Note from the Editors: The following written exchange is part of our experimental dialogues series, which aims at bringing together the best minds to analyze and debate controversial issues in depth.
Analysts Clint Ehrlich and Russians With Attitude discuss the War in Ukraine, Part I
Clint Ehrlich: When Russia invaded, I notoriously predicted a “Sputnik moment”. I was confident that Russia’s modernized military would win a Gulf War-style victory against Ukraine. I’ve caught a lot of deserved flak for that, but my belief was mirrored by the U.S. intelligence community, which projected that Kiev could fall within the first 72 hours of a Russian invasion, as the Ukrainian military surrendered en masse. Whether the Kremlin itself also planned for a swift victory in Ukraine is of more than academic interest. It may have a significant effect on the course of the war, since if Russia did not anticipate prolonged combat, it may have underestimated the strategic consequences of Western sanctions.
Do you believe that the Kremlin itself was caught off guard by the tenacity of Ukrainian resistance? Or was that an error more characteristic of Western analysts like myself, who arguably overlooked that military courage against invaders is a shared trait among the Ukrainian and Russian people?
RWA: The idea that Ukraine would fall within a week was based on two misconceptions. The first one is mistaking the Armed Forces of Ukraine of 2022 for those of 2014. In 2014, Ukrainian forces in Crimea either changed sides or laid down their arms with no resistance, and even before the (extremely limited) Russian intervention the Donbass militias, who at that point were made up mostly of middle-aged veterans and volunteers, managed to rout vastly superior Ukrainian army units. The Ukrainian government admitted that at that point they had no more than ~5000 combat-ready soldiers in the standing army. The AFU of 2022, however, are a huge force (the largest in Europe, aside from Russia) in a militarized society, juiced up on eight years of NATO supplies and training, and, of course, their own efforts. The regular army is supported by a vast network of paramilitary structures in every city in the east of the country, including the formal integration of highly motivated ideological formations made up of political extremists. The reasons why people would assume that the Ukrainian army hasn’t changed are either ignorance or general slavophobia, assuming they can’t build a formidable army. A lot of people in the West believed this, and, to a smaller degree, in Russia, too.
The second reason why so many people seemed to expect a swift Russian victory is that they judged the possible Russian performance based on the experiences of the last Western-led wars. I still maintain that if Russia had unleashed a hellish Shock & Awe campaign in Ukraine, the AFU would have disintegrated on impact, which is also exactly what it looked like in the first 12 hours of the war. Later we learned that the Armed Forces of Russia executed fewer missile and airstrikes in a month than the US did in a few days in Iraq. In living memory, no Western nation has fought a war “on its own soil”, or at least in a location where the lives of the local population mattered to them. They do not understand why Russia wouldn’t just flatten every city in Eastern Ukraine. The official (and unofficial) Russian position is that the Russian-Ukrainian population of these territories is held hostage by an irrational nationalist regime in Kiev. Of course, within such a paradigm it doesn’t make much sense to reduce population centers to rubble. Still, the Ukrainian Navy ceased to exist as a strategic force on day 1 of the war and most of the Ukrainian air force capabilities were also, if not destroyed, then severely limited.
I do, however, believe that there were also mistakes in the Russian General Staff regarding the expectation of mass surrenders. Either these were based on the outdated Crimean experience, or on bad intelligence. I tend to think it was the latter, as Russian intelligence seems to have suffered several huge failures, certainly more than the military. In Russian culture, Ukrainians, or Malorussians, are traditionally viewed as extremely stubborn. This is a known quantity, so to speak. You know, back in 2015 there was a joke about the war: Donbass Militiaman Ivan shouts at Ukrainian soldier Taras, “Give up, you’re surrounded!”, and Taras answers “Russians don’t surrender!”. Fighting Slavs is hard.
Clint Ehrlich: I had argued pre-invasion that the most likely scenario was a limited Russian offensive to seize the Donbas and create a land bridge to Crimea. That now seems to be Russia’s primary goal, but in the early days of the war it appeared that the Russian military was attempting to surround Kiev. There are now commentators, such as Scott Ritter and Niccolò Soldo, who insist that the forces deployed around Kiev were simply a feint to tie down the Ukrainian military while Russian and DNR/LNR forces made progress in the East. They herald this as a brilliant example of “maneuver warfare.”
I’m skeptical of this theory for several reasons. First, the extreme aggressiveness of the Russian airborne assault on Antonov Airport in Gostomel – which cost the lives of so many elite VDV troops – seems inconsistent with a feint. Second, if the goal was simply to prevent Ukraine from reinforcing its forces in the East, Russia could simply have kept its battalion tactical groups positioned in Belarus, where they posed an obvious danger to Kiev. Third, the quantity of Russian armored vehicles that we saw destroyed around Kiev suggests that the combat effectiveness of the BTGs was significantly degraded, which is more consistent with a stalled advance than a planned feint.
However, I admit that there are counter-arguments. Russia never initiated airstrikes or artillery bombardment around Kiev on the scale that I would expect to support a serious advance. And when President Putin announced the so-called “special military operation,” he framed it as being focused on the Donbas. Given this evidence, do you believe that the operation is going according to plan? Or do you believe that the Kremlin pivoted after a failed attempt to seize Ukraine’s capital?
RWA: Well, several plans can exist at the same time. From what I understand, the Russian General Staff did expect a swift Ukrainian surrender as “Plan A”. That doesn’t mean that Plans B, C, D and E were made up ad hoc or given a lower priority. One possible outcome the Kremlin probably expected was a speedy capitulation and the installation of a moderately pro-Russian regime in Kiev, basically a return to the status quo antebellum of 2010-2013. I have heard from reliable sources that the plans were adjusted on day 2 or 3 of the war when it became obvious that this would not happen.
I try not to rely too much on the grapevine for my analysis, and I don’t like implying that I have some secret sources of information in high places (I don’t, but I do know people who know people who hear things), but as far as I can tell the Russian General Staff was prepared for three or four scenarios, that included Kiev backing down (implying a timeline of a few days), the AFU disintegrating (implying a timeline of around six weeks) and the war going on as a real war (implying a timeline of roughly six months of active large-scale hostilities). Currently, the third scenario seems to be implemented.
There is no contradiction between marching on Kiev to accept Zelensky’s surrender after two days and marching on Kiev to tie down up to 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers. Regarding the assault on Gostomel, the official casualties among the VDV vanguard are reported as 17 KIA, which was confirmed by war reporters on the ground and also private sources. Russian losses around Kiev in the first week were substantial and closer to parity than on other fronts but not catastrophic. The largest attrition was suffered around Kharkov, not Kiev.
I think it is too early to judge the Kiev operation, as its worth will be determined by the outcome of the Battle for Donbass. It is, however, noteworthy that we haven’t heard much from the AFU’s Operational Command “North” since the Russian withdrawal. I have seen no evidence of the “victorious” Ukrainian troops around Kiev being able to reinforce other parts the East or even staging some sort of counter-offensive. They don’t seem to be in the condition to do much of anything.
Clint Ehrlich: Western analysts have been very critical of the performance of both the FSB and the Russian General Staff in this conflict. It has been argued that Russia’s investment in bleeding-edge strategic weapons, such as hypersonic missiles and the Poseidon intercontinental nuclear torpedo, has diverted both resources and attention from the more mundane capabilities needed to conduct effective combined-arms operations.
Some of these claims relate to the maintenance standards for Russian equipment; a viral twitter thread about the alleged deficiencies of Russian tires comes to mind. Others involve allegations of poor logistics. It does seem that, in the initial days of the operation, Russian mechanized troops outraced their supply lines and left themselves vulnerable to being cut off and counter-attacked. But in the current operations in the Donbas, this does not appear to be a problem. The Russians are advancing more methodically, and this appears to be yielding better results.
On the whole, how much credence do you give to these Western criticisms? What do you see as the worst strategic mistakes that Russia has made, and how effectively do you believe the Russian military is adapting to those errors?
RWA: The criticism of the FSB seems justified so far. There is this persistent myth about Russian intelligence being extraordinarily powerful (manipulating elections in the US, causing Brexit, etc), but the reality looks different. There seem to have been leaks to the Ukrainian side, although this could also have come directly from Western intelligence agencies. In any case, the FSB & SBU were, to a large extent, a single structure until late 2013, and the FSB seems to have done way less to “purge” its ranks of possible moles than the Ukrainians. I’ve also heard about a failed attempt to bribe the Kharkov administration into giving up the city, thwarted by SBU or possibly direct US intervention and leading to the civilian leadership being replaced by Azov-aligned radicals (the “National Corps” party).
Regarding the General Staff, my understanding is that operational command in the initial phase of the conflict was held by officers with combat experience in Syria — which makes sense, as that is the “freshest” combat experience available to the Armed Forces of Russia, but it also led to several costly mistakes that were later corrected, e.g. the large military convoys that were appropriate in a desert area with a technologically inferior enemy, but vastly inappropriate in urban or forest areas with an enemy who has a virtually endless supply of ATGMs. Russian vanguard troops outpacing supply lines in the first days is also an established fact and this led to a majority of the casualties in the earliest phase of the war. This, too, was corrected, and doesn’t seem to be a problem anymore.
During the current phase of the war, the Russian military can rely on its established doctrine — artillery supremacy. There aren’t as many civilians on the Donbass contact line as there are in Kharkov or Mariupol, which further “unchains” the Russian forces and lets them use CAS, cruise missiles & MLRS in a more unrestricted way than on other fronts.
Regarding logistics and vehicle losses, Western analysts have made some ridiculous assessments. It is definitely not the strongest aspect of the Russian military, but I’ve seen no evidence of the catastrophic failures purported by the “BrOSINT” class. The loss of BTRs without loss of life is not really a problem. There are tens of thousands of those things in Russia. We’ve described the war as a “Late Soviet Tech Genocide” before. The attrition is extreme in material terms, but it doesn’t matter, as the supplies are basically infinite. The Armed Forces of Russia also seem to be holding back newer and better vehicles. E.g. I’ve only seen the T-90 two or three times on photos so far and the modernized BMP-1AM “Basurmanin” only once.
Another strategic mistake I’d like to point out is the insufficient integration of the Donbass People’s Militias into the Russian military structure. I don’t know if this is out of some misplaced respect for the Republics or another reason, but their military forces should have been completely integrated into the logistics and command structure of the Armed Forces of Russia. While the latter seems to work out on the operational level (both strategic and tactical), the former does not, which leads to supply problems and other challenges that could have been easily avoided.
Clint Ehrlich: It’s interesting that you mention the gulf between perception and reality when it comes to Russia’s intelligence capabilities. To some extent, I think this is a relic of the Cold War, when the KGB did seem to consistently get the better of the CIA when it came to recruiting and identifying moles, and when it developed a legendary reputation for listening devices, such as the passive-cavity resonator embedded in the Great Seal of the United States that was gifted to U.S. ambassador W. Averell Harriman.
After the Cold War, this mythos of superhuman competence persisted with the powers attributed to the FSB, SVR, and GRU. Obviously, the height of this was the hysteria in the wake of the 2016 election. I never gave credence to the claims that Russia had either interfered in the election tabulation or that it had significantly shaped public discourse in the United States. However, I did have what I would describe as a healthy respect for Russia’s information-warfare capabilities, and its willingness to invest significant resources in messaging both at home and abroad.
That is perhaps the single area where I have been most surprised by Russia’s underperformance during the war in Ukraine – that is, it seems that the most decisive victories for Ukraine have been in the area of molding international perception. Looking at not just the traditional Western media landscape but also the social-media commons of e.g. Twitter and Facebook, one is tempted to conclude that “Russians can’t meme.”
It sounds funny, but the Ukrainian messaging effort (amplified, of course, by Western intelligence) has had real consequences for Russia, in terms of both the severity of the economic sanctions that foreign powers have been persuaded to impose, as well as the quantity of military aid that they have offered. Have you been surprised by the results of the information-warfare battle that we see playing out? How much of a role do you believe it has actually had in the progression of the conflict?
RWA: The misconception that modern Russia is somehow good at information warfare, propaganda and ideology-building is a recurring theme on our podcast. I’ll grant that only very few people on this planet truly know the extent of the shadow war going on between the intelligence agencies, so any criticism of an intelligence agency’s capabilities shouldn’t be viewed as something definitive.
However, it really looks like the people tasked with courting Ukrainian elites on behalf of Russia have failed miserably, or, more likely, didn’t do their job at all and just pocketed the money. This first became apparent (in my opinion) in 2014 when it turned out that the “Create pro-Russian movements in Ukraine” department at whatever government agency was responsible for that didn’t do anything and all the actual pro-Russian organizations were grassroots. It looks like the situation hasn’t improved at all. The “aesthetics” of the Crimean operation were pretty good — “polite people”, cats, all that stuff. But since then not much happened.
I have always maintained that the “information war” sphere in Russia is occupied by people who are incompetent, stupid and useless. In times of war, PR/propaganda and intelligence work merge into one big chaotic maelstrom of lies and information management. The Kremlin’s “media people” are already pretty bad in times of peace, but in the current situation it has become clear that they are terrifyingly unsuited for their jobs. I saw this coming, to be honest. What I didn’t see coming is how strong the grassroots replacement for the “official” people would be.
Much of this will become public knowledge only after the war (or never), but it’s really crazy what people are achieving with zero resources running on pure enthusiasm. Crowdsourced Russian OSINT is in direct communication with the Armed Forces, providing public geolocation and other services. There are several Telegram bots where pro-Russian locals (or simply locals who don’t like being used as human shields) can send coordinates and photos of Ukrainian targets like strongpoints, ambushes, hidden repair workshops, artillery positions, etc. The Novorossiya underground also actively supports the Russian war effort with intel. There are many examples like this of “media” warping into something physical, something kinetic. A few well-placed photoshopped images actually managed to cause real-life panic several times. The “red mark” thing, a rumor among Ukrainians that “traitors” and “saboteurs” were marking buildings to be bombed with tags or lasers, distracted Ukrainian authorities and security forces for a whole month — and it was started by a Donbass activist.
Thus, the failures of the government are being compensated by the people — at least a little bit, directly on the frontlines. When it comes to international “information warfare”, there is quite literally nothing. Which is why it’s so funny when people accuse us of being paid propagandists or something like that. If the Russian government had the foresight and capacity to put intelligent young people in charge of its intelligence and information policies, everything would look very different and, who knows, maybe this war could have been avoided in the first place.
I don’t know how much impact the Ukrainian social media success really has on the military situation. I honestly don’t believe that it’s a lot. People in the West are generally more gullible when it comes to media than Russians; they largely believe whatever they’re told. And it’s not like public opinion in European countries or the US has any direct impact on the war, either. We’re probably closer to open war between NATO and Russia than at the height of the Cold War, and no one was asked. Just look at the NFZ PsyOp with something like 3/4 of polled Americans saying that they support the creation of a No-Fly Zone while being completely unaware that this would mean actively shooting down Russian jets. Likewise, the weapons shipments are just decisionist war policy and not the result of some democratic process.
In any case, going off the deep end with regards to propaganda may just turn out to be a mistake for Kiev. You already have Presidential advisors commenting on clips that are very clearly authentic and filmed by Ukrainian soldiers on Ukrainian positions complaining that they aren’t being given the means to more effectively fight Russians, and claiming that these clips are staged and the Ukrainians in them are actually POWs forced to tell lies about their officers abandoning them. But these soldiers have families and friends. The 3000-4000 Ukrainian POWs who don’t exist according to Kiev also have families and friends. So do the thousands upon thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who were KIA. There are protests at recruitment centers in Western Ukraine, people’s phones are being searched and confiscated if they read the “wrong” Telegram channels in Nikolayev. It’s extremely hard to keep up this disinfo regime. Kiev had remarkable success in unifying the information stream and e.g. keeping information about damage from missile strikes to a minimum. But the worse things get, the harder this will be. And when the cracks start to show, all the Western PR agencies in the world won’t be able to reconcile the lie and the reality on the ground.
What’s actually the most worrying thing here is Western leadership ostensibly “getting high on their own supply”. If intelligence agencies, whom I assume to have a realistic picture, withhold information from “policymakers” and the latter as well as “thought leaders” base their reasoning on laughably wrong propaganda takes written up by the BrOSINT crowd – stupid things can happen. But they may also not, because, it kind of doesn’t matter anyway. When was the last time you heard someone mention Kiev lying about Ukrainian pilots flying combat missions from Polish territory in NATO jets?
Clint Ehrlich: From a practical perspective, the most important question is how the war in Ukraine ends. What do you see as the most likely scenario for ultimately ending hostilities? What would the minimum politically acceptable “victory” be for President Putin?
I have warned that if Ukraine persists in attempting cross-border strikes into Russia, the political calculus within the Kremlin in favor of full-scale national mobilization could shift, particularly if those attacks kill a large number of Russian civilians. If that were to happen, the manpower advantage that Ukraine enjoys on the ground would rapidly be eroded by the introduction of large numbers of Russian conscripts, who would no longer be legally prohibited from taking part in hostilities.
Do you find it plausible that President Putin would be willing to take this step? If so, would you expect Russia’s ambitions to remain limited to securing the Donbas, or do you believe that a fully mobilized Russia might seek to march on Kiev and achieve complete regime change in Ukraine?
RWA: Why would Russia have to mass mobilize conscripts? Only around 1/5 to 1/4 of Russia’s active duty personnel is currently in Ukraine, a special cadre of combat-ready reservists has been created earlier (“БАРС” – “Combat Army Reserve of the Country”) and the reserves number two million in total. The total manpower pool of the National Guard + Active Duty + Reserves exceeds 3,5 million. It is extremely hard to imagine a situation in which that wouldn’t be enough, so “total national mobilization” is out of the question. Ukraine, currently on the third wave of mobilization, is de facto fighting two peacetime military districts. The manpower question is purely political, not a question of available resources. As to how acceptable it would be domestically to send more troops into Ukraine – I think the Kremlin is being extremely cautious about it and might be walking into a backlash of public opinion being vastly more hawkish than Moscow leadership itself. In any case, a mobilization is certainly possible, but would most likely only apply to reservists outside of some doomsday scenario.
As to how the war might end, that is a very good question. I believe what the Kremlin would have liked best is the “neutral, friendly, independent, antifascist Ukraine” dreamed up by Russian pundits back in 2013 during the Euromaidan protests. Putting some kind of Yanukovych or Medvedchuk type person on the Bankovaya would require a minimal amount of real investment in terms of political, social and economic capital, and would also solve exactly zero of the long-term strategic problems.
Alas, that train has left the station. By now, anything short of securing Donbass + historical Novorossiya will be unambiguously seen as a defeat by the Russian public. “Securing” can mean anything here, either the creation of a unitary buffer state, new People’s Republics or full annexation. In strategic terms, that would also be more intelligent than trying to annex anything beyond it. Leaving a rump state with no access to the Azov & Black Seas, with no infrastructure or industry and full of political radicals with an astonishingly large supply of weapons is, on the one hand, a permanent danger for Russia and doesn’t solve the “NATO weapons on our borders” problem, but on the other hand it creates a gigantic black hole for the West to pour hundreds of billions of dollars into without accomplishing anything.
I don’t know what is planned, but it’s becoming obvious that Kherson oblast and the parts of Zaporozhye oblast under Russian control are slowly being integrated into the Russian socio-economic sphere, so I believe some form of annexation or at least separation from the hypothetical rump state is likely. It kind of depends on what happens in Western Ukraine/Galicia. There are persistent rumors about Poland being interested in establishing control over some of its “historical territories”, and any kind of situation like this could lead to a sudden avalanche of forced territorial concessions.
Regarding retribution against “symbolic” actions like strikes on Russian territory, I believe that the General Staff isn’t guided by such principles. They are gradually raising the intensity of missile strikes and grinding down the AFU – getting distracted by stuff that makes patriotic bloggers mad would be profoundly stupid. This is probably correct, but it reflects badly on the public mood. On the other hand, a big part of the Russian government apparatus still doesn’t seem to accept the reality of being at war with NATO, and the Ukrainian attacks in Kursk & Belgorod are forcing them to.