In February, Ukraine shocked the world by driving Russian forces from Kyiv, fending off Vladimir Putin’s attempt to quickly capture the country. Almost four months later, the war has settled into a bloody slog that is now largely focused in the Donbas, in Ukraine’s east. As Ukrainian forces suffer heavy losses, Russia’s superior artillery has put it at a major advantage in the region. But even there, Russia’s advances are slow and grinding, and Ukraine sometimes rolls back its gains. To assess the current state of play and what might come next, I spoke with Michael Kofman, a widely cited expert on the Russian military. Kofman is the research program director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization in Arlington, Virginia.
Is anyone actually winning this war right now? How do we even judge what success looks like for Russia or Ukraine at the moment?
You have to judge it based on the strategies and the political objectives that you think these two actors are pursuing. For Russia, it’s very clear that seizing the administrative territories of the Donbas is their minimal goal. And if they are successful and then are given substantial time to recuperate, they may not stop there. In the second phase of this war, the Russian military is operating much more in the way they were trained and organized to fight — unlike the first phase, which was principally a botched regime-change operation.
This strategy seems centered on attrition warfare as the principal Russian approach. That’s in part because the force they are fighting with has been substantially depleted. The Russian military took very heavy losses in the first phase of the war in terms of personnel and equipment. It is also because this type of warfare strongly favors the Russian military doctrinally. It’s a military based around firepower with a tremendous amount of artillery.
So the Russian approach has been to essentially grind their way toward incremental territorial gains. The Ukrainian strategy, thus far in the second phase, has been to try to exhaust Russian forces, leverage urban terrain, and fight for every piece of it in order to inflict the maximum amount of casualties so that the Russian offensive eventually runs out of steam. In the interim, they’ve conducted localized counter attacks around Kharkiv, Izium, and in Kherson, but these are not major counteroffensives.
Read the full interview from New York Magazine.