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Russia Invades Ukraine

Military Strategist Warns Not To 'Underestimate Russia's Might' Despite More Commitments From West

David Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran and principal researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank who specializes in military strategy, innovation, and doctrine, spoke with RFE/RL's Georgian Service.

As the war nears the 17-week mark, a prominent U.S. military scholar and strategist says Moscow seems determined to plow troops into Ukraine as "cannon fodder" for a brutal campaign that has encouraged Kyiv to seek total victory and made the West "more and more committed to a favorable outcome."

David Johnson, a U.S. Army veteran and principal researcher at the RAND Corporation think tank who specializes in military strategy, innovation, and doctrine, warns that Russian troops "are slowly grinding their way through Donbas" in eastern Ukraine with "massive firepower [and a] very slow, incremental attrition maneuver" that will be "very hard to stop."

In a recent interview with RFE/RL's Georgian Service, Johnson says Russia's strategy and tactics have made the provision of artillery and other weaponry by Kyiv's allies even more vital to Ukraine's defenses.

Moscow has repeatedly threatened to target supply routes and other sites if some kinds of weapons it describes as "red lines" -- particularly so-called Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) that can fire barrages hundreds of kilometers -- are supplied to Kyiv.

A ruined tank on the outskirts of Kyiv on June 14.
A ruined tank on the outskirts of Kyiv on June 14.

"I think if we sent slingshots to the Ukrainians, the Russians would be saying, 'Well, they'd better not have big rocks.' It's just whatever we do, they're going to have some protest against it, because they don't want anything to go there," Johnson says.

He says Russian President Vladimir Putin's plans don't necessarily require precision because "if your target is Mariupol" -- a now-devastated population center with a prewar population of nearly half a million Ukrainians -- "then the rocket is sufficiently precise."

Johnson says the current phase is "a very hard part of the war" between "two adversaries that are both pretty evenly matched, competence-wise and size-wise, and equipment-wise," given the international support for Ukraine.

"You just grind, and what you are betting is that you have more staying power than the adversary does, not just in people but in munitions," he says.

Russian planners "are banking on that they will exhaust the Ukrainian manpower and resources," he says, adding in a paraphrase of the famous Prussian general and war theorist Carl von Clausewitz: "In wars of exhaustion, don't become exhausted first."

He says Kyiv's allies' best approach is "to keep them steadily supplied with the things they need to fight with," whether that means precision weapons or more old-fashioned munitions.

"The biggest killer in the battlefield is not Javelins [British shoulder-launched missile systems] or Switchblades [highly portable, U.S.-made drones with an exploding warhead] and all that other stuff -- it's artillery," Johnson says.

Reliable casualty figures are difficult to obtain, with both sides classifying them as state secrets since the all-out invasion began on February 24.

A view of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.
A view of the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

Despite significant Russian casualties, a senior U.S. defense official quoted by VOA said last month that the Russian side "still have a significant amount...of their capability left to them."

Ukrainian officials have suggested at least 30,000 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine.

Johnson says "we have no idea what the real Ukrainian losses are" and Ukrainian estimates of enemy casualties "are probably inflated."

He also says Kyiv has been effective at "controlling the information campaign."

"What we know about the war, quite frankly, is what the Ukrainians are telling us," Johnson says.

From the start of the invasion, Russian officials have imposed laws and policies to effect broad censorship and guard against ordinary Russians' access to reports that challenge Kremlin propaganda on the conflict, which they insist is a "special military operation" rather than an invasion or war.

Despite reports of high casualties, low morale, ineffective leadership, and poor training, Johnson, a former artillery battalion commander, says he "would never underestimate" the Russian Army even if "fighting spirit is a huge component of warfare."

"That's the same kind of army they had in World War II that beat the best army in the world," he says of the Red Army victory over Hitler's Nazi forces. "I mean, the Russian Army in World War II was cannon fodder, led by whatever was available with politically correct people running it, and they still just ground up the Wehrmacht in a number of years and spit them out."

Johnson says that Putin, atop an increasingly authoritarian government, has at least an initial advantage in terms of distracting the public or declaring even hollow victories "because he controls the message" that many Russians are allowed to hear.

"He is perfectly happy to see what's on the calendar that morning and say, 'That looks good, borscht is cheaper, that's a great success. Let's talk about that,'" Johnson says. "My sense is that the only person in the world who knows what the objectives of the Russians are is Putin and he will decide...what [victory] looks like."

Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 9.

"I don't think he's ever going to say he is losing the war. I think he will in any case say he ended up where he was going all along," he says of the former KGB officer first installed as Russian prime minister 22 years ago. "This is the great thing about being an autocrat: You decide what success is."

But Johnson also dismisses the notion that Russians are wholly unaware of what's happening and the aggression that Russian soldiers are committing in the country's name.

That, he says, suggests there might be higher approval among Russians of the invasion than many outsiders want to believe.

"We shouldn't assume that they're going to quit because everybody is going to sit down in the middle of Red Square and protest," Johnson says. "I don't see that. I don't see their soldiers deserting in large numbers or quitting. [And] the worst thing you can do in a war, the cardinal sin, is underestimating your enemy."

Johnson suggests that Ukraine's defenders might be best served not by "attacking everybody" but rather "picking a place where you can have an effect, where you can create a proper correlation of forces where you can prevail."

The body of a soldier, who the Ukrainian military claim is a Russian Army serviceman killed in fighting, lies on a road outside the city of Kharkiv on February 24.
The body of a soldier, who the Ukrainian military claim is a Russian Army serviceman killed in fighting, lies on a road outside the city of Kharkiv on February 24.

He cites attacks on supply lines or field headquarters that can "affect the entire operation across the front."

Johnson says Ukrainian reports of killing around a dozen Russian generals so far are another example, adding that he believes those deaths are not merely a result of the Russian commanders' willingness to be in the conflict zone.

"I think they're being found," he says. "And then when they get found, they get killed."

He says the prospects for peace have been dimmed so far by the brutality of the Russian invaders.

"From the Ukrainian perspective, anything but a maximalist proposition is really hard to consider after the sacrifices they have suffered and the atrocities they have seen," Johnson says. "So if I were [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy, it would be hard for me to be conciliatory at this point. I think they will start with this maximalist view of getting back everything they held before this war, and that might change over time with diplomacy or the developments on the battlefield."

Another factor in any potential end to the fighting is the chance that as the Ukrainian conflict drags on and becomes "less spectacular," it will receive less Western attention, he says.

He also warns of "downstream effects" of the war like the mounting global food crisis and fuel spikes, as well as other problems that are likely to arise over the next year.

But Johnson cites polling that shows strong backing among Americans for NATO support for Ukraine, for example, and an evolving willingness among Kyiv's allies to provide increasingly sensitive weapons systems.

"I think that's what's going on [is] we are becoming more and more committed to a favorable outcome," Johnson says. "We have seen the types of weapons going in change: We have sent helmets and flak jackets early on, and now we are seeing [U.S.] HIMARS and [German] Gepard air-defense systems. We [in the West] have become more committed to the success of Ukrainians over time, not less, and the stakes have gone higher."

Johnson also credits Western leaders with avoiding any commitment of NATO troops to combat, including by rejecting Zelenskiy's and some NATO members' calls for imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

"I admire the NATO leadership for doing as much as they have done, but also for saying that this will not be World War III," Johnson says.

Written by Andy Heil based on an interview by RFE/RL Georgian Service fellow 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.