An Interview with Mike Kofman
On analysing the Russo-Ukraine War
From the moment when the build-up of Russian forces around the borders of Ukraine began to attract attention in late 2021, Mike Kofman’s analyses of the threat of war and then the reality of the full-scale invasion have been essential reading. His latest substantial article on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, co-authored with Rob Lee, appeared this week in War on the Rocks. In this interview I ask Mike about the special challenges of analysing an ongoing war as well his forward look.
I’d like to start by discussing the special challenges we’ve both faced in trying to follow a closely fought war as it is underway. You were one of the most prominent voices (correctly) warning of the full-scale Russian invasion. But when it came it did not unfold as you and others anticipated. Why do you think this happened and what lessons can we learn from this experience?
There was a range of views in the analytical community: it was not monolithic. Not everyone expected the same type of campaign. In a January 2022 article I proposed three possible variations. If there was something approaching a consensus, it was in the expectation that Ukraine would probably lose the conventional phase of the war, but that Russia would fail in a large-scale occupation of the country. This naturally seems pessimistic now, but at the time there were sound reasons for this view.
The first, and most important reason for the gap in expectations stemmed from an assumption that the Russian invasion would look like a conventional military campaign. Instead, the invasion plan stemmed largely from the Kremlin’s assumptions, driven by a belief that Russian intelligence had set the conditions for a speedy coup de main. Extensive efforts were made at infiltration, subversion, and sabotage, but Russian intelligence failed to deliver. The Russian military structured the invasion assuming the groundwork had been laid, resistance would be weak and isolated, and that combat operations could be swiftly concluded.
As one thoughtful Ukrainian colleague put it in a later discussion, they expected someone would ‘open the gates’ for them. Hence little effort was made to isolate the theater, cut ground lines of communication, or engage in other actions that I think analysts anticipated as part of the operation. Russian forces did not conduct a combined arms operation, but essentially drove in, initially trying to conduct ‘thunder runs’ along divergent axes of advance.
This takes us to why analysts rated Ukrainian chances as low. I think there were several reasons for this, but I would highlight that Ukraine did not appear to be preparing a defense against a full-scale invasion. Kyiv had taken steps in secret, but many of the preparations, from mobilization to deployments, were made last minute, and often from the bottom up. For example, had the orders not been given for Ukrainian units to move out on the day before the initial Russian strike, the losses would have been significantly higher than they were. Ukrainian forces were better positioned to defend in the Donbas, rather than against a full-scale invasion. The capital was relatively undefended on the night of February 24th. A study of the battle of Hostomel suggests that a fair bit of the outcome hinged on those first 24 hours.
Many of those I had the benefit of interviewing in Kyiv also believe that fight for Hostomel was critical to the outcome of that first day’s fighting and much of what followed. Ukrainian volunteers, civilians, and soldiers saved the day through their actions, but the historical evidence suggests that this was a close-run affair. It was difficult to argue, based on what could be observed in the correlation and disposition of forces, that Ukraine stood a great chance of winning. It seemed the Russian plan was to catch Ukraine ‘cold,’ and a fair bit of the evidence suggested this might happen in the days running up to February 24th. That said, it’s clear the community underestimated the Ukrainian military, and civil society.
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