Event Recap: Ukrainian Military
Dmitri Alperovitch talks with Michael Kofman (Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis) and Nolan Peterson (Ukraine-based Senior Editor of Coffee or Die Magazine) about the new developments in the war in Ukraine on Twitter Spaces. Discussion of the state of the Ukrainian military and whether the western weapons aid is getting to the front lines, economic conditions in Ukraine, fight for the Donbas, Russian Chief of General Staff Gerasimov's apparent visit to the front-lines in Izyum and how this has become a war of artillery.
TRANSCRIPT: “Ukrainian Military: Analysis of the War in Ukraine”
May 1, 2022 - Online
Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator
Michael Kofman, Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA
Noland Peterson, Ukraine-based Senior Editor of Coffee or Die Magazine
DISCLAIMER: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and as a result may not be 100 percent accurate. Please check all quotations against the original audio before publication. Full audio and video recording is available here.
Dmitri Alperovitch 00:00
Welcome, everyone. It is Sunday, May 1, it is date 66 of the war in Ukraine. I'm Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado policy accelerator, a geopolitical think tank in Washington, DC. And once again, I'm here with Michael Kaufman, an expert on the Russian military and a research program director in the Russian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis. We're also joined today by very special guests, Nolan Peterson who is the Senior Editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. And he's really doing some of the best reporting on this war from Kyiv. Nolan is also a former U.S. Air Force Special Operations pilot and a veteran of Iran and Afghanistan. Thank you for joining us today, Nolan.
Thanks for having me on. How do you hear me?
Dmitri Alperovitch 00:44
Great, great. Well, Nolan, maybe we begin with you since you're on the ground in Ukraine right now and you're talking to Ukrainian military folks all the time. You do some amazing reporting for coffee, you die. If you're not following Nolan on Twitter and his writing in the magazine, you're missing out. Can you talk to us about what the situation is like morale-wise, from the people you talk to, both in the military and just regular civilians? Obviously, the Ukrainians have won a major battle a few weeks ago in Kyiv, with the Russian pull-out, but the war is far from over. How are people feeling on the ground?
Yeah, so first of all, thank you for having me on. Yeah, and you know, after more than two months of war, you know, it feels like life here in Kyiv is just sort of slowly inching back to normal. We've had a lot of foreign leaders come to visit, such as Speaker Pelosi yesterday, restaurants and bars and gyms are reopening, even Uber is operational now. So I guess in some ways, you know, it feels like life here in Kyiv is kind of returning to that status quo before February 24, when for eight years Kyiv, you know, felt relatively quarantined from the effects of fighting in the Donbas. But of course, we still live under a missile threat, as does the entire country. And just last Thursday, remember, we had more missile strikes here and keep during the visit by the UN secretary general, but I think if anyone, you know, just parachuted into Kyiv or any city in Ukraine these days from abroad, you'd probably be somewhat taken aback at just how calmly people now treat the air raid sirens and the threat of missiles, which is just sort of become part of the day-to-day life.
But that said, you know, from my point of view, there is minimal war fatigue in Ukraine, among both civilians and soldiers. And that will to fight that continued will to fight, is sustained by many things. And I think there are three big ones. First, are Ukraine's battlefield successes, like you said, especially here in the Battle of Kyiv. As well as other sort of defiant stands, particularly, that of the defenders in Mariupol. The ongoing influx of foreign weapons also sends a strong message of solidarity to Ukrainians, and helps boost their morale. And in fact, just a couple of days ago, I met a 67-year-old woman who had survived some of the worst of the fighting in her village of Moshchun on the outskirts of Kyiv, which was actually occupied by Russians. And she told me that she wanted to name her grandkids Bayraktar and Javelin, which I think just as a good case study or a good example of sort of the impact of those foreign deliveries on the morale of the people here. But I think, you know, the third big motivator, and probably above all, are Russia's atrocities. And I've spent a lot of time over the past month on Kyiv's outskirts to see the sort of the very horrible after effects of what Russia did when they occupied those territories. And it's just, you know, it's—there's things that just never forget after you've seen them. But I think there's definitely a sense now, among Ukrainians after those atrocities, that they're not just fighting for their freedom, but they're also fighting for their survival. And basically, the longer the war goes on, the more Russia incriminates itself in the eyes of Ukrainians and thereby hardens their will to fight.
So now, you know that we're in this so-called second phase of the war, with Russia’s grinding offensives in the south and east, you know, I hear a lot of people saying that Russia is looking for a war of attrition at this point. But, you know, from my point of view, I actually think an attritional war could in some ways be to Ukraine's advantage. As far as personnel I recently reported on how many of Ukrains territorial defense troops have now redeployed to the south and east. And these soldiers, of course, they're relatively untrained, but they are now combat tested after the Battle of Kyiv. And their utility on the front lines is not necessarily for like forward combat operations. But it's to take over many of those mundane day-to-day tasks that can drain manpower from the regular army like pulling guard duty, manning checkpoints, rear lines of defense, things like that. So in my opinion, those territory defense troops, which have shifted to the active battlefields in the south and east, are something of a force multiplier, because they are freeing up many of the more highly trained regular army soldiers to actually be out there in the thick of things, hunting down Russian armor, and also allowing them more opportunities to rotate off the battlefields as the war goes on. And then when it comes to weapons and equip, Ukraine is receiving a steady influx of deliveries from its foreign partners, and with lots more to come. And now with the frontline troops I speak with, they tell me that their units are just stacked right now with Western anti-tank weapons. But at this point, they still haven't seen much in the way of new artillery. And they do say that they really need more drones for the current fight in the south and east. And of course, a war of attrition also depends on an army maintaining the will to fight. And I think, you know, it's probably beating a dead horse at this point, but it's pretty clear that Ukrainians morale and fighting spirit far surpasses that of the Russians.
Dmitri Alperovitch 06:48
Think so. Are they getting some of the heavy armored tanks, anti-artillery radar and the like, or is that not coming in yet?
Nolan Peterson 07:00
It seems like those things have not made it out to the frontlines in appreciable numbers. They're getting a lot of the basic things like body armor and ammunition and whatnot. But it seems like those sort of big-ticket items haven't really trickled out to the frontlines yet.
Dmitri Alperovitch 07:20
Do you know if the railways work from all the way into the Donbas? I mean, getting the equipment there may be a quite a logistical challenge, right?
Nolan Peterson 07:29
Yeah, well, I mean, you can go online and order railway tickets to Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, Dnipro right now, so I'm assuming that the railroads are also operational to take equipment out there. But you know, I think one point I'd like to make—it’s been super interesting in talking to the soldiers out there on the front lines, is the way they're fighting against the Russians right now. And they're, they have this like, really mobile strategy. They're playing hard to get so to speak. And it's sort of allowing the Russians to exhaust themselves as they try and carry out this offensive. So the Ukrainians have defensive lines where they can build them, but they aren't putting everything into those positions. And they're not committing all their troops to those trenches. In fact, those lines are usually backed up by these very mobile units that are shooting and scooting, so to speak, against whatever targets they can find. One soldier I interviewed, he called it “hybrid conventional warfare,” to use the hybrid warfare term, which I know we all hate. But anyway, basically, the Ukrainians aren't committing everything to maintaining these lines. Instead, they're willing to give up those positions if it means that they're getting more targets for those mobile sort of tank-killing units to hit. And then once the Russian forces get sucked in, so to speak, those mobile Ukrainian units are hitting them, and usually forcing the Russians to pull back. One Ukrainian soldier called it sort of a yo-yo effect on the battlefield. And Ukrainian defensive positions, by the way, are only fortified in one direction facing the Russians. So the Russians take over the Ukrainian positions, you know, those exposed rear areas now are exposed to the Ukrainian forces that just pulled back. So anyway, these really mobile sort of dynamic tactics on the battlefield, I think, really underscore how the Ukrainians have prioritized creativity and the autonomy of their frontline units over the past eight years. And now they are quite literally running circles around the Russians.
Dmitri Alperovitch 09:40
That's very helpful. I'm curious when you talk to the radio people just out in the street and Kyiv, do you ask them what they think a win would look like in this situation and what are they expecting? Obviously, they've preserved their country, they preserved their government that they’ve democratically elected, you know, they may win the fight for the Donbass. But tare they expecting sort of to push the Russians all the way back to the 2014 lines? Are they expecting to even take DNR and LNR and go back to before 2014? Do they have expirations, even after Crimea? What do the regular people think is achievable here?
Nolan Peterson 10:18
Yeah, I think you know, it definitely depends on who you talk to. I think the more like gung-ho types would say, like, ‘We're going to fight and get back all the dumb boss, and then we're going to go on to Crimea.’ But I think the more sober=minded people with probably more practical outlook on things, I think, the general consensus is just to fight back to the, you know, the February 23 status quo, and get back to that point.
Dmitri Alperovitch 10:42
So take back like Mariupol, for example.
That would be the expectation, but then again, you know, I, you know, just from my point of view, that's going to be tough. Ukrainians are fighting a really smart, defensive war right now. But then when you flip the tables, and suddenly they're trying to take back terrain against the Russians, it's going to be a whole different ball game. So I think that, you know, you hear a lot of people saying, ‘We want to get back to the February 23 status quo,’ but that could be a tall order.
Dmitri Alperovitch 11:16
Got it. And what are people's attitudes towards the Russians—not just the Russian military, but the Russian population? Do they view everyone now as an enemy? Is this entrenched now, even in the East, where traditionally you had a population that had relatives in Russia and a much more positive situation? Is that all gone after Bucha and all the atrocities that they're seeing in Mariupol and elsewhere?
Nolan Peterson 11:40
Absolutely, yeah. I mean, I think Russia, you know, in my lifetime, in our lifetimes, has forever lost any shred of influence in Ukraine. You know, my wife, who's Ukrainian, her family lives in a Russian speaking area. And prior to February 24, you know, you could walk around her hometown, and, you know, you people wouldn't realize they were pro Russian, but they were kind of on the fence, you could say, but now, and I've gone back down there, after February 24, during the war, it's just pure hatred, pure hatred toward the Russians. And I think you know, the ultimate irony. And you know, most of us, it is clear to us, but the ultimate irony of this war, is that the people that Russia pretends to help with, or they pretend to be here to liberate, you know the Russian speaking population in Ukraine, are the ones suffering the most, you know, in Kharkiv, Mariupol, and other places in the Donbass. They are really suffering and they've gone through hell. And so I think that even those populations which might have had some sort of lingering affinity for Russia, it's just, it's gone, it will forever be gone. Moreover, families are being ripped apart right now, because many Ukrainians communicate with their families in Russia, who are just sort of glamoured by the propaganda, and they believe Russia’s lies about the reasons for the war and the way it's being carried out. And so that I think that Ukrainians, they, you know, they're willing to sever family ties, because their hatred for Russia now runs so deep. So, you know, whatever political goals Russia may have started this war with, I think their brutal tactics have made the ultimate achievement of those goals an impossibility.
Dmitri Alperovitch 13:26
Right. Have you talked to anyone? I'm curious about Kherson, obviously, there's a lot going on there. Right now, the Russians have activated the propaganda, turning on the news channels there. They're trying to institute Russian currency, the ruble, instead of the hryvnia in Kherson, and there's talk about potentially doing a referendum to create another statelet there, have you gotten a hold of anyone there that is giving you the real time update and what's happening on the ground?
Nolan Peterson 13:56
Not among the civilians, but the soldiers around Kherson I have been in touch with and from what I gather, that's probably the most likely vector for a successful Ukrainian kind of regain of territory, so to speak on the battlefield. But clearly, we've all seen those really brave and courageous acts of defiance in Kherson. And, you know, there are stories of resistance now operating in the cities or, you know, from the shadows. So I think that Kherson is one potential place where Ukrainians could gain ground, both from the military perspective, they might have a better chance in that direction, but also because the population there is clearly pro Ukrainian. And there I think that Russia will have their hands full trying to maintain their grip on that place in the long run. I think that the the presence of an underground resistance movement there is something that if Russia is able to maintain control is going to be a big problem for them moving forward.
Dmitri Alperovitch 15:03
Right. And one another question. And I'll go to Mike here in a second. But you've written a bunch of great things on the Ukrainian military transformation over the last eight years. How, of course before 2014 was very much a Soviet style military, not unlike the Russians, despite their reforms, preserving much of their sort of doctrine for fighting, but the Ukrainians really, with Western Help and Training have changed a lot. Can you talk a little bit about that, about some of those transformations that you've now seen paying off on the battlefield?
Nolan Peterson 15:35
Yeah, absolutely. I think, you know, when I first arrived in Ukraine in 2014, you know, you saw soldiers out there with flip flops and Kalashnikovs from the 50s, and 60s, you know, just, it was a really ragtag force. And then now, eight years later, we see, you know, what they've become. You know, I've had the chance to go out to Western Ukraine since 2015, when the US began training Ukrainians out there. And over the years, just the transformation of the Ukrainian troops has been remarkable. Not only in their, sort of the command climate where they, you know, push decision making down to the bottom, and allow the frontline troops to make decisions on their own without some higher commander, far removed from the battlefield, given them a play by play. That flexibility was something that really kind of came of age in the Donbass conflict, where a lot of units, you know, had the ability to make their own decisions in combat, and were allowed to be creative. You know, the Ukrainians have always had a disadvantage in technology and equipment. And to get around that, you know, they've, you know, I use the term like a MacGyvered Army over the years where they, you know, they're using drones, they were, they would take empty Monster Energy drink cans, and fill it with explosives, use 3d printers to make thins and then make these bombs that they were using, that they're dropping on their enemies. You know, they're hacking into power lines to get energy to their bases, and all just a whole plethora of things that they were doing, as they learned to just be adaptive to the battlefield environment. And I think that now, you know, we see the dividends, the payoff in that where they have been able to be so flexible and dynamic on the battlefield, whereas the Russians are very much incapable of acting that way. And also, that creativity has created, I think, a mindset and a climate within Ukrainian military, which has allowed them to take hold of all these new and unfamiliar Western weapons, and very quickly learn to use them and incorporate them onto the battlefield, in a very lethal way. And I think that, you know, even the US military, as a pilot, you know, we would train for years before we ever got close to combat environment. But the Ukrainians within a matter of days, you hand them a new weapon, they're out there, and they're destroying Russian tanks. So I think that, you know, this, this climate that is fostered, then fostered over the past eight years, has not only, you know, allowed them to perform brilliantly on the battlefield to date, but also to take maximum advantage of the weapons that they're getting. And that's not just for the ground troops. But I've also interviewed a Ukrainian MIG 29 Pilot and, you know, just the things that he told me about how they were the risks they were taking in and sort of innovative tactics that they were devising on the fly in combat, to get around their technological disadvantage with the Russians.
Dmitri Alperovitch 18:56
Anything you can share that won't compromise operations security?
Nolan Peterson 19:01
Ah. When I write the book about it, yeah. But I think yeah, I mean, flying really low, really fast, and choosing the time and place of the engagements. I think maybe one thing that, you know, they're not out there trying to protect everything. They're, they're waiting for the perfect moment to take advantage of the Russians being stupid. And, and so I think that that's, you know, that in one way has given them the ability to hold their own.
Dmitri Alperovitch 19:35
And how much do you think the, in terms of the ground forces the American and other Western volunteers have helped-you wrote on Twitter today about the two Americans that have been wounded in an attempt to tank ambush. You know, how many of those volunteers are actually frontliners, do you think and how much help are they providing?
Nolan Peterson 19:55
Oh, well, there are. Quite a few and I think it's interesting that the you know, Ukrainians, they did sort of concentrate the foreigners into their own units, and given them sort of specific tasks on the battlefield. But, you know, some Americans show up with knowledge of how to use javelins, for example. And so the Ukrainians take advantage of that and have them out there spreading that knowledge because like I said, you know, those anti tank weapons are just everywhere in the frontlines right now, there's one thing Ukrainians do not lack on the frontlines- ot is anti tank weapons. But yeah, man, I think, you know, the Americans training is obvious, especially when you have former Special Operations troops out there on the frontlines. That said, you know, one thing I definitely noticed when I observed the training, the US training mission in western Ukraine that began in 2015, you know, when it comes to modern conventional combat, you know, the experience really lies with Ukrainians at this point. And clearly, when this war is over, I think the Ukrainians are going to be very much in demand for all the lessons they've learned on the battlefield. So, you know, I think the obviously the Americans come with very high level skill sets, and they're certainly useful. But at the same time, you know, I can't really think of another army or military in the world that has as much, you know, sort of modern combat experience as the Ukrainians. So I, you know, I think apart from the sort of the command, model divorced, sort of pushing decision making to the bottom, which the US really helped the Ukrainians with over the over the years, when it comes to sort of basic combat skills, you know, I don't think that the the American presence out there really giving Ukrainians anything they didn't have on their own.
Dmitri Alperovitch 21:53
Interesting. Alright, well, look, we'll come back to you and a few other things, Nolan, but, Mike, let me go to you, maybe let's start us off with an update of what do you see happening right now with the fight for the Donbass, how that's looking. And any insights you have from the last week.
Mike Kofman 22:10
I had some pretty large battlefield to look around spanning all the way from essentially Kharkiv down to Izyum. So I guess we're sort of do a quick tour de force. What's been happening in the past week is you have Ukrainian forces slowly taking back territory kind of north and east of Kharkiv. And the Russian side, there is very lightly man that sort of badly molded units from 14th Army Corps and Northern Fleet. And the Ukrainian forces are steadily counter attacking there and eventually trying to put themselves more and more in a position to threaten the Russian ground lines of communications, we're running down towards Izyum. And we have a sizable Russian force in around the Izyum pushing south and southwest of it partly towards barbing going in order to cut the ground lines of communications on the Ukrainian side running to slow downscan Kramatorsk. You have a sizable concentration, I think also in demand. And you essentially in the north, seeing Russian forces steadily make advances very, very sort of slow, frustrated battles, Ukrainians are essentially trying to do a mobile defense. I don't think I'm quite on the same page with Nolan of Ukrainians running circles around Russia. And I probably wouldn't take it that far, to be very honest that the battle map doesn't reflect that very much. But I think this overall, this contest is still pretty contingent.
Dmitri Alperovitch 23:36
You think the Ukrainians are finding more from static defensive positions?
Mike Kofman 23:40
No, I actually, I actually think they are avoiding a set these battle. And I think in part because, even though the general balance of forces in the war favors Ukraine in the immediate battle space up there in the North may not and Russia may have a much higher concentration of fires. And more importantly, the Russians have ammo, and it's not clear whether Ukrainian stands on ammo, and artillery is the most decisive element of this war. It ain't javelins. Javelins are important, and laws are important. But Ukraine was one through one main successful use of artillery. Some ways better use of artillery than Russia, the Russian military struggled to suppress Ukrainian use of artillery over time. So that's, that will be pretty, to be honest, that's been fairly decisive. Overall, if we look in this conflict, most Russian casualties are probably due to artillery much more so than anti tank guided missiles, which do slow down Russian formations, and they pick them apart as they filter out, but in general artillery has been devastating in this war. So if you look at the battlespace and see that Russian forces are trying to kind of cut the Donbass into a couple of pieces. They're trying to cut off from ground lines of communications to the west, and also from Ukrainian forces, savor it The ask and they're trying to cut several vignettes because of big science as well and see Russian forces trying to push through in the north through a town called Iyman. And further south will a town called Ibasna to essentially see if they can steadily punctuate Ukrainian lines, and create one envelopment there and another one around Khremators. And then if you go further along South, Russian strikes against a V of go this along the long standing Line of Control now on the Donbass. And, you know, I think if you look further southwest, you see a lot of fixing attacks, there's been sort of a long, sustained series of fights there over a range of towns, about four of them that are important to holding the line, and to Russian forces trying to break through and try to take at least get access to the southern part of the Donbass from those advances. Okay, beyond that, you know, you have them trying to consolidate a perimeter around Kherson City West of the riverbank, and fix strikes and fights there. In general, I describe the effort this way, the Russian military is definitely approaching this fight a bit smarter than they did the first phase of the war, there's a lot more reconnaissance in force, followed up by heavy use of artillery, and airstrikes. And so they're fighting in a much more sustainable fashion, taking fewer casualties, and suffering less attrition. On the other hand, Ukraine's defending pretty smartly, there isn't sort of any visible general large breakthroughs, I don't think those are necessarily going to happen. And the battle line if shift is going to shift fairly slowly and steadily. And Ukrainians are also being smart about not being pinned where they have a worst correlation of forces. So overall, it's still pretty contingent. I mean, you can see definitely Russia military making some gains, but you can also see them getting exhausted over time as his fight goes on. And they don't have reserves mobilized. They've suffered considerable losses of manpower and equipment, whereas Ukraine has generated very sizable reserves, and eventually Western equipment and all the equipment that's been supplied by European states to essentially had what maybe late gen Warsaw Pact gear that is going to be used to turn Ukraine's manpower advantage into actual brigades generated brigades will combat power. That's where we are, I'm not going to repeat what I've said in previous chats, which is essentially that at peacetime strength, I'm very confident that for Russia, this is likely going to be the last major offensive no matter what happens in this particular fight, because without mobilization, they're not in a position to sustain a war, whether it's a war of attrition, whether it's a more positional fight, however you want to call it
Dmitri Alperovitch 27:59
Got it very helpful. Couple of follow up questions, Mike. So with regards to Mariopol, are we now starting to see major units from Mariopul move into the fight for the Donbass now that they've pinned the Ukrainian defenders at the Steel Plant?
Mike Kofman 28:16
Yeah, that's been the case for Well, I think for over a week now. They're still fighting around the steel plant. They're still Russian units trying to inch and take territory around you can see a lot of combat videos from different parts of that sector. But I think with forces they could they've already shifted from the Mariupol north to reinforce the southern Military District units attacks. I don't think so the Military District has a sufficient combat power for any major breakthrough in the south though I think that's primarily a front of their to where they're trying to fix Ukrainian forces. So they can focus on kind of the North and the eastern part of the Donbass.
Dmitri Alperovitch 28:56
Is there any danger to other cities in Zaporizhzhya, Dnipro, ? Do you see any movements towards those those places?
Mike Kofman 29:07
Yeah, I gotta tell you, from my point of view, not really I mean, Zaporizhzhya is probably the most vulnerable right now there's a series of fights going you know, across the line from a D HIV. We have for you and the town to watch for in the south, there's been the focus point of a lot of fighting is Vyshchetarasivka. Russian forces have been trying to take it for weeks. That's a major junction town. And Ukrainians have been defending it for that reason, because I think the Russian military probably feels if they can take it, then they have access to more much more of the battle map and potential for breakthrough there but so far, they haven't been successful. So I wouldn't, I wouldn't watch what happens up in Zaporizhzhya, I would watch a town that probably nobody's ever heard of called Vyshchetarasivka, because there's a lot more fighting there and that's much more relevant to this battlefield.
Dmitri Alperovitch 29:55
Got it. Now, an interesting development has appeared in last 72 to 48 hours and even we've had an update today, which is that Valery Gerasimov the Chief of Staff of the Russian military, famous for the really non existing grasp on doctrine, as been yet touted in the West for many years now, but was not really doctrine, but that he went to Izyum to apparently, you know, confer with the frontline generals there. And the Ukrainians are claiming as of earlier today that they managed to do a strike on the headquarters in Izyum and kill a number of generals and apparently wounded Gerasimov himself. What do you make of this news, Mike, and particularly the fact that Gerasimov appears to have gone directly to the frontlines? How unusual is that?
Mike Kofman 30:52
Okay, well, I honestly don't know what happened. So I can only speculate here. One, it looks likely that he was in or around Izyum, and maybe he was there for a meeting, or maybe he was there to see what's going on, in person. Two, maybe he was wounded, maybe he wasn't. There is a lot of speculation on that front. Either way, it's not going to affect the campaign. He's just been an interesting news story. I don't make much of it, to be honest, and still a lot about this that’s unconfirmed, you know, just because everybody's on Twitter's talking about it doesn't doesn't mean we have any hard facts about what happened. But it sounds like Ukrainian military got good intel once again, where a Russian command point was and was able to conduct a strike against it.
Dmitri Alperovitch 31:43
Yeah, fascinating. And obviously, there were stories this week about how USM may be playing a huge role in this slide, providing potentially real time intelligence for targeting to the Ukrainians. There was another strike on a Odessa airport today, damaging the runways. And before that strike, a number of planes were seen in the sky taking off from that airport. So Ukrainians may have gotten advanced knowledge that the strike was coming. Really phenomenal use of intelligence there, but let me just push you on the Gerasimov story one more time, Mike. I mean, if the Chairman of Joint Chiefs goes to the front lines of a major fight, where US forces are, that's a big story, I mean, you know, in this day and age with telecommunications, videoconference, etc. Is this representative of the fact that things aren't going well, that he's not happy with the potentially pace of operations there that he felt that he needed to fly to Izyum? And put himself in danger? to confer with his folks directly?
Michael Kofman 32:49
It may be but probably not. For all you know, he was there to hand out some medals for something else. Like, we don't know what's going on.
Dmitri Alperovitch 32:56
He couldn't do that from Belgrade?
Michael Kofman 32:59
Who knows? I mean, if you're asking whether Russia has the telecommunications technology to do it remotely Dmitri, they do. Okay, trust me, they also do PowerPoint. They're just as afflicted by that as we are. So they have command centers, they have a Director of Military Operations, even though he doesn't need to be physically there. So it's a good question as to what he was doing down on Izyum, why he went all the way down there as opposed to let's say Belgrade. Obviously, people could have just come up from Izyum and met him somewhere else in Russia, it's not that far away.
Dmitri Alperovitch 33:28
Right. Let me ask you about artillery. You mentioned this already that the Ukrainians are using artillery very effectively, using UAVs for targeting and fixing artillery strikes. Why aren’t the Russians doing a better job of it, given that their entire doctrine is oriented towards heavy use of artillery?
Michael Kofman 33:50
Yeah, that's actually a great question. So when this first started out, you saw the Ukrainian military actually do recon fire a lot better, using drones setting up ambushes to tie down Russian formations, then shlacking them with artillery. Okay. And it also does feel like Ukraine is benefiting from a lot of higher level intelligence, about Russian force, presence and movements. But you know, I see increasingly might be coming out in new stories, but on the Russian side, you definitely see that early on really bad force employment and organization. Part of that, of course, was them thinking they were doing a quick regime change operation and not organizing anything for real war and not telling the troops their going to be sent into this kind of fight. Part of it is sort of force composition. It looks like they have artillery attachments in the larger BTG's, but it's still not clear what that force structure looks like. I think there are a lot of assumptions early on into the war that may not prove true. For example, about the real structure of some BTG's, how much they vary because it looks like they vary dramatically, probably between 400 to 900 men per BTG. And more importantly, unemployment. So you didn't see for the first week, the Russian military really doing a lot of us recon fire recon strike stuff they've been talking about for years, and people like me have been covering it, because we saw them using it in Ukraine in 2014 2015, and saw them using it in Syria as well. And only later on did you start seeing Russian drones appear or Russian drones doing actual targeting for Russian artillery, things like that, and more importantly, Russian artillery mass, but I think one of the things you definitely see is at first - Russia may be able to use artillery effectively, but they're not that great at counter battery fire, they're not that good at suppression, they haven't been able to effectively suppress Ukraine artillery. That's been one of the main faults, at least at the tactical level, of the Russian military. Ukrainians use artillery very effectively. I'm sorry, despite all the kind of Tiktok imagery of this being a javelin and law heavy war, the real success story more often than not is the Soviet tube artillery that they inherited, and they're just using it better. Obviously, the defender has big advantages in ground warfare. That part's true, too. And we should comment on that. But nonetheless, you see, Russia is not performing nearly as well. Why? As always, it’ll take time to unpack. I hardly have the answers to half half the questions. But the very least Dmitri, at least this far into the war, we're starting to ask more and more of what the right questions should be.
Dmitri Alperovitch 36:33
Okay. A lot has been made about May 9, the potential declaration of victory that apparently now, protesters in Russia talking about Victory Day 1945 Dash 2022. They have been plastered all over Moscow. It's 8 days out from now. Any chance that this battle is going to be over one way or another? By May 9? Your estimation, Mike?
Michael Kofman 37:01
No, in my estimation, no. And I'm not attached to May 9 as a date. I'm not sure why other people are so attached to it. If nothing, if this war doesn't end by May 8, I assure you, it'll keep going beyond that. Okay. With high confidence. I also don't think Putin is necessarily going to announce anything on May 9 either. And I don't know what else, maybe we'll see your Optimove there with you know, some bandages on his arm or something from being wounded in Izyum. That's about the only thing I can add to the main knife conversation. It’s a puzzling fixation.
Dmitri Alperovitch 37:34
Yeah, well, apparently it was actually a leg wound, according to the reports, so maybe he'll be limping. Although I do think that on May 9, you know, Putin is going to give a speech and will probably talk about successes like Mariupol. And potentially, you know, some villages in Donbass that they may have taken, and broader sort of suppression of quote, unquote, Nazis and the like. One more question, Mike, that I thought might be interesting on a tactical level. Our friend, Rob Lee, posted a video today of the First T-90m tank that he's seen on the battlefield so far, obviously, a modernized tank. A lot of what we've seen have been much older equipment going into this war. Is this a reflection of maybe the Russians have kept their more modern equipment out of this fight for fear of potentially needing it for NATO fight if NATO decides to engage? And now there may be moving some of that more modern equipment into the Donbass. Any thoughts on that?
Michael Kofman 38:43
I mean, I think if anything, it's a reflection of the fact that they've lost a lot of equipment. And the T-90m is the best tank in the Russian military, by far. They only have one battalion of those, at best, maybe two. I haven't checked my count lately. And a lot of their units have been pretty badly mauled in the tank and heavy armored fighting vehicle category. Right? If we sort of include tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and vehicles of that type, they probably lost 15 to 20% of active inventory, which is pretty significant. I don't think that things like T-90m and are being sent in now because only because they were held in reserve. I think they actually need some of these units. It's definitely a much better tank but you know, at the quantities of which they have available, it's not gonna make a difference. And you know, the main issue with tanks that they've been using isn't the level of modernization in this war. I mean, at the end of the day, many of these things are quite vulnerable to the types of missiles we provided. Tanks used unsupported is the biggest problem. As I've spoken before, in our discussions about the fact that the Russian military's problem is not tanks. It is a lack of infantry, a lack of infantry to support armor. And part of that is by design. And part of that because the readiness levels and how they're trying to use this force when you get down to the battlefield, they don't have much infantry to dismount to support either fights in urban environments, or their vehicles, especially when they get into ambushes or to screen them. And some of those big choices, and some of the big problems their having in terms of force availability, have really come to bite them in this war.
Dmitri Alperovitch 40:30
Got it. Nolan also talked about some of the innovative tactics that the Ukrainian Air Force pilots are using today flying low and what have you. What role is the Air Force either Ukrainian or the Russian Air Force playing in this new phase for the fight of the Donbass? Is it still mostly ground war?
Michael Kofman 40:53
I mean, so on the Russian side, you definitely see airpower being used more and more, but it's not being used very strategically, right. First, they tried to fight for local air superiority, which is very difficult, I think, and easy to lose aircraft to ambushes by air defense. They fought a war of attrition with Ukrainian Air Defense, a lot of the time using artillery and drones actually to take it out, because Russian airpower tries to take on the seed mission, but isn't that good at it. Increasingly, you see them trying to do close air support. But the challenge, of course, is proliferation of MANPADS on the battlefield, right? Short range air defenses and manned portable air defenses makes it very hard for Russian helicopters to be effective, makes it a very dangerous mission for the dated attack type aircraft that they have. A lot of Russian pilots, as you can see from how they're employing the Air Force. They are using, in some case, precision guided munitions. But there's definitely issues there with both technical level on su-34’s of the targeting system and of training of pilots to be able to use it. So, airpower is in the fight. This is the part that's the least known about open sources. I'm gonna be very frank, I see a lot of claims about it in social media by folks. And I will tell you, from my point of view, this is the least known part of what's been happening in this war. And we just need to approach it with a great deal of humility because everything I'm saying is just based on glimpses of the fight. On the Ukrainian side of the battlefield, I can't ask too much. I mean, okay, if the Ukrainian Air Force is flying low so is the Russian Air Force, and Ukrainian aircraft are pretty short on range, so I'm not sure what they're engaging. You're welcome to ask Nolan to restrike the target. I've not seen much of the Ukrainian Air Force in the second sort of month of this war. And maybe that's just because a lot of the video feeds and whatnot are being kept off the internet for OpSec purposes. And that's fine. But in general, you know, Russia's loss, probably around what 25 aircraft and 40 plus helicopters, 16 of them, lost at Kherson at the airport. Ukraine's Air Force looks like it lost maybe around 16,17 aircraft in this fight, which is pretty significant given the size difference between these two air forces. But that's about all and I'm going off of Nolan’s blog number here when I say that, so that's all post and paste, some basic figures. I don’t know if Nolan wants to add anything, this is the one aspect of the conflict in general that's very hard to judge, just based on what's available in the information sources out there.
Dmitri Alperovitch 43:48
Nolan, any thoughts on that?
Nolan Peterson 43:51
Yeah, I mean, one interesting thing, to me, it's not like, necessarily innovative or anything, but the Ukrainians are conducting combat air patrols every day, over the parts of the country where they can they can fly somewhat, safely. And when they do that, you know, they're not skimming the deck, they're actually up at altitude. And they are in as, as this pilot described it to me, they're pushing the Russians back by maintaining a presence over certain parts of the country where they're not going to be affected by new Russian ground air defenses near the borders. So, you know, the Russians do have sort of control over the air around the south and east where they control the ground. But over the vast majority of Ukrainian airspace, you know, it's still contested. And I think a big part of that is just the fact that Ukrainians are still going up every day. And, you know, sort of a through line to this war is sort of the lackluster training of the Russians. And I think that's one thing that the Ukrainian pilot did comment to me on is that the Russians didn't seem to be able to operate effectively in inclement weather, at night, you know, just sort of basic, you know, combat environment that combat pilots should be able to operate in. They seem to struggle with that. And so his theory, his idea was that the Russian has just got really sloppy and really lazy after flying in Syria, where there's basically no threat from the air or from the ground. And they just weren't prepared for any resistance from the Ukrainian Air Force. And so, you know, just by virtue of staying in the fight, I think the Ukrainians are holding the ground. Real quickly about the drones. You know, one thing and, again, you know, as a journalist, you only get sort of a soda straw view of the battlefield. But I hear a lot from the soldiers I interview on the ground that in the South and East right now, the Russian drone presence is prolific. And it kind of puts the fear of God in a lot of Ukrainians because they're out there all the time and they're hearing drones overhead. And those drones are clearly directing artillery. I mean, one Ukrainian soldier I interviewed, he was pretty badly hurt by artillery fire. And right before it hit, there was a Russian Orlan drone orbiting overhead clearly directing the fire. So the Russians' use of drones right now in the south and east is extremely prolific based on the soldiers I'm talking to. And it does. You know, it makes it a pretty harrowing experience on the battlefield with the artillery and the drones, you know, there's 24 per 7, you're under threat. And so that adds a psychological aspect to that, which, you know, as Mike, you know, alluded to the Ukrainians are also fighting heavily with artillery. So I imagine that that psychological impact is being reflected on the Russians too.
Dmitri Alperovitch 46:57
Speaking of drones Mike, what are you seeing in terms of TB2 use lately by the Ukrainians?
Michael Kofman 47:04
TB2 is one of the, you know, more interesting questions also about air power employment in this war, right. The Ukrainians had some pretty good success with TB2’s during the first month, saw quite a few videos, saw some good strikes, was even a surprise for some people like me assumed, of course, that Russia would start this war out with an air campaign planning for a serious fight and would try to take out Ukrainian TB2’s and the Ukrainian Air force on the ground. That didn't really happen beyond kind of the initial set of cruise missile and tactical ballistic missile strikes that you saw in the first couple of days. A lot of things that folks predicted in terms of what the Russian actual plan would be didn't happen. So Ukraine had the ability to use TB2’s. And they used them with some success. That said, you also saw the videos drop off precipitously in the past month, and now you're increasingly seeing TB2’s - they're being shot down in some regard over Russia. So you see that Ukraine is probably using TB2’s to conduct some of these deep strikes against critical infrastructure in Russia. Some of the ones being shot down look like they're brand new batches. They were made after the war started by Turkey, which gives us a little bit of an insight as to the fact that Ukraine likely ordered more TB2’s and has started to get additional shipments. What's happened with the TB2’s though, again, this is a very good case in point about why you've not seen a thread or something written on airpower by folks like me at least. Depending on who you talk to, Ukraine has either lost very few TB2’s, or basically all of them from the initial number that they had going into the war. And that gigantic delta of perspectives of people who kind of claim to have knowledge in the space gives me a lot of pause, right? So because of that I'm wrestling to speak not as to what the TB2’s have been able to achieve, but more about sort of kill-loss ratios and things of that nature and the overall combat effectiveness of the TB2, okay. And I know TB2 has a particularly avid fan base out there online, so please do not come after me.
Dmitri Alperovitch 49:13
Yeah, that's the entire country of Turkey may be coming after you. I'm sure that their export numbers of TB2’s both to Ukraine and everywhere else are going through the roof right now. Mike, one more question here. And we touched on this last week as well, but you continue to see a lot of quote unquote accidents and explosions taking place in border cities in Russia. Just today you had another exposure involving Belgorod. There's a report of a rail bridge near Kursk mysteriously gone down. At what point do you see the Russians really responding with overwhelming force to this or have they already done this? And they really have no other options to respond? You know, clearly they know that some of this is sabotaged by Ukrainian forces or sympathizers. Do you expect them to do anything about it?
Michael Kofman: 50:15
I'm not sure. If we're talking about the sabotaging and territory they control I'm not sure what they can do. I was actually surprised we hadn't seen more of that in the first two months, particularly in Kherson’s upper -
Dmitri Alperovitch 50:28
I'm talking about in Russia.
If you’re talking about deep strikes in Russia, the Ukrainians have been doing it with a mix of approaches, right? Some maybe be sabotaged. Some may be TB2 strikes, because we're seeing TB2’s shot down over Russia proper. Right. And so we can assume that's what they're doing there. Maybe one or two or with the remaining [inaudible] what they can reach, with those fairly inaccurate, but nonetheless pretty effective SRBMs. So you've seen the Russian military respond across Ukraine, targeting Ukrainian critical infrastructure too and that's part of our response, but really, it's part of our campaign. But what else can Russia do? Let's be honest. First they're probably running pretty low on long-range, precision guided weapons at this point, right. Surefire sign—there are firing CDCMs, coastal defense cruise missiles, right, that have a land attack mode, but aren't really meant for it. They're pretty expensive, pretty sophisticated missiles against surface targets. So you're increasingly seeing them - used missiles that can hit ground targets, but aren't really optimized for that mission set. So I suspect they're starting to run low on cruise missiles, because they have to have a reserve both for NATO and for nuclear employment missions. Whereas Ukraine is finding an all out war, the Russian military proudly has some bottom number that they have to keep in reserve for other fights and other missions. And the Russian Air Force, as you can clearly see, is supporting the overall campaign of Donbas. And I think, is probably doing it better than they were fighting in the first month of the war. But probably mostly Ukrainian airspace isn't contested. Right? And I don't think they're going to venture far into it, because then they're going to risk running into Ukrainian Air Defense, or even Ukrainian aircraft, which are probably much more operative at this point. So I'm not sure what the Russian military can do.
The only big challenge here is it's clear that there are not going to be negotiations that go anywhere in the near term, probably even in the medium term. From my point of view. The big debate is, is Vladimir Putin going to look at the situation and declare a general state of war and enact national mobilization or not. If he does that, it doesn't automatically solve Russia's problems or change Russia's fortunes. But it's a very significant political decision, and will alter Russia's staying power in the conflict. One of the things he may leverage to do that is the sort of series of attacks on Russian territory, which is why I suspect Ukraine is not taking credit for them, while continuing to prosecute them.
Dmitri Alperovitch 53:11
Okay, let's switch topics a little bit and talk about the economy. I wrote a long thread yesterday about the fact that the Black Sea blockade by Russia is really devastating to Ukrainian exports. Ukraine used to export about over 130 million tons of goods per year. Today, through rail, they're hoping in a couple of months to get to just about a million per month, 12 million per year. So just a fraction of what they actually need. Nolan, I'm curious, what are you seeing sort of in day-to-day life in terms of impact on people, both from the economic devastation of the war itself, but also from this devastating blockade? Are people worried about their jobs? What are you seeing in terms of economic productivity from the capital?
Yeah, well, I think I'll start real quick. During the height of fighting in Kyiv, it was just remarkable how the city's sort of logistical process still functioned. Like, basically, the entrance of the city was through the roads and the South and the railways are still open. But you know, from my time in Kyiv, if I can say we had more supplies here in the city than when I went to other places around Ukraine during that period. They really had kilometers-long lines of semi-trucks flowing into the city from the south every single day, and they kept the city alive. I think, you know, across Ukraine right now, there are some supply shortages. The most pronounced one is of gasoline across the country. I think that's one thing that people are starting to comment on is that it's hard to find gas. But it's, you know, here in Kyiv, you know, I'm getting protein bars and Coca Cola Zero, and the very non-essential things that are still being brought into the country. So, you know, the supply chain is still functioning.
But, you know, in your thread, you brought up a good point that moving forward, you know, Ukraine is effectively under a blockade by sea and by air. And so a very important step that needs to be taken with the assistance of Ukraine's foreign partners is to develop that ground infrastructure potential at the border, to come up with some solution and make it a faster process to regain the trains going across the border. Because Ukraine, you know, you know, as we look forward, unfortunately, and I say this, because, you know, we all want life to get back to normal here, but it looks like this could become sort of a bigger, badder version of the Donbas wars, some sort of pseudo-frozen conflict that could drag on for a long time. And if that's the case, then Ukraine is going to learn how to get all of his supplies in by land, perhaps for, you know, months, or God forbid, years from now. So that's going to be a huge priority for this economy—is to find a land solution to do that. Kind of ironic that, you know, this is a story that I'd love to write in the near term. But you know, China had invested a whole lot of money in this country, building up the ports, roads, and all these things, thinking that Ukraine is going to be some sort of a hub for its One Belt, One Road initiative. And I think Russia really squashed that hope in the near future. But yes, the economy has definitely been affected. I think, you know, there's a certain momentum to the economy that's carried through till now. But I can see, like, you know, my wife's parents have both lost their jobs, and you're seeing a lot of people, you know, across the country, suffering economic hardship, and it's just gonna get worse as time goes on.
Dmitri Alperovitch 57:10
Is the government paying employment right now for people that are losing their jobs?
There is assistance, but, you know, how's that going to last if the economy is not generating enough to sustain that? Now, even just on the outskirts of Kyiv, visiting people who are trying to rebuild their homes, almost all the assistance they're getting is from volunteers right now. So just as an anecdote, that suggests to me that, you know, the government doesn't have the funds available to both rebuild and fight the war at the same time. So that's going to be a huge challenge for Ukraine, you know. Russia may not be able to achieve a decisive battlefield victory, but they can slowly bleed Ukraine's economy dry over time. And so that's going to be another important role for Ukraine's foreign partners, for sure.
Dmitri Alperovitch 58:07
Alright, we have a listener question. Mike, maybe you can take this one. But if Russia does not succeed as in the Donbas, as seems more and more likely, what does it do? How does it claim victory? How does it escalate potentially? Any thoughts on that? I know this is pure speculation, but try to put yourself in Putin's brain.
I think it depends on how we define success. If success is just capturing all the local administrative territory of the Donbas, I think that's definitely very much in doubt, right. I think they will take make some gains. But then the big question is, will they be able to hold on to them? Because Ukraine has pretty good offensive options of its own. Later on, I think Russia will be pressed in either declaring a political success without having captured most of the territory—because they recognize the independence of DNR LNR. Well, they were being coy as to the actual boundaries. But I think that's probably the lowest political threshold they have for trying to salvage something from this debacle and try to spin it as a victory. So there's a good chance that if they're not successful, Putin will reframe this as a larger conflict. I see a lot of—I'm trying to think of the best word for it. Maybe preliminary prepping of the information space in Russian media to try to say, ‘Hey, this is not really a Russian Ukraine war Ukraine, just a proxy in the larger Russian NATO war and that NATO is a real adversary,’ right? So if there's a second defeat that they suffer, they'll probably blame NATO for it. And then he might try to spin that into why a national mobilization is required. But there's a good counterargument as to why the Russian population doesn't want to do that. I think the reason is straightforward. If Putin does that, he can no longer define victory down to whatever basically he wants. Now, it has to be with fairly maximalist angles. And the political objectives were going to be much harder for him to control terms of what he could set. It's going to mobilize the country. So you have to promise I think something quite more significant than he has to Donbas. As far as the wargoes, right now, there's still options for Russian political leadership to define victory down. The big thing is, everything I've seen suggests to me that Putin doesn't want to do that—that he intends to keep fighting. And that could be either because he doesn't understand the reality of the situation in terms of Russian forces and their prospects on the battlefield. Could be he's being told that but nonetheless, he believes that the Russian military will just win and persevere. And leaders of great powers often have this presumption that because they're in charge of such a great country that they have these sort of unlimited resources, and they might be able to win, no matter the odds, because they may not have a really good understanding of the relationship between ends and means. Or it could be that, you know, Putin actually believes that he could sustain this as a war of attrition, and over time, squeeze Ukraine economically because of the ongoing blockade the damage to Ukraine that's been done by the war, and assume that he could, you know, maybe steadily fracture the west if this war drags on and eventually gets some kind of settlement that way. You know, I don't know, I'm just laying out the range of options as always.
Dmitri Alperovitch 1:01:47
Let's wrap up. We're at the top of the hour now. Nolan, thank you so much for joining us. Hope you stay safe there in Kyiv. And thanks again, Mike, for coming on on this podcast once again and sharing your phenomenal views and insights into this war. And that's it from us tonight, folks. Have a good night.
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