When Vladimir Putin ordered the Russian military to invade Ukraine more than two months ago, he no doubt expected an easy victory from a lightning-fast assault intended to crush the smaller opposing force. This spectacular victory was meant to advance the Russian president's vision of a new manifest destiny, bringing his country closer to re-establishing itself as an imperial power on the global stage. But Putin's gambit failed in grand fashion. Instead of celebrating a victory on May 9 — the anniversary of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II — the Russian military is trying to reorganize itself after a series of stunning defeats and great losses in both materiel and personnel.
Speed was the key element in the Russian plan, but surprisingly strong and effective resistance from the Ukrainian military, and the Ukrainian people as a whole, exposed the Russian military's many weaknesses: Logistical capabilities were lacking, troops appear poorly trained and lack motivation, equipment has not been properly maintained. Russia's military now appears to be running short of ammunition, fuel, spare parts and even soldiers.
The Russian military laid siege to the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, but after after several weeks of intense battle was finally driven out. The Ukrainian city of Mariupol has become the site of savage up-close combat, with defenders still holding out inside the now-famous Azovstal steel plant.
The time bought with Ukrainian struggle and blood has meant that the U.S. and its NATO allies have continued to pour billions of dollars in weaponry and other critical supplies into the embattled country. These weapons, which include killer drones, heavy artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and other support are proving lethal to the Russian invaders. As reported by the New York Times last week, the U.S. is also providing critical military intelligence to the Ukrainian military, which has been used, for instance, to target and kill Russian generals and to sink the missile cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Black Sea fleet.
The Russian military has now pivoted away from Ukraine's capital city and is largely focusing on the eastern and southern parts of the country, specifically the Donbas region and Odessa. To this point, even with reorganized forces and a new battle plan and leadership, the Russians continue to encounter fierce resistance in those parts of Ukraine.
Despite Ukraine's spirited resistance, the international mood remains tense. Putin and his spokespeople have at times threatened the possibility of nuclear war if the U.S. and its allies continue to "interfere" in Ukraine. At other times, the Russian leadership has signaled being open to a diplomatic solution to end the Ukraine war. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin recently made clear that the strategic goal of the U.S. is not just to preserve Ukrainian sovereignty but to degrade Russia's military capability such that it will not threaten its neighbors again.
To discuss the current perilous state of the war in Ukraine, I recently spoke with John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major who is chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. He also consults for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the UN and other military and national security organizations. Spencer's essays and other writing have been featured by the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and other leading publications. His new book is "Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War," to be published in July.
In this conversation, Spencer assesses the Russian military's performance in the war and offers his views on why the Ukrainians have been able to fight effectively against a far larger and more powerful force. He discusses the effect of Western military intelligence as a key variable in the Ukrainian success so far, and how the war is changing as the front shifts away from cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv into the wide-open terrain of eastern and southern Ukraine.
Spencer argues against believing these sensational claims that the war in Ukraine represents a significant change in the nature of warfare based on technological innovation, and ends by making a surprising prediction: While the longer struggle for Ukraine's freedom from Russia may drag on for years, he says, this conflict in Ukraine is drawing near its conclusion.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
How do you assess the performance of the Russian military in Ukraine? Are they as bad as most outside observers are suggesting?
Absolutely. The Russian military has shown that it is in fact that bad. At the beginning of this war, they probably began as the No. 2 or 3 military in the world in terms of combat power. The Russian military will probably leave the Ukraine war diminished down to No. 25 or 30 at least.
On paper, the Russian military should have been able to dominate the Ukrainian military and win in three days, based just on the size of the Ukraine military. The problem with that prediction is armed resistance, which is when citizens rise up. That can take many forms. It's not just some of the images that we've seen of Ukrainian civilians with AK-47s. The Ukrainian government enacted a law right before the invasion that increased the territorial defenses from some 200,000 soldiers to about a million. That can't be discredited as a factor. I believe many outside observers underestimated the Ukrainian military's capabilities.
Russia's plan of attack was not ridiculous. It was a solid plan, but they didn't have the military strength they thought they had.
The impact of the weapons, supplies and support provided to the Ukrainians was also underestimated. They started getting the Javelin missiles, for example, around 2016. The Ukrainians didn't just start getting Javelins two months ago. One of the first things that was given to Ukraine from the outside world was superior intelligence. That includes everything from satellite imagery to help with signals intelligence and other aspects as well. That translates into the ability for a smaller and weaker force to be at the right moment to stop the other guy from doing what he wants to do. The Russian plan of attack in the beginning was not ridiculous. It was actually a solid plan, but they didn't have the military strength they thought they had to follow through on it.
It is now clear that the U.S. and NATO are providing intelligence information to Ukraine. The only question is what type of intelligence, how fast and in what detail. Once the war is over, what do you think some of those big stories will be?
The Ukrainians could not have sunk the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea fleet, without such intelligence information. It wasn't a lucky shot to be able to hit that ship with the Neptune missiles. Superior intelligence information was required. I believe the same thing about all of these Russian generals being killed. Those aren't all lucky shots either. The Ukrainians being able to hit a vital fuel dump inside Belarus by using helicopters was also not possible without superior intelligence capabilities.
What did the Russians reasonably believe they could achieve — and how did their plan go so wrong so quickly?
Ukraine is the second-largest country in Europe. There is so much happening at the same time. One of the biggest risks that the Russians took was coming across seven different fronts. In the beginning, they had one objective, and that was to take Kyiv. All other Russian military operations were in support of that objective. In order to take Kyiv, they needed to use speed.
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Step one of invading a country is to take out the air defenses. The Russians failed there too, and that was a massive blunder. The airspace is contested to this day, in fact. Without that air superiority, their audacious plan to take the capital — which included special forces and other elite troops attacking the airport — did not go as planned. The Russians were also going to drive their most lethal mechanized unit down from Belarus, which is the fastest route. The plan was basically sound, but because the air defenses were not taken out the Russians got slowed down.
And if you get slower in this audacious plan of using surprise, audacity and speed, then everything starts to fall apart. That is part of war, of course, but you have to have the capability to respond. Because the Russians couldn't adapt to the loss of their momentum, they slowed down and stalled out. And of course, there is the truism, and wisdom, that it is not fighting that wins war, but logistics.
Amateurs talk tactics; professionals talk logistics. Once Russia pushed their units fast — we saw units just driving through towns, trying to get where they were going — they extended their operational reach. That is an operational risk. Such a move is not unheard of, but the Russians couldn't hold the lines to support everything they were pushing in at once. Those logistical lines are the lifeline. Once again, what wins wars, or loses them, are questions of logistics.
The Russian military's senior leaders are obviously professionals, very serious people. How did they make such basic and fundamental errors in the execution of their war plan?
Throughout the Russian chain of command, they thought they had a force that they did not. The war in Ukraine has been the biggest test of the Russian military since World War II, and how much it has changed. The Russians tried a Western-style invasion. The plan was to topple the Ukrainian government and then put in their own. It was supposed to be a Western, modern, Desert Storm or Operation Iraqi Freedom-style "shock and awe" invasion. Russian military leaders believed they could accomplish this, based on what they believed they had.
The Russians tried to fight like a modern Western military with a greatly weakened Soviet-style force. They have been exposed as suffering from years of graft, decay and delusion.
But the training and preparation of the conscripts was poor, and the Russian military lacks professional enlisted soldiers. They were trying to fight like a modern Western military with a Soviet-style force that even wasn't as strong as it was during the USSR. They failed, and have now been exposed as suffering from years of graft, decay and belief in a method of warfare that does not fit the strengths of their military.
What is going on other regions of Ukraine, such as the east and south? Some observers suggest that the Russians are in fact enjoying great success in those regions but that is being underreported by the Western media.
Kherson is an example where they've had success. They moved in and were able to secure it with a minimum number of forces. But as for Odessa, personally, I do not think they could ever take it. Mariupol, of course, the Russians had to take at great cost. The fact that the Russians had to fly in their top military officer, an adviser to Putin himself, to get control of the situation in Ukraine is the biggest sign one could ever have that things are not going the way the Russians want them to.
The fact that 3,000 Ukrainian soldiers held off 15,000 or more Russian troops in Mariupol is incredible. They didn't just do that by the way — those Ukrainians kept those Russian forces engaged. That means they couldn't go somewhere else for two months. I woudn't even call Mariupol a win for Russia, to be honest.
We know a great deal more about Russian losses. As for Ukrainian losses, there hasn't been public information about that, and we know a lot less. Clearly, the Ukrainians have lost a lot, and the fight is costing them greatly. As a military analyst, I see Russia making gains in some locations, but then I see them losing gains in other critical locations.
As the Russians move to the east and the Donbas region, they are shifting away from the urban warfare seen in Kyiv to what we describe as "maneuver warfare." How would you explain that term? What will the Russians try to do where the terrain is more open?
Maneuver warfare, as we understand it today, came from finding a way to break out of trench warfare during World War I. That involved using a combination of massive artillery fire, tanks, airplanes and radios to break stalemates in trench lines by penetrating at some point, and then massing all your capabilities into that penetration and overwhelming your enemy. That's the basis of maneuver warfare. In the eastern parts of Ukraine, the Russians are applying that doctrine. That is the most powerful form of open warfare across great distances.
In urban terrain, what we see is more what we call positional warfare. You have a piece of terrain that you're holding, and it is much like trench warfare or akin to siege warfare around ancient castles. It is very hard to find a break-in point. We saw that in Kyiv.
In eastern Donbas, I believe that we will see a combination of both wide-area and long-distance battles, 20-mile fire engagements. But we'll also see the closing in of formations where the Russians are trying to penetrate into critical areas including urban terrain. In the eastern Donbas, it's everything from urban terrain to heavily wooded swamps. There will be all types of warfare, but the more open terrain allows two enemies to find, fix, and finish each other, much more so than in urban terrain.
The ultimate goal is to destroy the other military and control the field of battle. The outcome will be largely determined by which military, the Ukrainians or the Russians, can get to the key pieces of terrain and hold them, and then seek some type of negotiation or other strategy for a resolution.
There are the classic definitions of "war" and "warfare," which are not the same thing. How is the experience of war and warfare similar in Ukraine to things we have seen in earlier time periods? How is it different? And what is the role of technology?
The biggest difference between "war" and "warfare" is that war is the overarching political function of armed fighting between two nations. That includes politics, economics and information. War is the pursuit of strategic objectives by the use of force by one nation versus another. Warfare is the simpler concept of armed fighting between two individuals, whether that's a non-state actor, a terrorist force and a military or two militaries going against each other or a military fighting a bunch of irregular civilians. Warfare is the actual fighting. War is the pursuit of the political and strategic objectives.
This is a war for the nation of Ukraine. This includes how many nations are in support of Ukraine and all the way down to the individuals fighting versus Russia. That will decide the outcome of this war just as much as the warfare, which is the fighting where one person is killing another person.
The nature of war is based on principles that will never change. War is politics. War is human. Yes, the weapons change. Yes, the technologies may change. Even how you fight may change. Yes, we are seeing kamikaze drones and cyber warfare and the like. But to me, these are just continuations of the basics of war fighting. Yes, you can increase somebody's range and you can reduce the cost to humans. If you can put a drone up, you can use intelligence differently.
But I have not seen anything, including the Ukraine war today, that proves to me that there is some radical aspect in which technology is changing the basic nature of fighting.
How do you make sense of the arguments some people have advanced that the war in Ukraine is a revolutionary event that represents a great transformation in warfare, such as with the fixation on the Javelin missile and how it has supposedly made tank warfare obsolete.
The tank, by its nature, is mobile protected firepower. From the start of warfare — from the days of moving up to the castle gates — that requirement to have mobile protected firepower is not going to change. Since the tank first appeared on the battlefield, there has been no replacement for it. There simply is no replacement for an armor-protected vehicle that allows you to get close to the thing you are trying to kill and then having the firepower to do it.
In urban terrain, no smart soldier goes into that type of fight without a tank. And only a dummy goes in sending a tank by itself, because everything in war is basically a chess match. Of course we have developed technologies that make a tank vulnerable, but a soldier on the battlefield is just as vulnerable. I'd rather be inside a vulnerable tank than standing out in the open wearing a Kevlar vest where basically anything can kill me.
These narratives about some revolutionary change in warfare from a given weapon are because people think that they've found something new, and they want everybody to believe them. You have to be a student of warfare to understand where history is rhyming and repeating itself or where there's actually something new.
What does it feel like to be a Ukrainian soldier right now? And what does it feel like to be a Russian soldier in Ukraine?
There are some things about soldiering that don't change. They're having ups and downs in terms of morale and unit cohesion. War does that to people. You endure great things. War is also extreme violence mixed with periods of boredom, punctuated by extreme fear and violence.That's normal life in combat, period.
War is a rollercoaster of emotion that is further impacted by the digital world we live in. Ukrainian soldiers have cell phones; Russian soldiers have cell phones. This fight for the narrative, even in the soldier's brain, is a part of war now.
But now there is this aspect of being connected online. So now the Ukrainian soldiers are hearing from their president. They get the messages that 40 nations are behind them. In Russia, while they try to control information, there's no controlling the fact that entire units are being taken off the battlefield and their equipment doesn't work. All of this information is part of what gives an individual the will to fight. It's a complex formula of personal motivations, their connections to their families, their belief in the cause, and how well the war's going for them. Ultimately, it is a rollercoaster of emotion that is further impacted by the digital world we live in, which is constantly connected. Ukrainian soldiers have their cell phones. Russian soldiers have their cell phones. Information can bleed through. This fight for the narrative, even in the soldier's brain, is there. That will be a part of war going forward forever.
Russian soldiers are committing war crimes in Ukraine. There are reports of Russian soldiers refusing to fight and sabotaging and abandoning their equipment. Officers have been attacked and killed. There is looting. Does this signal to a lack of proper non-commissioned officers in the Russian army?
They have officers and they have conscripts and they have contracted soldiers. They don't have the backbone of an army, which are the non-commissioned officers, the sergeants. When the rubber meets the road, he or she is there at the point of need, to motivate soldiers and take care of the health of soldiers. The non-commissioned officers can make decisions without instructions, and that's really the glue of your army. That matters, because everything's going to go bad in war. There's fog and friction, and when bad things happen, the non-commissioned officer is your glue on the ground. He can say, "OK, that plan went really bad. I know what the overall goal is. I'm going to execute that."
That is the power of any army. So when Russia doesn't have that capability, those people, when the military is put under extreme stress it can't make a decision. It can't create smaller teams of motivated soldiers. It can't keep soldiers from doing bad things. It basically falls apart. The Russians should have known that from history.
What do you think happens next in Ukraine?
You have to look for the "culmination points" when a military force takes so many losses that they will not be able to meet their goals. This is what we saw in Kyiv. They start to break down in their actual formation as an organized group.
This conflict, in a larger sense, won't end for years. Russia will always contest the borders of Ukraine as a sovereign nation. But this war, the battle for Ukraine, will end within weeks or months. That is my opinion. We will see the Russian military in Ukraine reach its culmination point soon.
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