A Russian soldier takes part in Belarusian and Russian joint military drills at Brestsky firing range, Belarus, onn February 4, 2022. Photo: Video screengrab / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

With a unity unseen since the days of apartheid South Africa, the Western world, and the wider global community, are bringing weighty pressure to bear upon Russia, but the critical metric remains a grim one for the defenders of Ukraine.

But calculations about the surprisingly modest operational costs that the world’s 11th largest economy is incurring in its war make clear that sanctions are highly unlikely to hit Russia hard enough, or quickly enough, to affect the fighting in Ukraine.

That forlorn reality was publicly conceded by none other than US President Joe Biden on Tuesday.

While Ukraine fights for its life, for a deeply invested President Vladimir Putin, too, the stakes are high. Under Putin, Russia has become a neo-Prussia, massively prioritizing its military in terms of spending and status. Battlefield failure would represent severe humiliation.

And widespread claims that Russia did not anticipate heavy combat in Ukraine are contradicted by the Kremlin’s casualty preparation steps, which themselves underline Putin’s determination to prosecute this war to the hilt.

This is the backdrop as what looks set to be the decisive action of the conflict – a main force operation against a defiant but lonely Kiev.

A long line of Russian military vehicles heading toward Kiev. Photo: Facebook

Russia’s sluggish juggernaut

Analyses from western governments, speculation by correspondents and comments to camera from captured Russian troops all suggest the invaders were shocked by the spirited Ukrainian resistance its offensive has run into.

This may explain the apparent failure of the undermanned coup de main operations in the early hours and days of the war. But now a manpower-heavy concentration of force is being extensively prepared for a sledgehammer blow.

A 40-mile-long Russian column, identified northwest of the capital Kiev days ago, is making progress at a pace that falls far below the headlong speed of blitzkrieg. Satellite photos show it remains deployed for a road march, rather than for combat.

Hopeful reports suggest its modest tempo is a result of Ukrainian resistance, and/or defenses covering Kiev further south. Or, that its advance may be suffering from the incompetence that affected other aspects of the Russian operation.

Alternatively, it may still be massing personnel and equipment. Logistical preparations – the establishment of supply, fuel and ammunition dumps, as well as casualty clearing stations – are prerequisites.

It is also likely that commanders are establishing force-protection measures – covering flanks and establishing anti-aircraft and anti-drone units – along the line of march.

The latter measures would be particularly prudent given the vulnerability of a single axis of advance, and given the multiple clips circulating on the internet of ambushed vehicle convoys and drone strikes on mobile rocket launchers, as well as of armored units stranded on Ukrainian roads due to lack of fuel.

But what cannot be denied is the column’s combat power.

Based on vehicle numbers, the column is estimated to field some 40,000 men, an armored corps-strength force, bigger than any unit Russia has yet deployed in theater. Its size and location suggest it is aiming for the encirclement and constriction of Ukraine’s capital.

Given the difficulties and risks of maintaining a miles-long road column on enemy territory indefinitely, Russian commanders will likely be under pressure to get moving.

This is the imminent threat that dangles over the head of the Volodymyr Zelensky government in Kiev, which has not yet faced a ground assault.

Elsewhere, Ukraine’s second city of Kharkiv is suffering a bombardment, while its outskirts are reportedly under attack from airborne troops. And Russia’s advances continue across the south of the country.

So all indicators are that the near-term situation facing an embattled Ukraine is critical.

However, there is virtually zero likelihood that Western countermoves, unleashed in the spheres of finance, commerce and diplomacy, can halt near-term Russian military operations.

US President Joe Biden has praised the courage of the Ukrainian people. Photo: AFP / Saul Loeb

Biden’s admission

The inability of sanctions to impact battlefield developments was indirectly addressed by Biden during a forceful state of the union speech on Tuesday, during which he praised Ukrainian courage while detailing US actions.

“We are cutting off Russia’s largest banks from the international financial system … preventing Russia’s central bank from defending the Russian ruble, making Putin’s US$630 billion ‘war fund’ worthless,” he said. “We are choking off Russia’s access to technology that will sap its economic strength and weaken its military for years to come.” 

Strong words. But even the US president admitted the effects will be long-term, not short.

“The next few days, weeks, months, will be hard on [Ukraine],” Biden said. “But while [Putin] may make gains on the battlefield – he will pay a continuing high price over the long run.”

Others agree.

Billionaire oligarch Mikhail Fridman, the Russo-Ukrainian founder of Russia’s Alfa Group and Alfa Bank, told a highly unusual press conference in London that war is “not a solution” to Kiev-Moscow tensions, but added that sanctions would not stop the war now underway.

Russian Alfa Group and Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman. Image: Twitter

The Kremlin’s low-cost carnage

According to information produced by a source familiar with US military operations that has been seen by Asia Times, Russia’s operational costs for the early days of the war are almost certainly far below published estimates.

Those estimates are as high as $15 billion. The source reckons the first four days of combat are, in fact, likely to have cost closer to $2 billion.

He based his analysis on a similarly large-scale invasion of a foreign nation, albeit one conducted by US forces: 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Then, the cost of maintaining one US soldier in the field during combat operations – the price for his fuel, rations and ammunition – was between $1,000 and $2,000 per day. Pay costs are not included, given that soldiers are paid whether they are at peace or at war.

Expanding his analysis, the source put the daily cost of fielding a 150,000-man US force at approximately $2 billion.

However, he offered caveats. Firstly, the price dropped after the early days of the mission, as US forces used fewer and fewer high-tech, high-priced, smart munitions. By the second week of the operation, he estimated, daily force costs had dropped to about $400 million.

Turning to the price the Ukraine adventure is costing the Moscow exchequer, he noted two factors that lower its costs relative to US costs.

Firstly, Russian ordnance is generally less sophisticated and cheaper than US kit. Secondly, Russian military vehicles do not use petroleum, but diesel – a fuel that is cheaper and offers a better range.

He also estimated the cost of equipment losses in the first four days of fighting. Ten aircraft, at an average price tag of $30 million per airframe, would cost $300 million. One hundred armored fighting vehicles – troop carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, mobile artillery and tanks – which cost an average of $5 million each, would hit the Russian taxpayer with a $500 million bill.

The source then estimated the daily cost of keeping a Russian soldier – a cheaper fighting man than his US counterpart – in the field to be approximately $1,000. He multiplied that by the upper estimate of Russia’s force level in Ukraine – 200,000 troops.

For one day, that would be $200 million. Over four days, troop maintenance costs would total $800 million.

So the total cost for four days of combat operations in Ukraine would be in the region of $1.6 billion – the source added it could rise to $2 billion. But even that upper range would put daily costs to the Kremlin of its invasion at about $500 million.

Russia is the world’s 11th largest economy, with an estimated GDP of about $2 trillion and forex reserves estimated at $630 billion as of January. However, the Financial Times reports that the Russian Central Bank will face major difficulties liquifying approximately half of these reserves, which are securities.

Yet the country’s key industries are energy and armaments, meaning its troops can get munitions, arms and fuel from domestic sources.

Russian troops are slowly making ground in Ukraine and tensions are mounting. Photo: Twitter / Fars News Agency

Cost tolerance, casualty tolerance

The above price analysis is based on short-term, main-force, high-intensity operations. The sustainability of Russian operations in Ukraine over the long term – should Moscow win a conventional victory, but then suffer the long-term bleed of an insurgency/proxy war – are more questionable.

Yet Russia looks prepared to pay a heavy-as-necessary price for victory given that during two decades under the rule of Putin, the nation has embraced all things macho and martial.

The strongman president has frequently been photographed testing weapons and visiting military units. Multiple organizations teach youth patriotic virtues and military skills, while encouraging enlistment.

During Putin’s term, his country has invested heavily in World War II memorials, while its filmmakers have produced a spate of films set during that struggle. The Soviet Union suffered a staggering 27 million dead in that war, which, as the Kremlin likes to remind the world, was largely won by the Red Army.

Today, Russia pays a high price for its military in terms of rubles – and looks prepared to pay a high price for its Ukrainian operation in terms of blood.

Russia invests more in its armed forces as a percentage of its national economy than other middle and major powers. According to data from Swedish think tank SIPRI, in 2020 Russia spent 4.3% of its GDP on its military.

That compares to 1.4% for Germany, 1.7% for China, 2.1% for France, 2.2% for the United Kingdom, 2.9% for India and 3.7% for the United States.

Meanwhile, some Western reports have commented on the reluctance of the Russian Ministry of Defense to release information on the casualties it has incurred in Ukraine. Multiple reports argue that Russia was unprepared for the losses it is incurring in Ukraine.

The latter speculation, however, is countered by the casualty preparation measures the Kremlin has emplaced.

An analysis by the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, citing pre-hostilities build-ups of military blood banks, recent footage of military mobile crematoria in motion and directives from the government on the mass disposal of bodies, suggests the operation Moscow anticipated was far from bloodless.