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The Russian Military’s Debacle in Ukraine

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Two weeks ago, the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian cities and moved west, toward Kyiv, where the Ukrainian leadership sits. Despite the death and destruction caused by the Russian attack, Ukraine’s military has held up better than experts predicted, and Russian advances have been slower than feared. Now President Putin—who already faces sweeping financial sanctions—is confronting the prospect of an increasingly violent and lengthy campaign. What strategic errors has the Russian military made, and why?

To help answer these questions, I recently spoke by phone with Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the nonprofit research organization the Center for Naval Analyses and an expert on the Russian military. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed how Russia’s armed forces have changed since the end of the Cold War, whether its military missteps have hampered its political aims, and the dangers of the conflict spiralling out of control.

You recently wrote, “Taking a cursory look at Russian losses two weeks into the war, it reads less as a general failure to modernize, and more as a failure to maintain and properly support the equipment.” Can you talk about what you meant by that?

I think it is fair to say that, since about late 2008, after the Russian-Georgian war, the Russian military has been transformed by a tandem process of reform and modernization. We really have not seen them attempt an operation of this scale since the military reforms of that time period. And so, looking across the board at Russian military performance, we see that they had a lot of challenges and a lot of problems that, perhaps, many didn’t expect. It’s clear that they are struggling with a large amount of equipment that’s being abandoned. Part of that is because it’s broken down, because they can’t support it; they likely spent more on modernization and procurement capabilities and modernizing platforms than they did on maintenance and repair cycles.

The other part of it is that the Russian military is fundamentally not one that is set up for a strategic ground offensive or this type of campaign. It’s a firepower-heavy military that is extremely consuming and taxing. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount of logistical resources to support this type of war, and certainly not in the way that they are fighting it.

I want to take a step back. What was the state of the Russian military in the nineteen-nineties, before this modernization you alluded to, and what did we see during the wars in Chechnya in the nineteen-nineties, which people have talked about in comparison with Ukraine?

In the nineteen-nineties, the Russian military was really at its nadir. You had the difficult process of withdrawing Soviet forces from Warsaw Pact countries; a collapse of funding, sustainability, and morale; and conflicts that further demoralized the Russian military, such as the First Chechen War, which de facto ended in a defeat.

But, in that time period, it also underwent several piecemeal reforms. They were incomplete, but eventually stabilizing enough toward the late nineteen-nineties, and this allowed the Russian military to generate enough forces to fight the Second Chechen War. And this war was also a very troubling one, with the complete destruction of Grozny and a sustained operation in Chechnya that was marred by poor use of forces. The military also suffered from corruption and maladies that had been seen throughout Russia’s chaotic nineties and that affected the country writ large.

The Russian military got a terrible reputation, particularly in the West. Russia was seen as a declining power—a country that was fundamentally dependent on its strategic and tactical nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantor for sovereignty because its military was simply not in a place where it could pose a serious challenge. At the same time, the United States, together with NATO, enjoyed military dominance almost across the board. I think Russian military leaders basically looked on the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia with dismay. It became very clear to them that the U.S. could fairly quickly establish conventional military dominance or superiority in the battle space, and that Russian forces would fundamentally have to resort to nuclear weapons, if anything, which is not a good place to be.

What changed during the Putin era?

Although Russia had decent modernization programs in the two-thousands, the first real recapitalization of its military began around 2011. Russia actually spent very heavily on procurement—when we leverage purchasing power parity, which is the right way to compare military expenditures, about a hundred and sixty billion dollars per year in those expenditures and, of that, maybe at least fifty billion dollars went toward procurement modernization. So they had leveraged the past decade to substantially recapitalize the Russian armed forces. They invested in capabilities across the board, from nuclear modernization and Russian aerospace forces to ground forces and the Navy.

What the Russian military has consistently struggled with is production of newer, more modernized equipment. There were some logjams or setbacks, which resulted from the war that they launched with Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine was actually a significant producer of components for Russia’s defense industry, and so the two countries went through a very messy divorce in terms of their military-industrial complexes. The war with Ukraine set some of Russia’s ambitious procurement goals back by quite a number of years. Ukraine produced everything from gas turbines for Russian ships to helicopter engines and the like. Western sanctions also hurt, particularly technological sanctions.

After all these reforms, what about the way the past two and a half weeks have gone has most surprised you?

The most surprising part, of course, was the campaign itself, because those of us looking at this expected that the Russian military was going to conduct a combined-arms offensive, that there would be an initial air campaign, and that they would heavily leverage some of the capabilities they had, such as electronic warfare. We saw very little of that, and there’s a clear reason why.

The political leadership had imposed the framework, and the crux of it was that they believed the Russian military could, in a matter of days, achieve a regime change in Ukraine—that there wouldn’t be a significant amount of fighting and resistance, that they wouldn’t have to conduct a protracted war, that they could rapidly build up forces and introduce them into the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv.

I always tell people that military defense analysts focus on capabilities, but military strategy and the operational concepts really matter. It’s the force employment that really matters. The initial Russian campaign represents completely irrational force employment and, in many cases, frankly, nonemployment. A host of capabilities sat on the sidelines. We started off talking about the missing case of the Russian Air Force, right? Where were they? And a host of other capabilities that simply weren’t being introduced until about a week into the war. The reasons for that are clear. First, they didn’t actually organize and prepare for war with Ukraine. They initially had sent troops to seize key roads and junction towns to isolate sectors, not expecting resistance. They lied to the troops about the fact that they were sending them to war and about the nature of the war. They didn’t psychologically or materially prepare them for a conflict with a pretty significant conventional force. They were deeply optimistic about their ability to quickly get into the capital and force Zelensky to either flee or surrender.


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