Two weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country to invade Ukraine. Since then, Russian forces have shelled Ukrainian towns and moved west towards Kiev, where the Ukrainian leadership sits. Despite the death and destruction caused by the Russian attack, the Ukrainian army held up better than expected by experts, and Russian advances were slower than expected. Now President Putin, who is already facing sweeping financial sanctions, faces the prospect of an increasingly violent and protracted campaign. What strategic mistakes did the Russian army make and why?
To help answer these questions, I recently spoke by phone with Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the nonprofit research organization’s Center for Naval Analysis and an expert on the Russian military. During our chat, 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 hindered its political goals. and the dangers of spiraling conflict out of control. .
You have recently wrote, “Taking a cursory look at Russian casualties two weeks into the war, this reads less as a general failure to modernize, and more as a failure to properly maintain and support equipment.” Can you tell us what you meant by that?
I think it’s fair to say that since around late 2008, after the Russo-Georgian war, the Russian military has been transformed through a tandem process of reform and modernization. We really haven’t seen them attempt an operation of this magnitude since the military reforms of that period. And so, looking at the overall Russian military performance, we see that they had a lot of challenges and a lot of problems that perhaps many did not expect. Clearly they are dealing with a large amount of equipment that is being abandoned. It’s partly because it’s broken, because they can’t sustain it; they probably spent more on upgrades and procurement capabilities and platform upgrades than on maintenance and repair cycles.
The other part is that the Russian military is basically not the one set up for a strategic ground offensive or that type of campaign. It is an army with extremely consuming and taxing firepower. He doesn’t have a massive amount of logistical resources to support this type of warfare, and certainly not the way he fights it.
I want to take a step back. What was the state of the Russian army in the 1990s, before this modernization that you alluded to, and what did we see during the wars in Chechnya in the 1990s, which have been talked about in relation to the ukraine?
In the 1990s, the Russian military was really at its lowest. You had the difficult process of withdrawing Soviet forces from Warsaw Pact countries; a collapse in funding, sustainability and morale; and conflicts that further demoralized the Russian military, such as the First Chechen War, which ended in de facto defeat.
But, during this period, it also underwent several piecemeal reforms. They were incomplete, but eventually stabilized enough towards the end of the 1990s, which allowed the Russian military to generate enough forces to fight the Second Chechen War. And this war was also very troubling, with the complete destruction of Grozny and a sustained operation in Chechnya that was marred by the misuse of forces. The military also suffered from the corruption and disease that was seen throughout Russia’s chaotic 1990s and affected the country at large.
The Russian army has acquired a terrible reputation, especially in the West. Russia was seen as a power in decline – a country that fundamentally depended on its strategic and tactical nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantor of its sovereignty, as its military was simply unable to pose a serious challenge. At the same time, the United States, with NATO, enjoyed military dominance at almost every level. I think the Russian military leaders basically looked at the NATO air campaign in Yugoslavia with consternation. It became very clear to them that the United States could establish conventional military dominance or superiority in the battlespace fairly quickly, and that Russian forces would basically have to resort to nuclear weapons if necessary, which is not not a good place to be.
What has changed under the Putin era?
Although Russia had decent modernization programs in the two thousand, the first real recapitalization of its military began around 2011. Russia actually spent very heavily on procurement – when we take advantage of the power parity of procurement, which is the right way to compare military spending, about one hundred and sixty billion dollars a year in that spending, and of that amount maybe at least fifty billion dollars went to procurement modernization. They had therefore used the last decade to substantially recapitalize the Russian armed forces. They have invested in capabilities at all levels, from Russian nuclear modernization and aerospace forces to ground forces and the navy.
What the Russian military has constantly struggled with is the production of newer and more modernized equipment. There were blockages or setbacks, which resulted from the war they launched with Ukraine in 2014. Ukraine was actually a major producer of components for the Russian defense industry, and the two countries have therefore gone through a very complicated divorce in terms of their military-industrial complexes. The war with Ukraine set back some of Russia’s ambitious procurement targets by years. Ukraine has produced everything from gas turbines for Russian ships to helicopter engines and more. Western sanctions also hurt, especially tech sanctions.
After all these reforms, what has surprised you the most in the course of the last two and a half weeks?
The most surprising part, of course, was the campaign itself, because those of us watching this expected the Russian military to conduct a combined arms offensive, that there would be a first air campaign , and that it would take great advantage of some of their capabilities, such as electronic warfare. We’ve seen very little of that, and there’s a clear reason for that.
The political leaders had imposed the framework, and the bottom line was that they believed that the Russian military could, within days, achieve regime change in Ukraine – that there wouldn’t be much fighting and resistance, that they would not have to wage a protracted war, that they could quickly build up forces and bring them into the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
I always tell people that military defense analysts focus on capabilities, but military strategy and operational concepts really matter. It’s the use of force that really counts. The first Russian campaign represents a completely irrational use of force and, in many cases, frankly, non-use of force. A host of abilities sat on the sidelines. We started by talking about the missing case of the Russian Air Force, right? Where were they? And a host of other abilities that simply weren’t introduced until about a week into the war. The reasons are clear. First, they didn’t really organize or prepare for war with Ukraine. They had initially sent in troops to seize key roads and junction towns to isolate the sectors, not expecting resistance. They lied to the troops about sending them to war and the nature of the war. They did not prepare them psychologically or materially for a conflict with a large enough conventional force. They were deeply optimistic about their ability to enter the capital quickly and force Zelensky to flee or surrender.