Event Recap: War in Ukraine
Endgame in Sight and Cyber Attacks on US and Europe
Silverado Policy Accelerator’s Co-Chairman, Dmitri Alperovitch, continues with his podcast series on the War in Ukraine, with Russian military experts Michael Kofman and Chris Krebs.
This week, Dmitri and experts discuss current war updates, including equipment shipments to Ukraine, the continued fighting in the Donbas, allegations of Ukrainian civilian relocation to Russia, and the possible endgame of the Russian military. Chris, a cybersecurity expert, stated possible targets for cyber attacks depend on whose “pulling the trigger on the Russian side”.
A complete audio recording is available here, and a full transcript is available below.
TRANSCRIPT: “War in Ukraine: Endgame in Sight and Cyber Attacks on US and Europe”
March 27, 2022 - Online
Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator
Michael Kofman, Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA
Chris Krebs, Co-founder of Krebs Stamos Group, former director of CISA.
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.
(Transcript generated via a text-to-speech service. Please excuse the transcript errors)
Dmitri Alperovitch 00:05
That was Beethoven’s Symphony Number Nine. Welcome once again to tonight's show. It's Sunday, March 27. And we're now a month into this terrible war in Ukraine. I’m Dmitri Alperovitch, chairman of Silverado policy accelerator, the geopolitical think tank in Washington, DC. Tonight, I'm joined once again by Michael Kofman, 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 glad to have with us today my good friend, Chris Krebs, co founder of the cybersecurity consulting firm, Krebs Stamos group, and of course, former founder and director of CISA,, cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency. We'll get to Mike and the substantial developments that we've seen this week in the war in a bit, but I want to first turn to Chris,. First of all, I want to express my deep gratitude to Emily Krebs, who is definitely your much better half for lending you to us tonight for a few minutes, because I know it's her birthday, and we all wish her the most happiest of birthdays. I also hope the RoomRater team is not listening tonight, since they may ding you a point of two in the future if they hear you're missing your chief set designer’s birthday to do Twitter space. But in all seriousness, let's turn to you because we had a remarkable announcement from the president of the united states on Monday, warning the country that the Russians may indeed be interested in targeting our critical infrastructure sector through cyberattacks. And I personally have never seen an announcement like this from President of the united states before on a cyber issue. And, of course, we've been expecting the Russians to retaliate for these major sanctions and the economic pain that they're suffering. I've been thinking that they might attack energy sector and financial sector as well, potentially, in both Europe and the United States to try to divide the Alliance to try to inflict pain on the economies of both continents and try to cause political pain for President Biden and other European leaders. But you're working a lot right now with companies that have gotten these warnings that have heard from Jen Easterly, the current director of CISA, about what they should be doing. Tell us a little bit about the types of conversations you're having and what you’re advising your clients right now.
Chris Krebs 02:29
Hey, thanks, Dimitri, for having me on. And yes, Friday, when you called me I clearly was still in Spring Break mode down in Mexico. When I accepted that, remembering at the time that Sunday was, in fact, Emily's birthday. So I think I think this was a notable week for three reasons. First, as you pointed out, President Biden's announcement about a potential incoming cyber activity due to evolving intelligence. The second was the ViaSat. Additional information on ViaSat. And third is the indictments of Russian hackers for, you know, the 2017 through 2018, 19, energy sector related activity. So back to your original question. And companies are asking two things right now, primarily, first is for Western or domestic operations in which they be thinking about who's in the crosshairs. And like you and I have talked about for a while now, there's kind of two, two primary vectors to be thinking about first is are you on that potential list of down selected targets or targets sectors that would make sense to a Russian actor and right now are at least a state actor. And I think that would be principally driven by prior activity, or a tit for tat on where the sanctions are hitting hardest. And so prior activity is certainly energy sector. The Russians have been very interested for years and US energy sector activity. And that kind of points back to the prior indictments from the, unsealed this week, and then the second on the tit for tat, where it's hitting them hardest is in the in part in the financial services sector. So a lot it's a lot of financial services sector organizations that are concerned about concerned about Russian activity, and then you think about defense industrial base and along those in other government agencies, and there was a report of an FBI flashalert TLP Amber, of course, but nonetheless found it found its way into the hands of he was Sean Lingus at CNN. And he reported on that. So So yeah, I think that's kind of the primary concern targets that we're hearing about. The second set of conversations that we're having is with organizations and this is not a pure cyber play. It's more on sustaining or winding down operations in Russia. So Jeff Sonnenfeld, the professor at Yale, Yale School of Management has this list. And the list right now is several 100 companies long. And it's divided into four different categories on a spectrum from had withdrawn entirely from Russia all the way down to remaining operations in Russia, and that that list is being maintained right now kind of as a, a public sector or public source, open source tracker of organizations. But it's also being operationalized by ESG groups, institutional investors, people that are trying to lead almost apartheid, equivalent boycotts of companies for remaining, but that, the first three categories on that list are, in some way, shape or form. Those companies are withdrawing operations, and there, there's certain IT operation, considerations that go along with that process, both before you make an announcement. And then after you make an announcement, that includes backing up data, ensuring that any IT assets that are left behind are properly, you know, either secured bricked or otherwise restricted access, and limited only to those that operate in the state that remain in Russia. So that's, that's a lot of the conversation that we're having. So it's not a pure cyber play, there is a good bit of insider risk piece there. That fourth group, though, that's on the Sonnenfeld list, they are having an entirely different set of conversations, because they're potentially on a targeting list for Anonymous, the hacker collective, whatever we want to call them, the collective that is going after companies that are remaining, and we heard earlier this week that that they had dropped, you know, some large data set from Nestlé, the European confectionary company, or whatever you want to call them. So that, you know, there are a number of different assets, or operators out there that have a diverse set of considerations and risks. And then these organizations trying to figure out what their exposure is. And then there's a kind of a final conversation and one that you and I have also had before it's I think a lot of organizations are kind of waking up, and they're saying we've heard for the longest time about the the necessity of factoring in geopolitical risk to our IT operations and cybersecurity risk management operations. And a lot of companies have kind of put it off. And so they're they're working overtime, to figure out how to unwind Russia. And at the same time they're looking for and they're saying, Well, wait a second, where are some other potential geopolitical flashpoints that we could be seeing pop up in the, in the near future? Or maybe even the midterm and of course, the, the eyes immediately get drawn to China and, and the Taiwan in conflict with Taiwan. So that's a bit of a range of discussions, at least we're having these days.
Dmitri Alperovitch 07:58
Yeah, a lot to unpack there. So let me jump in first on the indictments, because I thought they were fascinating. They indicted this center for scientific research, Institute of chemistry and mechanics, in Moscow, which is sort of almost an equivalent of our FFRDCs, federally funded research institutions like MITRE in Russia works predominantly with the Ministry of Defense. And they were responsible for the so called Triton attack on Saudi Arabian petroleum facility refinery, back in 2017. And what was really interesting is that they target the safety systems made by Schneider Electric that is responsible from preventing things from going boom, effectively in a refinery, looking at all the different industrial control processes that are taking place and making sure that if things get out of hand, that it can initiate an emergency shutdown of refinery operations, and they specifically target that system with their malicious code. And then we learned in the indictment that not only did they execute that attack in Saudi Arabia, but they were also targeting a variety of US refineries, in 2018, after that attack on Saudi Arabia, but they were unsuccessful in those attempts. So I think this gives us a little bit of a view and what Russia is capable of on the industrial control system side. Obviously, we've seen a lot of wiper attacks from them in recent years, both against Ukraine and obviously, attacks have escaped Ukraine, like NotPetya, but this was a really remarkable attack that could have caused loss of life if that refinery had been if the control process in that refinery had gone out of standard operating procedure. So Chris, again, like let me ask you specifically, you work with a lot of companies right now. What are you telling them to do now? You know, I assume if they if they haven't done anything before, it's probably too late to start working on your security. But if assuming that they've been paying attention to the shields up campaign from CISA, what else should they be doing given this warning, which, you know, was not a specific warning, of course, from the President. And my understanding is that we don't have specific intelligence on what may be targeted?
Chris Krebs 10:24
Well, through the consulting shop, the Krebs Stamos group, we actually had, we released two different, we made a public with two different alerts first was a you know, what is shields up mean to a company that's trying to affect rapid change in a matter of hours or a couple of days. And we pushed that out a couple of weeks ago, and it's, you know, it starts at the top, really trying to get the, the attention of executive leadership. And that's what I appreciate, frankly, about the way that Jen Easterly and the CISA team have been engaging publicly, trying to not just focus on the technical community. And this is a part where we started at CISA a few years ago is the US started out pushing out bulletins and situation alerts, constantly. But what we're finding is that there's diminishing returns, in part because we hadn't kind of prepped the battlefield at the leadership levels. So we made a bit of a change again, a couple years ago, so we started targeting more executive communications. And I see Jen continuing that and her outreach with CISA right now, we kind of took a similar model, KSG and try to put out both the technical that is well as the guidance for the executive leadership team and in boards of directors, you know, if you have a board of directors, otherwise down down the stacks at smaller companies. But it's, you know, it's it's, you know, unfortunately, it's basics. It's basic, like, you know, listen to your team empower your team, where some of those prior trade offs when you make decisions are in favor of the business unit or the line of business with tilt the the benefit of the cost benefit balance back towards the security teams. If you know, I know there's always risk and crash deploying MFA or insider risk tools. But if you're going to do it, do it now. In push a multi factor package as rapidly as you can across the organization starting with those higher VIP or administrative accounts. So that was the start was part of the the shields up campaign again, that's that's that we've got that public for KSG. There's a second piece that we did, that goes back to that conversation about what it looks like, what are the recommendations that it did a company that's pulling out or making a business decision on Russia? What does that look for look like? And it starts with, you got to have your 24 hour shut, controlled shutdown plan. And that, again, begins with cutting off access to any global accounts. Looking for any suspicious exfiltration, things like that, as well as a, you may not have 24 hours, what happens when the FSB shows up at your door and nationalizes the company, you need the ability to set, you know, an unremarkable one hour shutdown plan. And the critical aspect of all this is that whatever you're doing as an organization, you have to be making decisions in implementing the plan with as little operational involvement of the Russian team as possible. You don't want to implicate them down the road where they could have their own legal jeopardy. Try to keep them as pure and clean as possible.
Dmitri Alperovitch 13:35
Yeah, before I let you go, Chris, I want to run this by you. Assuming that there are cyber attacks that take place, and they cause some damage to our economy, some damage to our infrastructure. The key question for the President and his national security team will be how do we respond? And how do we avoid escalation, that response? The worst thing that we can do is get into tit for tat with Russia, that is gonna be bad, who can destroy more of each other's critical infrastructure that doesn't serve anyone. And there's high degree of escalation that it gets out of the cyber domain, and gets into a kinetic conflict that we also, for obvious reasons, want to avoid with Russia. And I've been thinking a lot about this. And my view, I want to get your thoughts on this, is that it is important to send a signal, but a signal that does not do significant damage, or at least permanent damage to Russia, in cyberspace, but shows what we're capable of and let him know that they need to cut this out, because I do think that their view is this is if they do launch these attacks, that this is a justified response to the choking off of the economy that we're engaged in right now. But we have to let them know that no, this is not acceptable. And we can do massive damage. Well, well beyond what we've done till now was sanctions and sort of unilateral pullback from Western companies. But We have to send it as a warning signal as opposed to actually do it. So some of the ideas are like, you know, turn off the internet in Russia for a few hours, which wouldn't have lasting effects, but can show you what you can do through cyber attacks, potentially denial of service attacks against core routers and things of that nature. I want to get your quick reaction to that. I know you have to run to do a birthday dinner with Emily. But any thoughts on that?
Chris Krebs 15:30
Well, you know, I think what you pointed out is that whatever we would do back to them would be visible and reversible. And obviously, limited in the back. And I tend to think that if Russia did anything, here as a result of, again, the impact of sanctions that continued lethal aid to Ukrainians were Russians obviously feeling some pain, I similarly think it would be, it'd be visible, it would be reversible. With the clear implication of, we can do more knock it off, or we can do more. What I don't have a good sense of of Russian attack here is, how would that how big of an event would they be looking at, again, if you look back at the Sean Lyngass reporting, apparently, you know, there tends to be specific concern around potentially oil and natural gas, financial systems, services and DIB so I, you know, I would probably look back over and be thinking about what Cyber Command can do, what their capabilities are, what the intelligence community might be able to do in and you know, we have a different value set. So I still tend to think that we would leave civilian infrastructure, we would be self limiting, like we've been all along, but we would be self limiting and leave civilian infrastructure off the table, I think we would focus on government or military infrastructure. So I think that would be a pretty, you know, if it's depending on who, who pulls pulls the trigger on the Russian side, FSB or GRU, assuming we have some sort of insight or some sort of understanding of what their command and control infrastructure is, who their officers are, I think we first we burned down their C2, I think we'd go directly to their leadership, very visible apparent messaging. In You know, I don't know if that includes extending an olive branch to try to pull people out on if there is, in fact, some discontent within the FSB. I, again, I tend to think that's where the response would be, I think we want to keep the impact on the, the Russian civilians as minimal as possible. But maybe that's, you know, I'm just being an old sap and and I tend to think by the old rules, the game and maybe the game, the rules have changed.
Dmitri Alperovitch 17:51
I think they have, but we'll find out, or hopefully, we won't. So thank you again, Chris. Thank you, Emily, for lending them to us for 15 minutes here, really appreciate it. And have a great dinner with your wife. Mike, let's turn it over to you. Because we've had a really eventful week, and particularly last couple of days. When it comes to the developments in the war. On Friday, we had a remarkable briefing from the Ministry of Defense in Russia, where they articulated what their actual goals are in this campaign. My view, as you may agree, is that those are much revised goals from what they may have been initially, but now they're saying, Oh, nevermind, our attacks on Kiev, and Sumi and Chernihiv and Kherson in the south and attempts to take Mykolaiv. That was all a faint. What we really wanted was just to take Donbass and to expand DNR and LNR, the statelets, statelets, that we've created back in 2014, to their original borders, of the regions that they had before 2014 When they were part of Ukraine, and that's all that we really wanted to do. And then we had today, President Putin and his address to the Rosgvardia on National Guard’s day, say that the troops of Rosgvardia are doing a special operation not in Ukraine, but in the Donbas. So clearly we have an attempt to find a path to some sort of declaration of victory that is still achievable on their side. And, you know, a scaling back of their of their original goals. First of all, do you agree with that? And do you think they'll be successful in that attempt to scale everything back? Because I think there's a lot of puzzlement in Russia right now. When the initial goals that they've declared have of demilitarizing Ukraine de-nazifying Ukraine, and suddenly you're going to be content with destroyed Mariupol and slightly larger DNR and LNR. Is that really going to be sold as a victory to the Russian public?
Michael Kofman 19:56
Things Dmitri. Well, I think you probably remember a week ago I sort of theorized that they were going to stall out on to the two out of the three fronts in the north around Kiev, and then the Southwest around Mykolaiv, and that the only thing they had left to salvage was potentially an encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the joint force operation around the Donbas, and that's what they were attempting to do from the looks of it. That's where they were focusing. I'm not surprised at all by the MOD announcement. I think we're probably reading it a little bit too optimistically, saying that that's what it is where it's most likely they're creating options for themselves, in order to construct a narrative, that this operation was solely about the Donbas, which is essentially what they said, because that's likely the one area that they can potentially still make gains, and walk away salvaging something from this operation, given the way things are going for them on the ground militarily, but it's not clear that they've necessarily decided what they want to do, for example, is a debate on the sort of the coast of Sea of Azov. What will they do with the Kherson Oblast and part of Zaporizhzhia that they've occupied? Are those going to be trading ships? Will they potentially consider setting them up as Republics on claiming territory or partitioning Ukraine? You know, my view of it is that Russian forces, predictably became exhausted and combat ineffective as of about a week ago. Right, that I think that was anticipated. They don't have much in the way of offensive potential on most of these fronts. Ukraine has taken advantage force to pursue some counter attacks, because they can see Russian units digging in, I think it's smart of them probably to pursue a counter attack where they can in the coming days, because any attempt to regain lost territory could could be much harder and more costly, in the future if Russian forces are able to fortify their positions. But yeah, I definitely think you see a revision of Russia's narrative overall, right? They're trying to give themselves and out. And I think the next four weeks or so what kind of timeline wise, I don't want to put a specific marker there. But let's say this month, there are big glocal calls that the Russian leadership has to make about the future of this war. And I think we're gonna find out more what kind of war this is going to be in the coming month.
Dmitri Alperovitch 22:28
So we're starting to get some signals that they may want to end this operation by May 9. Of course, May 9 is Victory Day, one of the holiest, if you will, holidays in Russia, celebrating the victory in World War Two, and a unifying holiday for Russians. And since Putin has called this a denazification operation, he may want to try to tie himself to the World War Two victory over the real Nazis, and declare that he has done this once again in Russian history. But do you think that even with all the propaganda that the Russian public is exposed to on television that they will buy that all of this pain that they're now suffering economically, and diplomatic isolation of Russia and so forth, is worth it for just the Donbas region?
Michael Kofman 23:23
Honestly, I don't know. I'm sure some people will buy it. I can imagine the way they're going to spin it potentially if they want an out. Later this month, they'll say that by taking Mariupol, they destroyed the base of the Azov regiment, which always gets trotted out in the Russian media, and say that they succeed in de-nazification that way. And by striking Ukrainian military infrastructure and going after the defense industrial complex across the country, they'll claim that they all succeeded in demilitarizing Ukraine. And, and then essentially, maybe calling it there. That's probably the narrative they're going to go with. But the big decisions to me and not about the May 9th Parade, great. Okay, that might be an interesting marker. To me, the question is, what are they going to do in the coming weeks regarding conscript rotation? And are they going to conduct a national mobilization because the bulk of Russian military power in terms of the ground forces are in this fight. The fresh draft of conscripts comes in April 1, they have to decide whether or not they're going to release conscripts that are currently in service or if they're going to activate a stop loss policy, basically this month, and hold on to those constants, which I think they will have to do. If this war is going to drag on. Then after that, they're really going to have to go through a national mobilization if they want to find more manpower, and that manpower is not going to show up on the battlefield for probably several months afterwards. Certainly not the new conscripts. So they're gonna have big challenges in sustaining this war. That's why I'm saying they're gonna have to make a decision as to whether or not there's going to be a prolonged war of attrition. They're gonna try to salvage what they can from the unsuccessful military operation and then try to bow out and spin a victory narrative by the end of April.
Dmitri Alperovitch 25:11
So you think really, they're running out of troops, because, you know, they seem to have a constant flow of Chechens coming in from Kadyrov. They still have troops in Tajikistan and Armenia, the so called peacekeepers there that they could potentially bring in, you don't think that's enough?
Michael Kofman 25:29
That was a pretty small amount relative to the casualties they've taken. I mean, looks but to be honest, they're probably about somewhere between 120 and 130 BTG’s into this war already, they don't have a lot more left and standing forced to throw in, let's say, another 1520 battalions they could throw in there. Then after that, you know, they're a big challenges for them, so they could scrape together some more forces. But look, after about a month worth of fighting, the Russian military's probably lost 25 battalions worth of equipment in this fight, it's pretty significant. Obviously not across the board, you can't kind of like linearly apply it to every part of the force, these, these fronts and fights have been fairly uneven in terms of impact on individual units. But nonetheless, it's quite significant. So the long story short, is that the Russian military has considerable mobilization potential, it has a lot of equipment, they have access to manpower, if they want to go that route. But it is a very significant political decision. That manpower, those units will not show up until months from now if they choose to go that route. And of course, none of it will be as good as the units they’ve already lost because they've lost a lot of the best Russian units and the most elite infantry early on in this war.
Dmitri Alperovitch 26:49
And of course, if they mobilize and call up conscripts, not only will that be incredibly politically fraught, probably the most politically fraught decisions Putin has taken in his presidency, but you also have to train these people, you can't just give them a rifle and send them into Ukraine. And presumably, that training will take many months for them to be at all effective, right?
Michael Kofman 27:10
So yeah, and if I can interject, the challenge with doing that is that then I definitely don't believe that they will be able to spin this as a war just for the Donbas, and you know, Kherson, I just, I'm not buying that story. So that is the direction in which they go. This is going to be a much more substantial conflict that will have more maximalist worries.
Dmitri Alperovitch 27:35
So let's talk about the other part of Ukraine right now, because I'm curious, they made the announcement on Friday morning. Have you seen any pullback of forces from Kiev, from Chernihiv, from that Western Region yet? Which would make sense if that was just a feint and you really advertise in the Donbas is what you want? And perhaps you try to move those areas, those forces into that area? One, are you seeing that? and two, do you think that that is something that they can execute given that they are taking a lot of hits from Ukrainian forces right now, there's a number of counter attacks in those areas, can they actually withdraw without losing a lot of people and sort of in a somewhat orderly fashion.
Michael Kofman 28:23
So I'm not really seeing them withdraw- Ukrainian counter attacks or pushing them back both around Kiev and a couple other places. Mykolaiv Oblast is now completely clear they they push Russian forces back to Kherson, and you've seen Ukrainian counter attacks around Sumy. And around Kharkiv region not far from the zoo. But that said, Okay, there's a bit of a catch 22 for the Russian military when we look at this from a strategy perspective, which is the cannot suddenly withdraw for two reasons. First, militarily, it will be problematic. They will then free up Ukrainian units to come down southeast and reinforce their positions in the Donbas right and Russian forces are trying to encircle those units. They're trying to turn the fighter on Kyiv on the fight down southwest, into front where they're essentially pinning, let's say fixing Ukrainian units there. So they can't come reinforce other positions. The second one is political. If they withdraw, Ukraine will declare a major victory over Russian forces. And it'll be a huge boost for Ukrainian morale and resolve. And I don't think they want to do that either. So my guess is that they will give up territory, try to consolidate positions, try to consolidate supply lines and logistics, probably retreat from Kyiv somewhat while still keeping the city in danger, right, or at least retaining the ability to pressure it, and then maintain those positions as long as they're fighting in the eastern part of the country. There's one hypothesis.
Dmitri Alperovitch 29:46
Got it. And what about the environment of Donbas? You know, let's say Mariopul is obviously in a very, very tough position right now. They've taken most of that city already, and really destroyed it probably 80% of the infrastructure And the city is now decimated. But if it does fall ultimately and become sort of the Ukrainian Alamo, they will free up those forces that have been used for the attack on Mariopul to try to do pincer maneuvers up north and come down and envelop those Donbas forces. The Russians claim that the Ukrainians have about 50,000 forces in Donbas, do you think the Russians can pull off such a pincer maneuver, given the problems that they've had with logistics? These are not insubstantial distances, obviously. And you have significant Ukrainian forces there. Do you think it's actually doable?
Michael Kofman 30:38
Alright, that’s a hard question Dmitri. You know, I always give disappointing answers such as it depends and wars highly contentious, right? So I think the honest answer is that if they take Mariupol, they will be able to free logistics for that fight, and much better supply, the force is pushing up for Melitopol and the southern end of this pincer movement, they're attempting a double envelopment the distance between those double development are pretty significant. I don't think they would be able to complete it in its entirety. But I think they definitely could put Ukrainian forces in a precarious position. I have to caveat that by saying, I don't know, necessarily, what the combat effectiveness is of rushing us around zoom, or around the southern part of Ukraine, where we see that access coming up from Melitopol. And second, I've even less knowledge were a notion about what the state of Ukraine forces in the Donbas, what their combat effectiveness says, How well supplied they are and what their potential is to sustain this fight or to conduct any counter offensives either. And we just have to be, I think, frank about that, that we have some idea about the state of Russia units with very imperfect incomplete, and the ranges are pretty far in terms of casualties and whatnot. And we have even less idea about the state of Ukrainian forces.
Dmitri Alperovitch 31:59
Yeah. And the Ukraine force. Of course, they are pretty dug in in that area. They've been fighting that since 2014, lots of trenches, lots of underground positions, so it won't be an easy fight to try to dislodge them. What about counter attacks? Mike, you mentioned that the Ukrainian forces have been able to push the Russians back near Kiev, near Mykolaiv. Do you think they can sustain that and actually push them further out? Perhaps back to Chernobyl from the Kiev region, push them away from Kharkiv and Sumy? The cities in the north? What do you what do you make of the ability of the Ukrainian forces right now to do that?
Michael Kofman 32:46
I think they can incrementally make gains and retake loss territory. Russian units are stretched pretty thin, around Kharkiv and Sumy for one. And there. I think there's advantages for Ukrainian forces. Plus, a lot of those units have been molded over the past several weeks of fighting northeast of Kiev, their issues for Russian forces, because there's just a paucity of forces there. There's low density, they're stretched pretty thin there as well. And they're pretty extended in terms of logistics supply lines. So you can see saw them retreat several dozen kilometers back from Brovary, after a Ukrainian counter attack, although at some point, those lines are going to consolidate. And then west of Kyiv, if you look kind of at the positions, Russian forces were taking a bunch around the city, you know, European Bushra and hosta Mao, but then also an outer rain kind of facing outwards, around Makariav and Biridonka and the like, so they're Ukrainian forces have some made some gains at that outer ring pushing in from the west northwest and and crimping Russian positions. i It's hard to say exactly what's happening here. Because you know, it's always difficult to reconcile claims. But it looks like Ukrainians are having some success with raids against Russian force that said, you know, I can see the imperative of counter attacking now while Russians have lost momentum, they're in an operational pause. They need to reorganize replace losses, and it's best to attack them before they dig in. That makes sense. On the other hand, you know, I'm not sure how well Ukraine can sustain a counter offensive because that means probably leaving urban terrain right, which strongly favors the defender coming out in the open, engaging Russian units. You can do it where the correlation forces favor you. But on the whole, I think Ukrainian forces also have to be cautious. They have to preserve their own equipment, manpower, and you can tell a little bit at least, and I don't like reading tea leaves but you can tell from Zelesnky's request that they need equipment, they need more equipment to go on a counteroffensive. I suspect that their losses of equipment as a share of the overall force which is quite smaller than that of the Russian Army are not insignificant.
Dmitri Alperovitch 35:03
And you know, clearly Makariv is also very important for them because it helps them to resupply Kiev, and clears up that major highway that goes through Zhitomyr and to Western Ukraine. What about the Hostomel airport, the famous airport that near Kyiv that was taken by the VDV by the Russian airborne in the initial hours of the war, they were thrown out of there. Then they drove through from Chernobyl and took it back. And they've been pretty dug in there. Have you seen them actually using that airport strategically? Do you think they're getting resupplied from the air into that airport? Or is that just another defensive position for their ground forces?
Michael Kofman 35:48
No, I don't think so. I think Russian units have been using airports, often as bases on staging areas pretty consistently throughout this conflict. It kind of makes sense in some ways, logistically, but I'm not seeing them use the airport for substantial resupply, you know, air operations around there would be hard because there's still air defense, functioning around the Ukrainian capital, right. And there's a plethora of man pads on this battlefield as well. So it would be pretty, pretty dangerous to do.
Dmitri Alperovitch 36:21
Yeah. And of course, we had Slovakia offering the S-300 system that it had back from the Soviet days, it said that it would provide that system to Ukraine, as soon as it got a replacement. Well, last week, it did get a replacement that is now operational Patriot batteries that were driven from Germany. So presumably, that system is on the way to Ukraine, or maybe it's already operational there. And of course, Ukrainians have had their own S-300s and other air defense systems that they could have used. One thing I'm curious, Mike, is, if you sort of take them at their word that they're now trying to find a path to victory here, with Donbas, the big question is going to be what to do with the southern areas, right? Because Mariupol, you know, make sense. It was originally part of the Donetsk region, before 2014, so they can give it to the DNR, and say, this is this is yours, based on pre war borders. But they've taken a lot of other areas along that Azov sea coast the so called land to land bridge to Crimea, they've taken that Kherson region, which they still control. And the question, in my mind is, do you think they intend to keep it and potentially annex into Crimea, to keep to keep that landbridge and the strategic, more of the strategic coast along the Azov and the Black Sea region? Or do you think they'll pull back? And if they decide to keep it, do you think they can actually handle it? We haven't seen obviously an insurgency just yet. But there's a lot of Ukrainians in that area still, that presumably are pretty anti Russian and the Ukrainian government can easily flip more weapons more more javelins more RPGs into that area to cause Russians a lot of pain. What are your thoughts on that?
Michael Kofman 38:18
Well, I suspect that when it comes to Donbas, they might outright annex the territory one way or another. But when it comes to this southern region that yes, people refer to it as a Land Bridge. I'll be frank, I'm not a huge fan of that term. That remains very much in question. So not seeing great evidence of the fact that they actually intend to turn these into new people's Republic's right. There's not a lot of organization there. They've removed mayor's Ukrainian mayors. And they, they seem to be kidnapping people and shipping them somewhere unclear where, but when it comes to giving air to pro Russian forces, political activists and the like, not seeing a lot of that, which leads me to suspect that as in other cases, they haven't actually decided yet what they want to do. I think their first best strategy is to use these as trading chips right to maybe annex Donbas then try to trade these bits of territory back to Ukraine in exchange for political settlement, where they attain some more of the national level demands, right, like neutrality and whatnot.
Dmitri Alperovitch 39:32
That strikes me as a pipe dream, though, Mike, because after the heroic defense of Mariupol, Zelinsky this week, instituted a hero status to that city. I mean, I just don't see him ever sign a piece of paper that gives it up, that, you know, he would be lynched probably if he ever did that. So I'm not I'm not sure that they may think that but I'm not sure it's realistic at all.
Michael Kofman 39:55
Well, I was gonna counter and say what part of this operation doesn't strike you as a pipe dream starting from the first few days.
Dmitri Alperovitch 40:00
Michael Kofman 40:02
It used to be. I mean, once people think that they can get into the gradient capital and force of surrender within 72 hours, definitely pipe dream territory in terms of planning. Yeah, so, I suppose, but if it's a pipe dream, it would be consistent with other things I've seen so far in this war from the Russian side. But speaking realistically, I think most likely, it might end up being a prolonged occupation, right. And they'll come up with some political framework, but it will be costly. I mean, that's hundreds of kilometers worth of new borders. Kherson is not on the southern side of the river. Right? The city, it's, it's on the northern side of or let's say the western side of the Dniepr river. So you don't have a natural boundary there. They'd have to be defended, they'd have to defend it from Mykolaiv and it will create a pretty large front for them to have to occupy for them to have to defend sizable population around that area, not not even including Donbas. It will be, it will be challenging, I think, for them, and you're not going to get some stable borders there.
Dmitri Alperovitch 41:07
And we've already seen some of that, right. So Chornobaivka which is this suburb of Kherson is famous because the Ukrainians have shelled it on several occasions, destroyed a lot of the aircraft, and famously killed the commander of the 49th combined arms army in that region. And in fact, the Zelensky and his address the other day, talking about how defense minister Shoigu in Russia has been sort of disappeared, if you will, for the last couple of weeks, although he is now reappeared, but Zelinsky said, you know, maybe he was visiting Chornobaivka. And that's why he hasn't been seen for for some time, you know, given the Ukrainians ability to hit it with artillery. And given that it's just on the outskirts of Kherson, that probably doesn't bode well for them in terms of ability to keep it without a lot of losses, right?
Michael Kofman 42:00
Yeah, I think that's fair. I think that it would require a sustained occupation. And then Kherson can end up being the next Donetsk then, yes.
Dmitri Alperovitch 42:13
Yeah. Let's talk about the impact of this on Russia, because I did a thread on this a few days ago, actually yesterday, where I talked about these reduced goals that they've now proclaimed, that Putin has reaffirmed today of Donbas, quote, unquote, liberation of the Donbas. And if you look at the costs that they've suffered, obviously, huge economic costs, huge diplomatic costs, that will be decimating the Russian economy for decades, potentially, if they don't get from under those sanctions. But also, I think, most importantly, the prestige that Russia has suffered due to its pitiful performance, military performance in this war, right. And you're starting to see some really hawkish elements on Russian television, talking about how, you know, pushing back on this notion that we can just take Donbas and be happy with it. Because, you know, I saw one commentator on TV, Vladimir Solovyov’s program on channel one Russian television. Solovyov, of course, the famous propagandist, Putin's propagandist, and this person was saying, you know, if you can't handle Ukraine, how can you claim credibly to threaten NATO, to threaten the United States? You're a laughing stock. You couldn't even deal with the Zelensky, how can you deal with with Biden, or Schultz or Macron and, you know, I want you to address that, because, you know, Russia has become a laughingstock, the famous memes about Ukrainian tractors, cardio equipment, the challenges that they're having across most of the axes of advanced here, that's a pretty big psychological impact that they must be feeling. And even though information is not getting through as much as it has before to the Russian public, they're still on telegram, they can still get on VPNs, and find this out. Can you comment on that? The psychological impact on Russia from even if they managed to pull off this quote, unquote, victory, just taking Donbas.
Michael Kofman 44:20
So the thing is there’s actually two conversations there, Dmitri. The first one is regarding some of the sentiments you heard on that program. And I watched it too, actually. And I thought that the person speaking there about how this would be a very visible defeat for Russia, how could Russia claim to take on NATO or anybody else if they lose so visibly in Ukraine? Essentially, it looks like the reaction from the commentators there to the proposition that Russia could accept anything other than a maximum victory in Ukraine. That to me is nursing conversation about both the political mindset and sentiments might be in Russia because of what the Kremlin has unleashed, right? When it comes to political mobilization, once you unleash it it’s going to be very hard to then start and spin a narrative about how this was just about the Donbas. People will realize this defeat and it will have consequences for the regime. That's very obvious. So I think that's one conversation about how all these various individuals within the system, and also the general public are likely to interpret something less than a clear victory, which is most likely what they'll have to accept, because I don't really see how Russia can politically win this war. Second conversation is about perceptions of Russia in the international community. So there's two things there first, yeah, Russian performance military wise, it's pretty embarrassing, we can see that, and they've not done nearly as well as a lot of people had estimated early on, I think the military analysis community to which I belong, had somewhat overestimated Russian military capability and underestimated Ukrainian military capability. I have a long thread on that from a couple of weeks ago, I will say that it's a lot more complicated than that. Military power always needs a context to express itself. You can't measure it the way you do accounting. So military power in the abstract is just not a thing. So, you know, how Russia does in Ukraine tells us some things about how the Russian military would perform, and the problems they have with the fundamentals, and other contingencies. But it doesn't tell us nearly as much as people think. But that said, Yeah, you're right, this real dismissiveness of Russian military power that I think we're going to be dealing with moving forward. And now in my community, we've for a long time now dealt with two narratives, either Russia is twelve foot tall, or it's four foot tall, and the truth has always been somewhere in between. And this is going to be another probably significant overcorrection into the Russia four foot tall category, where I can already see I'm going to spend years probably having talked about how the Russian military did poorly in Ukraine. But you know, that's a snapshot of what happened in this particular war.
Dmitri Alperovitch 47:56
Yeah. Let's talk a little bit about weapons systems. So a lot has been made of the switchblades drones, the self-destruct kamikaze drones that we're now providing to the Ukrainians. What do you think is the impact of that? Obviously very cheap to use, easy to use, they crash into, you know, Ukrainian, I mean, Russian vehicle and detonate on impact. If we're able to fly a lot of those drones into Ukraine, do you think it's gonna make a huge difference?
Michael Kofman 48:29
Like any tactical system, I'm sure it will make an impact. At the end of the day, it's up to Ukrainians to make use of an aggregate to success, and I think they've done a pretty good job. I'm surprised it actually taken us a while to get into the drone conversation, I thought that we spent quite a bit of time talking about MIG 29s, which didn't make nearly as much sense to me as discussing the subject of providing Soviet Gen air defense systems that other countries had, various remotely operating systems that either we or other allies and partners had, that we probably could have gotten into this conflict a long time ago.
Dmitri Alperovitch 49:04
Yeah. The other thing I wanted to ask you is there's a lot of conversation now. And some of that is even making it to the Pentagon, about tanks and how useful tanks may be in future conflicts given the success of anti tank systems like javelins and M laws on the battlefield and Ukraine. I know you have an opinion on this, so I thought it would be useful to get it out there publicly. You do believe that tanks still have a place on future battlefields. Right?
Michael Kofman 49:34
Yeah, and just to be clear, I don't own special stock in any tank making companies okay, but last time, last time I had to deal with conversation was on the Nagorno-Karabakh war of 2020, where again, the same crew of folks came out and said I think the the tank is sort of like the knight on the battlefields instead. Here's the truth: tanks have always been vulnerable but they've never been invulnerable. Two, if you have a vehicle that has a better combination of firepower, mobility and protection, I would love to see it. Three, if you'd like to assault on something other than a tank, I'd love to see what that is because that vehicle has particular missions, right. So if you think something does a better mission set than a tank, if you’d like to go with maybe an urban warfare will support vehicle that you think does better. Okay, great, I'd like to see it. And last but not least, you know, the tank is vulnerable. But it is at least pretty well protected against a lot of the capabilities out there on the battlefield, everything else is less protected. So I'm not sure why anyone believes that, you know, you'd be better off than some lightly skinned, armored combat vehicle relative to a tank, and maybe it's a cost conversation for some militaries, I totally get that. And it can definitely be a force structure decision for some services like the Marine Corps. I also get where they're coming from with their force structure reforms, but I don't buy the story that the tank has done in the battlefield, just because Russia has lost a lot of tanks on this war, or, you know, the Armenians lost a lot of tanks in a series and in their war, I mean, that's just the reality of it, tanks perform an important role. And I've yet to see a counter argument as to what we should put there, the bigger issue is, alright, there's a lot countries including our own, they're very far behind on active protection systems for tanks, generations behind relative to the lethality of infantry carried weapons, and tanks need to be properly supported. And there's a lot of militaries that fuel tanks, but they don't have effective support for them. You know, for example, protection against drones or various remotely operated systems.
Dmitri Alperovitch 51:31
Got it. Let's buy better tanks, but let's not get rid of them. That's fair. So you mentioned Nagorno-Karabakh. And we'd be remiss not to talk a little bit about that, because it seems that the Azeris took advantage of everyone's attention on Ukraine right now and they launched an offensive in the Nagorno-Karabakh against Armenian forces. What do you make of that? It appears that they're pulling back now. Do you think that this is a resumption of conflict there? Or was that just a tactical attempt at taking some gains?
Michael Kofman 52:04
You know, my best guess, and I have to be frank that I'm not tracking that nearly as well, because I'm sort of being consumed attention wise by this war, is that they're likely probing to see what the Russian-Armenian reaction would be. And to gauge whether or not they have an opportunity right now, to potentially gain more territory or maybe push Armenians out of the region. While they know that the bulk of Russian military power is preoccupied in Ukraine and not doing very well.
Dmitri Alperovitch 52:32
Yeah. And it seems like they've been slapped for that. And they're now pulling back. At least according to the reports. Mike, last question. What are you looking at next? What do you expect to see happening over the next couple of weeks here as this war evolves?
Michael Kofman 52:50
I mean, I think the big question for me is whether or not the Russian military will demonstrate that they are prioritizing the Donbas, in which case, we are going to see a shift in their forces. And if they're going to try the sort of last big push, I mean, there's an argument to be made, that the Russian forces in Ukraine maybe have one set of offensives in them, right. And if they're going to concentrate somewhere, it will be the Donbas. And I'm also going to look to see where the Ukrainian military is able to make gains and counter attacks. I mean, they've certainly taken advantage of the loss of Russian momentum. But see if they can actually sustain counter attacks or not, or are these going to be very sporadic and incremental? And then, you know, the third point would be to look for political signals from Russian leadership themselves about what direction they're going to take in this war. And one of the biggest challenges I think, has been trying to figure out is what does Vladimir Putin actually know and think about this war, right? Because you can easily mirror an image, but there isn’t clear evidence that one, he understands the battlefield reality as it is. Two, that the Russian military is actually telling him the real state of their forces and the prospect for success. Three, appreciates the limits of what any additional military means put into this war could possibly achieve in terms of political aims. Right. So it's not clear what his reality looks like, if he appreciates the true state of the Russian military situation on the ground. And that's what's going to shape his decision making, right, not sort of our objective attempt to analyze the situation.
Dmitri Alperovitch 54:25
You know, that is a very fair point. And I've made that point before that we shouldn't be a mirror image, but I'll tell you, I was actually a little bit surprised with Putin. You know, in the last few days, having realized that the takeover of Ukraine is not achievable and pulling back and trying to redefine victory. We're only a month into this war. I mean, you know, if you want to make the comparison to Afghanistan, it took us 20 years to realize we're losing and to make the decision, the hard decision, to pull out. Here he is a month in publicly redefining the objectives. Of course they’re claiming that he says there’s always been objectives. But no one seriously is really buying that, but that actually did surprise me that it tells me that he's not disconnected from reality. And he's appreciating what is achievable and what is not. Do you agree with me on this?
Michael Kofman 55:18
Um, I'll split the point with you, which is to say that, if that was true, he wouldn't have attempted this war in the first place as a banal, quick regime change operation, where he honestly thought they were going to roll Ukraine and not face much resistance in a few days. So I'll say that maybe we're now seeing inklings of him realizing the reality on the ground, but I'm not quite so sanguine yet.. And as always, I'll say that it's a lot easier for someone like Putin in a personal authoritarian system to revise the political objectives barely a few weeks into a war, and then start putting out a narrative that oh, it was just about the Donbas in the first place. Right. That's one of the big advantages of that system for an authoritarian leader.
Dmitri Alperovitch 56:09
Sure, it's easier but it's not easy as we're seeing with the pushback that he's getting even from his core propagandists and television that want to keep pushing and taking all of Ukraine. And I'll say this, I completely agree there. He massively miscalculated on the Ukrainian resistance, on the ability to take Kiev, on economic sanctions, no doubt. But it seems like he's realizing that he's miscalculated, and he's realizing what may or may not be achievable. But that remains to be seen. Well, another great conversation. Thank you so much, Mike. Thank you, Chris, for joining us, for sharing your thoughts with us. Always insightful. And Mike, you've been right in terms of predictions of how this war would unfold, pretty much since day one. So I always recommend everyone listen to you for what's to come. Because you have a very keen understanding of the Russian military, and what's taking place on the ground, unlike pretty much anyone else in this field. So again, thank you so much. Thank you, everyone, for joining us. Have a great rest of your weekend, and hopefully we'll see each other soon again. Thank you. Thanks a lot.
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