Military observations of the Russian invasion
By Bill Connor
This past week, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised many around the world by invading Ukraine from multiple directions. Of particular concern, from the southern border of Belarus straight toward the nearby Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Additionally, we saw rocket and air attacks against various targets throughout Ukraine. Previously Putin had followed the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” which involved making strategic gains with “non-military means … supplemented by military means of a concealed character” according to namesake and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. The ground invasion was anything but concealed military means and constituted naked aggression. The primary thrust of the attack was with armored and mechanized forces. Having served in mechanized and light infantry, with operational deployments during a 30-year infantry officer career, I would like to offer the following observations.
Putin has wanted to invade Ukraine to install a pro-Russian administration for many years. Since the 2014 “Color Revolution” in Ukraine, resulting in a Ukrainian administration much less aligned with Russian interests, Putin has signaled this desire directly and indirectly. Shortly after this color revolution, Russia bloodlessly seized Crimea from Ukraine and then openly supported Russian separatists in the Eastern Donbass region. Still, Putin perceived the costs of an actual invasion of Ukraine as outweighing the gains.
Unfortunately, deterrence has failed after the catastrophically botched withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2020. Deterrence comes from the perception that gains of a certain course of action will not be worth the costs. A little more than a month after the botched withdrawal, Reuters reported the following about Putin’s perceptions of that failure: “The United States’ involvement in Afghanistan has led to tragedy, Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday, one week before Russia is due to host the Taliban in Moscow.” Hosting the Taliban and making other such pronouncements of perceived American weakness showed the change in Putin’s thinking after Afghanistan. Putin believed the U.S. would react similarly to what he saw with Afghanistan, and invading Ukraine became worth the cost he foresaw from Biden. Additionally, Putin saw America move from an oil surplus to dependence on Russian oil under Biden, further lessening deterrence.
At the operational and tactical levels, the invasion has shown a number of problems with the Russian military. The terrain of Ukraine, particularly in winter, lends toward using armored and mechanized as happened. A major challenge of armored/mech forces is the substantial level of fuel required, along with ammunition parts, and other supplies. Among seasoned military leaders, there’s an old refrain: “Amateurs talk operations, and professionals talk logistics.” Logistics becomes the greatest challenge and the showstopper, particularly as operations can only succeed with proper logistics. I found this quite true in my experience with mechanized infantry and armor. Planning and capabilities are critical.
Based on the size of the respective militaries, Russian should have seized Kyiv and toppled the Ukrainian government within days of the start of invasion. Russia is the second most powerful military in the world (in terms of capabilities) and Ukraine is ranked at only 22, according to Global Firepower. Russia spent $61.7 billion on its military (2020) and has a total military of 850,000 personnel, and Ukraine is only at 250,000. Russia dwarfs Ukraine in airpower with 4100 aircraft to Ukraine’s 318. These same levels of imbalance exist with most other weapons platforms, like tanks. Russia quickly fired more than 250 ballistic and cruise missiles at targets throughout Ukraine at the start. Seizing urban areas, like Kyiv, can be quite difficult, as cities require high numbers of troops and that gives an advantage to defenders. Still, a rapid Russian assault was meant to quickly overwhelm and bring capitulation before becoming bogged down.
Despite the overwhelming advantages, the Russian advance has stalled. Part of the answer appears to be stiff Ukrainian resistance, but logistics appears the be main problem. There have been multiple reports about Russian armor stopped due to lack of fuel, not only the lack of resupply but reports of Russian vehicles moving out from Belarus without being topped off. As Philip G. Wasielewski and Seth Jones of the Center for Strategic and International Studies have reported, “Russian army logistics forces are not designed for large-scale ground offensives far from railroads.”
Beyond that structural problem, logistics planning was substandard. According to the Jerusalem Post: “After four days of heavy fighting and hundreds of kilometers of driving, Russian forces must resupply and refuel (but couldn’t). An American official said on Saturday that Russian leaders are ‘increasingly frustrated’ with how the invasion has gone so far and according to the British Defense Ministry, ‘The speed of the Russian advance has temporarily slowed likely as a result of acute logistical difficulties.”
We praise Ukraine’s resistance against the Russian onslaught, but we have a duty to learn the lessons. After the horrendous withdrawal from Afghanistan, we held nobody accountable and that was wrong. Adversaries like Russia and China watched, as they also watched us lose energy independence. We must learn better. Additionally, it’s time to take a closer look at adversary logistical capabilities and understand potential weaknesses. We should also look to our own ability to conduct large-scale conventional operations successfully, something we haven’t faced for many years. The world is a tough and dangerous place, and we must get tougher and stronger.
Bill Connor is a 1990 Citadel graduate, 30-year Army infantry colonel (ret.) and combat veteran. He is a writer and attorney and lives in the Charleston area.