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Interview: With Ukraine War Nearing A Deadlock, Intense Urban Fighting Expected

Russia-backed troops in uniforms without insignia drive an armored vehicle in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on March 19.
Russia-backed troops in uniforms without insignia drive an armored vehicle in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on March 19.

Russian strikes on cities across Ukraine have left a trail of devastation, with besieged cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv in the country’s east ravaged by artillery and rocket attacks.

Ukrainian forces have begun counterattacking in some places across the country, stalling Moscow's military objectives and leading Russia to turn increasingly to long-range attacks to bombard cities and towns. This phase of the nearly month-old war has left many people without food, electricity, and water and caused widespread destruction of civilian areas.

But with Russia’s advance slowed by Ukrainian resistance and its forces facing supply and logistical issues, the war could begin to see more urban warfare as military planners on both sides dig in for what many analysts say could be a long-term fight.

To better understand what this next phase of the war might look like, RFE/RL spoke with retired U.S. Special Forces Colonel Liam Collins, the executive director of the Madison Policy Forum who also advised the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on its military reforms.

RFE/RL: By this point, it seems clear that Russia will not be able to achieve its original goals for Ukraine. It is facing major supply and logistical issues and has not made much progress of late and is instead shifting to besieging cities and other increasingly brutal tactics. Ukrainian forces continue to resist and inflict damage on the Russians. Is this war entering a stalemate, or do you see it progressing differently?

Liam Collins: I think it's going to be something resembling a stalemate, so that’s probably the right term for it. You're going to see small advances and then Ukrainian counterattacks, however. But I think, for the most part, what you've seen over the last couple of weeks is what we're going to see in the future and that's just Russia sitting on the outside of a city -- where they're in relatively safe positions -- and then launching artillery strikes into the cities.

RFE/RL: Ukrainian officials have claimed that Russian forces are running low on food and ammunition, and according to one report, could run out of both in the next three days. Do these reports ring true to you and what do these problems mean operationally for the Russian military in Ukraine?

Liam Collins
Liam Collins

Collins: I think three days might be a little bit on the short end, but no doubt, [the Russians] are running lower on supplies than they anticipated. It's clear by their initial attack they thought this was going to be a short-duration operation and the Russians don't have a strong logistical system like a lot of Western armies do. So, it's no doubt that they're going to be strained now.

So that's going to have an effect on it and that's going to prevent them from doing more of a larger-scale attack and then that's why they're sitting on the outskirts and just using artillery strikes; and [if] we’re seeing them try to gain supplies locally, then that's more of an indicator that they're out of [their own] supplies as well.

RFE/RL: How do you see the current state of play? It seems that Russian forces are quite stalled around Kyiv, and Mariupol and Kharkiv have been under intense bombardment. Are we shifting to more urban warfare and, if so, how does that change the face of this war?

Collins: Once Russia [starts to] enter the cities you're going to see things change because when they're sitting on the outside, they're in relatively safe positions and just shooting artillery bombardments [and] rockets into the city. When they actually have to enter the city…they’re not only exposed to the [Ukrainian] armed forces, but they're going to be exposed to tens of thousands of volunteers that are going to be in a city fighting those Russian elements [as well].

Burning apartment buildings in Mariupol on March 22.
Burning apartment buildings in Mariupol on March 22.

So [Russia] really doesn't want to enter [the Ukrainian] cities, but they're going to be forced to [and] they're going to take heavy losses throughout their movement into the cities. It's going to be a tough urban fight.

RFE/RL: What should people make of the casualty figures for this war? We have seen varying figures from Ukrainian and Western officials about the number of Russian soldiers killed and Moscow has only disclosed casualties once. We also have not seen regular figures for casualties on the Ukrainian side. How accurate are these different figures and is there a chance that these blind spots could skew our understanding of how the war is developing?

Collins: [Neither] side necessarily wants to be forthcoming with what their losses are because that tips their hand to the enemy in terms of what the effect is or isn't having on them. So, typically in war you're going to want to underreport your losses and overreport the enemy’s.

It's tough to get an accurate picture in terms of the losses and it's normal to overly focus on those [figures]. Each side has a finite number of tanks, a finite number of airplanes, [and] a finite number of fighters. So those [casualty numbers] do matter.

But I think when you're trying to look at the actual conduct of the fight and where it's progressing, I think it's more important to focus on what is the action or the inaction that's happening and that gives you a sense of the direction [the war is headed toward], and it seems like we're at that stalemate point where we're trying to figure out what's going to happen next.

RFE/RL: You advised the Ukrainian Defense Ministry on its reforms after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014. How crucial are the reforms that the Ukrainian military has undergone for the battlefield success that it has managed to achieve so far?

Collins: Without a doubt those reforms have been critical. It can't be overstated. In 2014, it was really a decrepit military that [Ukraine] had with really low combat-fighting capability and they underwent a significant reform [process] while they were at war in the east in the Donbas to reform their defense establishment -- anything from command and control to planning to operations [to] medical and [to] logistics into a more professional force with a focus on making [it] a more Western army.

I think the biggest surprise to me has been Russia's inability to use information operations, electronic warfare, and cyberwar...they just have been a no-show.

Additionally, some Western capabilities [have] helped them, like Javelin anti-tank missile weapon systems [and] right before the conflict started, Stinger missiles. Then there [was] really a cultural change within the Ukrainian defense establishment, [especially with] empowering the lower-level leaders to have what we call mission command in the United States, or discipline initiative, [that] allows them -- because the speed of the battle in the 21st century is so fast -- to be able to [give] them broad mission guidance and let them go execute [on their own], as opposed to everything going to the top [of the command structure].

RFE/RL: Is there anything -- whether it’s in terms of strategy, types of weapons, or tactics -- that could change things on the ground and break this stalemate that we've been discussing?

Collins: Wars always go on a lot longer than either side ever anticipates. That's a common theme of war. If any side knew the outcome, they probably wouldn't have gone to war in the first place. Obviously, Ukraine didn't have a choice.

Ukrainian service members train with U.S. Army instructors near Lviv on February 4.
Ukrainian service members train with U.S. Army instructors near Lviv on February 4.

[It] just takes a long time and heavy losses to actually make one side capitulate. At this point, there's a lot of sunk costs for the Russians. So, there's no option for [Russian President Vladimir] Putin [at the moment] -- for an authoritarian like him -- to pull out with a loss at this point.

And the Ukrainians are not going to capitulate. They're not going to give up their sovereign nation and become a [Russian] satellite, and so I think that's why it's just going to drag on. I don't think there's anything quick that can end this [war], and so I would expect it to be a long, long process.

RFE/RL: From a military point of view, is there anything about how this war has unfolded so far that has surprised you?

Collins: I think the biggest surprise to me has been Russia's inability to use information operations, electronic warfare, and cyberwar. That was really expected based on what they did in 2014 and what they did in Georgia in 2008, but they just have been a no-show in terms of those capabilities.

In terms of the tactical fight, it has pretty much progressed as I would have expected. I think that Javelins and other anti-tank missiles have been very effective at taking out Russian armor. Russia's been able to achieve some level of air superiority, but they can't achieve air dominance as long as Ukraine has the significant anti-aircraft capability that was provided by the West, [which] impedes Russia's ability to fly.

Ukrainian soldiers fire U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles during military exercises in December 2021.
Ukrainian soldiers fire U.S.-supplied Javelin missiles during military exercises in December 2021.

RFE/RL: Is there a particular reason why you think that those information, electronic, and cyberwar capabilities haven't shown up yet?

Collins: I think, initially, maybe Putin didn't employ those because he thought Ukraine was just going to capitulate and Russia can send tanks into downtown Kyiv and then [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy is going to fall and Ukraine is going to welcome [Russian forces] with open arms -- [and] that clearly didn't happen.

But I think [the] information operations clearly aren't working [and] people are onto it in terms of noticing [things like] false-flag events where they were potentially planning to try to preempt the conflict. I think part of it is we've learned [from past examples] and we're onto some of [Russia’s] games, but I think it's just their electronic warfare and cyber [capabilities] probably just aren't what we thought they were.

RFE/RL: In the U.S. military community, do you think that this has changed the way that the Russian military is perceived?

Collins: Yes, but [after this war] we probably are going to underestimate their capabilities. In 2014, everybody looked at what they did to seize Crimea without firing a shot, [which was] pretty impressive from a strategic and operational perspective, and we built Russia up to be a 10-foot-tall monster.

My fear [now] is that people will not respect them enough for what their capabilities are. I think it's too early to tell, but that's my fear.

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.

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