CONTINUED SUPPORT OF UKRAINE SERVES JAPAN’S NATIONAL INTERESTS
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Sergei Surovinkin abruptly announced on November 9 that the Russian military would withdraw from Kherson, the capital of Kherson Oblast (state) in southern Ukraine. The city was the only capital the Russians managed to capture of the four states they occupied—and arbitrarily later annexed—since launching their invasion in February.
What does the withdrawal, which the Russians claimed was completed on November 11, mean? Appearing on my Friday night “Genron” Internet TV news show the same day, Professor Yu Koizumi, a full-time lecturer at Tokyo University’s Center for Advanced Science and Technology and an expert on the Russian military, described the retreat as a big political blow to Vladimir Putin, as it may arouse suspicion among the Russian public about the “victory” he envisions. Koizumi explained:
“The whole state of Kherson fell into Russian hands on March 2—just six days after the start of the invasion. But the Ukrainian armed forces fought back heroically and destroyed the four bridges across the Dnieper (one of the major transboundary rivers of Europe flowing through Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine into the Black Sea). As a result, supplies to the 40,000 elite forces Russia deployed to the west of the river were cut off. Russia had suffered a significant loss of fighting strength, and I think they wantd to protect these troops at all costs.”
Western society looks at Putin’s war (he calls it “special military operation”) very critically. Within Russia, however, there are many—especially those in rural regions—who have staunchly believed in Putin and an ultimate victory. With this withdrawal, even they may now begin to wonder if Russia ‟may be losing the war,” Koizumi said, pointing out that Putin, afraid of losing public support, apparently took his time in announcing the retreat.
Another Russian expert, Sugio Takahashi, who heads the Defense Policy Research Division of the National Institute for Defense Studies, figures that with his decision this time Putin has managed to make his political strategy compatible with his military strategy. Takahashi asserted:
“As of June, there was speculation that the Ukrainian army would launch a major counterattack in the direction of Kherson, and Ukrainian troops were actually being assembled for the operation. The Russians attempted to counter the move by deploying part of their troops in the eastern region of Donbas to defend Kherson. But the bridges had been destroyed by then, driving the elite troops to a corner. I suppose the retreat was politically undesirable but militarily inevitable for the sake of preserving the troops.”
Koizumi noted that in order to minimize political losses for himself, Putin had Shoigu and Surovinkin, commanders for operations in the war, announce the withdrawal. Said Koizumi:
“The Russian presidential office, in other words Putin himself, had the duo play a farce resembling a school children’s play, and Putin looked on as if it was none of his business.”
Don’t Underestimate Russian Army
How will Putin’s strategy for his war play out going forward? First and foremost, it is obvious that he has absolutely no desire whatsoever to accept defeat. Nor is the Ukrainian side in any mood for negotiations before reclaiming more territory, now that it is finally starting to gain the upper hand in the conflict. In point of fact, military experts are hinting at the possibility of the Ukrainian army launching a large-scale counter-offensive in Zaporizhzhia Oblast to the northeast of Kherson anytime soon.
With both armies committed to fighting on, Russia took the plunge on September 21 to mobilize 300,000 men. Although negative analyses pertaining to Russia’s military capability to continue fighting have been issued by various entities, including the British Ministry of Defense, the Russian army should not be underestimated, Koizumi warned, observing:
“Putin is known to have boasted that Russia this time mobilized 318,000 men, including many volunteers, within just ten days. He also reportedly stated that 80,000 of the new recruits were already deployed as of November 4, with 49,000 of them thrown into active combat. That leaves slightly less than 240,000 men. A month and a half have passed since the mobilization, but I have yet to hear that these 240,000 men have been deployed. That presumably would mean they are still in training. Well-trained and appropriately equipped, these men would constitute a formidable fighting force. When and where they will be sent to the frontline, I think, will be a major turning point of this war.”
One can see how tough the reality of the war must be for the West to deal with. Russia’s military might is still massive. Its ground force is made up of 280,000 troops and there is a sizable number of airborne troops as well. Adding the navy’s marines makes for a total of 360,000. Add to this the 318,000 new Putin recruits and Russia will have a fighting force comprising nearly 700,000 troops on active duty.
“The question is how many of these men Putin has actually sent to the front,” Koizumi said. “Putin has yet to call this conflict a ‘war.” Since legally speaking Russia isn’t in a war now, the president restricted by a law enacted in 2003 to throw into battle only professional soldiers. Conscripted soldiers, estimated at 200,000, are banned from fighting in the battlefield. This means Putin invaded Ukraine with altogether 190,000 or so troops—150,000-160,000 professional Russian soldiers and about 30,000 pro-Russian volunteers from the states of Donetsk and Luhansk.”
Now that Putin claims to have mobilized over 300,000 additional troops, however, the war situation is expected to change, according to Koizumi. He further observed:
“If draftees, including these additional 300,000 troops go into action, that would mean the number of combatants alone would suddenly multiply more than threefold. That will have a significant bearing on the course of the war.”
Never Allow China to Misunderstand Japan’s Intentions
Russia’s reservists, retired military personnel who have been conscripted before, can also be a significant fighting force. There reportedly are some 2 million relatively young reservists in Russia who have retired within the last five years. The 300,000 latest recruits represent only a small percentage of them. Takahashi noted:
“If they are to be retrained and thrown into battle combined with, for instance, the elite troops who pulled out of Kherson, they would constitute a significant game changer in this war in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine has an estimated 900,000 reservists, of whom 700,000 have so far been mobilized. The war between Ukraine and Russia is expected to last over a long period of time, with each side utilizing active-duty troops. This is the harsh reality of the ongoing war.”
Koizumi sees the Russian military as having greater stockpiles of ammunition, fuel, and weapons than generally expected. Take tanks, for instance. Reportedly, Russia had 2,800 tanks available for combat at the start of the war, and 1,600 of them have so far been lost. But it would be mistaken to conclude that Russia has lost more than half of its available tanks. It actually is believed to have in reserve as many as 10,000 more tanks almost ready for combat.
Koizumi noted that in Japan old weapons and equipment are decommissioned and disassembled, but that in Russia most of them, including tanks, are left exposed to the rain across a wide expanse of its land but are retooled for use every fall during large-scale maneuvers the Russian army carries out.
“It would therefore be reasonable to expect that the Russians have a large pool of reserve tanks available,” added Koizumi.
In stark contrast, Ukraine is precariously outnumbered in tanks. It is slated to have a delivery of 240 tanks from Poland and another 90 from Czech before long. (The Japan Ground Self-Defense force has 540 tanks.)
Ukraine is continuing to resist tooth and nail the invasion by Russia, which still is a formidable military power despite its weakened position. Japan has every reason to continue aiding Ukraine. In addition to providing official economic support, Japan should send relief goods to enable the Ukrainians to survive their winter, which will be cold, dark, and long.
Above all else, it is crucial for Japan to not give China any chance to misunderstand our resolve to stringently safeguard our security by not allowing Russia to win its war of aggression against Ukraine. China, which is watching with hostility every step Taiwan and Japan make, is far more formidable than Russia militarily, economically, and strategically. The Russian war against Ukraine is not someone else’s business. We Japanese must be cognizant of the fact that our nation is in the midst of a serious Chinese threat to our security. Now is the time for all of us to make a concerted effort to bolster our military capability.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,025 in the November 24, 2022
issue of The Weekly Shincho)