What did experts get wrong — and what does it mean for the next phase of the war? Michael Kofman, one of the most prominent U.S. authorities on the Russian military, told POLITICO in a lengthy interview that he and other experts “generally overestimated the Russian military, which is good. It’s very good.” And, he adds, “we really underestimated the Ukrainian military.”
Over the past several weeks, Kofman has become a go-to source of fast-breaking analysis and a Twitter phenomenon — a former expert at the National Defense University, and currently the research program director in the Russia Studies Program for the Virginia-based think tank CNA, with an unusually granular understanding of Russian equipment and tactics.
He has some cautions. One, it’s too soon to count Putin out. Initial battle successes don’t win a war, and in fact the most critical juncture of the war will arrive soon, in about two weeks, when a burned-out Russian military will need to mount a major resupply effort in order to keep going.
And two, he’s careful to note that social media is giving us a distorted view of what’s actually taking place on the ground, with Ukraine eager to tout any triumph, and Russia intentionally quiet.
In a conversation conducted by Zoom on Friday, he outlined what military analysts have learned about Russia from the conflict so far, why the war has been so surprising — and why time is likely on Putin’s side.
“Wars of attrition come down to manpower and materiel and Russia has both,” he says. “I’m a lot less optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects in that regard.”
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
POLITICO: What about the Russian performance in Ukraine over the past three weeks has surprised you?
Michael Kofman: What initially surprised me about the invasion is that it started more as a strategic raid. The Russians clearly believed that in three days they could conduct a regime change and get Ukraine to surrender without fighting. Looking back at it, they did not seriously plan for the kind of military operation that would be required to invade the largest country in Europe and take on a country with a sizable conventional military like Ukraine.
The initial operation was clearly a failure — that was self-evident a few days in — because of how they tried to put it together. They didn’t tell the troops, and didn’t prepare psychologically or materially, and as a result it was a debacle at the outset. We didn’t see an initial air campaign and we saw a very limited strike campaign. Since then, they’ve tried to put together a real military operation, the thrust of which is going for the capital as the center of gravity, trying to bypass major cities and take critical infrastructure, and try to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Donbas in the eastern part of Ukraine.
So I think their progress has been pretty sluggish and it came at high cost, but they have been making steady advances in some areas.
POLITICO: For a war that is playing out on social media, there are major gaps in our knowledge of what the actual fighting on the ground looks like.
Kofman: The first important thing to say is that we don’t actually know much about Russian casualties, and we know far less about Ukrainian ones, so we really have almost no idea what’s happening with the Ukrainian military. Here’s the reality of this conflict right now as it’s playing out on social media: This is like watching two boxers in a match. We only see one of them and all the footage is being edited and curated by their opponent. That’s the perspective I see on this war on social media, and on the mainstream media outlets. It’s unfortunately a limited outlook on what’s happening, and so it’s hard to assess the reality on the ground.
What is clear is that the Russian military doesn’t stand a good chance of achieving its initial political aims, and that the Russian leadership has had to revise their war aims substantially towards a settlement since regime change is not an option. Now they’re just trying to put themselves in the best possible position for that negotiation, and the Russian military probably only has a couple of weeks left in terms of combat effectiveness left inside Ukraine.
Frankly, the same is true for Ukrainian forces. I can’t guess what their losses are, but they’re not in any better shape. So one of two things is likely to happen over the next couple of weeks: We will either see a significant operational pause and some kind of ceasefire that will lead to a settlement, or that pause will introduce a rearming period where Russia will introduce a number of units that they’re bringing up to the border right now. They have more forces, they have more materiel. Their losses are significant, but their rate of attrition as a share of the force is likely not as bad as Ukraine’s. But we don’t know. What matters is less the losses and more the losses as an actual share of the country’s military capacity. So Ukraine may be doing well, but nonetheless they’re still losing significant amounts of materiel and equipment.
POLITICO: What are the possibilities in the near term?
Kofman: The one thing I think we can tell right now is that it’s not possible for the Russian military to take Kyiv. The best they can try is to encircle it in the coming weeks. It’s not likely there’ll be successful pushing west towards Odesa, they just don’t have the forces for it.
The one front where they could achieve some success is in further compressing Ukrainian forces in the Donbas in the east, and they’re trying to push two pincers to encircle them, which was pretty predictable at the outset.
And sure enough, here we are. We have two pincers coming toward Kyiv trying to circle the capital, and we have two pincer movements trying to circle the large percentage of the Ukrainian military in the east. That’s probably where Ukrainian forces are in their most precarious position right now.
The Russian military probably has one more set of offensives left in it before they’re really exhausted and become combat ineffective, and then you’ll likely see a series of small, staggered attacks and counterattacks that will yield no significant changes in territory.
POLITICO: When you say they’ve got maybe two weeks left, is that just with the 150,000-person invasion force without any reinforcements, or even with resupply and reinforcements?
Kofman: I think they need to take a pause to reorganize. I suspect the reason we haven’t seen them make substantial advances is because they’ve had setbacks and have taken a pause and they might try to make one more push to see how far they can get along some of these axes of advance. You can’t predict the churn of battle, but I suspect that they have a couple more weeks left before they’re going to have to make major shifts in this operation.
The Russians had already made significant adjustments by the fourth day of the war once it became clear that the regime change operation was a failure. The strategic raid on the Hostomel military airport near Kyiv that first day didn’t work, and they got a bloody nose there. Now they had to settle in for a real war with a real military power in a very large country and slug it out.
You have essentially three different fronts playing out, and you see that the Russian military has really struggled to focus itself on what the hell it is trying to accomplish in the war. Is it the encirclement of the capital, or is it the encirclement of Ukrainian forces in the eastern part of Ukraine and taking Donbas? Is it the march to Odesa, which is the very opposite direction from Donbas? If I only have the forces for one, I really should pick.
As these operations play out, the question remains: What objective are they actually going for? Why are they not concentrating the force behind it to accomplish any one objective? To the outside observer [it’s an open question] what is driving a military strategy that’s diffusing Russian resources and not allowing them to achieve positive correlations of forces and sustained advances.
Somebody at the top — which is only one person in Russia — is setting political objectives that continue to be unachievable, and they’ve gone from regime change to attaining other political objectives, which are also not achievable with this force based on the performance they’ve had.
Maybe if they add more forces it would be achievable, or maybe if they performed much better it would be achievable. But as a military analyst looking at the current picture, they’ve really diffused their effort and that’s problematic. So you have to try and figure out what is the theory of victory in Russian military operations and what position they are trying to put themselves in over the next couple of weeks if they want to achieve a better settlement, and it looks like they’re still going for too many things at the same time.
POLITICO: On the resupply matter, do you see many indications that troops and vehicles and other machinery of war are getting ready to deploy from Russia to relieve any of these units or is that just totally opaque to us?
Kofman: They have been bringing units in from other parts of the country. We know they’re on the way. We know that they have more units they can flow into this fight. The challenge they’re going to have is that the units they’re bringing in are probably not going to be as effective, because the forces they sent in at the beginning were the best troops Russia has. So these units will help fill the space and maybe consolidate some territory, but they’re most likely not going to be as good as what they’ve already thrown into the fight and gotten chewed up.
If they choose, they can mobilize the country behind this war and press more people into service and pass special laws that give them access to greater manpower and start using reserve equipment they have in warehouses. And if it then gets into a war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine, it’ll be a much bloodier war. It’ll be dragged out. And that’s where I’m a lot less sanguine about Ukraine’s prospects, I’ll be honest. Wars of attrition come down to manpower and materiel and Russia has both. I’m a lot less optimistic about Ukraine’s prospects in that regard.
POLITICO: So while Ukraine has committed everything to the fight, Russia still has troops and equipment in reserve. There could come a point here where quantity outweighs quality, and the Russians just keep coming. Do you think the sanctions are going to affect the Russian defense industrial base at all?
Kofman: BMPs [Russian armored personnel carriers] don’t run on money. The sanctions are not going to affect the forces deployed forward right now. That’s the reality of it. As long as Putin feels that he has public support for this war, which he does have outside of the cities, he can keep it going. He doesn’t have great options otherwise, unless there’s a deal that allows him to withdraw from Ukraine and claim victory. But the options for him are not great at this point.
POLITICO: Russia has used its best troops in the fight, including special forces, and they’ve run into trouble. The most famous case is the Russian airborne assault on the Hostomel military airport outside of Kyiv on the first night of the war, when the Russians took it, but were quickly outnumbered and driven off.
Kofman: It shows you how much in war and conflict can be contingent. Their airborne unit failed to hold on to the air base long enough, and the Ukrainians I think responded a lot faster than they expected. The Russians thought they were going to reinforce that unit, but they couldn’t get more troops to reinforce them on time because they couldn’t hold the airfield.
POLITICO: And then they were stuck.
Kofman: If they had held the airfield, they might have gotten reinforced because the whole point was to quickly build up airborne units outside of Kyiv and get them into the city. That’s how they thought they were going to do it. And then within 72 hours get [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy to either flee or surrender. That was very clearly the concept of the operation. That’s why they went for this air base at the opening of the war. This was a regime change operation.
We don’t know why exactly it failed, we have to be honest. I see a lot of criticism of the operation, but which part failed? Was it the ground reinforcements, was it the airborne reinforcements? Was it because the Ukrainians had much thicker air defenses around Kyiv than the Russians expected? Or is it because Ukrainian National Guard units reacted faster than the Russian military expected to retake the airport? I don’t know. I’m being frank with you.
POLITICO: And to go back to the eastern part of Ukraine where the Russian pincer movement is trying to encircle a large part of the Ukrainian army in Donbas, how close are the Russians to cutting off that force?
Kofman: Hard to tell, but they are making a steady rate of progress in those fights. I think they’re probably going to take control of Mariupol, probably going to make some more progress towards encirclement of Sumy, but I don’t see them taking any major cities beyond that.
It’s not a war about cities, anyway. The whole concept originally was clearly to avoid major cities. Go for key towns that are junctions and hubs and secure ground lines of communication and try to fight towards objectives that allow them to pick up rail links so that they can resupply by rail. That’s why the campaign in the north is so challenging, because you have to truck everything from Belarus down south to Kyiv, and that’s why the campaign in the south was a lot easier. Because once they took Mariupol and Kherson they can direct rail supplies into those cities and then use those supply depots for further operations.
POLITICO: As this grinds on, what is the potential for this to turn into a long Ukrainian insurgency?
Kofman: Right now, Ukrainians are doing a pretty good job ambushing Russia supply columns, but it varies area by area. There are some areas where the Russians have a lot more actual control than others, so it’s a very uneven picture of the battlefield.
POLITICO: Are there any indications that the Russians seem to be adjusting their tactics with respect to just that counterinsurgency aspect? Are they getting smarter about any of this?
Kofman: I think the Russian military got a lot better about that after the second week in how they run convoys and in general, but it’s very hard to get around certain basic aspects of warfare. Urban settings dramatically favor the defender. If opponents choose to fight in smaller squad-sized units, and they’re well armed, it’s very difficult for a combined arms maneuver formation to enter the city. Most of their advantages in density and maneuver vanish right in the city and most of these fights become small fights. So it doesn’t matter whether or not you have a battalion or regiment because these are all small-level fights and units can keep getting ambushed in these various pitched battles in the city. The downside for defenders fighting in urban terrain means the destruction of the city over time. There’s no way to fight in a city without destroying parts of the city.
POLITICO: You talked about the two boxers and one side is putting out the information. Do you think this has created a false sense of how poorly the Russians are actually doing? Are people now at the point where they’re underestimating the Russians because you see all these Ukrainian TikTok videos making them look bad?
Kofman: In general, yes. I think that it has painted a fair picture of the many problems the Russian military has had and the losses it has experienced, but it has also painted a caricature picture of what’s really happening in the war, and how we should understand Russian military performance. And because the information environment we’re operating in is not an objective information environment, we are consuming desired information and in practice feeding it to each other.
Russia has basically ceded the information environment because they tried to keep the war secret. And now they’re trying to brand it, but they focus only on their own domestic audience because they do not care about contesting the information environment writ large since most of the world is united in condemning the Russian invasion. What would be the purpose of them trying to contest the information environment for a general global audience, and what would be their likelihood of success? I assess as close as nil to none. So I’m not surprised by their decision.
We must in some form recognize that we’re an information environment that is very heavily dominated by one side that is doing really well with it. But that also gives us a very particular perspective on the war.
We can say that we generally overestimated the Russian military, which is good. It’s much better than underestimating and being surprised. More importantly, we can say fairly that we really underestimated the Ukrainian military.
One, we didn’t know that much about it. Two, it is a very young army. Three, we supplied this military with Western equipment and kit having little idea how it would work out. Would that aggregate their success, would they distribute and employ it effectively? There was no way to know the answers to those questions. So the honest answer is we grossly underestimated the Ukrainian military. That’s probably the bigger takeaway.