Isaac Chotiner Interview with Michael Kofman on Russian Military Missteps

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tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine

Two weeks ago, the Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s invasion of Ukraine. Since then, Russian forces have bombed Ukrainian cities and moved west, toward Kyiv, where the Ukrainian leadership sits. Despite the death and destruction caused by the Russian attack, Ukraine’s military has held up better than experts predicted, and Russian advances have been slower than feared. Now President Putin—who already faces sweeping financial sanctions—is confronting the prospect of an increasingly violent and lengthy campaign. What strategic errors has the Russian military made, and why?

To help answer these questions, I recently spoke by phone with Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the nonprofit research organization the Center for Naval Analyses and an expert on the Russian military. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we also discussed how Russia’s armed forces have changed since the end of the Cold War, whether its military missteps have hampered its political aims, and the dangers of the conflict spiralling out of control.

You recently wrote, “Taking a cursory look at Russian losses two weeks into the war, it reads less as a general failure to modernize, and more as a failure to maintain and properly support the equipment.” Can you talk about what you meant by that?

I think it is fair to say that, since about late 2008, after the Russian-Georgian war, the Russian military has been transformed by a tandem process of reform and modernization. We really have not seen them attempt an operation of this scale since the military reforms of that time period. And so, looking across the board at Russian military performance, we see that they had a lot of challenges and a lot of problems that, perhaps, many didn’t expect. It’s clear that they are struggling with a large amount of equipment that’s being abandoned. Part of that is because it’s broken down, because they can’t support it; they likely spent more on modernization and procurement capabilities and modernizing platforms than they did on maintenance and repair cycles.

The other part of it is that the Russian military is fundamentally not one that is set up for a strategic ground offensive or this type of campaign. It’s a firepower-heavy military that is extremely consuming and taxing. It doesn’t have a tremendous amount of logistical resources to support this type of war, and certainly not in the way that they are fighting it.

I want to take a step back. What was the state of the Russian military in the nineteen-nineties, before this modernization you alluded to, and what did we see during the wars in Chechnya in the nineteen-nineties, which people have talked about in comparison with Ukraine?

In the nineteen-nineties, the Russian military was really at its nadir. You had the difficult process of withdrawing Soviet forces from Warsaw Pact countries; a collapse of funding, sustainability, and morale; and conflicts that further demoralized the Russian military, such as the First Chechen War, which de facto ended in a defeat.

But, in that time period, it also underwent several piecemeal reforms. They were incomplete, but eventually stabilizing enough toward the late nineteen-nineties, and this allowed the Russian military to generate enough forces to fight the Second Chechen War. And this war was also a very troubling one, with the complete destruction of Grozny and a sustained operation in Chechnya that was marred by poor use of forces. The military also suffered from corruption and maladies that had been seen throughout Russia’s chaotic nineties and that affected the country writ large.

Read entire article at The New Yorker

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