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Why Have Russian Forces Underperformed in Their Opening Offensive?

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March 1, 2022 12:44 p.m.

Twitter is chock full of hyperbole, ignorance and deception. But one of its special qualities is that if you take some care and follow some basic rules you can find people who you can actually learn quite a lot from. They’re out there. And during chaotic and fast-moving news events you can learn a lot from them. One of those people is Michael Kofman, who is one of the people on my list of people to follow to keep track of developments in the Ukraine Crisis. Among other things he’s the Director of the Russia Studies program at the Center for Naval Analyses, the main Navy/Marines think tank in Washington, DC. His opinions may be right or wrong. But given the Navy’s/Marine Corps’ interest in keeping tabs on the Russian military we can be confident he’s highly knowledgable about that topic specifically. I’ve been following his commentary over the last week or so and yesterday he posted a lengthy Twitter thread about what we’ve seen over the last three days.

To understand his points fully, by all means read the thread. But I wanted to highlight three takeaways, each of which turn on just why the Russian campaign seems to have gone so relatively poorly so far.

The first is that the Russian plan just seems very poor or very mismatched to the task. When you launch a serious conventional war there are various ways you mass armor, you coordinate ground assets with planes operating in the air. Lots of those things just aren’t being done. He notes lots of evidence of small armored detachments operating without air support, formations getting out ahead of supply lines or logistics support, invading forces getting bogged down in their own traffic jams.

So why is that? It seems to go back to something we discussed before the invasion. Russian planners seem to have thought the Ukrainian military and state would break quickly. They didn’t approach this as a serious conventional land war. They also didn’t approach this as they would a battle with NATO. The plan appears to have been a couple days of shock and awe that would make the Ukrainian state and army crumble. Send relatively small detachments ahead into the overawed capital, remove and replace the government. This would have the benefit of making the whole takeover a fait accompli before the US/EU/NATO had gotten around to acting. It would avoid the kinds of heavy civilian losses that would make an occupation or post-war political settlement unworkable. It would also keep the whole thing basically painless for ordinary Russians.

But clearly it didn’t work out that way. And the key there is a bad set of political assumptions about the Ukrainian state and morale. So that’s one key takeaway – a bad strategy and a lack of logistical planning based on a badly flawed set of political assumptions. Or to put it another way, based on those flawed political assumptions they tried to win quickly and on the cheap. When that didn’t happen things broke down quickly. Once the Ukrainians were able to hold up in the face of the initial assault they don’t seem to have done a lot of the planning for the kind of war they’re now needing to fight.

But this still doesn’t quite address the kind of disorganization and logistical breakdowns. Which brings us to the second point. According to Kofman, there is increasing evidence that most of the Russian troops did not realize there was going to be an invasion. The enlisted ranks usually don’t know every detail of what’s going to happen. But they do need to be able to prepare, both psychologically and in terms of basic nuts and bolts planning. It seems like this is at least partly driving the organizational breakdowns on the ground and a lot of evidence that Russian troop morale is poor.

The underlying thread to these two points is that Russian leadership appears to have wanted to keep these decisions as hidden from the Russian public as possible, possibly even keeping the plans for a full scale invasion a relatively closely held secret even within the Russian government.

Which brings us to the third point. The Ukrainians have been running away with the propaganda side of this conflict. In this case I mean the word in the non-judgmental sense, the battle for hearts and minds. The Russians have provided very little reporting on their tactical victories, their casualty numbers or much else. That again seems to go back to wanting to get this over quickly and with as little visibility for the Russian public as possible. Obviously if things aren’t going well that creates another big incentive to keep everything under wraps. But Kofman’s point is that even with all the very real Russian failures this is likely giving us a skewed impression of the total picture. The Ukrainians are telling everyone every time they repel an attack or down a Russian plane. They’ve also been circulating really high Russian casualty and fatality numbers. Even if we assume those reports are broadly accurate we’re not hearing about the Russians’ tactical successes. And that creates a misleading impression of the big picture.

The related, sobering point is that this has obscured for many observers the fact that the Russian military is still holding a lot of their capacity in reserve. Even if things are going relatively poorly after a week they have lots of capacity to intensify their assault, lots of ability to make the onslaught much more brutal and effective. Kofman sees signs they are doing just that, recalibrating in the face of initial reverses and making the assault both more brutal and more effective.

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