Event Recap: War in Ukraine
Dmitri Alperovitch talks with Michael Kofman (Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis) and US Navy Capt. Chris Carlson (Ret.) about the new developments in the war in Ukraine on Twitter Spaces. Discussion of how the cruiser Moskva may have been sunk, the implications for Black Sea fleet, the importance of Snake Island, update on Donbas offensive, and how a Russian mobilization may unfold.
A complete audio recording is available here, and a full transcript is available below.
TRANSCRIPT: “How Moskva was Sunk: Analysis of the War in Ukraine”
May 8, 2022 - Online
Dmitri Alperovitch, Co-Chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator
Michael Kofman, Research Program Director in the Russia Studies Program at CNA
Chris Carlson, US Navy Capt. (Ret.)
DISCLAIMER: This transcript was generated using an automated transcription service, and as a result may not be 100 percent accurate. Please check all quotations against the original audio before publication. Full audio and video recording is available here.
Dmitri Alperovitch 00:00
So welcome everyone to today's show. It is Sunday, May 8. It is the afternoon before Victory Day in Russia. And everyone's awaiting what announcements if any, Putin may be planning for his Victory Day parade speech. I'm Dmitri Alperovitch, Chairman of Silverado policy accelerator, geopolitical think tank in Washington DC. And with me, again is 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'll get one more very special guests, hopefully, very shortly. But Mike, why don't we start with you what's been happening this week, in particular with a Donbass offensive. There's been some late breaking news today, that city of Popasna has been taken by the Russians or the Ukrainians at least withdrew there. This has been confirmed by Zhovkva, the Ukrainian presidential adviser. He also said today or last night, I should say that Severodonentsk may be under a major threat. Talk to us about what you see happening in the Donbass and the importance of these developments.
Mike Kofman 01:13
Okay, thanks Dmitri. Let me kind of just paint a picture of what's been going on, at least from my perspective from the past week. By the way, mute yourself, so you don't hear you typing. So first, to the north, around the Kharkiv, there's been an ongoing Ukrainian counter offensive, and it's been fairly successful. I think their main goal has been to push Russian artillery away from the city and they finally have gotten the city essentially cleared at such a range that it can't be hit by a lot of the Russian artillery that was deployed and as buffer zone the Russian forces were trying to occupy inside of Ukraine. And because of Russian forces, they are pretty spread out. It looks like they abandoned Staryi Saltiv and have been slowly being pushed out by Ukrainian forces who have a decent chance of reaching the border because just the sparsity of of Russian forces up in the north. Russian forces along the general offensive, you know, the sort of Severodonentsk line haven't been able to gain much ground in the past week. And I think we've been debating as on a local community as to why you can interpret it a couple of different ways. Obviously, there's incredibly stiff Ukrainian resistance and the correlation of forces isn't that especially favorable to the Russian offensives. On the other hand, they supposedly had concentrated quite a bit of military power there. So I think my personal stance on it -based on very imperfect information, is that the Russian military has been pretty cautious and oriented towards reducing losses in this offensive and they've been fighting a bit more organized and coordinated, but mostly leveraging fires, and trying to avoid further loss of manpower. When we can't really tell, I think as well as how Russian forces have been distributed along the Northern line of this offensive, it's a pretty long battlefield in the north, spanning all the way from Izyum around Severodonentsk, down Popasna, and that just the northern side of the fight. I think we're all guessing on what the concentrations of BTGs really are and where they are distributed. And what's actually in the BTG At this point, that was the end strength of their unit. So right now, what they think is clear, and that's, I think, is the important takeaway. That the main Russian effort has shifted away from Izyum, and it's shifted towards Severodonentsk, and they've likely shifted forces behind the two. That means probably more focus on the Lyman and Yampil, but especially Severodonentsk. And there's really Ukrainian counter attack, what's the resume, but slowly kind of inching towards Russian supply lines, but it's not really clear what's going on there at this point on how much progress they've made. I suspect that you're Gerosmove showed up a week ago to get things straightened out in this offensive because it wasn't making much progress. And I'm going to speculate a bit here, that he likely introduced some changes and a shift to the overall effort because they were trying a double envelopment one around Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, and another one to try to sever Severodonentsk from the rest of the Ukrainian lines, and that cooly was working out probably did not force enough forces for it. What have you.
So the latest does yes, that Russian forces were I think more specifically, Wagner, which just seems to be the one area where the PMCS are fighting took Poposna and I'm most likely Ukrainian forces conducted a tactical retreat there and are further north around Severodonentsk. Russian forces are also in some part of Lysychans’k although it's not clear what part of the city they've entered. And if I sort of look further south, these are mostly fixing attacks. If you look towards this whole long line ends up but usually fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces. But they haven't made much success in the south, I don't think that the southern Military District has a lot of manpower available towards their attack those attacks and they probably still are waiting to resolve the situation down in Mariupol. So general takeaway is that this offense was probably going to drag on, it's going to drag on for some time. And we're going to see numerous counter counter attacks by the Ukrainian forces as it goes on. And it's not going to be clear necessarily how things are shaking out and just the coming days or even the support or even perhaps weeks. But I think it's safe to say that, given the forces, the Russian military has available, how they're employing them and the Ukrainian resistance, there aren't there are not likely to be any sudden or major breakthroughs. And I think that was pretty predicted, predictable and predicted by a number of analysts looking at this problem set. So okay, so I think I've taken enough time to kind of introduction.
Dmitri Alperovitch 06:26
No, it's great. I have a couple of follow up questions. One, you know, Izyum has been such a major logistics hubs for them, obviously, major rail links going into that city. What do you think it means that they've kind of stopped or decreased their activity in that area and have been subjected to Ukrainian counterattacks can that and danger from a logistics perspective of the entire Donbass offensive?
Mike Kofman 06:52
Not necessarily, to be honest. First, it just remains to be seen whether the Ukrainian military has the ability to interdict whose ground lines of communication but second, if they shift a lot of the effort towards Severodonentsk, then it's a bit of a different conversation, because then they're likely pursuing an entirely different operational approach into how they're trying to try and take the Donbass, it’s clear that things are not working out for them, well south of Izyum. For a number of reasons, like I said, we're kind of debating the causes. So I'm looking at the map. I would be much more concerned if I was the Russian military, about the Ukrainian counter-offensive via Izyum, far less concerned about the one north by Kharkiv because they're not really running the logistics or rail line anywhere directly near there.
Dmitri Alperovitch 07:51
Got it. And with regards to Severodonentsk, and Popasna - are those strategic points, how critical is it that the Ukrainians have fallen back?
Mike Kofman 08:08
So, basically suggests that they're inching closer and closer from the north to Severodonentsk, then yes, Popasna strategic, because, you know, one of the main Russian efforts is to try to break through it that southern point there, and then quince Ukrainian lines, to try to sever the connection with Severodonentsk, then yeah, that's gonna at the same time, try to potentially break through South around Yampil’. If you look at Yampil, Yampil is between kind of between Lysychans’k and Slovyansk. And you can kind of picture a pincer from movement, one from Poposna and one coming down through Rubizhne, but they've been moving incredibly slowly, right. And they've been taking these towns or towards some they've been taking them versus Ukrainians have just been retreating from them. But at an incredibly slow pace. So it's, I think it's given the Ukrainian military plenty of time to react and figure out what they want to do. So you know, I don't think you're gonna see a sudden breakthrough and rapid and circumventing Ukrainian forces, although it's pretty clear what the Russian military is trying to do.
Dmitri Alperovitch 09:19
And how long do you think they can continue this offensive? You know, at what point they're taking significant casualties, obviously, right now, particularly in equipment, can they keep this going for months? Can they keep this going for weeks? What's your sense of their ability to continue major operations?
Mike Kofman 09:38
I mean, so I don't know because there’s a lot you don't know about the actual state of Russian forces and how well they're supplied and what the morale is, but I actually think they can stay in the for a while. I'll tell you why. I think part of the reason they're advancing slowly, is because they're doing a lot of areas they're not committing. And they're doing a lot of reconnaissance. And then when they make contact, they retreat. And then they leverage artillery fires to try to degrade Ukrainian position and suppress them. So to put it in kind of glib terms are playing this quite differently than they had the first phase of the war, and even though they still have visible issues in overall performance, I think they're trying to minimize casualties. And that might be why they're advancing slowly. I mean, you could also read it a different way, which is that there will, there will and desire to fight is much lower in there. And that's also why there isn't sort of this great enthusiasm, perhaps amongst the forces for the offensive. But that's just speculation. I'm far less concerned about the logistical equation, I'll be very honest, whenever we get into these conversations about what's happening in the war, people will often use Logistics is a kind of hand waving device. And I'm not seeing a lot of problems in terms of ammunition supply for Russian artillery. And so my basic view is, unless you know something specific that's going on with logistics, please do not tie problematic logistics as a cause of some kind of outcome. Like if we don't know, let's say, we don't know, let's not hand wave and save logistics aren't good. And we actually have no idea what's going on with logistics.
Dmitri Alperovitch 11:19
Now, the one other thing that a lot of people have talked about before this war began, was weather and mud, right. A lot of mud experts turned up on Twitter, talking about the mud in Ukraine in the springtime. What's your sense of the weather affecting operations, their ability to do off roading, any concerns there?
Mike Kofman 11:45
I mean, it's getting pretty dry, but it's pretty burdensome mix. And then there's also issues other issues with off roading. You know, for example, there's minefields. So you see plenty of videos of ocean vehicles running into Ukrainian mines. So you can easily funnel a force by organizing your defense, around key ground lines of communications, and then putting down mines and other sectors. I'm kind of increasingly seeing a mix of Russian forces using roads but also maneuvering off road. So those those look as though the terrain is at least partially drying out in some areas. But I don't see as necessarily as the as the decisive factor was it or the significant factor. And you know, the people who are talking about mud and the run up to the war, remember, I was involved in that conversation. They were right. It's just it's always wrong to fixate on any one specific thing as being deterministic. And don't forget some very important weather affects both sides and may not necessarily affect them equally or evenly. But it affects both sides. Okay. It's not like there's mud and the mud only affects the Russians ability to maneuver, but not the Ukraine ability to counter attack because Ukraine has hovered tanks. That's not true.
Dmitri Alperovitch 13:01
Whats your take on mobilization? We had an interesting video come up yesterday on channel one from someone, I think a reservist officer in the Russian military who was talking actually very negatively about mobilization saying that it won't really change things on the ground, but he was kind of fixated on the wrong things. In some ways, he was talking about building ships, that takes years, building air squadrons, that's going to take a long time. But then he actually said, Well, you know, tank division will take us 90 days to bring up. And that to me, seemed very interesting. If they could actually bring up a new tank division and throw it into the fight within 90 days. That could be very significant. Do you think that's actually plausible? Do you think that they're going to need some sort of mobilization? Maybe not a full mobilization? What, what are your thoughts overall on this mobilization question?
Mike Kofman 14:03
As conversation as really livened up in the past week. Yeah, I remember a long, long time ago, at least at least as far as its wars gone. I had mentioned that because the Russian military is trying to fight this war at peace time strength, this is likely to be their last offensive for the simple reason that they do not have the manpower availability, they don't have the force structure. To sustain further offensive operations beyond this one, it's gonna be a challenge for them to just sustain this conflict as it stands, and so they will need a way to raise manning across the force, even just to rotate forces through Ukraine. Very likely, without some form of partial mobilization. They stand have a strong chance of losing even with mobilization. It's not a magic wand and it doesn't change the structure of the Russian forces. But I don't think the conversation on mobilization was framed right in terms of what it is, what it does and what it needs. First, the real question is whether or not Vladimir Putin will declare a general state of war, as opposed to continuing to try to fight this as a special operation. And there's a huge difference for that. There's no rule of law in Russia, but Russia's insanely procedural state, and these things matter. So people will say that Putin can just do whatever he wants, independent on whether or not a state of war exists. I'm gonna disagree. That's not really true. So here's the policies this affects, first, a state of war will allow them to enact stop loss policies, that means conscripts, which are now being demobilized as of May 1 will not necessarily be demobilized, they can choose to keep them in service. Second, it means contract servicemen which allow the military fighting, cant resign, contract servicemen can actually refuse to fight, they can quit. And then the Russian military makes it very hard for them. But nonetheless, they can.
Dmitri Alperovitch 16:04
And there are some reports of this actually happening. So this is not just hypothetical.
Mike Kofman 16:08
Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Because there's no state of war. And they can tear up their contract and say, I'm leaving the Russian military, you know, thank you for rotating me back to Russia. I don't want to go back to the fighting. And I'm gonna tear up my agreement. Yes, there'll be penalties for them. But but they're probably not as bad as dying. So point being, it changes the legal status of combatants, it exchanges their options, what they can do, then, you know, the Russian leadership can enact a partial mobilization. And they're probably going to go after men with a recent military experience. And the probably the notion that the anybody you just bring in, that you mobilize is untrained, and suddenly you have to train them. That's not exactly true. And surely Russia has a lot of manpower, does personnel who have just left the military or going to be rotating out of the military or have rotated out in the last year and they haven't suddenly forgotten all the skills that they have before? Okay, so the retraining period…
Dmitri Alperovitch 17:12
In other words, if you used to drive a tank a few years ago, you still know how to drive a tank, right?
Mike Kofman 17:18
Yeah, well, I mean, if you're there, the mobilizing right now we're on the 130,000 conscripts. I mean, you're gonna seriously argue to me that the day after these people forgot how they shoot an AK 47 or drive a tank. And that's not that's not the case. These are perishable skills, but they're not that instantaneously perishable. And a lot of positions that they may that they may look to fill may not be that technically demanding. So long story short, they will have access to manpower with recent experience, and very likely some veterans as well, depending on who they choose to mobilize if they go that route. They've already been trying a shadow mobilization behind the scenes the last month, month and a half. By offering short term service service contracts down to four months for a lot of money to try to pick up men with prior service experience and see if they can get them to sign up as contract servicemen. Russian formations have a substantial percentage in them of conscripts, particularly in the ground forces, and many of them could be up to 30-35%. So they have deployed, let's say two battalion tactical groups from each regiment and brigade. But back in the main formation, there are very likely to be some officers with another battalion plus staffed by conscripts, potentially hundreds of them. And now, conscripts which cannot legally be used in offensive operations outside of Russia's borders, unless there was a time of war could now be used, they can be put together with other forces and the rest of the formation could potentially be deployed. So that opens up access to another part of the force. Right. Now, in practice, everything is harder. I'm painting this with a very broad brush. But there are several layers to this I think folks need to appreciate. And this is before we even get to the the notion of a broader mobilization, because getting more manpower and pulling equipment out of reserve storage areas, which you know, is very much a mixed bag proposition. You don't know what's there, that's active and serviceable. And you will know to what extent the Russian military can actually conduct mobilization. Remember, this is not the Soviet Army. It's not organized to take in vast amounts of manpower on short notice and to sort them into units with Cadre staffs. That being true. The Russian military doesn't need to go through that process at all doesn't need that much more manpower per se, in order to replenish ranks and necessarily sustain this war, but it definitely needs all A lot more than a house now. Sorry, it's a bit of a long explanation. But it's a complex topic. And I'm seeing, you know, I'm seeing divergent takes on it.
Dmitri Alperovitch 20:08
Yeah, this is really fascinating. I put out a long thread about a week ago explaining why I think the full mobilization sort of conscripts, massive conscripts and drafts was very unlikely, but But you are suggesting actually a middle ground between doing nothing and doing a full mobilization, which is to declare state of war and bring in some some people with recent experience either conscripts or contracts that have left the service. And, you know, I think that that certainly is very plausible, and doesn't necessarily create a lot of potential political problems for them. Right.
Mike Kofman 20:44
Yeah. So I think the full mobilization is kind of a bit of a canard, right. And I don't see that as likely at all. But the significant question is whether or not he's going to declare a state of war, because that then changes things a lot procedurally, and you know whether or not they will then shift to to using conscripts. And raising manning, by in ways other than simply trying to attract people with money, right, because I don't know how many people they're going to get by just raising the amount of money they're willing to pay per month. But there are significant effects to this approach. And the main impact is that it will substantially alter our expectations for how long Russia can sustain this war, doesn't mean Russia is going to win at it doesn't mean they're going to do great, and some follow on offensives. But it means that those wars going to drag on much longer, and it means that they will have potentially enough manpower to sustain this fight. Even if it's a losing fight for a considerable period of time. Remember, I always I always say annoyingly, that everything is contingent. So I don't like predicting what's going to happen, you know, at the actual tactical, operational level. I'm just trying to suggest, you know, if we take the art of the long view, what the implications of that would be relative to where we are right now.
Dmitri Alperovitch 22:09
Got it. Let’s talk about Snake Island. We had a lot of activity in that area over the last 48 hours. The Ukrainians have achieved some major successes, taking out a tor air defense system with the a TB2, and then doing heavy ordnance strikes with Su-27’s against some positions there. And now the Russians are claiming that they've actually abandoned the island. And it appears to be uninhabited at this point. There's still some debate about a helicopter that was shot down - whether it was a Ukrainian helicopter or a Russian helicopter - both sides are claiming that they took out the others, MI8 troop-carrying helicopter that was trying to land forces on the island. What's the significance if the island has been abandoned? As the Russian’s have been saying that it has been? How critical was it in enforcement of the Black Sea blockade? What do you make of that?
Mike Kofman 23:14
Yeah, that's a story that's gotten some attention mainly because a lot of videos have blood all over Twitter of Ukrainian TB2’s striking Russian forces on Snake Island. And it shows Ukrainian Su-27’s conducting a strike and so on and so forth. And it's been a bit of a puzzling situation to sort out. But I think my impression of what happened was Russian forces originally ended up on Snake Island if you remember at the beginning of the war. They approached the small Ukrainian contingent, they demanded that they surrender. Ultimately, I think the Marines there did surrender, then the Russian military in placed some small number of units on the island. Snake Island is tiny. It's really a rock. I'm not gonna say that technically, because it was a subject of a very long legal dispute between Ukraine and Romania as to whether or not it was an island or a rock under international law, which I will not go into further because everyone here will fall asleep and leave this actual Twitter chat if they hear that story. But suffice it to say it's very small, and not very inhabitable. So it looks like they in placed some Russian units there, a tiny contingent with some air defense, very vulnerable out in the sea. I don't think Dmitri it was that relevant to enforcing the blockade for a simple reason. A Tor-M2 and Strela-10 short range air defense system. These systems have tiny air defense ranges, don't enforce much of anything, and it's not like there were coastal defense cruise missile batteries, over the horizon radar, or much of anything else on that island. So I'm not really sure necessarily what relevance it played. On the other hand, maybe they had a vision of the future of the things that we're going to in place on it and if they have secure control, some of these other capabilities will have been deployed there down the line. So long story short, Ukrainian forces came after this tiny number of air defense systems on this rock with a TB2’s, took them out, and then they left the Russian contingent completely open to airstrikes. And after losing those air defenses, they essentially became prey to various Ukrainian capabilities. And that was hard to tell if the Russian military was trying to reinforce the island, or if they're trying to evacuate the island from the videos, but in general, their position, they're completely deteriorated. And to me, well, the videos reflect a basic problem with the Russian approach, which is sort of like send one unit without air cover, than send another unit without air cover on support to try to help that one, then send the third unit and a helicopter to try to figure out what happened with special forces and maybe try to rescue who's left, and so on, so forth. And in many ways, the challenge they've had in this war, is that they're masters of piecemeal operations without good integration, you know, just sending in units piecemeal. And in the case of Snake Island, I think it was pretty easy for Ukrainian TB2’s to just ambush them, as they were trying to get stuff either on or off style. At least that's just my perspective, based on what I saw, obviously, it’s a very imperfect impression of one person looking at tactical vignettes.
Dmitri Alperovitch 26:33
So your sense is that this was a great moral victory, perhaps, but not necessarily a strategic victory to drive Russians off the island.
Mike Kofman 26:48
I mean, I'm sure driving them off the island helps. But I didn't see any particular capabilities on the island that made it that significant or relevant already. The Island is located along a maritime route, that's for sure. But the Russian military doesn't necessarily need that island. The funny thing, from my point of view it was a huge liability, because basically it's a completely indefensible position. Right? Tiny islands like that, tiny flat islands, are incredibly vulnerable. And it doesn't look like they were providing anything in the way of air coverage for it. And it didn't look like the Russian Navy really came to the rescue either, other than those raptor boats, which themselves are very vulnerable to air attack.
Dmitri Alperovitch 27:35
Well, the reason they didn't is of course, because they tried to before and they got the Moskva sinking as a result, right. So they're trying to stay far away out of the range of the Neptune batteries right now.
Mike Kofman 27:48
Yeah, it's still debated where the Moskva actually was when it was hit. But as you probably know, if you've seen my columns this past week, as I tried to circle back to the Moskva, I had a lot of questions about to what extent Moskva was really operational when we look at its radar. And it's radar as it pertains to its air defense systems. And whether or not the Moskva really was providing air defense coverage in that part of the sea. That's in the area, at least a speculation.
Dmitri Alperovitch 28:26
We, of course, are still trying to get a guest in that is an expert on this. And we're hoping that we can get him in to chat about this. If not, we may just do a recording and add it to the podcast later on. But let me ask you, Mike about TB2’s. You made a comment about that last week. But you know this week we saw some major developments in the field of unmanned aerial vehicle warfare, because we had the Ukrainians do a successful strike against surface vehicle, surface trip with regards to those high speed boats. It may have taken down the MI8 helo. We don't yet have a confirmation on that yet. It has taken out air defenses. It's been used extensively in this war on both sides to do artillery targeting. Do you think that we're seeing before our eyes here, warfare being fundamentally changed with the introduction of these unmanned aerial vehicle platforms beyond just the use of them for reconnaissance and kind of singular strikes against ground forces that we have seen over the last 20 years?
Mike Kofman 29:45
No, but you know, most of the time when you ask me are we seeing anything in warfare fundamentally changed? My answer typically is no. I think UCAVs and and various armed drones of this type are ultimately remotely piloted aircraft. And they have a lot of advantages to them. They're often cheaper, they're cheaper to maintain because of the pilots. While not necessarily cheaper as a whole, when we've done studies in the United States that have been published on cost of operating things like Predator drones into like relative to manned aviation, it's a bit of a mixed bag. It's a lot, it's not as cheap as you might think, of course, it depends on who's operating the platform. I think the main advantage of these systems obviously, they're lucrative relative to similar types of manned aviation, like let's say helicopters that have much longer endurance, and loiter time. And it's easy to use them from the standpoint of cost and position and conflict where attrition matters because you can trade this platform for almost anything else on the battlefield and the loss of the drone. Well, it's easier to replace and it's a much cheaper system than almost anything it has to engage in fight. So it's pretty advantageous. I didn't see anything new and exciting on Snake Island. That's the way the wars been going. Ukrainians have used TB2's pretty effectively, to be honest more effectively than I anticipated. On the other hand, a strong suspicion that they lost quite a few from their first batch that they had as well. And that these drones are likely from a second batch that they received recently from Turkey. That's why we have pauses and video feed for some weeks and then a return to drone strike footage. That's one thesis. I'm not gonna say that I kind of support that discussion, either way. But in terms of drones in general, well, they mostly fall down to two categories. To me, the UCAVs are less interesting than loitering munitions. Alright. And those I think, have an even more significant effect. And now that you see that Ukraine has increasingly gained access to Western loitering munitions, Russia has been using them too to eliminate expenses to the end of the war. They could have significant tag significant tactical impact over time.
Dmitri Alperovitch 32:18
Well, let me just ask you a direct question not related to this war. But we have seen the Russians take significant casualties as a result of these strikes across a variety of weapons platforms. I mean, how vulnerable is the United States military to the same tactics that can be used by a variety of actors that are buying up TB2’s right now?
Mike Kofman 32:40
Pretty vulnerable, especially to things like loitering munitions, I think most militaries are, and, you know, maybe, maybe less so to TB2’s, but US military often has the expectation of operating in an environment where it has complete air superiority, right. And that's why you don't see nearly as much air defense and support capabilities. And you know, as ground formations I often think that the least from my point of view, this is a mistake that Western militaries make because you can't just take air superiority for granted. Even though I think we definitely have the most capable airpower and air power projection capability in the world, that still is not something that you can assume especially early on, in any battle space, and air superiority may not deliver may not deliver protection from various types of small drones. And off the shelf, commercial off the shelf systems. For example, you see Ukrainians repurposing old Soviet anti tank grenades and dropping them from commercial drones onto Russian vehicles. And these are tiny, tiny drones. I mean, you're not necessarily going to solve them by having air superiority or air dominance on the battlespace, so it's a much longer conversation probably certainly merits its own podcast. To be frank, I've had these discussions fairly recently, after the Nagorno-Karabakh war, where folks asked the same question: have drones changed and revolutionized everything? And the answer's no, but they do have an effect on aspects of modern warfare.
Dmitri Alperovitch 34:20
Yeah, and particularly now that we're seeing them impact not just ground forces, but naval forces as well. And perhaps even aviation. The Twitter account that I'm sure you know, well, JominiW has some really interesting insights into this war and the correlation of forces. And this individual had a great thread the other day about how this offensive may see a long drawn out seach of the urban cluster, that is ranging from Kramatorsk to Lysychansk and that this can go on for many months. Do you agree with that, that this is a possibility here that we're gonna have a lot of urban fighting in that area? For many, many weeks?
Mike Kofman 35:13
Yeah, so Jomini is a good colleague. And of course, Jomini has been long dead. There's a famous military theorist. That's not the man's actual name, I should make that clear. I'm not actually from a prior century and colleagues with Jomini, but the person who runs that account is a good colleague, I think he does good analysis. And I think I'm generally on the same page with this offensive being a dragged out affair, and that's going to shift. And at various points, we're going to have claims that this offensive has failed. This offense was making progress, Ukrainian counter offensive were making progress, you know, and so on, so forth. And all of those various points will be true. But I think my disappointing answer is that this offensive, and what gains the Russian military is or is not able to make, that’s not going to be decided, in days or even necessarily weeks. And it's a question of whether they'll be able to hold on to the gains they make, and to what extent Ukrainian forces can sustain counteroffensives as well. And it's likely to shift. So Ukrainian military may make some gains outside of Izyum, and the Russian military might make substantial gains around Severodonetsk, then yeah, it's hard to say how it will play out. But I think it's important that the expectations are set correctly, that this is something that's likely to drag on. And of course, because I said that, you know, Putin will come out tomorrow and just declare victory. I'm kidding. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. I just don't think that's gonna happen.
Dmitri Alperovitch 36:53
Well he can declare limited victory with Mariupol, there's talk that maybe they will even do some sort of limited parade there. But, you know, if you're right, is this battlefield going to start looking a lot more like the battlefield we've seen for the last eight years in the Donbass from 2014, where it's semi frozen, you know, obviously this would be across a much larger line of contact, and much more active with artillery and airpower than we've seen in the past. But if you're not going to see sort of this massive troop movements making significant gains, in tenths of kilometers, is it going to be much more static volleys of artillery fire?
Mike Kofman 37:44
I don't think so. I think it's too soon to make this kind of claim. I suspect that this offense will drag on and there will be genuine shifts, and territorial control between Russia and Ukraine. And it remains to be seen how both sides are going to invest in their staying power in the war. At least the Ukrainian and the Western strategy is very clear. Ukraine has mobilized personnel, it has a solid manpower base, and with access to Western equipment and most importantly, ammunition, because the most decisive element in this war is effective use of artillery. Sorry, all the folks that think it's drones and drone videos on Twitter, that's important for the information environment. Sure, but it's artillery that's doing most of the work in this war. Classic traditional Soviet artillery, most of the Soviet artillery. Now increasingly, some Western made. And the most important thing to artillery, beyond having effective targeting, is ammunition. And having access to this gives Ukraine strong staying power and prospects to retain territory in the war. That said, our conversation earlier in this in this podcast about whether or not Russia will declare a state of war, will max some form of partial mobilization and how they're going to try to address on their manpower issues, is very relevant, and very actual to try and assess to what extent Russia staying power in this conflict, and how long they could sustain it. And whether or not it will settle into a war of attrition. And what Russia's prospects are in that war of attrition.
Dmitri Alperovitch 39:30
Got it. Any last thought Mike? The guest that we were trying to get has not been able to log into Twitter. I'll record an interview with him separately and we'll release it as a podcast shortly but any last thoughts on where this war is going? Anything that we haven't covered yet?
Mike Kofman 39:52
I mean, I think we've had a really good discussion. It's a shame that our colleague couldn't join us because of technical issues today. I think we've covered it on the whole quite well. And the big question is, if we look out into the future trajectory of this war, whether or not we see the two sides objectives and demands in any way overlap, that would suggest settlement, my answer is going to be very pessimistic. The answer is no. The Ukrainian position is, I think, at a bare minimum, they want to retake territory loss since February 23. That's going to be quite incompatible with the Washington demands to take the Donbass and hold on to the southern territories of Kherson, and Zapranexnia.
Dmitri Alperovitch 40:46
By the way we had Zelenskyy declare this week, how he defines victory, which is Russia, going back to the February 2022 borders and ending hostilities, which doesn't seem like it's going to happen anytime soon.
Mike Kofman 41:02
Right. So I actually think it's quite likely that Russia will attempt to annex either the Donbass or the south or both. At the very least, we'll set up the south now as their own People's Republics. And I don't see much compatibility in how Russia sort of defines victory with how Ukraine defines victory. So that basically tells me that those wars going to go on. And there may be operational pause as both sides build up for offensives down the line. That obviously depends on what they do with force structure and the like. But I guess my outlook has been consistently quite doubt. So that's what tells me about the long term prospects in this conflict.
Dmitri Alperovitch 41:49
And last question here, who do you think gets the more favorable outlook here the longer this goes on? The Ukrainians or the Russians? Given that the Ukrainians are getting a significant amount of military help, they still have a lot of personnel resources, and the Russians, obviously, have all the issues that we've discussed.
I'm gonna give you a bit of a caveated answer. I think, on the whole right now, under these conditions, it's definitely the Ukrainian side of the conflict. However, perhaps paradoxically, it is often the losing side that gets to decide when the war is over.
Dmitri Alperovitch 42:40
What do you mean by that?
Well, what I mean by that is the side that's losing has to be the one that eventually concedes for war to be over, more often than not.
Dmitri Alperovitch 42:54
So in other words, Putin has to decide to cut his losses and leave.
Mike Kofman 43:00
Yeah, meaning he could be losing for a very long time, and even if Russian forces are in the most dire shape, he could still look to continue the conflict in a number of ways or to escalate it. So that's what I mean by that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 43:17
And at what point do you think he's going to start to have major issues with equipment, particularly with missiles, precision guided munitions? You know, there's been a lot of speculation that maybe the stockpiles are already low. We don't know, of course, but at some point, they're going to run out of these things. And their capacity to produce some is very limited, given the embargo on microchips.
Mike Kofman 43:42
I mean, a long range precision guided weapons, definitely, although we don't— I don't think we know what the stockpiles were to start with. And, and I, too, am guilty of some of that speculation while recognizing that we're trying to figure out what they have left without actually knowing necessarily what they started with. But eventually, if they're not running a little now, they definitely will be. Material, well, in certain categories of equipment, they lost about 15 to 20 percent of their active force, and it's not critical, but it's definitely going to bite over time. And looking out over the coming months and years, the big question will be, what was the likely impact of all the sanctions, the export controls, and cutting Russia off of Western components — including support for the machine tools that they use — and that definitely is going to affect the Russian defense industry. But I think the community has yet to figure out to what extent how and so on so forth. So that's a current area of debate and research. It's a little early to tell. It's gonna be a significant impact. I think that we often talk about this conflict in terms potentially being a war of attrition. But if you look and assume it's going to last a much longer period of time, that's essentially two campaigns premised on strategy of exhaustion — Russia trying to exhaust Ukraine and the West trying to exhaust Russia.
Dmitri Alperovitch 45:19
Fascinating as always, Mike. That's a wrap from us today, folks, please listen to the recording. We'll try to put it out shortly you will include an interview with our colleague on the Moskva sinking and what's happening with the Russian Black Fleet. It'll be, I'm sure, very fascinating. But for now, have a good evening. And thanks for joining us again.
And we're back now with a new guest, retired Navy Captain Chris Carlson formerly with the Defense Intelligence Agency and Naval Intelligence, and an expert on anti-ship missiles. And Chris, thank you for joining us today. I really wanted to talk to you because you had written a great report on how muskwa, this flagship of the Black Sea Fleet may have been sunk by the Ukrainian Neptune missiles, anti-ship missiles, and I wanted to discuss that with you. A lot of people were puzzled by the fact that this ship obviously has a variety of anti-air defense systems, even though it's quite old, built in the 70s. Nevertheless, it has significant capabilities, including an S300 system, even on board a maritime one. So what did you find in your analysis?
Chris Carlson 46:35
Okay, the big point that I heard Michael talk about was were the air search radars energized. That's one I'm not gonna be able to help you with. I'm going to assume that she was fulfilling her role as an air defense coordinator, because she had the most powerful radar — assuming it worked — she had the most powerful radar out there in what NATO calls a top pair. It's a humongous flyswatter on the main mast, and it's three dimensional air search. It has quite a long range. But that's not the radar that would see a sea skimmer like Neptune or Harpoon. If you were to look at both of the main radars on a Slava class cruiser, there's this great big thing in front, if you will, and then there are two smaller arrays behind them. Those smaller ones actually have a surface search capability. The one on the top pair is the old big net. And the one on the top steer is a head net A or B. We don't know which one exactly, I think — you have to look at its transmission qualities. Those specifically look low. So if she was radiating one of those two radars, in theory, should have gotten contact. I mean, a Neptune is a very small target. It's not super stealthy. It's relatively small. And so you would expect to pick this up as it came over the radar horizon. But the bottom line is that it doesn't really matter if it was raining or not. She did not react. So either the radars didn't work and she didn't see it, or the crew didn't process and react in time to deal with the incoming threat. And in both cases, that would show us why the S300 top dome director and the Osa MA point defense SAM directors were in their normal stowed position facing aft. They were never brought online. So whether or not the raid was run, they didn't see it. Or if they saw it and saw the missiles coming, they didn't react fast enough to be able to engage with defensive armament.
Dmitri Alperovitch 49:13
Do you think it was complacency? They didn't think that Neptunes were operational? They knew that the Ukrainians hadn't yet brought them back online? The plan was to do so in April, but maybe they thought that the war prevented them from getting those systems up and running. Or was it just incompetence, or both?
For the Russians. I'm going to go down two paths, if you will. One Moskva was the original Slava. Okay, the very first of the class. Okay. She was commissioned late 1982. She has yet to see a full-up overhaul. They worked on the propulsion plan to return that to technical readiness — that means that it will work. And then there's been rumors and articles put out that money for other aspects of an overhaul were siphoned away — that the money was stolen. And so she has not had a major overhaul. And she's, what, 40-years old? So you have to ask the question, what kind of material condition is she in? And remember, Russians aren't horribly big on at-sea maintenance? They do most of their stuff in port. So how well are things working? And then how much training have the crew got in air defense? If the Russians have been skimping on operational things like dedicated training, and let's say you have new operators on top of that they don't understand they're they're pieces of equipment, they don't know how to work with it confidently, it takes them time. And that's a bit of a problem. Because you don't have a lot of time when you have a mach .8 missile coming over the horizon. You need to be able to react with confidence and relatively quickly that comes with training.
Dmitri Alperovitch 51:32
How much time would they have if they had seen it?
Chris Carlson 51:36
Ah, what, let's assume 20 miles, they'd have, they'd have a couple of minutes.
Dmitri Alperovitch 51:42
Okay. So very, very quick.
Chris Carlson 51:45
Yeah, it would be very fast. And that's the other thing that I'm really kind of concerned about is that because the director on the pop group, as NATO calls it — there's an actual antenna on top of it, not just the directing aspect for the Osa MA missiles. That's a scanning antenna, it's called bozza. And its main purpose is to completely eliminate reaction time by transferring contact from one of the main radars to the pop group to be able to point. So if they were in a threat environment, that thing should have been spinning. And they should have seen and I mean — that's a dedicated sea skimmer looking radar, they should have seen her, the missiles coming over with that system. Again, there's no indication that it was operating.
Dmitri Alperovitch 52:39
But you know, I read your report with great interest. And then I heard an interview with one of the Ukrainian commentators on it saying, ‘Well, the ship, obviously all the photographs we have of the ship is when it was hit already and on fire. And the commentator was saying that at that moment, you have to assume that the ship no longer had power. And that's why it wasn't spinning. You can't necessarily assume that it hadn't been spinning prior to getting hit.’ How do you respond to that?
Chris Carlson 53:09
When you look at the antennas, all of them are in their stowed position, including the bazza — it's facing aft. Now there's no spinning down if you will. You lose power, you're done. So that's what — the other thing is that the SAN4 and for the AUSA MA [ph.] hatch is not opened, and the missiles have not been extended. Okay, this is a mechanical launcher, it's stowed below. That circular area opens up and half the missiles come up and train. They're not there. Therefore, this system was not engaged.
Dmitri Alperovitch 53:55
How much of this do you think is sort of an element of the fact that this is a Black Sea Fleet where traditionally they have not had, you know, major adversaries, right? It really is mostly, you know, upon for the Russians. Ukrainians don't have much of the way of the Navy and, you know, other NATO countries in the Black Sea also don't have massive naval assets compared to what they would face for example, in the Baltic Sea, or in the Pacific with the Pacific Fleet. Do you think that they've just under-resourced the Black Sea Fleet because of that, or is this something that could be prevalent across the entire Russian Navy?
Chris Carlson 54:37
Parts of it is prevalent across the entire Russian Navy. Maintenance is an expensive thing and it has never been a Russian or Soviet strong point. They've had to push things downrange because they just lacked the material and the resources to do it. And that's largely a function of where Putin has put his emphasis, and for the Russian Navy that's in the submarines. That's really where he's, you know, he's put his big time. I mean, they'd love to build another aircraft carrier. Well, they'd love to get their Kuznetsov back. Well, there's that. You know, they wanted to build this ungodly ugly destroyer lighter. All those things got kicked down the road. They had this issue with their Grigoroviches, finishing that because the guys are at war with provided them their propulsion plant. And I'm still waiting for Saturn to formally issue their first manufactured propulsion complex. I've seen things saying yes, it's almost done. It's ready. And they were showing Putin and it's like, ‘Okay, are you going to start building again?’ So, you know, they're concentrating on smaller ships, and they're concentrating on newer ones. So the Black Sea Fleet actually, I think, done fairly well, it got all three of the Grigoroviches, it's got six of the new kilos that our club capable. And they're getting a couple of other smaller boats. And that's probably not bad for the Black Sea. That's, that's a reasonable foot. And you know, of course, they had Moskva as the flagship. So I wouldn't say the Black Sea was worse off per se, than the Baltic or the or the Pacific. They probably weren't as good as the Northern Fleet, but the Northern Fleet has always been kind of, you know, favored in a lot of ways. And the Pacific is still trying to catch up. Now that they're finally getting their [inaudible] and one of the [inaudible] is supposed to go out there. I'm still waiting for that.
Dmitri Alperovitch 57:02
Well, I mean, the Turks have blocked the Bosphorus for us, right, from getting into the Black Sea right now because of the hostilities. Now, there's been a lot of rumors this week about the Admiral Makarov being taken down. The Ukrainians have officially denied it in the last 24-48 hours. Do you think that the Neptune missiles — first of all, what do you make of the Neptune missiles that are based on the Soviet Kh-35 design? How capable are they and do you think they pose a major threat to the rest of the Black Sea Surface Legion?
Okay, first off, the Neptune is not based on the Kh-35. It's based on the Kh-35 U, which is an upgraded version of that weapon with a lot further range. You know, people call it the Harpoon ski, and that's really kind of what it is. It's a relatively small subsonic sea skimming anti-ship cruise missile. The warhead is about 145 kilograms. And those are not easy to deal with, but they're not impossible. And the funny thing is that the systems on board Moskva were tailored towards the Exocet and the Harpoon. When you look at the essay and for the OSA Ma, and the original OSA system was not sea-skimmer capable when it first came out. Like this is like the third generation of that particular system. And it's specifically designed to go after missiles coming in 10 meters or less altitude. The Ukraine Bird cruises a 10, and and it comes down to about three or four in its terminal attack. So, you know, contrary to what some people said, this is not really an old design. This is an updated version. So it's got more range. And the seeker is different. And it's got more capabilities in the electronic warfare department. And I'm a little surprised that some people are [inaudible] because we've been seeing test shots of Neptune since I believe late 2017, early 2018. So this thing has been out there for a while.
Dmitri Alperovitch 59:38
Chris Carlson 59:44
I have not seen it operational until — they actually said I think March/April 2022 is when they thought they would bring it online. I've seen lots of brochures for it. They've been marketing this puppy to a number of places. And in that PDF, I attach the three slides to the most recent brochure that I found online.
Dmitri Alperovitch 1:00:11
Got it. Now there's news now — recently — that Britain is going to send the Brimstone anti-ship missiles to Ukraine within weeks. Does that change the game at all? How capable are those missiles versus the Neptunes?
Chris Carlson 1:00:24
Well, a Brimstone is really — think of it as like hellfire, because that's what it's based on, you know, they're cousins. And that's really an anti-tank weapon. But if it's got a bulk-charge explosive warhead, it's going to do pretty much a lot of damage to smaller ships, because that's what they were designed to do. We made the Hellfire module for the LCS to take out small ships, small boats. It'll do that just fine. Against, say, a Grigorovich frigate, it'll be a problem — it'd be problematic. It'll be hard, because it's a really, really small missile. But the problem is that you're going to be firing it inside the envelope of that vertical launch missile. So the question then is, who's the threat to the missile or the carrier?
Dmitri Alperovitch 1:01:24
And the range is much shorter than the Neptunes, right?
Chris Carlson 1:01:27
Oh, God. Yes. It's line of sight. If I remember Bridgestone correctly, we're talking 20 to 25 kilometers. So that's an order of magnitude less than a Neptune.
Dmitri Alperovitch 1:01:42
What are the implications of this strike on the Moskva for the rest of the fleet and for their ability to enforce the blockade on the Ukrainian ports, which is currently strangling the Ukrainian economy?
Chris Carlson 1:02:00
They're going to have to actually operate as if they're in a wartime environment. Because I'm not sure they really thought that — that may have been part of the problem. I mean, the Ukrainian fleet was, you know, pretty much it wasn't much to speak of to begin with. But what they did have, you know, as they moved into Nikolayev and other places — they were gone. I mean, how much of the Ukrainian fleet still floats? There's no submarine threat because the one Foxtrot they got when they took the Crimea. So, you know, from their perspective, what's the threat? And, you know, the drone — yeah, that's a big problem, but not necessarily, you know, an existential threat to something as big and as nasty as a Slava. It's definitely gonna be nasty to your Raptors — don't get me wrong there. And your Bykovs aren't probably going to like it either. But those are all smaller. So they were kind of going well, you know, ‘the Black Sea is ours.’ If you look at some of the [inaudible] tracking with the synthetic aperture radars that H.I. Sutton and others have put out, you start seeing Moskva kind of hanging out in the same place all the time. Yeah, you know, she's got a couple of places she goes back and forth from and then goes into Sevastopol and, you know, refuels or whatever and comes back out in that area. That's their backyard. They think they tend to — think they're safe. The Russians have got to change their mindset. This is a wartime theater, a wartime environment for them at sea, and they've got to start paying attention to it.
Dmitri Alperovitch 1:03:58
Got it. Well, thank you, Chris. Really fascinating discussion. Thanks again, Mike, for joining in on this chat. And we'll see everyone again next week.
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