Event Recap: War in Ukraine
The Science of War and Taiwanese Implications
Silverado Policy Accelerators Co-Chairman, Dmitri Alperovitch, continues with his podcast on the War in Ukraine with Michael Kofman and, new this week, Ivan Kanapathy, a Vice President at Beacon Global Strategies and former U.S. National Security Council Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia.
As Russian forces withdraw from around Kyiv and the world recognizes the atrocities committed in Bucha, these experts continue to discuss the Russian insurgency defense strategy and any possible parallels to Taiwan. Ivan discussed the political parallels between Putin and Xi, though with an important caveat of differing geopolitical circumstances.
This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and as a result may not be 100 percent accurate. A complete audio recording is available here, and a full unofficial transcript is available below.
TRANSCRIPT: “Science of War: Analysis of the War in Ukraine and Implications for Taiwan”
April 3, 2022 - Online
Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator
Michael Kofman, Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA
Ivan Kanapathy, VP Beacon Global Strategies, former U.S. National Security Council Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia
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 00:10
That was Mozart symphony number 40 in G minor. Welcome once again to tonight's show. It is Sunday, April 3. At Dimitrov Alperovitch Chairman of Silverado policy accelerator, geopolitical think tank in Washington DC. And once again joined by Michael Kaufman, an expert on the Russian military and a research program director in the Russian studies program at the Center for naval analysis. And we have another new guest tonight, Ivan Kanapathy former director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia on the National Security Council, and former US military attache in Taiwan. Ivan is also a former Marine fighter pilot, and is now Vice President in the Indo Pacific practice at Beacon global strategies. So literally no one better to talk about implications of this war on Taiwan and potential for Chinese invasion there. But let's get started with you, Mike. Lots of things happened this week, including some pullout of Russian forces from Kiev region, from Kiev oblast from Chernyiv can you give us a few minutes overview of what you're seeing happening on the ground? And what what the implications of that are, please?
Michael Kofman 01:22
Sure, and thanks for having me back to, to be in the discussion. So I think that in the past week, and certainly the last several days, we've seen a steady Russian withdrawal from the northern part of Ukraine, it looks like they're pulling back from both sides of the Dnieper River around Kiev, I initially thought they might hold some forces back up north to try to fix Ukrainian units up there, but they're not they I think are likely gonna withdraw most if not all of the forces that they've had in that part of the campaign. And that's not a significant retreat, and I'll be honest, its not a significant defeat for the Russian military there. And they're also pulling back in the Northeast as well by Sumi. From the looks of it, they are likely going to load up those units in Belarus, on to railway wagons, and then they're probably going to redeploy those units which are still viable to fight all the way down around Ukraine. To prepare for the attack on the Donbass, they've been pushing in the Donbass in the past several weeks, the Donbass is now the main front and frankly, probably the only front to watch. That includes the battle for Mariupol. Russian forces captured Izyum, although took him weeks to do that. At this point, it doesn't look like there's going to be any sort of large scale involvement of the Ukrainian forces in the Donbass, which is called the Joint Forces operation. And the reason for that is, frankly, it took the Russian forces several weeks to try to get to Izyum. And the past week, plus they haven't made any moves from Zaporizhzhia which is the southern part of that front. And so increasingly, it looks like they're going to try to push Ukrainian forces out of the Donbass, to sheer firepower and density and mass. The one area where you see some pockets or salience form, is in a sort of north eastern part of the Ukrainian positions. There's a town they're called Severodonetsk we see is kind of maybe in the semi envelopment. But in general that looks like the fight to watch in the coming weeks and the focus of Russian campaign. In the southwest, they've tried to stabilize lines between Kherson and Myikolaiv, I think Ukrainians have managed to make some gains there as well. It looks like Russian forces they're just holding. Now they're going to try to concentrate what units they have available on the Donbass. They've also brought up reinforcements from other other parts of the Russian forces, those units that had yet to contribute to this war had some additional battalions. So that looks like the the current setup is going to concentrate with military power they have left draw down in the northern parts of Ukraine and and probably retreat along some other fronts.
Dmitri Alperovitch 04:06
Got it? So I know last week, you said that you thought they might keep some forces in the region to pin the Ukrainian forces prevent them from reinforcing the Donbass. I guess at this point in the war, it's safe to assume that anything that's smart for the Russians, they're going to do the exact opposite. But but any thoughts on why they didn't? They're not leaving anything in Kiev and Chernyiv looks like the pulling out of Sumi as well,
Michael Kofman 04:31
So hey're probably going to keep pressure on Kharkiv and Sumi, right. But I don't think that they can block either city at this point. They've given up on that. The Ukrainian counter attack and opened up the road between Sumi and Poltava in the past week, but I do think there will be some Russian forces still around those areas to maintain pressure. The real reason why is they've been delivering and suffering considerable attrition up north for several weeks. They no prospect of encircling Kiev they had basically reached a stalemate several weeks into this war there. And keeping any forces there, unfortunately, would create the same problem for the Russian military. They are short on manpower. Right? And they need all the units they can for the next phase of this war, which is in the Donbass, I think that's the main reason why. So to what extent it's smart or not is debatable. I'm not sure necessarily, if I if I kind of make the counter argument, it would have been smart for them to stay up in the north with no hope of any kind of success and suffer steady attrition to those forces either. That said it now looks like they are really focused on Donbass, as the Russian Ministry of Defense had announced well over a week ago.
Dmitri Alperovitch 05:42
Speaking of troop numbers, you just did an excellent thread a few hours ago, on the possibility of Russia increasing troop numbers for this fight, upcoming fight in Donbass. Can you talk a little bit about that what what their potential options are? And what is likely to happen?
Michael Kofman 05:59
Sure, well, looking long term, they're in a real fix. And the reason why is that they're trying to have a war with Ukraine, which outside of Russia is the fact the largest country in Europe and has conducted full national mobilization. And it has extensive support from the West, while keeping our special operation. Right. That means that Russia is fundamentally not able to conduct mobilization so if Russia’s army is not that big., of the active battalion tactical groups that are contracts staffed or mostly contract staff at this point, you can consider functionally everything committed to this war, right? They've taken significant losses in initial force that they deployed, they've reinforced it by scraping what they could from the rest of the active duty standing force, there aren't really more battalions left in the tank right now as this. This is why they're shifting forces around what they have available, I threw a dart at the board. This is not at all an accurate number, and said that maybe they have around 80 BTGs equivalent of available in this fight at the moment moving forward. And that's essentially
Dmitri Alperovitch 07:05
And a BTG is how many troops?
Michael Kofman 07:08
tactical group, on average, a battalion group of maybe around 750. But they vary, they vary. There's just a rough unit of measurement right there, they actually deployed these units with their headquarters on support. So not all more BTGs, but it's kind of a way to measure the force and potential combat effectiveness. Okay, so all that being said, though, there is technically more available in the Russian force, but they're not implementing stop loss when they announced on April 1 that they're taking in the biannual draft of 134, and a half thousand conscripts, they also released conscripts whose Terms of Service have been fulfilled and expired, right, because they've not declared a state of war in Russia. They can't keep the conscripts beyond their terms of service. What they're trying to do instead behind the scenes is what could be called kind of a partial or piecemeal mobilization, they are trying to offer a lot of money for conscripts. And for men with prior service experience to sign contracts, alright, so they can help fill out the rest of the formations. Now, the Russian military ground forces in particular, on average, tend to be manned at maybe around, let's say, 75% radiance. This is why they have the tiered Readiness System. And that's why each tactical unit is supposed to generate two battalion tactical groups, and then maybe a third one if the Manning level is raised. Okay. So those two groups that you could get sorry, those two battalion tactical groups that you could get from all these units have already been sent. Imagine they're already in the theater, they're already in the fight. Right? So the question is, how will the Russian military get Manning but without declaring a state of war and without conducting mobilization and without doing a big national call? And so it looks like they're trying to square the circle by piecemeal offering a lot of money to get contractors, they can then deploy additional battalions that will get them somewhere additional capability in maybe the coming month, two months, whatnot, not immediately. But the but after that, there isn't much, right. So they can't they can't have both a special operation. And the very large scale conventional war, if this makes sense. They're somewhat stuck politically.
Dmitri Alperovitch 09:29
Do you believe that the current conscripts were actually released? Oftentimes, they are forced to sign contracts, so they become quote unquote, professional soldiers after their duty.
Michael Kofman 09:43
Right. So tech, usually what happens is, they're they're not forced to sign Dmitri. What happens actually is during their conscript duty, there are definitely conscripts who are intimidated to sign contracts before their actual Terms of Service expiring that happened to in the run up to this conflict.
Dmitri Alperovitch 10:02
Basically, it's an offer, it's an offer you can't refuse basically?
Michael Kofman 10:06
Well, yeah, they're basically threatened with very hard conditions of service in the coming months, or they sign a contract and they switch status, right? The current conscripts have been released, but they're being enticed by money, if that makes sense, and the money being offered is significant. From what I hear, these are obviously just rumors, but the money is being is pretty significant. What's being offered at this point that. The biannual draft is is a rotation. There's obviously one April 1, the 15th. Now, there's a second one the fall, but the big issue remains, okay. Russia has a lot of equipment, it does not have a lot of manpower. That's the reality. Right? On the Ukrainian side, there's a tremendous amount of manpower. There's great sort of balance of intangibles, if we talk about morale, resolve all those things. But there isn't a lot of equipment or ammunition, not for sustaining counter offenses and the like. Right. And so that's kind of the way summarize some of that thinking in the thread. Right now, it's fair to say Ukraine is winning. But the battle for the Donbass, more significant battles unfolding now. The this battle, I believe, was going to be pretty intense. So it's going to be a very different phase on the war. Given the challenges the Russian military has, in terms of manpower availability, you grant the moment has what one could crudely term a window of opportunity, right, at least in this intermediate period, as the Russian military tries to get more manpower. And then the political leadership is going to I suspect, figure out what they want to do come May, whether or not they can continue this war this way, whether or not they have to end it. Or if they have to properly declare a state of war, then we're talking about national mobilization. Very, very different situation.
Dmitri Alperovitch 11:56
Let's talk about a couple of things that have really grabbed the imagination of people over the course of this war. One of them was this convoy, this porta 40 mile convoy that was on the way to Kiev. Now you never actually believe there was a convoy, can you talk a little bit about what it appears to have been now and the implications?
Michael Kofman 12:19
Well, so here's the answer. I just thought was framed a bit incorrectly in the way it was discussed in in media is that there were a series of units. And there were several convoys providing logistics somewhat leapfrogging, but the way it was characterized, was as though there was this mass of forces, they were all stuck and stalled out, right. And they were kind of running out of food and fuel and all these things. And I don't really think that was true. And I think they actually had some period into the war, been able to substantially reorganized issues there. But here's the big problem with setup. I have to like to identify what you know, I call input output problems in the way something's being discussed or an analysis. And the input output problem that emerged from this conversation is very straightforward. If there's a 40 mile stuck convoy, right, between Kiev and Belarus, then how do we explain the rapid withdrawal of Russian troops and their retreat to Belarus?
Dmitri Alperovitch 13:26
Michael Kofman 13:27
I mean, you now, just you can't have it both ways like to say so this is like, the evidence is pretty clear. They've managed to retreat in a relatively ordered manner, and fairly quickly. In fact, I counted that the retreat is probably the more organized thing I've seen them do so far in the north, in this campaign.
Dmitri Alperovitch 13:41
Yeah. I think you said it's one of the best things they've done throughout this whole war. And I saw great comment on Twitter saying that maybe they should stick to their strengths then. And they have taken Izyum, as you've mentioned in the Donbass, can you talk about the importance of that? I know from a logistical perspective, it's a really critical win for them.
Michael Kofman 13:59
Well, the issue with taking Izyum, there's obviously realigns the run to there, but more importantly, he was securing a river crossing right into into the southern part of the region. And it took them quite a few weeks to take Izyum they took, I think, heavy casualties in those fights. They're also pushing in sort of squeezing in from other areas. So the big challenge for them was that if they could take a zoom rapidly, they could have taken much more quickly and had pushed up much faster from the South passed Zaporizhzhya, then they could have attempted an operational level encirclement of Ukrainian forces in Donbass. That now is highly improbable. Instead, this is more of a kind of a big squeeze right? And they're going to push with firepower and with more frontal assaults, rather than a large envelopment and incrementally try to eat away the Ukrainian positions.
Dmitri Alperovitch 14:53
Do you think that Ukrainians will try to reinforce those troops now that they don't have to worry about Kiev and Cherniyiv have an can move troops from there?
Michael Kofman 15:02
I'm sure they will. .
Dmitri Alperovitch 15:04
And do you think that the threat to Kiev and Odessa, all those cities that we've seen them trying to assault is now truly over? You know, is there still a possibility that they may take them boss and then redirect their attention back to the original objectives? Because obviously, you're seeing the same thing. I'm seeing very nationalistic rhetoric in the Duma in on Russian television saying that Donbass is not enough that we have to take all of Ukraine, or this will be the end of Russia. Do you think that's still a potential sell path for them after the Donbass?
Michael Kofman 15:40
So if we're talking a sense of assaulting and taking these major cities like Kiev like, Odessa I think not. I don't think it's on the cards. I don't think they have the forces for it. If We're talking about actual Russian war aims and potential ambitions, that we should be frank, it's possible the bare minimum that they will take the Donbass and then declare victory, right, and perhaps take a hard pause in this conflict and continued in another phase, or depending on how that fight goes, depending on the level of attrition and exhaustion of Russian forces. Now, if hypothetically, if they are successful, they might be more ambitious right and they start might start moving up towards Zaporizhzhia towards Kharkiv and the like in this region, right at the end of the day, these things are incredibly contingent, and I hate making predictions because few things as indeterminate and difficult to predict as how any kind of battle will go.
Dmitri Alperovitch 16:35
And then south in the city of Kherson, which of course is not part of the Donbass it's part of Kherson region, they seem to be digging in, both militarily and politically. They're now annointing mayors in different towns putting in Russian flags on buildings. Does it look like they're planning to keep it for a long time?
Michael Kofman 16:55
Yeah, that's a great question. Dmitri, I think there's been some robust discussion, what do they intend to do in the south both Kherson, and at least a large part of Zaporizhzhia that they currently control. That's one thesis has a that, at the end of the day, if they reach some big political settlement, they might trade those territories back, as, as part of that agreement while trying to hold on to the Donbass I'm not sure I'm increasingly growing skeptical that there's an alternative proposition that they will be occupied. And they might themselves to become into, you know, a Kherson’s People's Republic or something like that. There's a possibility that Russia may try to annex that part of the Donbass controls, or maybe all of it, if it's able to seize all of it. It's unclear early on, they were clearly staying emergent that as there was not a lot of evidence that they were conducting a sort of political organization you expect to see of a country that intended to actually consolidate and politically integrate those territories. In the last week, I started to see more of that that's sort of raised question marks in my mind, as to whether or not decisions have been made in Moscow. Right now, to me that situation still unclear. The way I see negotiations going, though, I'm increasingly growing suspicious, that Kherson in this part of Zaporizhzhia might not be traded back to Ukraine under so that's just where I am right now. There's just hypothesis. And you know, I don't have a lot behind that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 18:23
Yeah, they seem to be bringing people, Ukrainians that used to live in Crimea, after 2014 to take charge of some of these studies, obviously very likely to have been cooperating with Russian intelligence services for the last few years. There was a fascinating development that took place this week as well, with the strike on Belgorod, Belgorod and border town in Russia, that looks like an EMI 24 Helicopter strike, that the Russians are saying was Ukrainian. The Ukrainians are denying there was there's an accusing Russia of striking their own oil storage facility in that city. What is your take on that? Do you think it was Ukrainians? Do you think it was possibly a rogue unit? It looks like two helicopters were part of that assault? Why would the Ukrainians deny it? If it was there's?
Michael Kofman 19:14
I mean, I think it was Ukrainians. And I think that they went after critical infrastructure. there, both because of the practical value of the attack. But also as part of retaliation. You know, Russia has been striking a lot of Ukrainian critical infrastructure, particularly various types of fuel storage facilities. And there have been a lot blows traded between the Belgorod region on the Kharkiv region in the past several weeks of this war, actually, from the very beginning of it. Why they would deny as a good question, maybe they didn't want to look like they were escalating direct strikes on Russia. Maybe they didn't want to aid in political mobilization in Russia and so they wanted to conduct a strike. But but not actually doing anything that could allow the Kremlin to build a case around how Ukraine is attacking mainland Russia? I'm not sure. As always, in this case, I don't have all the answers. But let me tell you why I don't think it is. I don't think it was Russian helicopters blowing up fuel they need for their own operation. I'm pretty confident of that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 20:14
Right? That doesn't seem to make much sense. Our friend Rob Lee posted some photos today about an SU 35. Russia's fourth plus plus generation jet. That looks like it was downed near Izyum. That jet is armed with pretty advanced electronic countermeasures. How significant is it that the cranes were able to strike that jet?
Michael Kofman 20:41
I mean, to me, that's just a tactical vignette. I personally don't see a lot there. Guy Polsky thinks that looking at the wreck, there's cage 31Ps on that. So strong suspicion that that jet was on a seed mission. And those are very, very dangerous missions to run. Basically, it was trying to suppress the enemy on the offense. So it was trying to engage Ukrainian air defenses. And that's one of the more hazardous missions you can perform. So beyond that, I don't think there's too much I can add this speculation, obviously, because it's burned out. Right. And people are trying to look at it and figuring out what does jet might have been armed with to figure out what mission it had. Other than that, I don't think there's too much I can add, I don't think it's really significant. Russia's awesome number fourth generation aircraft. In this fight, Ukraine's lost a lot of S300s, and some of the other air defense systems they've had, there's a bit of a war of attrition going on, between the Russian Aerospace Forces and Ukrainian air defenses.
Dmitri Alperovitch 21:36
And who do you think is winning right now? That that fight?
Michael Kofman 21:42
Well, it's hard to say but you know, from the Russian end the fight is about trying to establish local air superiority, right, so they can support forces, in particular parts of the theater, they never tried to establish air superiority writ large over Ukraine. And it would have been very hard for him, right? Because the one the Russian Aerospace force for sure not good at and people knew that going into this war is suppression of enemy air defense or destruction on air defense type missions. They're just not something that they have a law qualifications for. And they've been trying to do that from the very beginning. So who has the upper hand? I'll be honest, I don't know. But it also the depends to what extent Ukraine can regenerate air defenses, right? Because there's a number of European countries that have agreed, I think United States too, to supply late Soviet Gen. air defenses to Ukraine to replace some of the losses they’ve had.
Dmitri Alperovitch 22:32
Yeah, the inability of the Russians to establish air supremacy over Ukraine's airspace, I think has been one of the most fascinating things about this war. Lots of implications for Taiwan that we we’ll talk about with Ivan in a few minutes here. A couple of questions for you, Mike. One of the things that has been really interesting to watch is the evolving attitudes towards this war in Russia. Initially, people were very confused. There's not a lot of preparation of the Russian public towards this special operation, as they call it, but that seems to be changing. Now. There's a new poll out by Levada Center and independent polling organization in Russia, the last one remaining, where they polled not necessarily people's attitudes towards the war itself or whether they support or not or towards Putin. But the asked an interesting question of the emotions that that special operation evokes from people and about 65% said that they were either proud of the operation, or happy and delighted with it, only 5% said they were ashamed. So you seem to have obviously, it's hard to believe polls taking place in totalitarian country, but Levada is usually pretty accurate. And I think directionally, those polls do tell us a story that the majority of the Russian public, probably about two thirds is largely supportive of this war. And you now have this rallying around the flag, the president effect that often takes place, of course, and countries with a strong national identity. And also with the sanctions going into place on Russia, you now have this bunker mentality emerging that the whole world is against us. We have nothing but ourselves. We have to fight for everything. And even the people that potentially initially, were not fans of the operation are now becoming more supportive of this. Do you think this can have a lasting effect? And do you buy in this premise that more and more Russians are becoming supportive of this war?
Michael Kofman 24:33
Yes, and no. So sorry to give you those contradictory your answer. But I do think that in initial week or two, it was difficult to see what support there would be in Russian society for the war. I do think that once the crown began to mobilize public support over time, we started getting more and more evidence that there was substantial support in Russian society. I think we don't have any kind of accurate measures as to extent of the support and I had a great conversation today online with Alexei Minyolav, who has been one of the people that's been trying to research to what extent to support real or fake? And it's clear that the way a lot people answer in the polls, some of that support is definitely out of fear or could be, you know, quote, unquote, considered fake. And so there's a debate. I mean, his view was the upper limit for Russian support for the war was maybe 50%. My view was that it feels as though there's substantial plurality of Russians who support the war. And it could be a significant percentage of Russians beyond that, who don't support the war, but are afraid to do anything or speak out, right, that is in their position is essentially inaction. And as very difficult this point to measure accurately with polls, what percentage of our support the war because of the big changes that have taken place in Russia, and the laws passed since early March? That's kind of where I'm at on the subject. So I think a substantial percentage of Russians do support it. I think that we can't measure accurately right now, what percentage that is, I think it might be a bit too early to say this, anything like the majority are close to majority, but it's not at all insignificant. And I'm afraid all those answers are somewhat unsatisfactory. But it's sometimes better to say that we don't know than to say, Oh, we actually do know, and here are polling numbers.
Dmitri Alperovitch 26:26
Yeah. Do you buy the premise, though, that the sanctions probably had the opposite of the intent of the fact that instead of undermining Putin, they actually strengthen his position.
Michael Kofman 26:37
So I can't tell you because not many of the sanctions have yet to really bite and take effect, right. Some of the people made the argument that Russians may feel this way until they see the downstream effects of the sanctions. I will say in general, probably. First, they undermine Putin support and then over time, they may have increased it because look, people are eminently adaptable. If you have no options, and you realize that you have to build your life in Russia, under sanctions and your’re a Russia elite, or some anywhere else in society, that's the world you have to live in. And generally, there is an expected rally around the flag effect that takes place because nationalism was, you know, nationals very real and few countries are as nationalistic as great powers, or at least those that have a great power, identity and culture. So I would say, it'll be nothing surprising about that kind of effect taking place on Russia. Yeah.
Dmitri Alperovitch 27:29
Two other quick questions, and then we'll turn the discussion to Taiwan. So we can't not mention Bucha. And the horrible photos are coming out of there. You know, I tweeted a few hours ago, that that's probably nothing compared to what we're likely to see come out of Mariupol, given that the Chechens are in charge there. We've talked before about how those guys probably have not seen the Geneva Convention or care much about it. Do you agree with me that we're probably going to see a lot more atrocities, a lot more horrible things coming out of there in the next few weeks?
Michael Kofman 28:05
I mean, it's looking like this war is going to get even uglier. And it's probably uglier than we appreciate at this stage. The Russian retreat from Bucha and Irpin and around Charnev have definitely revealed what's been going on during the last five weeks of occupation or so. And I was pretty shocked by what I saw, though, I will say there's a part of me that wasn't surprised because they were deploying units in the run up to the war, whose mission clearly was to set up camps and to manage the population and essentially maybe purify Ukraine, so to speak. Within a prolonged occupation. And so essentially, I suspect that probably what you've seen, part of it is Russia soldiers marauding, but part of it is not. It's definitely targeted killings by most likely specific squads. I mean, some of what you see there are people who had their hands tied and executed.
Dmitri Alperovitch 29:15
Yeah, I was not at all surprised, given that we've seen that in Chechnya, we've seen that in Syria. This is how they fight insurgencies through just absolute brutality, and executions and torture. So that to me was just par for the course with the Russian military. One more question, Mike. NATO, we are now seeing much more significant movement from Finland from Sweden, about the prospects of them joining NATO pre allergic reaction coming out of Moscow to those statements. If they do end up moving in that direction. Do you expect that there's any danger of a confrontation? Like we've just like we're witnessing now with Ukraine. With those two countries?
Michael Kofman 30:03
It's a good question. So I think those countries are likely going to want to have a sense of how fast NATO members are willing to accept them, because the window vulnerabilities between the time when they declare, you know, desire to join NATO, and actually getting NATO membership, and to try to minimize that window, to the extent they can, and to maybe, I suspect, trying to coordinate behind the scenes, if anything, but, um, as far as the prospect of confrontation, well, at this stage, I would first say, potentially, with what, right? Like the Russian military is not in that position, right now to invade anybody else. So you'd be fine. Unless there's national mobilization.
Dmitri Alperovitch 30:47
and they don't have a good history of invading someone, right.
Michael Kofman 30:52
I mean, they have a history of invading Finland, at what I think the more accurate portrayal is, is that invading Finland isn't easy. And it's not that the Soviet Union lost either of those wars, but it did very poorly. In fact, this current conflict, as I've said before, has strong analogies to the Soviet Finish Winter War of 1939-1940, or at least some parallels to it. But long story short, I don't think Russia is in a strong position right now to invade another country, certainly not a country the size of Finland. And if they ended up in the worst place strategically, to be honest, the worst place you could end up as a power is to be seen as absolutely aggressive, and and revanchist or expansionist, and at the same time looking at Russian military performance, readily resistible right, there's no worse place to be than being seen as a threat by countries around you, and also be seen as a country that can be successfully resisted.
Dmitri Alperovitch 31:50
I believe the phrase this paper tiger, right.
Michael Kofman 31:54
Well, that's probably spinning a little too far in the other direction naturally. But I think that the overall thrust of the strategic problem I hope I communicated well.
Dmitri Alperovitch 32:04
Yeah. All right. Well, let's bring Ivan into this discussion. This is certainly fascinating. But Ivan, first question to you, given everything you've just heard from Mike, and you've been keenly watching this war. What do you think Taiwan has learned from the Ukrainian forces about how to defend themselves against superior opposition that they might encounter with China?
Ivan Kanapathy 32:29
Yeah, it's great - Thanks for having me, Dimitri. It's great question. And obviously, it's been discussed, you know, variously by folks, I think some of the important points that, you know, we should kind of lay out initially is that, while there are obviously a lot of parallels, we'll talk about those. There's some differences here between China and Russia, right? I mean, literally has 10 times the economy 10 times the people,a military budget, that's at least four or five times more than Russias, and has been for a lot of years now. And so, so hopefully, I think one of the things Taiwan's sort of coming to grips with is that, they need to dramatically raise their expenditures on defense, which are just hovering, you know, roughly around 2%, slightly above. And then, you know, one of the other things that, they're looking at is sort of just expenditures, right of munitions. I think we saw sort of the reports there hat that Zelinsky is asking for 500, javelins and 500 Stingers a day. You know, at that rate of expenditure, Taiwan is going to run out of those types of munitions, you know, within a couple of days, and in Taiwan is in a little bit different place where they don't have, you know, a land border with a friendly country where they could sort of expedite resupply of those things. So we have to consider that, you know, the PLA is also learning lessons. And one of the big things any PLA is thinking about over there in China is sort of a need to really over invest, not even think about under investing in sort of their initial firepower, cyber, fifth column, and what have you, sort of strikes, which are really designed to break the defenders ability, and will to fight and, and part of their doctrine, the PLA doctrine is to establish three things, and we've touched on on one of them, at least already, but the three things are air superiority, maritime superiority, and information superiority, and they kind of list these as sort of prerequisites to actually moving in and trying to get, you know, establish that landing or lodgement and put boots on the ground. And so, I think we have to assume that Beijing and the PLA are looking really closely at this. And again, or are gonna sort of put emphasis on that initial phase. And Taiwan's really gonna sort of prep itself for that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 35:16
So let's talk about air superiority because the Russians have struggled there massively, as Mike has talked about, how do you think the Chinese are going to do at those missions of suppression of enemy air defenses and destroying the capabilities of the Taiwanese in terms of their airfields and ability to get those F-16 that they're purchasing, 66 F-16? That are on order from the US to take off. And what do you think of the Taiwanese air defense capabilities?
Ivan Kanapathy 35:49
The felonies are, are quite proficient, they're technically and tactically proficient. One disadvantage they have is that Ukraine is I think it's about 17 times the size of Taiwan. And so Taiwan is smaller than the Donbass region. And, and almost as close obviously, there's a big moat around it. That's extremely helpful, but but pretty close to the adversary. And so there's just not as much room for dispersion. And it's quite clear, I think we know the PLA is registered the location of any kind of fixed infrastructure to include air bases, naval facilities, and so it's going to be tough to sort of, I think, I think China, Taiwan can sort of prevent the PLA from achieving air superiority for some time. It's a question of how long they can do that. Only because I think the PLA has a little bit, probably better targeting cycle, but I'll defer to Michael on this, or ability to kind of bind six, fine fix and prosecute, you know, kind of kind of close to kill chain. And so it'll be hard to sort of protect those air defenses if they're sort of fixed sights. And so Taiwan's best bet would be to focus on sort of mobile capabilities that can sort of camouflage and get into shelter, shoot and scoot type capability.
Dmitri Alperovitch 37:28
Mike, any thoughts on that?
Michael Kofman 37:30
Yeah, sure, just appreciate a opportunity to get one or two finger in on this. So you know, the Russian problem with Shannon Mira and I have was, first, you'll watch Russian Aerospace Forces had really low capacity to employ PGMs (Precision Guided Munitions) In terms of level of training and availability that lack. At lack of dedicated Otronic intelligence platforms to basically sniff out activated air defense sides and weak integration of electronic warfare strike packages, right? The truth is, this stuff's actually really hard. The United States and the Israeli Air Force make it look easy. But it's actually very hard, especially if you've never done it, the one area of skepticism I'm going to have on China, it's just that if you've not done this in the war, and if you have not done this against a serious adversary with good capabilities, he may be surprised at how hard it is a lot of time many European countries, let the United States run forward with a submission it is very challenging. Well, advantages, of course, were Washington, airspace force weak because they didn't have good remotely operate operations normally operate aviation. So if you have a lot of drones, you can try to saturate your defense that way, where the Russian Air Force gaps stuck is because so many challenges, they then switch to operating a low altitude, right, and they took their chance with MANPADS, and when the battlefield has a lot of MANPADS or short range air defense on it, you're going to take a lot of losses to that. So you basically take your choice between being shot down by medium long range, radar guided air defense, or you fly low altitude penetration, then you have a chance of being shoved down by lots of MANPADS in the light. My kind of you view on this is that I'm not gonna say anything about the Chinese military, the Chinese Air Force, except to say that I think they probably have a lot more technical capability. But when it comes to those particular mission, it does come down to force employment, right? It really does. It's this this very hard to be good at this particular mission.
Dmitri Alperovitch 39:35
So Ivan, you're actually a former F-18. Pilot, your instructor and Top Gun. Any thoughts on this? Any comments on how the Chinese would do? They certainly don't have any experience doing this in a very long time.
Ivan Kanapathy 39:49
Yeah, I think he's absolutely right. It is an extremely difficult mission, extremely difficult for even US and Israeli. I mean, there is actually basically technologically - there's a tremendous advantage to the, I guess you'd call it the defender in this case, in other words, the actual air defense side of the house, when you talk about things that are as good as S-300s and/or patriots, those are very difficult challenges for aircraft to tackle. My concern with Taiwan is that I think the PLA, you know, if they're smart, is going to go after those things with a combination of cruise and ballistic missiles. And again, and so then we have to, you know, they're close enough to do that. They have, as we know, massive numbers of those capabilities, they're in the region, right across the strait, and then also out in the maritime. And, and that's, it's, they're able to wipe out the, you know, nine or gets its 10 Patriot batteries at Taiwan has in Taiwan has some indigenous sort of strategic SAM systems, then they might be able to sort of have at least higher altitude air superiority because I think, you know, the, the lower altitude systems like stingers and things like that will still be a threat. But given the PLA sort of better technical capabilities, when it comes to precision guided munitions, they may be able to kind of continue the airpower and stay at the relatively higher altitudes.
Dmitri Alperovitch 41:30
And how would they take them out? I mean, patriots can be mobile, right. So if the time when you start moving them around, they won't be able to take them out with missiles?
Ivan Kanapathy 41:41
Yeah, that's a great question. And that's what I was trying to get at with sort of the targeting cycle or the kill chain, if you will, and sort of how fast you know, can China do this, and there's different folks will tell you different things, but they have sort of the overhead imagery satellites would have yards or capabilities, and then really launching a ballistic missile, you know, how far only needs to go 100, maybe 200 nautical miles. That's we're talking minutes in time of flight. And a patriot unfortunately, isn't what I would call mobile, it's what I would call relocatable. You know, an Avenger system with stingers that things mobile, i.e. shoot and scoot, patriots gonna take your minimum 30 minutes to set up 30 minutes to take down. So that becomes a consideration.
Dmitri Alperovitch 42:31
Mike, any thoughts on this?
Michael Kofman 42:32
Yeah, I kind of saw Russian military make this adaptation about two weeks into the war. Because they were struggling with seed and D, what they were doing was they were using drones and various other types of unmanned systems to identify and track Ukraine air defense, and then we're hitting them with laser guided artillery, or, in the case of things like F-300 batteries, they were doing something that I think connects well with I was just saying they were looking at the battery shoot, and then when it would scoot and park itself somewhere, they would then basically have real time track of the system and deliver a long range standoff precision guided weapon on a cruise missile ballistic missile or something because at some point, that system has to stop either when it's deployed, or when the three deployed and it's in hiding. And so that's the way they were trying to compensate for the lack of the Air Force's actual ability to do it basically lean back on artillery rushes and artillery heavy force and it brings a lot of ground fire some strikes with it and it's something that China could do maybe just a somewhat longer range.
Ivan Kanapathy 43:35
China has an entire service that is the rocket force so it has Army Navy, you know Air Force and then it has the rocket force and so they're pretty artillery heavy to if you want to call it.
Dmitri Alperovitch 43:48
yeah, let's move to the ground offensive here. So Taiwan is purchasing M1 Abrams tanks, about 100 of them slightly more. Mike and I have talked over the last few weeks about the fact that tanks are not yet obsolete, that if you want to take objectives and something that's armored tanks are still very applicable, but they certainly taken a lot of hits, from javelins and the like and laws etc. In Ukraine. Do you think that's a smart acquisition strategy for the Taiwanese Ivan to buy a whole bunch of very heavy duty tanks on a small island
Ivan Kanapathy 44:31
I don't think that you know tanks are your number one priority. It's just highly urban and where it's not urban, it's highly mountainous and so not not a lot of like huge black maneuverable terrain for armor, frankly, or even just fairly large maneuver elements. But I will say that, you know, Taiwan I think is operating hundreds of tanks many of which are decades old - like several 100. And, you know, if their decision is to upgrade 100 of them. I think that's reasonable. As long as it's not, I'm going to upgrade, you know, my 600 or 700 tanks that I have. So so the idea is sort of how much divestment they're going to do. It's 100. You know, I go to next generation, and then I take the rest of these armor units and transition to something else, which is all kind of remains to be seen what Taiwan's sort of force development plan is, then I think, then I think that's, that's very much supportable.
Dmitri Alperovitch 45:39
So you mentioned Ivan that, obviously, in Ukraine, it is absolutely critical, that we're able to keep resupply them with ammo with various weaponry, as well as humanitarian aid. What would our ability be to do that with Taiwan, presumably, through some sort of naval assets that we could get up to the island on the eastern side? Do you think we'd be able to do that? Or would the Chinese have overwhelming capabilities to keep us out of that region, either through subsurface or surface ships?
Ivan Kanapathy 46:16
Yeah, I think we have to assume that China’s, you know, the plan, we just talked about air superiority, which will be part of the plan, obviously, it’s also maritime superiority. And that's what this is about. It's about basically setting an embargo around Taiwan, when they say maritime superiority. I mean, Taiwan's Navy itself may be able to push back a little bit, but just given the quantity, you know, the number of ships they have. It's not, you know, just through attrition, it's only going to last so long, it's ultimately, I think, initially, the PLA is going to be quite successful setting this environment, just given how close it is, to China's own coast. And sort of the anti-ship capabilities that China has even just emanating from their own coast. And so others won't be able to get in for some time, you know, depending on sort of how this war I guess evolves.
Dmitri Alperovitch 47:17
One of the things that I think surprised a lot of people, maybe unfairly, is how well the Ukrainians are defending, how ferociously they're defending their freedom, their country. What's your view of the Taiwanese, do you think that they will put up as much of a fight as the Ukrainians have in this situation?
Ivan Kanapathy 47:37
Yeah, no. So this is interesting, Dmitri, where there is one sort of political parallel, right, you know, I'll defer to you and Michael to correct me if I'm wrong, but sort of, you know, with Putin, and with Xi Jinping, sort of the legitimacy and the legacy questions are sort of intertwined with this ethno nationalism. You know, I think Putin and Xi are roughly the same age, they've been in power for a long time. And, and what you had, you know, following Crimea, and in eastern Ukraine, in 2014, if I'm not mistaken, was sort of this rapid acceleration, or, you know, expansion, solidification if you will, of a Ukrainian self-identity. Well, you've, you've seen a little bit of the same thing in Taiwan as a result of what happened in Hong Kong a couple years ago. And so, there really is sort of, you know, this, especially the younger generations in Taiwan, this desire to sort of maintain Taiwan's way of life, you know, and really sort of looking across the straight at China and looking at Hong Kong and saying that's not what I want. And this Taiwanese self-identity. So I think, I think there's a lot of potential there now that the all the training that happened, you know, in Ukraine since 2014, obviously, that has not been replicated. But, but there's obviously room and promise potential for that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 49:08
So that's interesting, right? Because the KMT, of course, that was a ruling party for many decades that established Taiwan after losing the Civil War, was very much of the view that there's one China, of course, in their view, was Taiwan run China. But it was one country. So are you seeing a shift now and in the younger generation, where they're no longer looking at this as we're the same people, but we've got our own nation, we've got our own identity.
Ivan Kanapathy 49:40
Yeah, I think there's no doubt about that, in fact, you know, in polls, and there's always, you know, like Michaels saying, you know, questions about polls, but, but it seems pretty clear that the Taiwanese people are willing to fight for their way of life. Now how you define flight is another question and they don't particularly see the military establishment in a very positive light. And that has sort of historical reasons, actually, it has to do with the KMT and sort of martial law and, you know, in a generation ago, but they do seem to be willing to fight. And I think, while the number one goal should be sort of to prevent that lodgement. Right, that landing, that successful landing operation, there also is a lot of room to create, you know, a civil defense capability, like you see in, you know, a lot of Eastern Europe.
Dmitri Alperovitch 50:35
Now, um, one of the things that we of course, have seen in Ukraine is not only are they using Western weaponry, but they have or maybe had a very robust domestic defense industry that has been producing a lot of weaponry and is able to do a lot of maintenance on their weapons systems. The Russians have targeted that extensively. What is the situation in Taiwan? Do they have a lot of domestic manufacturing capacity? So if they are isolated through a naval blockade, can they continue manufacturing weaponry that they're going to need for the fight?
Ivan Kanapthy 51:12
Yes, that's a good question. So even whether they continue, I'll tell you what, Taiwan is very good at shipbuilding. They also produce their own small arms, they also produce, I guess, an end-law type weapon called the Kestrel that, that I think, you know, appears to be very effective. They don't have as many of all those things as they, as they should have, hopefully, that's the lesson from Ukraine, like we talked about not just Javelin stingers, but also small arms and these analog type weapons. But they could conceivably produce those, there's a question about how many foreign inputs go into those, and whether they have enough sort of stockpile of the raw materials, if you will, to actually do that. Because, again, when you're stuck on an island, and you're facing maritime blockade, that becomes a huge challenge. You know, I mean, energy, you know, not just arms, ammunition, but just energy, you know, becomes a question food, frankly. And so being able to stockpile enough to do all those things, I think is a critical propellant.
Dmitri Alperovitch 52:27
How much do they have in terms of indigenous production of both food and energy? Are they completely reliant on outside parties for that?
Ivan Kanapthy 52:37
Yeah, I mean, there's a couple nuclear plants still operating from an energy standpoint, but I would imagine those you can't count on keeping those running, you know, if you're being attacked, either. And so energy's just going to be a question of how much they have stockpile, they don't actually have, you know, indigenous oil or gas or anything like that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 53:00
Is solar at all a factor or no?
Ivan Kanapthy 53:06
There's some wind power in Taiwan, but I don't think renewables are a huge percentage yet, you know, they're trying to go in that direction, I think just like everybody else is, but it's still, you know, no better than the rest of us.
Dmitri Alperovitch 53:20
Ivan Kanapthy 53:23
and food, you know, you could probably self-sustain for some amount of time, you know, like, weeks or even months or longer, but, but it's gonna, you know, obviously become a challenge at some point, you know, Taiwan, you know, they have obviously, good, you know, fishing industry, depending on whether they're able to, you know, get up there and do that they have, you know, a lot of fruits. But I think they have to import a lot of grains and things like that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 53:53
Now, one of the things, and one of the probably biggest lessons from the war, is that doctrine is one thing, practice is another, and training is a whole other thing. And we have seen the Russians been very challenged in conducting large scale complex operations, and there's probably nothing more complex. You tell me, then amphibious landings in a contested environment. The Chinese have never done anything like that. And few countries have ever attempted that. And even fewer have been successful at it. What do you think the capabilities are of the Chinese to do an amphibious landing across the Strait today and potentially in the future?
Ivan Kanapthy 54:38
You know, Dmitri I think this is sort of the ultimate question, right. And I think, you know, the question that probably Xi Jinping himself wrestles with when he asked his military advisers, are you guys ready, you know, if I need you? And, if you look over the decades, you know, there was a big focus on sort of the missile capabilities we talked about that used to be called the Second Artillery, that were basically the rocket force. And that gave them the ability to sort of compel. Or they thought so, you know, I'll just beat the heck out of them with my, with my ballistic missiles and make them give up. Well, they kind of tried something like that in 1996. And it didn't work, backfired, you know, we ended up sailing a couple carriers, one of them through the Strait, the United States did. And that's when China realized, oh, I may actually need to go over there. And they started working first on what we call the anti-access area denial capabilities, which was like, we get to keep the Americans out of this. They've done a remarkable job of that over the last couple of decades. And the final, the third and final piece is the piece that you talked about. And that's the ability to move the boots and put them on the ground. And that will be a combination of air assault and actual amphibious right on the water, realizing that it's only 100 miles away, so you don't have to bring everybody by ship. But it's still extremely, extremely challenging. And, but the PLA is focused on it. I mean, it's probably their number one focus for the last couple of decades overall, right, is this mission set. And so, in my view, I think that they have, or will very shortly, in this decade, for sure, have the ability to do this, you know, with risk and with attrition that they understand. But I think definitely, you know, if not now then in the next few years.
Dmitri Alperovitch 56:49
Yeah, of course, the Russians have also focused on airborne operations. And we've seen the disastrous attempt to take Hostomel Airport in the initial hours of the war. Mike, any comments on any of this?
Michael Kofman 57:03
Sure, appreciate it. But I wouldn't really say Hostomel was a disaster. It's not really clear what went wrong in that operation. But it was a pretty small operation at the outset of the war. As a good counterfactual, what might have happened if they were remotely successful, clearly the US had tipped the Ukrainians off to it. And we don't know if they couldn't get reinforcements there because they couldn't hold on to the airfield long enough because Ukrainian air defense was too thick. Because Ukrainian’s responded too fast. So on so first, that's one particular part of that war that we're gonna have to rebuild later on. But the comments I might make here is a brief interjection or first. Yeah, well, I think we clearly saw on the Russian end is, it is very hard to scale into conducting large scale military operations from exercises, from small wars, or small expeditionary deployments. Right? That's just the reality of it. And also kind of the military strategy, the big choices you make in terms of force structure, posture, readiness and things you train for. They make a big difference. The Russian military, its thinking was not based around conducting strategic ground offensives in Europe, or about holding large amounts of terrain. Didn't have the manpower or the logistics for that. It was built around a slightly different concept, or I'd say substantially different concept in terms of fighting NATO, and they didn't train substantially for urban combat. And here's a big surprise, if you don't train for a particular mission, you're not going to do well, when you show up to that specific fight. That's for sure. So those choices, to me at least really matter. And that's putting aside all the problems the Russian military's had and kind of basic fundamentals and whatnot. And a comment on China, which I will all make once because I'm very cautious about intellectual tourism. Right. And so this will be at best a bite at liberty on my part. The first is that, a lot of assumptions about war at the end of the day are political. These decisions are made by political leaders, you'd like to think the military bounds those decisions or heavily informs them. But when it comes to things like fait accompli, these are big political gambits and calculations. The best example of the primacy of the political or the soundness of military thinking, or what defense planners or defense traders should look at, is the Russia-Ukraine war. And Putin’s belief that he can conduct a quick regime change operation in three, four days. And just looking at this from a lot of things I have learned in the last month plus, if I was a China military expert, I would definitely be asking myself, what are likely to be the gap between expectations and Chinese performance? Right. And one of the big questions that we're not asking, or at least that often DOD doesn't ask because it's often very capability focused. So I'd leave it at that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 59:43
Great point. Ivan, any thoughts or comments?
Ivan Kanapthy 59:46
Yeah, I guess the one thing I'll say is we're from whatever our intelligence assessments are. We seem to shoot behind the target. In other words, we've got Russia which I think most would say, a declining sort of power right in the military. And we overestimated them. You've got the Taliban, and we underestimated them. And I think with the PLA, we've consistently underestimated them. And, you know, recent examples are hypersonics, and other nuclear delivery platforms - that's on the development side, not necessarily in the employment side, but still an underestimation. China has gone, you know, they don't really do the art of war, you know, like, Sun Tzu would have them do - they do the science of war, and they really are doubling down the PLA on taking, in some ways, as much of the human element out, even some of the force employment out, as possible. And so, you know, I don't know whether this ultimately is going to be successful. I think the way that we're training our military, it doesn't sound like a good idea. But again, they're taking it to a degree that no one's ever taken it before, you know, making everything into a formula, and running it through, you know, ultimately, eventually AI algorithms to do tactical to strategic decision making. And so, you know, the fact that they haven't, you know, it'll be a big gamble. And I think it's gonna be really difficult to sort of know, just like, just like it typically is with war. But again, we need to, we need to kind of just consider all these, I guess, unknowns and variables.
Dmitri Alperovitch 1:01:31
Well, there's certainly plenty of them, if that's something we learned in the last month, and change that it's been that. Well, thank you again, for a great discussion. Mike, always love your commentary and insights into this work, truly unique view that you have into the conflict. And Ivan, really, really appreciate your sharing what I think is one of the most important things facing us over the next 10 years, which is this prospect of Chinese invasion of Taiwan that would change the world in a huge way, probably even bigger way than this invasion of Ukraine has done. Given the importance of China to the world economy, given the importance of semiconductors, and Taiwan being the major producers of those advanced chips and other chips as well. But thank you again, gentlemen. Thanks, everyone, for coming and listening. We'll post the recording shortly. And we'll hopefully see you soon. Thanks so much.
Ivan Kanapthy Thanks, Dmitri.
Michael Kofman Thanks for having me back.
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