just asking questions

Why Can’t Russia Figure Out How to Win?

Ukrainian servicemen fire artillery shells at the frontline of Donbas. Photo: Narciso Contreras/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Ukraine continues to defy the slim odds almost everyone gave it when Russia invaded a year ago this week. But the country’s plight won’t be ending anytime soon. As a bloody Russian offensive gets going in the east and south, Vladimir Putin has vowed to keep up his disastrous fight indefinitely — and he may soon have more help from a hugely powerful ally. Ukraine and the U.S., meanwhile, have signaled that they’re prepared for a conflict that may last many years. I spoke with Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at the research institute CNA, about why Russia continues to struggle on the battlefield, the chances of a Ukrainian breakthrough, and the futility of searching for a military silver bullet.

Russia’s new offensive has so far consisted of attacks on multiple fronts in the south and east of the Donbas. Much of this territory has already been disputed throughout the war, and Russia is only making incremental gains while sacrificing a huge number of soldiers in the process. What does it say about Russia’s place in the war that this drive is so territorially constrained?
I think this tells us a few things: first, that Russia is still very much focused on capturing the Donbas; second, that the Russian military’s offensive potential is rather limited. The reason for that is they’ve taken significant losses over the course of last year. They replaced losses with mobilized personnel, and that helped them stabilize the front lines. But the replacements, even with several months of training, are no substitute for the regulars and experienced troops they lost in 2022. They also took significant casualties among junior officers, which raises the question: Who is leading these troops? There are undoubtedly many cases where officers themselves have been mobilized.

The Russian military has lost a significant amount of equipment as well and, most importantly, appears to be suffering a degree of shell hunger, so they’re likely rationing their deployment of artillery. Over the course of 2022, the Russian military had a structural manpower problem — it was a partial-mobilization army that didn’t mobilize. When they invaded Ukraine, they took high casualties, and were compensating for a lack of manpower with a substantial advantage in artillery. However, the Russian military was likely spending more than a half a million shells per month. And this may have substantially depleted their artillery reserves and ammunition stockpiles heading into 2023. In general, the Russian offensive so far has been underwhelming, although it’s still fairly early on.

What would real success look like in this offensive for Russia? And what would failure look like?
I think Russian gains are likely to be limited, but we shouldn’t evaluate the prospects for their offensive solely from the standpoint of territory. There’s a fair chance Russian forces will ultimately capture Bakhmut and try to consolidate control up to the Donets River. And they appear to have pushed Ukrainian forces back from Kreminna, which may force the Ukrainian military to abandon that campaign. Beyond that, it’s difficult to say. Wars are highly contingent, and it’s difficult to make predictions on outcome in any particular battle. The more important question is, What are the implications for the two forces?

Neither the Russian or the Ukrainian military today is what it was at the beginning of the war. Both forces have taken significant losses — to manpower, to equipment. The Russian military cannot make substantial territorial gains.

In a recent Twitter thread, you said that the timing of this onslaught could work to Ukraine’s advantage. Can you explain why?
The Russian military, I think, is in many respects doing the Ukrainian army a favor. By attacking first and exhausting themselves, they then give the Ukrainian military a much better chance to prosecute an offensive this spring, likely in the southern part of the country. Now, does that mean the Ukrainian chances of making a breakthrough have dramatically improved? Not necessarily. I think any Ukrainian offensive will face a daunting task. The Ukrainian forces at this stage of the war do not enjoy a manpower advantage over the Russian military. They don’t enjoy an advantage in artillery either. And the war so far has shown that conducting maneuver warfare is rather difficult against a prepared defense.

In the fall, Ukraine had two consecutive offensives, Kharkiv and Kherson. They were both successful, although Kherson proved to be a difficult, grinding fight where Russian forces ultimately withdrew with much of their equipment. I think many of us expected Ukraine to further press the Russian military heading into the winter. But looking back, it’s clear that the Ukrainian military needed time to reconstitute. They too had casualties and, to an extent, suffered from exhaustion. And I think they sought to build out the force for a major offensive in the spring.

Which Russia now may be ill prepared for.
The Russian military was at its most vulnerable heading into the winter. The commander at the time, Sergey Surovikin, stabilized the situation, withdrew from Kherson, substantially increased the number of forces in Ukraine, used mobilization to refill units to make up for the casualties they’ve taken, started digging in along echelon lines — essentially entrenching. He was pursuing a defensive strategy.

I think Surovikin’s idea — and this is just one analyst’s impression; I don’t know this for a fact — was to reconstitute the force and receive a Ukrainian offensive in the spring, then try to capture the Donbas, perhaps later in the summer, once the Russian military’s had substantial time to rebuild and stockpile ammunition. However, it appears the Russian political leadership was rather impatient, and instead Valery Gerasimov has taken command. I have a decidedly low opinion of his military leadership. From the outset of this war, he hasn’t demonstrated himself to be particularly competent

Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Gerasimov is attempting to throw the Russian military at Ukraine far too early. The quality of the force is insufficient to conduct an effective offensive or at least appears insufficient. They’re probably going to need the artillery ammunition they’re employing now in order to defend in the spring. And unsurprisingly, the overall offensive operation appears feckless. It’s difficult to imagine the Russian military taking much territory beyond incremental gains at this stage. Now, there is a notion out there that this is somehow a prelude to a much larger offensive. I don’t think that’s the case. There’s no evidence of an additional Russian force or army capable of conducting a much grander offensive than this. And much of this offensive is already being fought by what are considered to be Russia’s best troops: naval, infantry, and airborne. So it’s unclear who else would be following up their efforts.

The West has provided Ukraine with tens of billions of dollars worth of aid. What is the most important thing it’s giving Ukraine now, and how do you view Ukraine’s current state of military capability?
The most important thing the United States has been providing Ukraine is actually rarely talked about, because it’s not matériel. It’s intelligence support for Ukrainian combat operations, which has substantially shaped outcomes throughout this war. But your question is about military assistance. So I would outline two priority items. The first is artillery ammunition. The second is air defense. These are necessary, but not sufficient, for Ukraine to have success in offensive operations.

To turn to the second question, I think the U.S. is taking a combined approach, providing Ukraine with qualitative advantage in precision-guided munitions, both for artillery systems and long-range precision weapons like HIMARS, and armored fighting vehicles to allow Ukraine to not just reconstitute its units but to generate additional brigades. And here it’s a matter of quantity — more is more. They need hundreds of armored fighting vehicles to create mechanized or armored brigades.

The question of “which armored fighting vehicles” is less important than the number of them. 
The relative qualitative advantage of one system or another, while tactically fascinating, is to me much less a causal of any outcome. It’s just a matter of numbers. This is why I’m often dismissive of the technology fetishism that I find predominates in my own defense community, looking at which tank or which infantry fighting vehicles have an advantage over some older 1980s system.

What rarely gets mentioned is that it takes a lot of training to make the best use of that capability, that complexity comes with its own price, and that Ukraine inheriting a large, variegated fleet of armored fighting vehicles of different types is going to create tremendous challenges for maintenance and logistics, much the same way inheriting 14, perhaps even more, different types of artillery did last summer.

There’s been some hints that Russian artillery is running low, even with help from Iran and North Korea, and that they’re having trouble manufacturing enough weaponry to prosecute the war the way they want to. Do you have any insight into their current possible shortages and how it might affect the next few months of their campaign?
Here, I think we have to be frank about uncertainty. But my general impression is that over the winter there was a decrease in the Russian artillery fire rate. The fact is that the Russian military is either rationing artillery ammunition or will have to ration in the near future. Their expenditure over the last year is completely unsustainable. It’s fair to say that they averaged around 20,000 artillery rounds fired per day for a fair bit of last year. I think in spring and summer, the Russian artillery fire may have been peaking toward 40,000 artillery rounds on some days.

But one of my challenges in looking at this is that the narratives about Russian logistical problems appear overstated. It is difficult to juxtapose the supposed logistical problems the Russian military had with the immense rate of artillery fire they were able to sustain throughout this war, even well after HIMARS were introduced to the battlefield.

This week, the U.S. said that China is considering sending material aid to Russia, which would obviously be a huge development. There aren’t any specifics here, and China has pushed back strongly on this claim. But how could something like that change the shape of this war if it happens?
My impression is that Chinese leadership may be deliberating making a change in their policy and providing overt military support. I think it’s fair to say that over the past year, China has sought to hedge, but has generally been supportive of Russia. And one area where there’s good data on this is that Russia has realigned its supply chains of integrated circuits, and a significant percentage of them are now either imported from China or shipped through China and Hong Kong. And the percentage change is significant. China today is probably the principal supplier of components to Russian companies, particularly those that supply the Russian military-industrial complex.

So while China has not provided weapons to Russia, or ammunition, it has in practice enabled Russia to realign imports of key components. My impression is that the U.S. has sought to dissuade China from taking a more overt stance or engaging in direct military support. The reason for that is straightforward. China could provide Russia with artillery ammunition, with material military assistance, or even just precursors and key components the Russian military industrial complex might need. It would have a significant effect over time, and it could lead folks like me to reassess who is more favored over the long term in this conflict, depending on what that support is naturally.

But I think it’s helpful for folks to appreciate that large-scale conventional wars beyond the initial operation very much come down to attrition. It is about replacement of manpower, matériel, and ammunition. And the force that’s able to reconstitute better over time is more likely to prevail. So looking at conflict like this, it’s important to get out of the mind-set of silver bullets or game changers.

That seems to be a consistent theme of yours — one thing won’t change the outcome. 
As you probably know from your own community, the conversation often seems to leap from game changers to would-be game changers, after whatever was introduced has turned out not to be as much of a game changer as people hoped. And this is because in large-scale conventional conflicts like this, it’s not likely to be any one specific system or weapon or platform. If you were to ask me what’s the closest to a game changer in this war for the Ukrainian military, I would say something like Starlink and U.S. intelligence support. But you have to look at the aggregate Western provision of artillery systems, and ammunition, or the Western provision of armored fighting vehicles and air defenses.

The ultimate difference-maker is nuclear weapons, of course, and talk of that seems to have subsided. 
The concern has subsided, but the overall risk has not significantly changed. Just because folks aren’t talking about it doesn’t mean this has gone away. For policy-makers and others for whom escalation management is an enduring imperative in this war, the potential risk of Russian nuclear escalation — let’s say if there’s a cascading collapse of the Russian armed forces to the Ukrainian breakthrough in the south — hasn’t changed significantly at all.

The acute risk, which emerged last fall, has subsided, in large part because mobilization had actually enabled the Russian military to stabilize their lines, so the risk of collapse today is perhaps much less likely than it was back then. The conversation has died down, but the conditions under which I think analysts believe the Russian leadership would consider using nuclear weapons have not changed. Perhaps what has changed more is the impression of whether this is an acute risk or an enduring risk to manage. That’s it.

You said you doubted that the war would be over a year from now, and that seems to be the common view. Do you think things on the ground will look much different at all in six, eight, ten months? Because it seems like the dynamics are pretty static right now.
I definitely think the war will be different. Wars proceed in phases. It’s easy to adopt a status quo bias and believe that the war is going to unfold based on whatever period you’re observing, but that is unlikely. Wars often don’t end the way they began, and there’s a great deal of contingency that you can’t account for. So I would not assume the war is going to continue on as it has in this current phase. I don’t see anything approaching a stalemate on the ground right now, but I do think it is worth reconsidering that question toward the end of the summer, as a mental marker or a point to look at the state of both Russian and Ukrainian forces.

Biden, Putin, and everyone else agrees that this will be a long slog.
I think this is now more of a consensus position, which is why you’ve seen substantial investment by the U.S. and other countries in providing Ukraine military support at the outset of this year, capabilities that Ukraine is likely to receive later in the spring and summer. I think here history is informative. Interstate conventional wars tend to cluster in two broad groups. They’re either rather short, lasting a few weeks or months, or if they’ve gone on this long, they’re likely to go on for several years. Looking at the conflict today, it’s difficult to see, even assuming a decisive victory, that the war might end this year.

One of the disappointing aspects of wars of this kind is that it’s often up to the loser to decide when the war is really over. Even if one side achieves a fairly clear battlefield victory, the other may not concede defeat and choose to continue a war of attrition.

The reason I’ve talked about this war already being a long war — it’s already too late to have a short war; it’s just a debate of how long it will be — is so folks don’t suffer from short-termism, don’t become overly comfortable with Ukrainian success in the fall, understand that the war is far from won, and have a sober-minded assessment of what it will take to support Ukraine over the course of this year and the next, rather than jumping from month to month and looking for silver bullets.

Some folks think this is defeatism. To me, it’s a better and more clear-eyed way to think about the war than the undue optimism you encounter in some circles.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why Can’t Russia Figure Out How to Win?