Russia's Failed Strategy
Understanding the Military Situation In Ukraine
I highly recommend this podcast interviewing Michael Kofman, a military analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. Prior to the war, Kofman, who was born in Ukraine, was one of the few analysts I saw outside of government who believed that Russia’s deployments suggested a full-scale invasion.
A lot of the early indications out of Ukraine are that Russia’s offensive is not going as planned. This has lead to a great deal of optimism in Europe and the United States, with people even daring to imagine a miraculous Ukrainian victory. Kofman’s perspective is more sober. He attributes the initial failures of the Russian army to the flawed political and military assumptions of the operation. According to him, the idea seems to have been that a rapid advance to Kyiv with columns bypassing major population centers would cause the Ukrainian government to collapse and give the Ukrainian army the sense it was being quickly surrounded, leading to demoralization and mass surrender. This notion lead to unsupported and piecemeal mad-dashes, like the ill-fated helicopter assault on Hostomel airport on the first day, where Russian airborne troops landed behind enemy lines and then were totally destroyed by a Ukrainian counter-attack. We’ve seen many small contingents of vehicles, unsupported by infantry or aircraft, outstripping their supply lines and then getting ambushed.
Kofman was also puzzled by Russia’s lack of extensive use of tactical aviation—its fixed-wing bombers and helicopter gunships—and massed artillery fire, the central piece of Russian military doctrine. He believed that this was avoided to minimize civilian casualties and make Russia’s hoped-for political solution more viable. Disturbingly though, it seems that Russia is learning from these failures and reverting to its more standard tactics of sieges and mass fire, which will mean much more suffering for civilians.
According to Kofman, Putin seems to have thought the war could be ended so quickly he could keep it largely a secret from the Russian public, which means the information environment was ceded entirely to Ukraine. Social media is filled with heroic images of Ukrainian resistance, inspiring the West to stiffen its support.
Putin seems to have believed his own propaganda about the weakness, “degeneracy” and decadence of Ukrainians and the West, notions he may have picked up in part from listening to the doom and gloom of the Western far right. It also seems doesn’t have a clear political goal for the war any longer. We Americans are very familiar with underestimating an opponent and not having a clear goal. I think the best imaginable outcome at this point will be that the Russians come to believe that the war is un-winnable on the terms that they had hoped for and they look for some kind of face-saving exit.