How Russia’s Conquest of Ukraine Went Sideways

It’s more than logistics. At the tactical level, Russia’s military has been woefully inadequate.

How Russia’s Conquest of Ukraine Went Sideways
Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in Lugansk region on Feb. 26, 2022 / Anatolii Stepanov / AFP via Getty Images

The war in Ukraine is not going Russia’s way. 

That is not to say the Ukrainians are winning (they aren’t), nor is it to say Russian defeat is inevitable (it isn’t). But by any objective measure, the war in Ukraine is going worse for the Russians and better for the Ukrainians. According to purportedly captured plans, what was intended to be a 15-day blitz to seize control of Ukraine has turned into an uncoordinated and stalled series of unsustainable losses, both in equipment and personnel, and a directionless strategy without a readily apparent or achievable end state.

First and foremost, the Russians seem unclear on what their strategic level objectives are. They may have truly believed their own rhetoric about Ukrainians welcoming the Russian army, or perhaps they assumed Ukrainians would passively accept Russian dominance. But without one of those assumptions coming to fruition, the planned thunder run to Kyiv and other eastern population centers doesn’t seem like a complete plan. Further, neither of those assumptions should have been considered valid at the time and now, in hindsight, they both seem fanciful. It remains unclear what Russia believes the end state of the conflict is. If they seize Kyiv, that likely doesn’t result in an end of hostilities. If they continue to try to conquer all of Ukraine, that will add to their personnel and material losses. If they succeed in conquering all of Ukraine, that will require a constant military presence under threat of enduring insurgent violence.

At the operational level, assuming a quick seizure of Kyiv was the primary goal of the initial invasion forces, Russia seems to have diluted its combat power by trying to attack Ukraine through multiple independent axes. Arguably, the Crimean and Donbas axes are mutually supporting and have achieved some level of link-up in the vicinity of Mariupol, but this southern/southeastern front is a separate and distinct effort from what seems to be the main effort of seizing Kyiv, which is not supported by the fourth Kharkiv axis. The Russians seem to have believed they would be able to immediately flood and capture multiple major cities and therefore coerce a surrender, a plan that works only in a frictionless environment without the need to react to real time events. It’s as if the Russians forgot the warnings of both Von Moltke the Elder and Mike Tyson. So instead of quick victory on multiple fronts, the Russians have two bogged-down axes and two slowed axes, all with diminished combat power.

Of course, massing power along a single axis would be useful only if the Russian army were able to effectively move along that avenue. Currently the infamous “40-mile convoy” is the world’s longest parking lot as many reported logistical failures have halted its ability to move. There are widespread reports of Russian units having run out of fuel and Russian soldiers having only having crossed into Ukraine with only three days of rations on hand. One would assume that the plan to resupply these forces existed, at least in an aspirational way, but that the friction of operations has rendered those poorly conceived logistical plans ineffective.

Russian failures are not limited, however, to logistics. At the tactical level, the Russian army seems to have lost the ability to do the basic tasks well. From regular maintenance to discipline in security and tactical formations, videos coming from the conflict are rife with examples of Russian soldiers lacking the lowest level skills required for survival and mobility, let alone the complexities of combined arms maneuver. Operationally, they have lacked synchronization and have often allowed early successes to be squandered by culminating too soon or through a failure to exploit those successes. The initial air assault seizure of Antonov Airfield by the Russian air forces on the first day of the war, already poorly conceived through a daylight infiltration that lost several aircraft, was wasted by a failure to flow in follow-on forces. Subsequent fighting over the airfield has tied down and destroyed several Russian elements rather than truly opening a major hub for operations against Kyiv.

Of course, Russia’s problems have a compounding nature. Vehicles out of fuel on the road to Kyiv become easy targets. Destroyed vehicles become obstacles to further resupply of fuel and food. Hungry soldiers desert their vehicles looking for food. And on and on it goes.

In contrast, the Ukrainians have proven far more effective and fiercer than most observers estimated prior to the conflict. They have been fighting an effective campaign of distributed resistance while massing tactical effects at key locations. They have integrated and adapted new weapons systems to exploit Russian vulnerabilities, and the forces the Ukrainians have relied on to exploit these Russian weaknesses have also had a disproportionately high payoff. Teams of special operations forces (SOF) have conducted mobile attacks against bogged-down Russian armor and vehicles. Territorial defense units have been mobilized to defend their local cities and countryside. These are examples of forces that are neither expensive nor require a massive logistics tail compared with the lumbering mechanized formations of the Russian battalion tactical groups. While Russian logistics have been unable to figure out how to move fuel, water, ammunition, food and vehicle parts, Ukrainian supply lines seem streamlined to push Javelins, NLAWs and Stingers to forward elements.

The Ukrainians have also exploited Russia’s inability to achieve air superiority. Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADs) continue to take down Russian fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft at a rate that will become unsustainable for the Russian military. The Ukrainian air force is still flying, and Ukrainian Bayraktar drones are maintaining consistent strikes against Russian forces on the ground.

While the Russians have been bedeviled by logistics difficulties and Ukrainian-fired Javelins, they have yet to face a true popular insurgency. Videos from within Russian occupied towns show protests and verbal confrontations between Ukrainians and Russian forces, but it probably won’t be long until those hurled insults change to hurled Molotov cocktails. The already stressed supply lines, growing longer and more vulnerable as Russian forces push further into the country, have yet to face a threat like the roadside bombs that plagued U.S. convoys in two wars. If history is a guide, the American experience in Iraq, and the shared American and Russian experiences in Afghanistan are instructive; fighting one’s way into a country is one thing, but trying to maintain control of a country is when most casualties can occur.

Things are still going to get worse for the Ukrainians. The Russians, having failed in their planned lightning attack to “liberate” Ukraine and growing frustrated with setbacks, have already started resorting to tactics more in line with their previous military endeavors in Chechnya, Syria and elsewhere. Mass fires, without care or concern for target discrimination or civilian deaths, are becoming common and will most likely be the primary means by which Russian forces attempt to seize population centers. We also don’t have a good grasp of the toll this is taking on the Ukrainian military, but it would stand to reason they are paying a higher proportionate cost in manpower compared with the Russian losses, all while the Russians are making progress, albeit slowly. There may come a breaking point at which the Ukrainian military can no longer hold, and they may have thrown their best forces to conduct stay-behind resistance activities too soon into the fight

Western support has been and will continue to be essential to any hope the Ukrainians have to hold out. Maintaining open supply lines and a constant flow of lethal and nonlethal aid to the Ukrainians should be the focus. Well-intentioned suggestions, including from elected U.S. officials, of providing the Ukrainian air force with U.S. or other NATO-manufactured aircraft are likely an unhelpful distraction; we do not need to complicate Ukrainian logistics by giving them aircraft they are not trained on or adding a whole new maintenance and supply problem to sustain these aircraft. Western powers should continue to focus their efforts on providing the weapons systems that have proven most effective and which can replace organic Ukrainian equipment losses. Further, this support doesn’t need to be trumpeted; yes, it will be obvious to the Russians where the Javelins are coming from. But if Thucydides was right, and in this case Putin is at war for honor, broadcasting Russian deaths to boost U.S. support may further entrench him in his commitment to the war and might be counterproductive to the Western goal of ending the war.

This matter is far from decided. The Russians will adapt and likely overcome many of the problems that have plagued them early on. Conversely, the Ukrainians will have casualties in their best-trained forces and will be mobilizing less prepared fighters in the defense of their country. There are any number of possible outcomes to this conflict, ranging from complete Russian conquest and subjugation of Ukraine to complete withdrawal of Russian forces in defeat, and everything in between. But it seems likely, regardless of the outcome, that it will get worse for the population of Ukraine, and it is unlikely that there will be any resolution in the short term.

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