The Long War in Ukraine, With Michael Kofman

Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss Russian and Ukrainian military strategies, equipment, and the likely future course of the war.

July 12, 2022 — 35:49 min
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Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Michael Kofman

Director of the Russia Studies Program, Center for Naval Analyses

Show Notes

Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss Russian and Ukrainian military strategies, equipment, and the likely future course of the war.

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Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is Russia's war in Ukraine. With me to discuss where things stand four-and-a-half months after Russia invaded Ukraine is Michael Kofman. Mike is a Director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses. He is also a fellow at the Kennedy Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Michael is a senior editor at War on the Rocks, where he regularly writes on strategy, the Russian military, Russian decision making and related foreign policy issues. Mike, thanks for joining me.

Michael Kofman:

Thanks for having me on your program.

Jim Lindsay:

I'd like to begin by getting your assessment of the current state of fighting in Ukraine. Earlier this month, Russian forces completed their conquest of the Eastern Ukrainian province of Luhansk, and Russian forces now look to hold as much as two thirds of the neighboring province of Donetsk. Is Russia winning the war?

Michael Kofman:

So it's very hard to gauge at this stage who's winning because winning's a conversation about the extent to which either side's achieving their political objectives, right? Narrowly put, yes, Russia set its minimal objectives as capturing the politically administrative territory of the Donbas. Now they've managed to capture the Luhansk region. They only control a part of the Donetsk region. And I think some of the hardest fighting is yet ahead. Are they winning the war? Well, I think an honest assessment will say that even though they're gaining territory, they're gaining it very slowly, and it's been principally a war of attrition in the last couple of months.

Michael Kofman:

So the real question from my point of view should focus on the two forces, the level of loss on both sides and their ability to sustain the war over the long term. The center of gravity isn't really the territory. The territory's the object that people are fighting over. But what's happening to the two militaries and how they're trying to adjust and adapt to sustain the conflict is probably the bigger picture conversation. I think that the Ukrainian military at this stage has been conducting a defense in depth on one part of the front, which is the fighting in the northern part of the Donbas, while counterattacking on other parts of a very broadly stretched out front that ranges almost 800 kilometers from Kharkiv to the northeast all the way to Kherson west of the Dnieper River. So it's a dynamic battlefield with territories lost and gained on almost a daily basis, but in a very, very limited fashion.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk about the fighting that's actually taking place then, Mike, and perhaps you might help people by giving them an historical analogy. The fighting that we are seeing now in the Donbas region most reminds you of what prior battles?

Michael Kofman:

Well, as you know, all historical analogies are imperfect, but I think as we like to say, some are useful, right? And leaders in particular tend to like to reason by historical analogy. So if I was going to pick a war, and this analogy has its limitations, it would probably be a bit closer to World War I than certainly World War II, although depends what part of World War II you look at as well.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay, but as the first approximation, in essence, we're thinking something that looks like World War I, let's say, as opposed to the Gulf War or the Vietnam War, just to put it in the context for most Americans.

Michael Kofman:

Yes. What I think is most characteristics about this war is that it's a war driven primarily by fires, artillery and air power with both sides really lacking the forces to conduct offensive maneuver warfare, to be able to break through, to exploit an advance or to turn a flank. And because of the incredible heavy use of fires, both militaries struggle to concentrate forces to conduct any kind of advance. Plus the terrain is what some folks call complex. But I think an easiest way to put it is there's a lot of urban terrain there, has a lot of cities and towns to fight over, which always favors the defender, right? The defender's heavily favored in urban terrain. So allows Ukraine to engage in an urban war of attrition as well, trying to exhaust the Russian offense. Although that's just one part of the battlefield, that's just the Donbas.

Michael Kofman:

If we look all the way to the west in Kherson, we have open rolling fields with pretty long line of sight and a very different battlefield, right? So unfortunately it's hard to characterize any one specific part of the fight and paint it with a broad brush. But I think that like you've probably seen in plenty of wars in the past, particularly 20th-century conflicts, you had an initial phase that was characterized by heavy, offensive maneuver, high casualties, the best units being lost, the best equipment being lost, forces running out of ammunition, logistics not keeping up, which is fairly common in wars, right? Nobody brings enough ammo or enough supplies for a high intensity maneuver phase where a lot of things go wrong, some assumptions are proven right, others are disproven and both sides try to adapt.

Michael Kofman:

Then having taken these significant losses, you have two militaries that have then switched to a war of attrition. They don't have the forces for offensive maneuver anymore, nor are they near collapse. Neither side is able to effectively, let's say, gain such an advantage over the other side that they can drive them to a route or to a collapse on any part of the front. So now the war plays out more with artillery fire being masked, attacking the direct defensive positions and the massive forces of the opponent. And in this case, Russia has a very clear fires advantage in the Donbas, even though they don't have a big manpower advantage. And after sort of destroying or maybe forcing a withdrawal, moving up units, consolidating territory, bringing up artillery and starting it all over again on the next Ukrainian line of defense.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk about that, Michael. How sustainable is this strategy? I've read a slew of articles recently talking about the high expenditure rate of ammunition, but also the relatively high death toll being suffered by Russian forces, the unwillingness of the Kremlin to order a general mobilization, raising questions about whether or not and where Russia is going to get more soldiers from. So is the Russian strategy at the moment a sustainable one?

Michael Kofman:

So the Russian military has two big issues. One of them was manpower. It was a military organized around a short sharp war, and it was a tiered readiness military that assumed they would get access to mobilization in the event of a large conventional conflict.

Jim Lindsay:

And this is not a short sharp war.

Michael Kofman:

It is very much not. Actually by any record of interstate wars, this is one of the longest already. That is, I think it's somewhere in the bottom 15 percentile of interstate conventional conflicts. Not to bore people with nerdy statistics, but this war is already over four months long. It's pretty lengthy for a high intensity conventional.

Jim Lindsay:

Sort of the opposite of, let's say, the Six Day War in 1967.

Michael Kofman:

Right. Or just even the Arabs-Israeli War in 1973 is another one, or many of the wars between India and Pakistan, right? If you look at your running list of conventional wars of the 20th century, this one's pretty long. So the Russian military's chief issue is they didn't really have the force structure for this kind of conflict. They had actually assumed more of a short sharp war with NATO is I think the benchmark of what they built the military around, and they assumed that fight would go very differently. And I always say, "Show me your force structure, and I'll tell you who you really are." Within their force, they lacked the manpower to hold and occupy large tracts of terrain. They lacked the logistics for prolonged strategic ground defenses because they assumed they wouldn't be doing any. If you look at their assumptions about where their fight with NATO would be, they didn't think that would be as important.

Michael Kofman:

And they largely denuded the force of infantry, particularly dismounted infantry, which is a very big problem if you intend to either try to hold large amounts of terrain or fight in cities. It's very hard to do combined arms if you don't have infantry, because you're missing one of the critical arms you need, all right? You may have tanks, and the Russian military is filled with metal, infantry fighting vehicles, tanks, what have you, but infantry quite short up. So the way they've gone about try and solve those problem is a series of piecemeal solutions.

Michael Kofman:

To try to hire volunteers, they're offering tremendous amounts of money, about five times the average salary if not more, and they're picking up recruits. They're using what's left of the active force to create new volunteer battalions. Unfortunately for them, cannibalizes a part of their force because it means that they're using up officers, enlisted professionals and equipment in the rest of the military that would be typically used to train up and equip conscripts and fresh units, right? So it's going to lead to prolonged degradation of the military, but they can probably recruit enough personnel to sustain their military in this fight for quite some time.

Jim Lindsay:

How significant have the Wagner forces been?

Michael Kofman:

So initially not very, but they're growing in significance and they are-

Jim Lindsay:

Maybe you should tell us what the Wagner forces are— the Wagner military contractors.

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. So Wagner ChVK are basically a private military contractor that in practice is a semi-state actor. It is in many ways an extension of the Russian state. There is a degree of plausible or implausible deniability, but they have a very strong relationship and are used and armed and directed typically I think by the Russian general staff and the director of military intelligence. So Wagner itself is a separate organization from the military, and they too are recruiting. They're actually recruiting from Russian prisons, believe it or not. The Russian state has given them license to give deals to prisoners. And they're making pretty lucrative offers as well to hire up volunteers. Between the regular military, the Rosgvardia, which is the national guard, and Wagner ChVK, Russia is able to put together, I think, a sizeable number of reserve or volunteer battalions, and they have another force. They have been forcefully mobilizing, not in Russia where they don't want to do it. They'll be politically unpopular. But in the Donbas and the territories they're occupying, they're forcefully mobilizing men between the ages of 18 and 55.

Michael Kofman:

And they're using these LDNR troops, LDNR is a combination of the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, for those who have followed the war since 2014, these are kind of the breakaway statelets that Russia set up, as this mounted infantry, and they were principally involved in the recent fight for Severodonetsk, all right? So it's a combination of these forces. The big problem that the Russian military has is they don't have enough additional forces to do a rotation, to rotate the current units on the line off of the line, replace them with fresh troops. So their forces are largely exhausted. Well, their artillery isn't. They have the ammunition, it's very clear and they probably have millions of rounds of ammunition. And we don't know how much they really have in stores. And they're pulling ammo out of warehouses in Belarus because guess what? Belarus inherited a sizeable amount of ammunition from the Soviet Union too. And it's a material party to this war. So it's not just how much ammo Russia has, how much ammo Russia is able to produce, but how much ammo it's able to extract from countries like Belarus that are—

Jim Lindsay:

But Belarus is not contributing troops to the fighting, at least officially.

Michael Kofman:

It is not contributing troops to the fighting, but it's contributing its territory and it's contributing its ammunition and equipment. And Russian forces are deployed in Belarus, and Belarus has in effect given them an entire military base from which to conduct attacks and what not. As you know, Russia invaded Ukraine from Belarus in the northern part of the—

Jim Lindsay:

So how does this work, Mike? If the Russians are succeeding in slowly pushing back Ukrainian forces, that means the Russians are slowly gaining more and more territory that they have to occupy and control. But you say that the short pole in the tent is manpower. They're short on troops. Those troops are worn out and exhausted, but they can't be rotated out, but now they're going to have more territory they're responsible for policing and controlling. How does Russia square that circle?

Michael Kofman:

So the question of territory and territorial consolidation is an interesting one. I think that they've had a series of other efforts in order to consolidate control over the territory. For example, they've pulled the population, they've set up filtration camps to which they put these people through. So they essentially, I think, pulled quite a few people out to Russia proper. They have police and other units trying to conduct security in these territories to consolidate control. There is very clearly a Ukrainian intelligence and special forces effort to engage in guerilla warfare and try to prevent Russia from setting up local political administration. They've been targeting collaborators and the like, and it's pretty clearly a campaign of targeted assassination.

Jim Lindsay:

This is by the Ukrainians.

Michael Kofman:

This is by the Ukrainians. I wouldn't quite say it's an insurgency because insurgency's a different kind of animal. But very clearly there is Ukrainian special forces operating in that area, and there's an attempt to create a partisan movement.

Jim Lindsay:

Clearly down the road, the Russians could face an insurgency, one possibility.

Michael Kofman:

Yes, absolutely. We're in this transitional phase right now, where let's put it this way. A year from now, it'll be very clear what some of the marking points were of transitions in this war. Of course, when you're in the midst of it, it's the hardest to see. So always easier to write that history after you've lived through it.

Jim Lindsay:

One step is to take territory. Another step is to keep territory, particularly if you have a hostile population.

Michael Kofman:

The biggest challenge I think they have right now is that because they're so short on forces, every time they advance, they have to take time to consolidate their positions, which they're doing right now in preparation for a large set piece battle over Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, two of larger cities in the northern part of the Donbas. And you see that whenever they advance, they can only do it along a fairly narrow front. And that essentially means that they're unable to, even when they're successful, destroy or encircle any significant number of Ukrainian forces. So Ukrainian military has consistently been able to conduct a tactical withdrawal and then reset a new line because the Russian military can't gain momentum. Also they do have issues with equipment because they've lost a huge amount of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. They're now pulling a lot of things out of storage. But they have to take a big step down in terms of the level of equipment that units are fighting with. So we're now talking about a lot of older Soviet kit, equipment that is available in Russian storage but is definitely qualitatively a step down.

Jim Lindsay:

Probably wasn't well maintained, maybe missing parts, things like that.

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. So for those that know the difference between a BMP-1 and BMP-1, or a T-80BV versus a more modern T-72B3, in terms of the equipment, the combat module-

Jim Lindsay:

I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm one of those people who's in the dark. It's just a alphabet soup there.

Michael Kofman:

Well, then I won't go deep into that rabbit hole because it'll be interesting for only a few listeners and probably profoundly boring for everyone else. But there is a qualitative difference, let's put it that way.

Jim Lindsay:

Okay. So on the flip side of it, what is Ukraine's strategy? I take it right now that they are trying to make it as difficult as possible for the Russians to take more territory. They give up ground grudgingly, but they've had to do so in the face of withering artillery fire, just continual bombardments. Where does that lead to? Can the Ukrainians keep this up or do they need to come up with a counter to what the Russians are doing?

Michael Kofman:

I think the Ukrainian strategy has been a defense in depth in the Donbas.

Jim Lindsay:

What does that mean?

Michael Kofman:

It's essentially trading territory for attrition. That is, they're trying to exhaust the Russian offensive by making the Russian military pay a steep price for the territory they gain. Then when they retreat, essentially retreating to a new set of lines and resetting the battle again, and picking cities around which to have the battle because urban terrain strongly favors the defending side.

Jim Lindsay:

You can do that as long as you have some place to fall back to.

Michael Kofman:

Right. One thing Ukraine has going for it is that outside of Russia, it's the second largest country in Europe. So just to be frank, many countries in Europe would not be able to pursue this kind of strategy. Ukraine, I think, as a net total has lost around 21% of its territory to Russia if we include everything. That's about the size of three Estonias. So it's very clear that this is a strategy that only states with substantial amount of territory could even really attempt. The other part of the Ukrainian strategy has been to conduct localized counterattacks along the stretch out front, and either wait at the Russian forces elsewhere around Kharkiv to try to push Russian artillery from the city, further down south in the Donbas, where they know that the Russian lines are being manned by mobilized troops and reservists, and out in Kherson west of the river, where the Russian military doesn't have that many forces trying to hold a pretty large front.

Michael Kofman:

I think the Ukrainian goal is to put themselves in a position where they exhaust the Russian offensive. Then they conduct their own counter offensive somewhere else, maybe a place like Kherson and retake some significant amount of territory. Right now they're in a bit of a valley in terms of capability because the Ukrainian military had basically run out of ammunition of the various artillery systems that they had. They're trying to switch to Western artillery and Western multiple launch rocket systems for which ammunition's available, but it's a big shift and they're cobbling together lots of hand me downs. They don't have one Western artillery system around which to build out an army. They have one battalion of every single type of artillery system you can find between the United States and Europeans, which is, yeah, it's a bit of a menagerie.

Jim Lindsay:

Right. Each one slightly different. Each one requires different kinds of training to learn how to operate or operate effectively. Let's talk about the one weapon system that's been a lot in the news recently, and that is the high mobility artillery rocket system, HIMAR. This is a system that is both accurate, satellite-guided rocket, as I understand it, and at least in the versions that United States has given to Ukraine has a range of something like 40 miles to be able to target Russian forces. How significant is the HIMAR system in this battle in setting up the potential for a Ukrainian counterattack?

Michael Kofman:

So HIMARS allows Ukraine to claw back some parity in artillery systems, and it allows them to actually have an operational strike capability beyond the initial battlefield. They've been using it pretty successfully in the last two weeks to target Russian ammo dumps and key command and control points. The thing with capabilities like this is that they're going to prove significant, but in and of themselves, tactical level capabilities are never decisive game changers. Well, I won't say never because it's always a steep bar to climb in terms of evidence, but very rarely.

Jim Lindsay:

So necessary, but not sufficient.

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. It's one piece of a puzzle. But a military has to adjust force employment, has to adjust organization, has to integrate this into the force as a whole. Right now they've been pretty successful with them. But if there's going to be a choke point down the line, across the board, in this conflict for the Ukrainian military, the real one is availability of ammunition because we do not produce ammunition in sufficient qualities in the West and in the United States for a war like this. We should. We've talked about the problem of sustaining a conventional conflict beyond the initial phase for some time, but I don't think we've really made the defense industrial adjustments. So Ukraine could end up down the line in a place where it too is short on ammo, even for Western systems, just because a lot of this artillery ammunition isn't made at scale.

Jim Lindsay:

I would imagine it takes a while to ramp up production lines, and that's even leaving aside the question of doing so in the middle of global supply chain disruptions that have complicated virtually every industry's life.

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. The truth is I think the local military balance right now favors Russia. The long-term military balance can very much trend positively for Ukraine. But it is entirely conditional on sustained Western military assistance in terms of systems, and in particular when it comes to ammunition. Plus there's a third problem that's clearly emerged over the last two months, which is the high level of losses to the Ukrainian military means that they too are suffering from a very visible level of degradation of the force. They are replacing the soldiers they've lost with people who have very little training, who are mobilized personnel, and they're replacing regular line units with territorial defense forces.

Michael Kofman:

So you see as a big challenge, I think, for the West as well to try to initiate training programs that the Brits are doing it right now, in order to be able to take Ukrainian volunteers out to train them. Because otherwise the pressure that Russia is placing on Ukraine is such that they don't have time to train additional troops. They have to throw people at the line and they have to throw them at the line without a lot of training. So this is a big issue as well when you're considering the prospect of a Ukrainian counter offensive. You need to have some units that are trained up, they're equipped and they could actually do this. But to do that, Ukraine has to have either a break in operational pause, or it has to pull a sufficient amount of forces out for training.

Jim Lindsay:

Can you put this in context for me, Mike? Because my sense of the debate here in Washington, DC is you have the administration, the Biden Administration, its supporters saying, "We're doing an awful lot for Ukraine." And what I hear a lot of the critics saying is, "You're not doing enough for Ukraine, that we need to do more for Ukraine." But it seems like there's some practical limitations shaping all of this. One is actually having these systems around and the material that goes with them, but it's also getting them to Ukraine, to the battlefield and getting them to troops who know how to use them. And you're telling me on the Ukrainian side, you're going from people who have been fairly experienced at least with some weapon systems to newer recruits who have very little training on any of these systems and asking them to go from zero to 60 basically overnight.

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. So as always, I'd say that there's nothing easier than criticizing. I, as an analyst too can often sit from the comfort, and I usually admire the problem and don't necessarily have great solutions to wicked problems either. But when you look at the practical challenges of conducting this shift in the equipment that Ukraine is using in training personnel, in getting them to be able to sustain this equipment in the field as opposed to, let's say, using a volume of fire, such that they burn out the tubes on artillery and then it becomes useless, and it's a system that was just provided to them, you quickly find that rushing things only makes it worse down the line, that it takes time to train units properly, it takes time for a force to figure out how to assimilate equipment, and that a lot of things are happening at a pace that people don't like because that's how long it takes, okay?

Michael Kofman:

It's not because people, I think, hadn't thought of, "Why don't you just do it faster?" There are always areas where I think criticism is worthwhile, and I don't have a dog in this fight in terms of the administration and its policy. But my impression is that a lot of criticism as I read it, and I follow this on a daily basis, is often not aligned with the realities of what it takes to actually do this, and also isn't always necessarily aligned with what's happening in the battlefield, and what Ukrainians really need or what they say they really need too. All right? You have to have an appreciation for that as well.

Jim Lindsay:

So what do the Ukrainians really need, Mike?

Michael Kofman:

So beyond the fact that they definitely need training for the force or it will continue to degrade, the Ukrainian military not only needs more ammunition, but it needs protected mobility. The Ukrainian military lost a lot of what are the various armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles in the force. It's going to be very hard for them to conduct major offensives if they don't have protected mobility and if they're only-

Jim Lindsay:

So what would protected mobility mean in practice?

Michael Kofman:

So it would mean armored personnel carriers. It would mean various types of armored utility vehicles. They've been given a bunch. They've been given a whole host of older M113s, these are things you'd have seen in the '60s, and a mix of equipment. Again, these are, let's be honest, they're hand me downs, right? So Ukraine has to cobble a force together from here and here and here of different bits they've gotten from people, but they would need to be able to put together a bunch of brigades that could actually conduct a counter offensive, in my point of view. And the conversation on where arming Ukraine's sufficient such that they don't lose, but not enough to win, yeah, it's not really correct. The real question is how do you make this a war that Ukraine can sustain over time? If they're able to sustain it over time, then this isn't predictive of outcomes, but they have real advantages over the Russian military.

Jim Lindsay:

What would those be?

Michael Kofman:

Well, they have the manpower because they mobilized older personnel, but manpower isn't all that meaningful if they don't have training, right? They have the ability to employ artillery very effectively, which isn't very meaningful if they don't have the ammunition. They're able to organize and generate forces, but if they don't have the equipment and if they can't sustain offensives, that will not add up. It won't aggregate to any successful offensive because the problem with localized attacks is it makes you easily vulnerable to a counterattack by that opponent. You never gain enough momentum, right?

Michael Kofman:

So you can have a dynamic battlefield where the two sides trade territory for a very long time, but you don't have anything that looks like victory or success. That's one possible outcome. But, you know, that goes on long enough, the two sides will become exhausted. Then people will say this is a relative stalemate. In that scenario, Ukraine loses because folks have to appreciate that a strategic defeat for Russia, however you may think of that, isn't necessarily a victory for Ukraine. If this war settles in one way or another where Ukraine has lost territory, population, GDP, still under some kind of economic blockade, I don't think anybody, especially Ukrainians are going to look at that and say, "This is what success looks like."

Jim Lindsay:

But is success achievable, just defining success as doing more than what you just laid out?

Michael Kofman:

Well, it's unfortunately very heavily tied to the course of the conflict, to military success in the battlefield, right? Because both sides define success right now largely in military terms and their ability to take or retake territory. Can Ukraine retake this territory over time with Western military assistance? I think, yes. We've not seen a major offense by the Ukrainian military, so there's no evidence to judge what the art of the possible is right now. It's also possible that they can't, but there's no way of knowing until they really try. So I guess my honest answer is yes, I think they can, but will they actually do it? Of course, it would be foolhardy to make predictions. It would be foolish, I think, probably to make even predictions of how the next battles could go, over Sloviansk in the Donbas. I mean, there's so many things to account for and intangibles and many things that as an analyst, I can't see.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, how much does morale matter? I mean, my sense is at least in the early part of the fighting, Ukrainian morale was very high. Russian morale seemed to be fairly low. Has that changed? And does it even matter?

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. So Russian morale was very low because Russian forces weren't told about the operation in advance. Many of them were given their orders barely 24 hours before it started. And they were sent there under false promises, which is they were told that they were helping Ukrainians liberate themselves, not to worry about major fighting, so on and so forth. Very quickly they realized that was profoundly untrue and that they didn't have the organization or support for any major war because the Russian leadership expected to win in a handful of days. So they profoundly broke the trust, that chain of trust that exists between soldiers and officers and their leaders. Once soldiers realize that they've been thrown like cannon fodder under false premises into a war that's poorly planned and organized, morale takes a dive off a cliff very quickly. That was the first phase in a Russian attempt at regime change. The Russian military failed. It was defeated outside of Kiev and west of Kherson as well. And they retreated, reorganized, tried to reconstitute.

Michael Kofman:

In the second phase, the morale amongst Russian forces isn't very good, but it isn't so low that we've seen any major routes or I would say collapse of Russian forces along the battlefield. And, to an extent it's still holding, it's allowing them to still prosecute these offensives because they're largely premised on heavy use of artillery rather than offensive maneuver. The truth is that the morale on the Ukrainian side has been really good throughout, but actually now in aggregate, it's somewhat worse for very simple reasons because, one, they are forced to give up territory, but two, they are forced to use units that are mobilized personnel without good training or equipment. And if they're forced to hold a line, they don't have good communication, good contact with other units they are under artillery fire, guess what happens to the morale of anybody in that situation? It begins to drop. Doesn't matter, yes, you're defending your country and you're fully behind your cause, but that's not the issue.

Jim Lindsay:

You get discouraged.

Michael Kofman:

You get discouraged. You feel like you're not properly trained. The other side has heavy artillery that they can mass. You can't respond in volume of fire. And you feel like you're outmatched. Yeah, you get discouraged. So the situation also prevails over time, and it's at least visible and it's on the Ukrainian side too. That's what happens in a war like this.

Jim Lindsay:

So how do you see this playing out, Mike? I'm hearing a lot of talk now about a long war. I know NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggests that the fighting might last for years. Do you agree?

Michael Kofman:

Yeah, it's certainly possible. I mean, I think it is going to be a protracted conflict. I think there's going to be operational pauses, and people will be eager to declare a stalemate when it probably isn't. I think we're likely to see a Ukrainian counter offensive down the line, and that this war will, from my point of view, easily drag into next year. The big challenge I think we have is that you get married to straight-line analysis, but wars don't end the way they began, right? You often think that whatever phase of the war you're in is how the war is going to proceed, but we know that's not true because the first phase of this war is very different from the second phase, and the next phase might be different from this one too. So you just also have to be prepared for the fact that this war might change in character or how it's fought, at least by one of the sides, later on this year or maybe the next, and that will alter expectations.

Michael Kofman:

I'm just trying to be honest about the challenge that someone like me has predicting the course of the war. And you'd have the same issue if you looked at any major conflict. If you looked at World War I, the battle frontier at First Battle of the Marne was not like the stalemate war of attrition and the trench fighting that then characterized much of the war on the Western front, right? It was a very high attrition period of offensive maneuver in the early weeks. On the Eastern front, World War II, first year, a lot of offensive maneuver. Second year, 1942, a meat-grinding year of nothing but attrition. And 1943, a return to good offensive maneuver at least more by the Red Army. But you have each year almost can tell its own story in that conflict if you want to interpret it that way.

Jim Lindsay:

My closing question, and that is in the early days of the war, we heard the Russians intimate about using nuclear weapons. Haven't heard nuclear threats recently. Are nuclear weapons off the table in this conflict or not?

Michael Kofman:

So I'm reticent to say that anything like that is off the table. Russian leadership has made extensive use of nuclear course of threats and signaling. The reality is I think the likelihood of nuclear use is very low. That said, even a small percentage of the likelihood that this could escalate to nuclear employment is still significant. So from my point of view, I don't think the Russian military is anywhere in the place where the political leadership has to contemplate use of nuclear weapons. And what's most interesting is we have two divergent perspectives on the current course of this war. Russian leadership does not believe that they're losing this war. They think that they can grind the Ukrainians down. As winter approaches, Europeans might crack politically. At least those are their assumptions. As long as they believe that, they're obviously not in the place where they remotely feel that they have to use nuclear weapons.

Michael Kofman:

Of course, I can see a situation where let's say Ukraine is wildly successful. They drive Russian forces to the initial lines of February 23rd, and then beyond they'll start recapturing the Donbas, and then the Russian political leadership is facing a catastrophic defeat and they start scrambling for what to do. I can see at least the prospect of nuclear employment for demonstration purposes, maybe not in Ukrainian territory but somewhere else with then a direct threat to use nuclear weapons in this conflict. But I think we're very far away from that. It's always good to think about escalation management and the prospect of nuclear weapons when you're dealing with a conflict that involves one of the principal nuclear powers, right? You can never ignore it. But you also don't want to, I think, overly fixate on it and have it be somewhat disarming, the threat of escalation as well. There's a Goldilocks zone there.

Jim Lindsay:

It's very hard to find that Goldilocks zone though, Mike, and I suspect there are a lot of people in the Pentagon and the White House spending a lot of time thinking about just these issues.

Michael Kofman:

This is why I just want to add if you've never been in government, if you've never grappled with these choices, there's nothing easier than criticizing and sort of piling on because you're not just thinking about capabilities or what to provide, you're thinking about escalation management, war termination and all these other factors as well. I don't think it's easy for anybody who's actually involved in these decisions.

Jim Lindsay:

Agreed. On that note, I'm going to close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Michael Kofman, Director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA. Mike, thanks for joining me.

Michael Kofman:

Yeah. Thanks for having me on your program.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen and leave us a review. We love to get feedback. You can find the transcript of our conversation on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those of the host or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Today's episode was produced by Rafaela Siewert with senior podcast producer, Gabrielle Sierra. Rafaela did double duty as our recording engineer. Thank you, Rafaela. Special thanks go out to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

 

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