“A defeat for Russia is not a victory for Ukraine.” An interview with military analyst Michael Kofman
Александр Бородихин
“A defeat for Russia is not a victory for Ukraine.” An interview with military analyst Michael Kofman
15 May 2023, 11:22

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

Since the start of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, hundreds of experts, journalists, and bloggers are analysing news from the front lines. Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Centre for Naval Analyses, stands out among other Western experts, with a very clear view of the situation and deep knowledge of Eastern Europe. As the Ukrainian counteroffensive approaches, Mediazona discussed with Kofman how it could unfold.

It’s been over a year since Russian troops crossed the border with Ukraine, with casualties mounting and ongoing debates about what can be considered a ceasefire and whether it is even possible any time soon. As we approach the anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive, do you feel that the war, in some way, is nearing its end, or do you expect it to persist for years to come?

No, I don’t think it’s nearing any sort of end. If anything, the war is currently in a transitional period, and the offensive will represent an inflection point. What follows the offensive will depend on the operation itself, but this is already a long war, and it’s likely to become a protracted one.

History is not a perfect guide, but it tells us that when wars last this long, they are typically very difficult to end. Whether they end via negotiations, which can take years, or there are no negotiations and the war continues beyond any decisive period of combat operations, or even when one side attains a fairly clear military victory, they may not be able to quickly translate that victory into a political one, because it’s often up to the loser to decide when the war is over. So even if a decisive battlefield victory or a series of victories are attained, the war can go on as a cross-border war, or a war of attrition between two countries. That’s why it’s important to disambiguate between military victory for Ukraine, defeat for Russia, and war termination.

Throughout the war, military experts, journalists, and Ukrainian military figures have set various deadlines for when the outcome of the war would supposedly be determined, but this has not happened yet. Should we believe that something decisive might happen in the coming weeks or months?

Analysts don’t use the words “will,” because military analysis is not fortune-telling. It’s a different profession. Something decisive may happen in the coming months, it depends on the Ukrainian offensive. The coming months may prove a decisive phase of the war for this year, but are unlikely to end the war.

On February 21, before the invasion began, you predicted in Foreign Affairs how it would unfold: “Airstrikes would not go entirely uncontested. Russia’s air force lacks experience in suppressing or destroying enemy air defenses… Ukraine’s meager air defenses could still pose a challenge.” Everything happened as described. However, the Russian army likely knew its potential weaknesses just as well as you did. Why did everything still happen as written?

The task Foreign Affairs gave me in that op-ed was to render what I thought was the worst-case scenario for how it may unfold. So the piece is a bit dark. I think my piece on February 23 in the Economist, the day before the war, is a bit more balanced. But yes, in general, my goal in the Foreign Affairs piece was to render what I thought could be the worst-case scenario, at least that’s what they had asked for.

Some things happened as I expected and others did not. That’s the honest answer. In looking at the Russian invasion, I too got quite a bit wrong in terms of how it would play out. But the key question is why, and I think that’s what you’re after. I think we now have a much better sense of the reason why a lot of these expectations were unmet. Firstly, is that the initial Russian military operation was meant to be much more demonstrative, rather than a combined arms operation, with the expectation that the Ukrainian military would put little resistance. The Russian leadership saw the military operation as a counterpart to an intelligence operation and a campaign of political subversion. They thought they were driving into Ukraine, that they were going to decapitate the Ukrainian government and that very quickly they would be able to take over the country without significant resistance.

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

Because of this, for example, the Russian Air Force planned an initial strike campaign, and to provide air cover, but little else. It did not set up a plan to provide ground support. It had no discernible plan for the systematic destruction of Ukrainian air defense beyond initial suppression, nor did it really have the capacity, training, and experience to do that. And I commented on that in that particular piece, that the Russian Air Force was actually very poorly set up, or perhaps not well set up to deal with Ukrainian air defense.

But in general, I think we understand much better now that the initial Russian invasion was heavily premised on political assumptions that within a matter of days, Ukraine could be forced to surrender and the Ukrainian political leadership could be decapitated. And that the Russian military did not prepare for a prolonged combat operation, didn’t organise for a sustained war, and did not take the Ukrainian military seriously in terms of Ukrainian will to fight. In many respects, what Russian leadership was attempting to do was recreate a much larger version of the annexation of Crimea, having actually learned very little, it seems, about Ukraine since 2014.

That said, as a caveat, despite the profoundly unrealistic political assumptions of the Russian leadership behind the operation, the irrational employment of force, the lack of planning for a real war, and the general shambolic organisation of this invasion, the outcome in the early days was far from overdetermined. It was actually a fairly close-run affair. And the more we learn about the early days of the war, the clearer it is that much hinged on those first hours, on individual decisions made by Ukrainian leadership, by commanders, and by many Ukrainian volunteers and Ukrainian society. In short, we are fortunate to be living in this timeline of events.

Are there any signs that the Russian army has qualitatively changed over the course of the conflict? Or is it doomed to operate as it has all this time?

You’re linking two separate issues, but in general, yes, the Russian military has gotten much worse because it’s lost a lot of the best soldiers, the best junior leaders, and much of the better equipment. So qualitatively, the Russian military has degenerated over the past year. It is a force that is heavily mobilised and is a force that seems very circumscribed or let’s say quite limited in its offensive potential, which the recent winter offensive aptly revealed. Only a small percentage of the Russian military is even capable of offensive operations. And even then they’re not able to achieve much.

So the Russian military seems to have degenerated over the course of this war with some pockets that have developed, let’s say, as their autonomous forces that are part of the campaign like Wagner PMC, which is a somewhat different case and category.

But generally speaking, the Russian military today looks quite different from the way it did at the opening of the war. A lot of what was the best part of the Russian armed forces had been lost and much of the better equipment, and a fair amount of the Russian arsenal or precision-guided weapons had already been spent on the conflict. So you are now seeing a force that has to depend heavily on quantity, struggles to conduct any sort of sizeable military operation, is only able to operate in much smaller units and pockets of forces, and struggles with any sort of combined arms or complex manoeuvres.

In practice, this is a force that in the opening phase of the war had a structural deficit in manpower. The Russian military was tasked with invading Ukraine without conducting mobilisation and without building out a force that could actually invade and occupy a country the size of Ukraine. And this force was very quickly consumed in the conflict. Through much of the first half of 2022, the Russian military found itself compensating for the deficit in manpower with its advantage in firepower. And it leveraged this to make what gains it could in the first battle of Donbas through the spring and summer of 2022. But then this strategy also ran out of momentum. And even at that point, the Russian military had become increasingly dependent on mobilised personnel from LDNR and Wagner auxiliaries, if you look at who was doing much of the urban fighting last year.

Following the defeats at Kharkiv and Kherson and the first major mobilisation that was launched in September and heading into this year, the Russian military now has manpower in terms of quantity, but has a deficit in fires. It no longer enjoys a significant fires advantage. Well, the advantage it enjoys is not as decisive as it was last year. And it no longer has the quality of forces to be able to conduct the kind of operations that it may have been able to do in the earlier part of the war. The bottom line is that, in general, the Russian military lacks the combination of mass and fires to be effective in its preferred way of war. And you see the result of that in the largely failed winter offensive from January till about now, over the last several months.

Russian military or politicians often make threatening statements in response to the supply of certain types of weapons, but as far as we can see, they do not strike transport hubs and warehouses in western Ukraine to cut off its supplies of allied weaponry. Why is that?

I think early on in the war, it was quite a mystery as to why the Russian military didn’t conduct the types of strikes many expected, for example, against critical infrastructure or command and control, the rail network, and the bridge network. If you recall in the early days of the war, there actually were few strikes against Ukrainian both civilian and military infrastructure.

That said, at this stage, it increasingly looks as though the Russian military simply is not capable, because it does not have sufficient munitions to conduct these sorts of strikes, or is not capable of effectively identifying the targets in question.

In general, the war revealed that the Russian military is much less capable of translating concepts into practice and that one of the central deficits in the Russian armed forces is more the software rather than the hardware, that is actual experience in these types of combat operations, the ability to effectively manage the processes and develop the organisational structures to effectively employ these kinds of weapons. The process of finding, fixing, and engaging targets in depth is a lot more complicated than it looks. And I think oftentimes the United States makes this look easy, but it is not. I think the Russian military may have learned how much harder this all is when they are not conducting selective strikes in Syria and when they’re not on exercise.

We know a lot about Russian troops, but much less about Ukrainian ones. What is the current state of Ukrainian troops after the winter war of attrition? How have they changed organisationally over the past year, in terms of learning from experience and mistakes? How much of the Soviet army legacy, in your opinion, remains, or is it a modern army?

I think the Ukrainian military, culturally, has one foot in the present and one in the past. It is more of a Western-style military that privileges initiative, leadership by junior officers, and mission command. Perhaps from the battalion level and below, it’s a fairly innovative and adaptable military. This is one reason it has been more successful than Russian forces. The Ukrainian military practices more horizontal decision-making, taking input from experienced soldiers and commanders. Not only is its motivation and morale higher, but it’s also far less centralised and isn’t as cynical in the treatment of its troops like the Russian armed forces, which often waste manpower and throw good men after bad behind an objective that cannot be achieved.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian military still struggles with its Soviet heritage. It has officers that like to dictate and command from far behind the battlefield. Modern technology can enable different types of command styles, empowering junior officers or enabling senior leaders to micromanage everyone on the battlefield.

Like all militaries, the Ukrainian military struggles [with these challenges], and culture often supersedes doctrine on the battlefield. The Ukrainian armed forces have expanded significantly since the beginning of the war, and a fair amount of the more experienced personnel have been lost in the past year of fighting. It is now a much more mobilised military, and the armed forces struggle with uneven force quality. Many of the initial brigades have been expanded, and many current fighters are replacements of people who themselves were replacements. Ukraine had the benefit of numerous veterans and personnel who had cycled through the fighting in Donbas between 2014 and 2021, but it is increasingly forced to mobilise individuals without prior military experience.

Art by Danny Berkovskii / Mediazona

That said, this coming offensive is a proof of concept for the joint Ukrainian and Western military strategy. Ukraine has set aside a force consisting of multiple corps, composed of soldiers trained and equipped by Western countries who have not participated in the winter fighting. This force will largely consist of new brigades. The intention is that a component of the Ukrainian military trained largely by Western countries and using Western equipment might prove more capable and effective in offensive operations.

But we shall see. I mean, this is the hope, and this is, I think, the strategy. But the coming months will bear out whether it proves true.

A follow-up about technology. It is often said that the current invasion is unique in that it is not only thoroughly documented and accessible to millions but is also conducted on social media. Do you and your fellow analysts feel like warriors in an information war?

I don’t think it’s unique. This also happened during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020. I do think that it’s distinct due to the prevalence of combat footage, but this can give a very selective and caricaturish impression of the war. While it has democratised access for all sorts of open-source researchers, analysts, and those for whom this is a personal interest or hobby, it has had both positive and decidedly negative effects in my view.

To put it another way, I think as a military analyst who has professionally focused primarily on the Russian armed forces, I quickly discovered what doctors must have felt like during the outbreak of COVID-19. Just as many people suddenly became medical authorities on the subject, others quickly became authorities on this war and the Russian and Ukrainian militaries. In some cases, this has been for the better, and in others, for worse.

You spent your childhood in Mykolaiv, which experienced bombings and a real threat of capture at the beginning of the war. How did you personally process this? Do you have any relatives still there or in Kyiv, and how are they?

I don’t have any relatives in Ukraine, but I do have quite a few friends and colleagues still there. I’ve also conducted field studies in Ukraine during this war, so I know a number of the people fighting.

I spent my summers in Mykolaiv, and I’m originally from Kyiv, where I grew up. My family comes from a couple of major cities in both the north and the south. I’ve spent the bulk of my professional life in or working with the U.S. national security establishment, that is the Department of Defense, defense research organisations, and defense-adjacent work. I try to remain as objective as possible but, naturally, I’m no stranger to Ukraine, and it’s not just another war for me to work on. And I know many of these places. That’s the best I can offer.

Since you are historically tied to the Soviet Union, it is probably not an exaggeration to say that for you, the conflict has an emotional aspect. What kind of future would you like to see in the post-Soviet space?

As an analyst, you should always be careful with bias and the “is/should” problem where your analysis of what is happening should be oriented much more towards the “is” than towards your personal preferences for the “should.”

In this respect, obviously, I would very much like to see Ukraine achieve a military victory and a political victory and be able to recover from this war. I fear it’s going to be a long process based on what I know of wars. And I’ve already spent quite a few years of my life working on different conflicts, especially those involving Russia.

We have repeatedly encountered the opinion that Russia has already lost in this conflict. How justified is this view?

I too have heard from many here in Washington, D.C. that Russia has already suffered a strategic defeat. I think if you look at it from the perspective of Russia’s original goals in the invasion of Ukraine, it has indeed lost because it was not able to destroy Ukrainian statehood and occupy much of the country. And it has no prospect of doing so now. I think that’s a fair assessment if you look at the initial goals of the Russian invasion. However, in practice, we are looking at a war with fairly distinct phases in it. And the latter part of this conflict-while it’s fair to say that relative to some objectives, Russia suffered a strategic defeat-the war is not over yet.

And more interestingly to me, the question of Russian defeat misses a more important conversation. A defeat for Russia is not a victory for Ukraine. These are distinct but interrelated goals. If a defeat for Russia is heavily qualified, then history may not judge it monolithically or render such an easy judgment, in retrospect.

I think the more important question, the more important objective, is avoiding a scenario where most can agree that the war has been a defeat for Russia, but not necessarily a clear victory for Ukraine, or the West.

Editors: Dmitry Tkachev, Dmitry Treshchanin

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