just asking questions

Ukraine Is at Its ‘Most Dangerous Point’ of the War

A Ukrainian serviceman in the Donetsk region walks as grain silos burn after Russian shelling. Photo: Serhii Nuzhnenko/REUTERS

In February, Ukraine shocked the world by driving Russian forces from Kyiv, fending off Vladimir Putin’s attempt to quickly capture the country. Almost four months later, the war has settled into a bloody slog that is now largely focused in the Donbas, in Ukraine’s east. As Ukrainian forces suffer heavy losses, Russia’s superior artillery has put it at a major advantage in the region. But even there, Russia’s advances are slow and grinding, and Ukraine sometimes rolls back its gains. To assess the current state of play and what might come next, I spoke with Michael Kofman, a widely cited expert on the Russian military. Kofman is the research program director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.

Is anyone actually winning this war right now? How do we even judge what success looks like for Russia or Ukraine at the moment?
You have to judge it based on the strategies and the political objectives that you think these two actors are pursuing. For Russia, it’s very clear that seizing the administrative territories of the Donbas is their minimal goal. And if they are successful and then are given substantial time to recuperate, they may not stop there. In the second phase of this war, the Russian military is operating much more in the way they were trained and organized to fight — unlike the first phase, which was principally a botched regime-change operation.

This strategy seems centered on attrition warfare as the principal Russian approach. That’s in part because the force they are fighting with has been substantially depleted. The Russian military took very heavy losses in the first phase of the war in terms of personnel and equipment. It is also because this type of warfare strongly favors the Russian military doctrinally. It’s a military based around firepower with a tremendous amount of artillery.

So the Russian approach has been to essentially grind their way toward incremental territorial gains. The Ukrainian strategy, thus far in the second phase, has been to try to exhaust Russian forces, leverage urban terrain, and fight for every piece of it in order to inflict the maximum amount of casualties so that the Russian offensive eventually runs out of steam. In the interim, they’ve conducted localized counter attacks around Kharkiv, Izium, and in Kherson, but these are not major counteroffensives.

The Ukrainian military also suffered badly from casualties, losing a tremendous amount of personnel, but they are also very short on ammunition. And this has been very much an artillery war. It may look like a modern war on the internet, but for all the videos of anti-tank guided missiles and air defenses and the like, this war is one largely being fought with artillery.

And so the Ukrainian military right now is at the most dangerous point in this second phase. I think the first period of the war perhaps created undue optimism. Ukraine defied the expectations of many, including myself, in terms of military performance. However, at this stage, there is perhaps undue pessimism. The Ukraine situation is quite difficult, but Russian gains have been fitful and incremental. The offensive is exhausting, and the Russian military has major structural issues when it comes to availability of manpower. It was designed much more for a short, sharp, conventional war with NATO than a conflict of this type. And so it, too, is struggling and will continue to struggle, with both militaries now digging into reserves, those with much less training, lower morale, and poor equipment. Wars like this often come down to attrition and those who have the most staying power on the battlefield.

From the beginning, President Zelenskyy has been pleading for more firepower from the West. The U.S. and Europe have provided lots of weaponry and a huge amount of money, but let’s say they gave him everything he wanted. To what extent would that enable Ukraine to possibly turn the tide in the Donbas? Or would it mean things just return to a stalemate?
Right now, it’s very premature to assess the trajectory of the war. More than likely, after this period of fighting, there will be an operational pause. Both sides will try to rearm, refit, and replenish their forces. Then Ukraine is likely to attempt a counteroffensive, but it will be easier to gauge whether Ukraine can take back substantial amounts of territory once it’s significantly armed with western weapons.

At least from my point of view, there is no looming stalemate or frozen conflict yet in this war. Stalemates are often declared, but they are a temporary state of affairs. The military balance is actually quite dynamic, and you are likely going to see territory still changing hands across the rather sprawling battlefield, which stretches all the way from Kherson, in the southwest, to Kharkiv.

The forces appear relatively balanced, such that neither can substantially make progress. But that’s deceptive, particularly in a war of attrition. It may appear that both sides are holding their lines, but in a sustained war of attrition, one military is going to be depleting the capability of the other — their forces, their equipment, their morale — perhaps at a much higher rate. In that kind of scenario, it will be hard to see a front that’s about to collapse until it does.

Right now, neither side has the forces to pursue maneuver warfare. Neither side is able to attain a substantial local advantage with enough reserves to really exploit any kind of operational maneuver. But that can change over time. The big Russian advantage over the Ukrainian military is firepower, since they understand that a shortage of manpower is their biggest weakness.

Russian forces have been degraded, and, as we’ve discussed, its original invasion strategy was ill considered. It also seems that Putin is not somebody who’s going to take the half-win of simply capturing territory in eastern Ukraine. But does he even have the capability to make another push into central and western Ukraine?
My view is that the Russian military barely has the capability to take the Donbas. And even that outcome is very much in doubt right now for them. But this is a conversation about today. It’s clear that if given the opportunity to expand this war, the Russian objective is to take Ukraine’s southern coast all the way to Odesa. That would dramatically impinge on Ukraine’s viability economically as a state. Those may seem to be unrealistic aspirations right now, but this war is likely to become protractive, and it’s important to consider that it can take different trajectories, one in which there is a prolonged postwar period, let’s say, as you put it, a stalemate emerges.

As I put it wrongly.
It’s okay. Such that it gives Russian forces a long enough time period to recover from their losses, Russia is very likely to pursue another offensive operation to capture more Ukrainian territory. That is, they are not going to be satisfied with the minimal gains in the Donbas. That’s more of a question of when and whether or not they will be able to reacquire the means to do it.

And it’s also about the trajectory of any possible peace talks, right? Because Ukraine is claiming that it will settle for nothing less than clawing back everything it’s lost, and Russia has bigger aspirations. So it’s hard to imagine the two sides’ interests aligning enough to discuss a settlement anytime soon. 
Yeah. And of course the biggest reason for that is that all those conversations at this stage are very premature. Battlefield performance is going to determine the political position and the prospects of both sides in this contest.

The other element of this is that the war is also obviously having a huge effect on the energy market and the market for other goods.
I got gas yesterday. I saw.

Yeah, I don’t have to tell you. Europe is suffering far worse than the U.S. in this regard, and European leaders seem a little less patient about the trajectory of the war. President Biden has said that he wouldn’t pressure Zelenskyy into establishing peace talks. I think European leaders might have a different take on that, even if they continue to show solidarity. If Ukraine continues to suffer setbacks, how long do you think the American — or European — patience would last?
I cannot predict either our will or the will of our political leadership or that of people in other countries. What I can offer you is a comment on how I see the determinants of the military balance between the two sides. And the way I would frame this is that military balance helps set some expectations but it is not predictive of outcome. You cannot predict what’s going to happen in a battle or particular set of battles.

At the moment, the local military balance favors Russia — not dramatically but significantly. The long-term military balance favors Ukraine. But that is highly contingent on Ukraine being able to gain sustained military support from the United States and other European countries. That, of course, hinges on political will and cohesiveness. And over time, Ukraine could turn its advantage in manpower together with aid from the West into a combat-credible force, which is something that is in its nascent stages right now. But these expectations are strongly tied to assumptions about sustained western support. And I can only frame the conversation this way. I can’t answer the question because I have no ability to predict the future to that extent. If I did, I would be far wealthier than I am.

Historically, Russia has been able to win wars of attrition by just throwing people onto the battlefield, right? So far in this conflict they’ve suffered tremendous losses, as you said — upwards of 10,000 soldiers by most estimates, and possibly many more. How long can Putin keep up his approach with this kind of casualty rate?
I don’t think the approach Russia has taken is ultimately sustainable. But behind the scenes, they have been conducting a sort of shadow mobilization, recruiting what personnel they can to replace their losses. So it’s clear they are committed to a protracted war; it’s just not clear what their capacity is to sustain it. You are right that despite tremendous casualties, the Russian military remains on the battlefield, still prosecuting their offensive. Russia is well known for its endurance and ability to sustain prolonged attrition, and that continues to be a defining characteristic in this war.

The U.S. and Europe cut Russia off almost entirely after the invasion, refusing to buy the country’s oil and imposing severe and unprecedented sanctions. But most of the rest of the world hasn’t gotten on board with this strategy, and Russia is now making more money from oil, gas, and coal than ever. Can Putin hold out indefinitely, economically speaking?
I do think the Russian economy can hold out for quite a long time, but it will become relatively primitive and ultimately disconnected from the modern global economy in many respects. I think the worst impact of sanctions and export controls is yet to come and hasn’t been fully felt. And so it’s difficult to assess the situation this early into it.

Is it fair to say that even a severe economic crisis in Russia is unlikely to threaten Putin’s power given the lack of opposition he faces?
I think authoritarian systems often look very stable until the very end. They are the kind of systems that, to borrow a phrase from someone else, lose their political support gradually and then very suddenly. The truth is that it is a fool’s errand to try to predict regime change in a personal authoritarian system. That said, I have a fairly pessimistic outlook on the Putin regime’s longevity. This is more intuition than prediction.

My intuition tells me that the Putin regime is very much on a downward slope. That said, I’m also of the belief that if this regime sees a significant change, it’ll be driven by Russian elites and will more than likely replace one authoritarian with a different authoritarian. Because I don’t hold to the camp of folks who think that suddenly democracy will explode in Russia.

Are there still people who think that?
Listen, if there are people who thought it was going to happen in Iraq, there are definitely people who think it will happen in Russia. There are always people who think that.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ukraine Is at Its ‘Most Dangerous Point’ of the War