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Interview: What To Expect In The Next Phase Of The Ukraine War

Moscow's invasion of Ukraine is “fundamentally [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war,” says military analyst Michael Kofman. (file photo)

According to conservative estimates, Russia has lost more troops in three weeks of war in Ukraine than the United States did in more than 20 years in Afghanistan and Iraq combined.

U.S. and British defense officials say more than 7,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far. The figure is considered on the low end of the casualty count, with the Ukrainian Defense Ministry saying its forces have killed more than 14,000. Moscow has only issued an official casualty number once, on March 2, when it said 498 soldiers had been killed. The Russian Defense Ministry has not issued an estimate since.

Putting together a casualty figure is inexact and relies on combing through satellite images and videos of battles, U.S. officials and independent analysts say, which is reflected in the large range of estimates in Ukraine.

While the overall figures may be imprecise, it is becoming clearer that Russia is facing major setbacks in its war effort, with growing reports of low morale, defections, and mounting logistical complications.

Despite these problems, Russia’s military campaign makes sporadic, minor progress in some parts of Ukraine as the war enters a decisive stage for both sides.

To find out more about what to expect, RFE/RL spoke with Russian military expert Michael Kofman, who heads the Russia Studies Program at the Virginia-based think tank CNA.

RFE/RL: We’re three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainians have managed to slow the Russian invasion in many respects and Russia has also struggled with logistical and other issues during this war. How do you see the state of play at the moment, and how do you see things progressing in the days and weeks to come?

Michael Kofman: It’s hard to get the exact state of play right now, the fog of war persists and that leads to a pretty limited picture [of] what's really taking place on the battlefield. That said, I think that Russian forces have made sluggish advances. Their progress is fitful and has been set back by pretty stiff Ukrainian resistance.

I think the way the war is going right now is that Russian forces are making steady progress, [but] most of the initial objectives in the war, I don't think they can reach at this point. I do not see a strong proposition for them being able to assault and capture Kyiv, for example, and [it is beginning to] look like Russia is revising its war goals down towards some sort of political settlement [with the Ukrainian government].

RFE/RL: Given that you don’t think it’s possible for the Russians to take Kyiv, how likely are we to see big pushes for control of cities like Odesa and Kyiv in the coming weeks anyways? Russian forces have slowed down, but are they still likely to grind forward?

Kofman: I don't think [Russian forces] are really going to get to Odesa. So, I think right now they're only halfway past Mykolayiv and I'm deeply skeptical they're actually going to get to Odesa -- and either way, they don’t have the forces to take it. If they do an amphibious landing, there's nothing to link it up with. They’re still quite a way from [the city].

I think the real threat for the Ukrainian forces is that the bulk of their force in the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) opposite of Donbas -- it's quite a few brigades -- is in threat of being steadily enveloped and they have to retrograde because over time you have a thrust made up basically of Russian forces pushing up from the south, which are units from the southern Military District, and you have another grouping of forces from the Western military district pushing from the northeast. So now they can envelop or put a large number of Ukrainian forces in the Donbas in a precarious position.

They can also encircle the capital, and while they might not be able to take it, nonetheless they can essentially besiege the city, or steadily put themselves in a more lucrative position over the coming weeks.

RFE/RL: At the beginning of this war, there was an assumption that Russia’s more advanced and larger air force would give it a major advantage, but it doesn’t seem to have played a decisive role in the campaign. Why is that?

Kofman: The Russian military campaign looked nothing like what people predicted because people predicted a combined arms operation with joint force employment opening with an air campaign. Instead, the Russian military attempted to do a quick regime-change operation thinking they wouldn't get a fight -- and [were] actually trying to avoid a fight -- so they didn't do most of the things you would expect.

Ukraine is a country with a fairly substantial amount of air defense. It's no pushover. I think one of the biggest issues is that people grossly underestimate actual Ukrainian military capabilities. It's one of the largest conventional militaries in Europe and it's very different in some ways from some opponents that militaries like the United States have fought in the past, [especially] in terms of competence level, morale, combat effectiveness, and level of capability. Not to mention all the tactical capabilities that Western countries gave Ukraine in the run-up to the war as well. The degree to which [the United States] further helped to arm Ukraine is worth noting.

Ukrainian Forces Destroy Russian Armored Column Іn Kyiv Region
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The long story short is the Russian Air Force has been conducting limited air operations, but they've paid a high price because Ukrainian air defense is still pretty viable. It's also worth adding that Russian airpower actually is not very proficient in missions to suppress or destroy air defense. [They’re] actually not that competent in those types of missions, the kind of air space campaign [that militaries like] the United States might conduct early on in a campaign isn't well within their skill set.

RFE/RL: The Ukrainians are continuing to press NATO countries to enforce a no-fly zone, which has been consistently rebuffed. But we have also seen countries like the United States and other Western nations sending surface-to-air missiles and potentially other air defense systems to the Ukrainians. Would that play a decisive role in the next phase of this war?

Russian military expert Michael Kofman
Russian military expert Michael Kofman

Kofman: Not a decisive factor, but it could certainly help. I think Ukraine needs air defense much more than it needs anything else. Ukrainian air defense is not doing a bad job [so far] and is holding its own. So [adding] to [those defenses] is a much better idea than some of the other ones out there -- and I don't see the no-fly zone happening.

RFE/RL: You mentioned before that Russian forces are not going to be able to accomplish a lot of the objectives that they set out at the beginning and we're seeing statements that talks between the Ukrainian and Russian sides have made some progress. Based on that, are things more likely to cool down or heat up on the battlefield?

Kofman: The war, as it stands now, is not a stalemate. It still has to play itself out. We don't actually know the state of the force on both sides. In fact, we know far more, I think, about the level of losses of the Russian military than we do about the Ukrainian military. So, to some extent, you're watching a boxing match between two fighters, but you can only see one of them in the fight.

Looking at the map, [and] looking at Russian progress…I just don't think that they can retain the maximal objectives the way they're pursuing it.

A Russian armored vehicle with dead soldiers stands destroyed in a street during the battles for Hostomel.
A Russian armored vehicle with dead soldiers stands destroyed in a street during the battles for Hostomel.

So, the future of the conflict most likely is that the Russian military is probably going to become exhausted in the coming weeks and need operational pauses. They’re going to become combat ineffective, and they’ll need to replenish and reorganize and rearm units. So that means that we're probably going to be looking at a cease-fire of some kind -- maybe not a full political settlement -- in the coming weeks. That's my projection [and] it's about the most optimistic I’ve been in this conflict.

Having said that, I think the war is still going to get ugly over the course of this time period and you will see the Russian military in some areas using outright pressure tactics by barraging cities and just hitting the civilian population to put pressure on Ukraine's political leadership.

Firefighters tackle blazes in an apartment building after it was hit by shelling in Kyiv on March 15.
Firefighters tackle blazes in an apartment building after it was hit by shelling in Kyiv on March 15.

RFE/RL: Beyond what you've already mentioned, what has surprised you most about how this war has been fought?

Kofman: The fact that the war was essentially kept secret from large parts of the Russian military [was very surprising], so they were materially unprepared, psychologically unprepared, and had very low morale with very little organization for a proper military operation. That, of course, really ceded the initiative to the Ukrainian side. The Ukrainians have put up a tremendous resistance, they fought smartly, leveraged urban terrain, [and] attacked Russian supply lines, which were the Achilles' heel of their effort.

Going into this, we’ve found that we've overestimated the Russian military’s capability to some extent, and that we’ve underestimated Ukraine's.

My basic takeaway now is, let's not have either of those extremes, where [analysts] often veer between either the Russian military being 12-feet tall (4 meters), or the Russian military being 4 feet tall, and rarely having nuance or measured assessments of where they really are.

It's also a good opportunity to reflect on to what extent this is the problem of the [Russian] military itself or to what extent it really was just a bad plan. It's really [President Vladimir] Putin's war and I think that's what surprised me. The Russian military is prosecuting it, that's very clear, but ineffectually and unimpressively.

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This is fundamentally Putin’s war and it turns out that when he tried to characterize it as a special military operation, he really meant it.

It looks like he really thought this was going to be a special military operation. They were going to be in and out in a few days and they were going to somehow conduct regime change and overthrow the government of what is the largest country in Europe outside of Russia, which sounds wild. It’s phenomenal [to think of] the delusions that [would] have led to those kinds of assumptions and that plan, but nonetheless, here we are.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity
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    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.