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Analyzing the state of Russia's military


The eyes of the world are on Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues. For over a decade, Russia has undergone a great modernization of its military. Old and outdated equipment has given way to new and sophisticated weapons systems. They've also streamlined how their troops communicate with one another, making it easier to move them around. So have these improvements been visible so far, and how big of an impact are they having as they fight Ukraine's forces? To talk about that, Michael Kofman joins us now. He's a senior fellow for Russian studies at the CNA, Center for Naval Analyses. Welcome to the program, Michael.

MICHAEL KOFMAN: Thanks for having me on your program.

MCCAMMON: What has been Russia's military strategy up until now? Is it just relying on their military superiority?

KOFMAN: So Russia is trying to pursue maximalist war aims in this conflict, and it looks like they had two big military plans. The first was to try to race to the Ukrainian capital, to Kyiv, and encircle it to try to decapitate the regime, and the other was sort of a series of large encirclements of the Ukrainian military. And they have been relying on their conventional superiority, both in quantity, the material manpower they've thrown into the fight, and also quality. I mean, they have a much larger defense budget. They have a much more modernized military and far more capabilities, even though the Ukrainian military is a pretty capable conventional force.

MCCAMMON: We talked a few weeks ago with your colleague, Dmitry Gorenburg, who told us that he thought Russia would avoid civilian attacks because they didn't want to alienate Eastern Ukrainian support. Do you think that is still the case?

KOFMAN: We've definitely seen parts of that being true. Russia's a firepower - heavy military, right? What they've tried to do is rush for key junctions, try to get to the Ukrainian capital, encircle Ukrainian forces. They've grossly underestimated the amount of resistance they would face and the extent to which Ukrainian forces would be able to mount an effective defense. Now, that being said, I have seen them open up with a precision strike campaign against critical infrastructure, air bases and the like. And there are areas, like outside of Kharkiv, where they've used extensive multiple launch rocket systems, cluster munitions and artillery in the fighting.

MCCAMMON: Now, Russia's invasion has faced a lot of strong resistance from Ukrainian civilians. How well-equipped is the Ukrainian army in defending itself?

KOFMAN: Yeah. The Ukraine army's a sizeable force. And it's, I think, acquitted itself in the first couple of days fairly well in the fighting, and what counts is civilians. I mean, Ukraine's principal strategy is, if the main war effort fails, to suck the Russian military into the cities - cities consume manpower; they consume armies - and to basically leverage the resolve of the population in order to make this a very difficult fight for the Russian military. And so far, we've seen that in major cities like Kyiv itself.

MCCAMMON: Just yesterday, Germany announced it was sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger missiles to help Ukraine, something Ukraine has been pushing hard to get in order to defend themselves. For Ukraine, what kind of military equipment and weaponry would it take to repel the Russians?

KOFMAN: It's good that Germany's agreed to send weapons, maybe to some extent a little bit late now that most Ukrainian airspace is closed and you only have ground routes to get into the very western part of the country. Now, that said, I think Ukraine fundamentally needs two types of things. The first is logistics, right? If the war is sustained, troops need supplies. They need ammunition. They need food. They need fuel for their equipment and the like. And second part is key tactical capabilities - you know, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, anti-tank guided missiles, the kind of things that are called man-portable and the kind of things that are easy to provide, that don't take a long time to train on and are easy to distribute to the force. And you could teach civilians to use them in a matter of hours - nothing that's too sophisticated and completely impractical.

MCCAMMON: Going forward, Michael, what do you see as the next step in this conflict?

KOFMAN: You know, I think we're going to see a series of pitched battles, Russian attacks and Ukrainian counterattacks. I think we're going to be seeing more days of fighting in the urban capitals like Kyiv and regional capitals like Kharkiv. While Russian forces are likely to gain ground and make advances in the open and along roads as they have been, I think their plans will be frustrating enough to run into a lot of trouble as they get near metropolitan areas. And I think that the Ukrainian forces still stand a solid chance, at least in the coming days.

MCCAMMON: That's Michael Kofman, senior fellow for Russian studies at the CNA, Center for Naval Analyses. Thank you so much.

KOFMAN: Thanks for having me on your program.

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Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.