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Leading Strategist Questions Russian Forces' Ability To 'Act Like A Western Army'

Ukrainian soldiers examine missiles abandoned by Russian troops in the village of Berezivka on April 21. Russia has suffered "significant" losses in men and equipment in the eight weeks of war.

The Ukraine conflict has punctured Western perceptions of a mighty Russian Army since President Vladimir Putin seized Crimea eight years ago, and the Russian leader's refusal to let his invading army "reset and reform" is "good news for Ukraine and good news for the West," according to a former U.S. naval commander who heads a prominent strategic think tank.

But James Foggo III, a retired U.S. Navy admiral who heads the Virginia-based Center for Maritime Strategy, also said the "ugly" conflict has underscored a "trust gap" between the warring sides and he can't easily envisage Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy sitting down to peace negotiations.

"I don't know how Ukraine gets out of this other than to defeat Russia, and that's a wild card that's up in the air right now," he told RFE/RL's Georgian Service in a recent interview. "You know, if the Russians continue to be beaten, then eventually, public opinion will catch up with Vladimir Putin."

James Foggo
James Foggo

Foggo offered a damning assessment of Russian military performance so far across all four axes of its initial full-scale attack on Ukraine, adding that "they ran out of fuel, they ran out of food, didn't have sustainment of ammunition, and they got hit pretty hard, particularly in the battle [for] Kyiv."

Putin launched the war on February 24 against Ukraine and its government, which Moscow has overtly and covertly opposed since unrest ousted a pro-Russian presidential administration in 2014, citing a need to "demilitarize" and subdue its much smaller post-Soviet neighbor.

"They're kind of stuck on fighting the last war, World War II," dominated by tank movements across Europe, Foggo said of what he's seen from the Russian war planners. "Can they figure out in a very short period of time how to act like a Western army, and inculcate leadership in noncommissioned officers which don't exist, using weapons systems that are not exactly state of the art?" he asked. "Certainly not before May 9."

Putin has suggested publicly that it is crucial to achieve military aims in Ukraine by the May 9 holiday marking the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in 1945.

Russia's massive invading force has taken major swaths of eastern and southern Ukraine but also suffered "significant" casualties, in the words of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, and been beaten back in offensives targeting Kyiv and other places. Russia's navy has so far lost two warships, including its Black Sea Fleet flagship, the Moskva.

Foggo cites long-running Russian failures including a reliance on conscripts instead of a professional cadre of soldiers, underestimation of logistics as the "sixth domain of warfare," and misperceptions in Moscow that Russians can "operate in the Black Sea with impunity."

"I think the Russian Navy and the Russian naval infantry understand that they might get ashore, but they won't get very far inland," Foggo said.

Putin has recently replaced the top commander of what Moscow officially deems a "special military operation" in Ukraine, appointing Chechnya and Syrian campaign veteran army General Aleksandr Dvornikov to lead a new strategy to consolidate gains in eastern Ukraine.

Foggo said Dvornikov's "got a huge task ahead of him, but I believe he also knows that if he doesn't succeed, it's his head on the line because Putin is ruthless not only with his adversaries, but also with his own people and his own generals."

He said Dvornikov's first move was likely to be replacing Russian casualties in the first eight weeks of battle -- estimated by NATO to include at least 7,000 deaths in the first month, although Ukrainian estimates are higher. (Russia has classified its casualty figures in an effort to better control domestic fallout from the conflict.)

Foggo said the Russian casualties so far had "reduced their ability to fight" and Dvornikov was probably in a "recruitment and training cycle" at the moment. He predicted that Dvornikov "is in no hurry."

"He'll fill the gaps and seams in those units [and] he'll fix his armor -- the Russians have taken huge losses," Foggo said.

Putin was said to have pivoted away from storming Ukrainian troops holed up at the Azovstal metalworks in the encircled strategic city of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, with an April 21 order for troops to seal it off so "not even a fly" could pass through the city. The order, during a televised meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, was said to have been issued in an effort to protect the lives of Russian soldiers.

"If they take Mariupol, then with the other territory they've taken, they have built this coveted land bridge that they want down to the Black Sea -- a bridge across the Sea of Azov to connect Crimea with Mother Russia," said Foggo, speaking days before news of the Mariupol pivot.

He said the Russian side could then essentially consolidate its gains and control a corridor to reach the Black Sea without taking Odesa, a defiant and dug-in seaport of more than 1 million people before the current conflict.

But Foggo likened any campaign to take the capital, Kyiv, to famously painful military campaigns in Aleppo, Syria, or Fallujah, in Iraq.

"If you're fighting in an urban environment, in high-rise buildings with snipers around the corner at every corner, and every Ukrainian having an AK-47 or a Molotov cocktail on his balcony to drop on your tank, it's a losing proposition," he said. "So if the Russians make that decision, I think it's a bad decision. And they're going to take another licking just like they did the last time they tried to move on Kyiv."

U.S. President Joe Biden on April 21 announced a new $800 million package of military and security assistance for Ukraine, the second such allocation in the past five weeks. Foggo said the U.S. supply so far of hardware, including Stinger surface-to-air missiles and Javelin anti-tank missiles, had seemingly been "very effective," adding that Ukrainian troops had "proven their ability to use them."

He also praised Western allies' provision of Soviet-era equipment that Ukraine's troops already know how to operate, and cautioned against the practical obstacles to effective use by Ukrainians of some "high-end weapons systems that they have not been trained on."

"Ukraine does not have the luxury of that training and garrison and certification before going to war," he said, "they're in war right now."

"Western powers, NATO, and the United States, have done a good job of flowing a lot of equipment [to Ukraine]. It may not be everything that the Ukrainians want, but they are proving effective on the battlefield," Foggo said. "The question is, how much longer can they last? They've got to be tired. The Russians are tired, too, but what the Ukrainians have going for them is leadership from the top down."

Written by Andy Heil based on an interview by RFE/RL's Georgian Service contributor Vazha Tavberidze
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    Vazha Tavberidze

    Vazha Tavberidze is a staff writer with RFE/RL's Georgian Service. As a journalist and political analyst, he has covered issues of international security, post-Soviet conflicts, and Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations. His writing has been published in various Georgian and international media outlets, including The Times, The Spectator, The Daily Beast, and IWPR.