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‘Putin does not want bad news’: US military expert assesses Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after one year

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his address to the nation at the Kremlin in Moscow on Feb. 21, 2022. (ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russia’s massive, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has been going on for one year now, with tens of thousands of people dead, millions displaced, and billions of dollars in damages inflicted. Yet there is no clear end in sight.

RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov spoke with military analyst Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI), about how the war has developed so far and what factors might influence its development.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFE/RL: When the invasion was launched one year ago, did you think it would last this long?

Rob Lee: I thought it would probably be shorter, but I thought Russia was trying to achieve more limited goals. But what we have found out is that Russia’s leaders have not been willing to walk away from this war. They still have very ambitious objectives they want to achieve.

It’s clear this war has been underpinned by a variety of false assumptions about the Russian military, about the Ukrainian military, about Ukrainians in general — what they want and what they don’t want.

So we come back to asking why the war has lasted as long as it has. I think the Russian leadership has lived in a separate world — it has been so out of touch with what was possible, out of touch with what the facts on the ground were, that their decision-making has been based on really poor information. And I think that is still probably true.

I don’t think the war is going to end anytime soon at this point. Russia has put so much into it. It has sustained such heavy casualties. They want to walk away with some kind of goal achieved. But it is not clear to me what Russia would be content walking away with at this point. If the military situation improves, they clearly want more. They want all of [the] Donbas and even more. They want great concessions from Ukraine.

RFE/RL:Let’s turn to the current military situation, particularly in the Donbas. What factors are keeping the situation more or less stable now and how might they change in the future?

Lee: From the beginning, Ukraine always had pretty strong defensive positions there. They always expected that any sort of escalation of the war would happen in [the] Donbas. So once the war began to focus on the Donbas, it meant that Russia was basically attacking into their positions, into areas that Ukraine had thought about how they would defend them. So, unlike other areas where they didn’t have prepared positions and a plan to defend them, in the Donbas they had that.

If you are trying to attack a defending adversary and they are defending in depth and have sufficient forces, artillery, observation – and if you don’t have superiority — it is difficult to break through. This isn’t new — it goes back to World War I.

And we are seeing now, if you look at what happened in Kherson and Kharkiv during the successful Ukrainian offensives there, Russian forces were just extremely weak. They weren’t well positioned for defense and the force ratios at the front line were not very good. So Ukraine could break through — they found a weak point in the line and exploited it.

When we look at the front line now, it is a case where the attacking side needs certain advantages to overcome the advantages of defending. Typically, that could be numbers superiority or superiority in artillery — both the quality and quantity of artillery and munitions. Those kinds of things. The problem now is that neither side has enough to achieve that kind of superiority. Neither side has enough offensive capability advantage to achieve sufficient superiority on a narrow part of the front line to break through and exploit.

The other big problem is that both sides are relying on plenty of mobilized soldiers. On the Ukrainian side, the soldiers are eager to fight and have good morale, but it still takes time to train soldiers and units. But it is easier to train someone how to defend than how to attack.

So, for both sides, even if they have sufficient manpower, it is difficult to convert that into offensive power, because it takes time to train and develop unit cohesion and that sort of thing.

Right now, Russia is attempting a number of costly offensives along the front line. In Bakhmut, they have been doing a grinding offensive for months. They had some success last month but things have slowed down. Elsewhere, in Vuhledar, it seems they had a pretty unsuccessful offensive. Ukraine was able to hold territory. Simple things like mines, observation, artillery make it difficult to advance on those kinds of positions.

For Russians, the assault forces — the naval infantry, the paratroop divisions, spetsnaz [special forces], which are being kind of misused as assault forces now — are much smaller than the overall force. And some of the elite Wagner units. These are the kinds of units that can do operations effectively as a lead unit, but most of the Russian military can’t do that effectively at this point.

If Ukraine can attrit those initial attacking forces and the follow-on units are not capable of sustaining the offensive — that is the issue on the Russian side.

On the Ukrainian side, they can’t repeat the Kherson offensive because Kherson was somewhat costly. Even if you have a lot of success, if you take a lot of losses as you progress, that will ensure that any offensive grinds down.

It seems the U.S. is telling them that they need to make gains in the next six months because support going forward is not as clear as they have received so far. So it is important for Ukraine not to do small, costly offensives. It is more important for them to focus on high-reward options, to husband resources while they try to find a weak point in the Russian lines or a place where they can achieve a breakthrough that they can exploit and recapture as much territory as they can.

A lot depends on Russia. If they keep attacking and having these costly advances where they suffer big losses and Ukraine doesn’t — like in Vuhledar — that could set up Ukraine for an offensive in the spring. But the Bakhmut area is a different scenario where both sides are taking losses and that makes it more difficult for Ukraine because then they won’t have those forces available for an offensive later on when they choose to conduct one.

RFE/RL:One often hears that this is a war of numbers and that Russia has the advantage of nearly limitless manpower. Is this really such a significant problem for Ukraine?

Lee: Yes. Russia is mobilized now. They mobilized 300,000 soldiers, if that is an accurate figure that the Russians gave, and they have kept mobilizing since then. People talk of a “second wave,” but I think it is just rolling mobilization. They are just constantly mobilizing people to offset whatever losses they have.

Russia has enough men to mobilize and, so far, there doesn’t seem to be a strong enough backlash in Russia to threaten Putin’s position in any way. As long as that is the case, Putin can continue mobilizing, and this gives Russia an advantage in terms of manpower.

RFE/RL: What does Ukraine lack most of all before it can start a new offensive? Tanks? Men? Munitions?

Lee: I think it is a lot of things. Ammunition is part of it. Along some parts of the front, Russia still fires far more artillery rounds every day than Ukraine does. Not everywhere, but on some parts of the front Russia is still firing much more ammunition than Ukraine does. That is an issue.

It is always difficult to conduct offensives without air superiority, so that is an issue for Ukraine. But an offensive is a combined-arms operation, so it is not just one factor but all of them together.

Does Ukraine have enough artillery ammunition for an operation? Does it have enough precision-guided munitions? Does it have enough mid-range [unmanned aerial vehicles] to locate targets 20 or 30 kilometers behind the line? I think that is a critical one that we haven’t heard much about.

They lack long-range offensive capability. For anything beyond the 80-kilometer range the Russians can sort of get lazy, with equipment lined up and bunched together, which they wouldn’t be doing if Ukraine had longer-range weapons that could strike them.

I think that receiving Western tanks will be useful, but it will not, by itself, break the deadlock, which will depend on a variety of things that could give Ukraine greater offensive potential.

RFE/RL: Washington has reportedly warned Ukraine that, because of domestic political reasons, support for Kyiv in the United States might decline in the coming months. Can Ukraine hold the current front line if that happens?

Lee: That depends. I think the availability of artillery ammunition may be the biggest deciding factor of how the war will go this year. You need less ammunition to defend than you need to attack. When you attack, you need it to suppress counterfire and to hit a variety of things to give yourself a better chance of success.

Russia, back in the spring and the early summer in the Donbas, they were firing a tremendous amount of artillery munitions every day. They are not firing that much anymore, but they are still firing quite a bit. But the massive firing back then was a major contributing factor to why they made the gains they did then – which were little, but still gains.

I think that is why they are telling Ukraine to use as much as possible now, because if the number of artillery rounds they receive each month goes down, it will limit their ability to do offensive operations and they potentially are going to have to adopt a more defensive strategy for the rest of the war.

Air-defense missiles, as I said before, that is a question too.

Again, a lot depends on Russia. They are producing artillery ammunition, but they went through a lot of stockpiles too. They are receiving drones and missiles from Iran and that helps them compensate for shortages. Reportedly they are getting artillery ammunition from North Korea and that could compensate for some of the stockpiles they have already gone through.

RFE/RL: Much has been made of the shortcomings the Russian military has shown during the war, but maybe the main problem is an old one – the inability of people to tell their superiors bad news. Are things improving?

Lee: They have improved in general, but not enough. And I don’t think that culture has changed much. It is hard to tell how much of this stems from fundamental issues of Russian military culture and how much of it stems from things Putin is demanding and the military is responding to.

It seems pretty clear to me that Putin does not want to get bad news, and Russian generals want to give him good news. That means Russian generals want good news from their colonels – and that whole process goes down the line. This means sometimes guys are just going to lie about things to keep their positions. So some of the problem comes from the top.

But other things come from the Russian military itself and I don’t think it has changed that much. We are still seeing the same kinds of mistakes and systemic problems that we saw earlier. I think there are very top-down decision-making processes in the Russian military that are not very helpful, and I don’t think they are responding or adapting very quickly.

I still think lying is a constant issue and I doubt it is going to be fixed anytime soon.

RFE/RL: Do you have any idea what Moscow would consider a win? Many analysts, including yourself, have said this conflict could last beyond this year. What could be the win for Russia? And, on the other hand, for Ukraine?

Lee: A win for Russia? I don’t know. The war just might continue and you might have an expanded line of control compared to pre-2022. It is likely there will be some sort of front line. I’m not sure that either side is ready for negotiation anytime soon. They may not be ready until next year; it may take more than that.

I don’t think Russia would be happy walking away. Russia began the war very ambitiously and they never gave up on those objectives. They have kind of refocused on more achievable objectives, but if they think Ukraine is having difficulty sustaining the war, they will continue it and try to achieve more — more territory or greater concessions from Ukraine. They obviously want a lot more than they have now. A land bridge was not the objective – it was occupying all of Ukraine and they wanted regime change and a compliant regime installed.

Now Ukraine is more hostile toward Russia than it was before the war began, and I think that was the opposite of what Russia was intending.

I don’t think it is possible now to say what Russia would consider a win. If they see they can’t achieve their original objectives, they’ll ask what they can walk away with and what can Putin sell to Russians as being worth this kind of war.

But even if they walk away without achieving any objectives, I don’t think that is necessarily a threat to Putin. He might be able to stay in power just because he has constructed a system where dissent is punished, and people are incentivized to not speak out and trained to think they can’t bring about change.

On the Ukrainian side, they want to take back all their territory. Including all the Donbas and Crimea, but at a minimum they want to get back to the situation as of February 23, 2022. But the main thing for Ukraine was to remain a sovereign state and in that respect they have already won. Russia is not going to take Kyiv, barring a complete cut-off of ammunition supplies from the West. That by itself is a victory — Ukraine is still around. Whether they can take back all the territory that Russia has occupied, I don’t know. They may have to accept — out of exhaustion — that they can’t take back all the territory, but I don’t know what the final front line might look like.

But it is very clear what Russian occupying forces have done in Ukraine and that gives a very strong incentive for Ukraine to try to retake as much territory as possible. That is a very strong motivating factor. I don’t think we are going to see Ukraine push for negotiations anytime soon. They have said the starting point for any negotiations is a return to the February 24 borders.