Soviet IFV BMP-1 in action, suggest that these platforms are very effective in the same kind of tactically flexible, smaller armored formations Ukraine has successfully employed throughout the war.
4. Germany Delivers the First Patriot Air and Missile Defense Systems to Ukraine
Western strategic defensive weapon systems have also begun to arrive in Ukraine. Germany’s Defense Ministry recently announced the delivery of the Patriot air and missile defense system. In March 2023, the Ukrainian crews also completed their training with the European SAMP/T. France and Italy are set to provide Kyiv with the SAMP/T air and missile defense system in the spring or early summer of this year.
Last week, the Ukrainian Air Force started a campaign on its Twitter account, warning that unless Kyiv gets a true capability boost, centered on the F-16 fighter jet, the Russian Air Force (VKS) will achieve air superiority. While air defense systems cannot doctrinally substitute fighter aircraft, especially when protecting large areas of responsibility like the Ukrainian airspace, advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems can offer considerable protection against Russian airstrikes and standoff attacks.