A running compilation of updates and analysis of the Ukraine-Russia war and what it reveals about the world’s military, economic and geopolitical order, according to people with credible backgrounds in the matter.
Apr 9, 2022
Russia is in selective default on its bonds.
General David Petraeus (like many experts) predicts the main axis of advance will now be focused on the east of Ukraine, with the goal of cutting off and encircling Ukrainian forces to consolidate their control of the donbass.
Mar 12, 2022
The head of the FSB’s foreign intelligence branch and his deputy are under house arrest in a sign of Putin’s displeasure at the stalled invasion of Ukraine.
Mar 10, 2022
- The US sent a specialized team ahead of the invasion to evaluate the country’s air-defense capabilities and needs.
- Highly unpredictable mobile surface-to-air missiles complicate the tactical threat picture for Russia and make a much bigger difference in depriving Russia of air superiority than jets.
- Some in the media and capital hill have misunderstood the MIG and think it’s a pivotal air-to-ground platform that can wipe out massive columns of Russian tanks sitting under their own anti-air. A “pure fantasy.”
Justin Bronk says a no-fly zone would be ineffective, dangerous, and a gift to Putin. The military arguments are pretty straightforward:
- This would be highly escalatory, requiring NATO to shoot down any Russian aircraft in Ukraine.
- It would require the US (the only one with enough of the right aircraft and missiles) to suppress and destroy Russian air defenses, not only inside Ukraine, but in Russia and Belarus as well.
- This would amount to a declaration of war against Russia by participants.
- Most Russian firepower right now is from rocket artillery, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and conventional artillery – a NFZ would not help with this.
The political consequences are also not good:
- Would fracture the currently unified world response and political cohesion, and give Putin the retroactive justification that he used to launch the war in the first place – ‘NATO intervention.’
- Would not be possible to enact under a UN Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression) resolution, since China and Russia are permanent members of the security council and would simply veto.
- Would give Putin a more credible way to explain his current military’s performance (e.g., ‘got bombed by the US’ instead of ‘wrecked by a far smaller and weaker country.’).
- Currently hard to justify using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state full of people so linguistically and culturally close to ordinary Russians; Western countries joining active combat could change that calculus.
Mar 9, 2022
Institute for Study of War has a new assessment out:
- Russians still preparing to encircle and assault Kyiv, ad hoc, slowly. US defense official says Russians still stalled near the airport north of the city.
- Russia unlikely to attempt seizing Kharkiv, but may attempt to encircle or bypass.
- Mariupol remains encircled and under bombardment.
- Russia is preparing operations against Zaporizhya City.
- Russian forces from Kherson appear to be encircling Mykolaiv.
US reject’s Poland’s proposed MIG-29 transfer scheme, stating it would not “appreciably increase the effectiveness” of Ukraine’s air force.
A US official estimates 5-6,000 Russians killed in first 2 weeks of battle, about half of Ukraine’s estimate of Russian casualties. With temperatures dropping to as low as -20C soon, Russian soldiers stranded in the 40-mile long armored convey outside Kiev may soon begin freezing to death.
“A metal tank is just a fridge at night if you are not running the engine,” said Glen Grant, who advised Ukraine on its military reform.
Due to Western sanctions, Russian car manufacturer Lada halts production, unable to source parts and supplies. WSJ (also posted on Twitter almost 5 days prior). List of companies withdrawing or halting sales in Russia now include: Sony, Epson, Caterpillar, 3M, Coca-Cola, and McDonald’s.
Mar 8, 2022
From the New York Times:
Biden bans imports of Russian oil. Unclear what effect this will have since oil of the same type is fungible, and the market is global. As Al-Jazeera explained in February, the vast majority of Russian exports are oil and gas, so sanctions that exclude Russian oil and gas are sort of a giant loophole:
But, again, unless literally everyone stops buying oil from them, then energy sanctions are unlikely to have the intended/intuitive effect due to the global nature of the oil market.
Kiev has 10-14 days of supplies, according to US officials.
Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, says Russia does not have the combat power present to capture all of Ukraine, and would need more resources to do so. It is unclear if Moscow knows this, or if they have decided to scale back their ambitions in light of this reality.
Poland agrees to transfer its MIG-29s to the US (and presumably onward to Ukraine) in exchange for US aircraft, and encourages other owners of MIG-29s to do the same. While this is flashy hardware and has massive political implications, its unclear what battlefield implications this would have, especially as other arms are likely to help just as much or even more. In addition, its not clear when other limiting factors will kick in (not enough pilots, armaments, ground crew, airfields, suppression of enemy air defense, etc).
Morgan Stanley predicts a Russian debt default, as soon as April 15, is the most likely scenario: Bloomberg report.
- Russia needs things like parts and servicing for western airplanes, advanced semiconductors, etc, that China can’t supply, and often lacks the technology at the moment to develop replacements (e.g., many of the most advanced semiconductor designs are American, and the manufacturing technology is in the US/Taiwan/Korea).
- Even if China doesn’t sanction Russia, Chinese actors will be more wary of dealing with Russia for fear of backlash from regulators in more important markets.
- Russia and China’s economic centers are very far apart (Beijing <> Moscow is 3,500mi), and the only practical transport is a handful of already-overloaded rail lines.
- China’s economy is 10 times larger than Russia’s; any collaboration would essentially turn Moscow into a quasi client state, and the partnership would definitely not be focused on “how to restore the Russian Empire,” given the huge disparity in who would be calling the shots.
Meanwhile, Zelensky, speaking to both British Parliament and US Congress, renews is fruitless plea for a “NATO no-fly zone” which the allies have already conclusively rejected, since it is tantamount to entering the war.
Ukraine continues to hold off assaults on Mykolaiv, Kharkiv, and the outskirts of Kyiv. Mariupol is still standing, but surrounded, and has been without heat, power, or water for several days. Some speculation that troops are attempting to bypass Mykolaiv to head directly to Odessa instead. Also some advances and movements suggest preparation to head to Dnipro, the importance of which was recently discussed. New York Times map here:
Mar 7, 2022
The Ukrainian army pushed the Russians out of Mykolaiv, a strategic southern port city. The New York Times is reporting the Russians are attempting to retake it, blanketing the city with artillery fire. The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine posted (on Facebook) that they also retook Chuhuiv in the north, near Kharkiv. Newsweek report.
The Facebook post includes other updates: The Russians are reinforcing Irpin, which is near the outskirts of Kyiv. They also “restored movement of trains” on the Antonov railway bridge across the Dnieper River. This bridge in Kherson may help the Russians as they attempt to retake Mykolaiv.
Multiple unconfirmed reports that as many as 30 Russian military helicopters were destroyed on the ground overnight in occupied Kherson.
A US DoD background briefing allegedly reported by Dan Lamothe on Twitter includes:
- Evidence that Russia is trying to recruit Syrians to fight on their behalf in Ukraine, matching prior WSJ reporting.
- Nearly 100% of Russian combat power prestaged at Ukranian border is now committed.
- Airspace still contested; vast majority of Ukranian Air Force’s fixed wing aircraft still available.
- No indications of additional Russian troops headed to Ukraine; no Belarusian forces moving to join.
- Russians appear to be increasing use of long-range fires to supplement/make up for lack of forward movement, lack of air superiority, and overall more reckless with respect to civilian casualties (but unable to determine if deliberately targeting civilians).
Retired Australian Major General Mick Ryan observes that Russia is making the most progress in southern Ukraine, and some background on its strategic importance:
- The south has 13 seaports total, representing at least 50% of Ukrainian imports and exports last year.
- Odessa is the third largest city, a major transport hub, and would complete a land bridge to Crimea while choking off the Ukrainian economy.
- Western aid also flows in through Odessa, so it would be both a material and psychological blow if it was captured.
The Russian successes here have been acknowledged even by President Zelensky, and there seem to be multiple reasons why:
- Ukraine has committed a substantial force to defending Kyiv in the north, which, being the capital, has major political, logistical, and cultural significance.
- The Russians concentrated a significant force, around 15 battalion tactical groups around Rostov-Krasnodar, and another 15 in Crimea.
- Advancing out of Crimea, Rostov-Krasnodar, and Donetsk means shorter supply lines back to friendly depots and well-established logistics hubs. In contrast, troops advancing out of Belarus did not have these advantages.
- Russians established and preserved amphibious landing capability, which is forcing the Ukrainians to spread their already outnumbered forces out thinner, to guard against amphibious assaults in addition to the overland routes.
- Finally, Ryan speculates that the planning was more competent in the south overall, as multiple columns often advanced simultaneously on diverging axes without the long logistical pauses seen in the north and northeast.
The Ukrainians have over-performed expectations overall, but Russian control of the entire southern coastline still seems a distinct probability, and would establish a foundation to cut off Ukrainian forces in the east of the country, which might force them to withdraw and cede territory to avoid encirclement.
Furthermore, capturing the southern coast would set the Russians up to surround and seize Dnipro, a strategic logistical and transport hub near the center of the country that would likely translate to control of all territory to the east of the Dnieper River.
Finally, Odessa is still currently under threat, with the Russian 810th Naval Infantry Brigade reportedly loaded on amphibious ships for landings, potentially complemented by overland advances from Mykolaiv if the Russians can retake or bypass it.
Mar 6, 2022
Oleg Sinegubov, of the Kharkiv regional administration, reports the Ukrainian Air Force shot down a Russian Su-25 fighter jet near Kharkiv. The pilot did not eject and died at the scene. Via Anadolu Agency.
Andrei V Kozyrev, a former Russian foreign minister, claims on Twitter that Putin is acting rationally (e.g., isn’t a madman about to launch the nukes), and simply miscalculated:
- By 2013 the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine ended any hope of keeping the nation “independent but Moscow-aligned”; Putin has always considered Ukraine to be a satellite state, not a real country.
- The Kremlin has spent the past 20 years overhauling and modernizing its military, but much of it was “stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus.” Since there is a disincentive to report this, the Russian Army is a Potemkin military but Putin likely isn’t being told this.
- The Russian ruling elite believed its own propaganda that Biden was inept, and also thought the EU was weak, given their toothless sanctions for the 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.
Putin miscalculated on all 3 in trying to “restore the glory of the Russian Empire,” and Andrei asserts Putin isn’t likely to intentionally use nuclear weapons against the West. But saber-rattling with the big red button is still a valid strategy for extracting concessions and warding off western involvement/escalation.
Caveat: Andrei predicted as late as Feb 19 that Putin probably wouldn’t invade.
militaryland.net provides an update on the tactical situation on day 10 of the war.
Mar 5, 2022
A Ukrainian General Staff statement reports Russian losses at:
- 10,000 soldiers
- 39 aircraft
- 40 helicopters
- 269 tanks
- 945 armored vehicles
- 105 artillery systems
- 409 vehicles and 60 fuel tanks
- 3 UAVs
Still no photographic or video evidence has emerged of the 2 downed Russian IL-76 transports near Vasylkiv and Bila Tserkva reported on February 25th. It shouldn’t be hard to find the wreckage of two massive transports and hundreds of corpses if this is true.
Trent Telenko provides an update on day 8 of the war:
- The Russian convoy advancing on Kyiv in the north is now almost 40 miles long, as reported by multiple sources.
- Telenko asserts the first 12km or so has been traveling for EIGHT days now.
- Since the vehicles can’t go offroad due to the mud, and the road isn’t wide enough for the 2 additional lanes that supply trucks would need to resupply the head of the column and return to a depot, it is very likely the head of the column is now completely out of fuel and energy.
- This will in turn mean they are blocking everything in the column behind them – nobody can move forward or back, or resupply.
MilitaryLand.net is also reporting that Ukraine deliberately flooded the area north of Kyiv by opening reservoir floodgates (Telenko makes an unsourced assertion that Russian soldiers might have even drowned). Then he provides some analysis:
- Ukraine either controls or has destroyed every major railhead except Kherson and Berdyansk. As we previously discussed, Russian doctrine is uniquely dependent on rail for resupply, and the use of trucks (and not enough of them) combined with the spring mud is paralyzing the army.
- It seems the Russians only originally planned a 3 day incursion with food and fuel to match, and now the Ukrainians are deliberately targeting fuel trucks to exploit this logistical bottleneck. There are unconfirmed reports that the Russians have resorted to disguising their fuel trucks in an attempt to escape targeting.
- The Russians lack the force density and situational awareness to defend their interior lines, including the numerous bridges over Ukraine’s many rivers.
The Russian Air Force saga continues:
- As reported elsewhere, they have not achieved air superiority. Poorly planned missile barrages at the beginning of the war left much of Ukraine’s integrated air defense intact.
- Before the war started, the Russians were also apparently trying to tag Ukraine’s mobile SAMs with recon units using…cell phones? Some were identified and taken out this way but most appear to have survived. Other methods of locating and jamming SAMs appear to have been ineffective overall.
- On Russia’s newest jets, the radar threat-warning receivers, infrared missile warning systems, defensive jammers, etc don’t seem to be working all that well, leading to even heavier than expected losses to surface-to-air missiles.
- Several intact Russian anti-air missile systems were captured recently, including a Pantsir S-1 and its Identification-Friend-or-Foe codes + comms equipment. This could potentially compromise the Russian air defense network.
This seems to be one of the reasons Ukrainian raiding forces are able to slip behind and sabotage bridges, ambush supply convoys, etc with impunity – there doesn’t seem to be much aerial reconnaissance happening, which is what you would expect if the Russian Air Force was terrified of being shot down by their own ground forces for lack of proper deconfliction from their own mobile anti-air defense system.
Mar 4, 2022
Justin Bronk at RUSI has a new piece out questioning whether the Russian Air Force is actually incapable of complex air operations. It provides some damning analysis: based on the capabilities we have seen so far, and the extremely reasonable assumption that Russia actually wants to win this war (and thus has no reason to hold back its air force), the most likely conclusion is that the Russian Air Force is not capable of complex operations involving more than about 2-4 aircraft at a time.
The biggest takeaway for me is that “complex” air operations require:
- Extremely complex combined arms communication and coordination between the air power and reconnaissance units/fighting forces on the ground so that they are mutually supporting each other, hitting the targets and objectives in a coordinated way, and minimizing deadly friendly fire incidents.
- Well trained pilots, ground crew, and a command and control structure that can correctly plan and brief the missions, prep the assets, and then execute with a time-to-target window of 5 to 10 seconds, so that (for example) ground-based artillery and missiles can be timed to suppress enemy air defense, and/or immediately capitalize on a tactical advantage created by the air support.
Annually, this requires hundreds of flight hours and simulation training (per pilot) that the Russian Air Force clearly hasn’t had, so their hundreds of high tech and (on paper) modern aircraft are putting in considerably subpar performance compared to a NATO air force.
I think what made this click for me is thinking about a theater of battle like a stage play with thousands of people: everyone has to know their lines and role ahead of time, and must know their cue, or the sequencing of missions doesn’t have the intended effect. Better technology/equipment has rapidly and shockingly diminishing returns in the absence of adequate training.
A new Bloomberg piece quoting Vershinin details some of Russia’s logistical challenges preventing their armies from advancing very far, and the possible (catch-22) solution: capturing cities with key railroad junctions such as Kharkiv, Sumy and Chernihiv in the north, or Kherson, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia in the south.
A Financial Times article details the rise in global food prices – Ukraine and Russia account for almost 30% of global wheat exports, which are naturally being disrupted by the war. Other details include:
- Wheat in Chicago (the international benchmark) is up 50% since the invasion began.
- Corn prices are up 10% as well, since corn is a substitute for wheat.
- Fertilizer prices are likely to go up, putting upward pressure in general on food prices, since Russia and Belarus are big exporters.
March 3, 2022
Max Bergmann, writing for the Center for American Progress, argues that Putin’s invasion is a strategic disaster that Russia cannot win no matter what happens next:
- US/Ukranian estimates as many as 6,000 Russian casualties, compared to Russia’s own estimate of under 500; in any case a substantial toll likely to continue rising.
- A galvanized populace that will need substantial military presence to occupy and suppress any insurgency. Far larger than the invasion force that has been assembled. This is assuming the invasion even captures key Ukrainian cities.
- Economic sanctions have destroyed its economy and will force Russia to make tough decisions between rebuilding its military or keeping the economy afloat.
- A cutoff of western advanced technology will harm both its economy and military capabilities.
- Internal support is eroding at home, as the sanctions and the war itself is incredibly unpopular.
- Russia is now a global pariah state, and the reputational costs of associating with them will cause partners to drive a hard bargain (as China did in its 2014 gas deal after the invasion of Crimea).
- Europe, and particularly Germany, will become a major security threat as they shift gears from pacificism to becoming a major military power. Europe has already had much more influence than expected, having sent a stunning 500 million euros of lethal security assistance so far, to dramatic effect.
March 2, 2022
As predicted elsewhere, US defense officials are reporting that some Russian troops have run out of food and fuel and are surrendering.
March 1, 2022
Trent Telenko observes that it is the 5th day of the war and:
- No major cities have fallen to the Russians yet, although several smaller ones in the South and coast have been taken.
- In an unexpected turn, the Ukranian Air Force is still operating.
- Turkish TB2 drones are “killing Russian surface to air missile batteries, trucks, tanks and even a 60-tank car fuel train in Crimea.”
At this point Telenko is already observing that the Ukranian strategy seems to be:
- Block the head of the column, presumably by ambushing and disabling the vehicles while in transit.
- Interdict the fuel/ammo resupply and attack reinforcing convoys, pushing back the forward edge of the battle area.
- Which gradually turns the stranded column into sitting ducks behind enemy lines – cold, starving, out of ammunition, fuel, medicine, and spare parts.
Reuters reports US officials are stumped about why the Russian Air force is holding back. They are also baffled as to why Ukraine still seems to have some semblance of an air defense on the ground, and jets still in the air.
Inside sources report the Russian government and officials were shocked and caught unprepared by Putin’s decision to invade.
February 28, 2022
Justin Bronk at RUSI points out the Russian Air Force is mostly missing in action, and details some major Russian tactical errors stemming from poor coordination overall:
- An “almost total lack of Russian offensive counter-air (OCA) sweeps.”
- Multiple Russian columns have been sent forward beyond the reach of their own air defenses.
- SAM batteries being taken out by Ukrainian drones while stuck in traffic, without any apparent effort to provide situational awareness or air cover to friendlies.
The few possible explanations at this stage seem to be:
- Extremely limited precision-guided munitions, which appears very likely from the evidence. But which doesn’t offer much explanatory power, since there are about 80 Su-35S (air superiority) and 110 Su-30SM (multirole) fighters that should still be effective even with unguided munitions.
- Fear of friendly fire incidents, which seems plausible, since this is very difficult to avoid even in a well-trained force. The Russians have already demonstrated poor logistics, and bad coordination of airborne assaults with ground forces. Author doesn’t think this is very compelling, since large-scale sorties at pre-arranged times should still be possible (a.k.a. telling the Russian forces “don’t shoot any planes between 13:20-13:30 because we have a close air support on the way”).
- Low flying hours leading to inexperienced pilots that can’t use the theoretical capabilities of their modern fixed wing aircraft. Leadership would therefore be naturally resistant to attempt any operations that a) fail to contribute any tactical advantage due to incompetence, and b) simultaneously revealing that incompetence to Putin and the world.
February 27, 2022
Reuters is reporting Germany will increase defense spending to 2% of GDP and provide lethal assistance to Ukraine. Chancellor Scholz announced the major shift in policy along with a halt to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, citing a need to wean itself off of Russian energy.
February 25, 2022
AP News is citing two American officials with direct knowledge that two Russian Ilyushin Il-76 planes full of paratroopers were downed south of Kyiv by the Ukrainian Air Force. No corroborating photographs appear to have emerged of the wreckage yet, which is odd.
February 24, 2022
Russia begins its invasion of Ukraine with a simultaneous rocket and artillery barrage and ground invasion force advancing from 3 fronts.
February 22, 2022
David Axe writes a followup to report that equipment for 100 battalion tactical groups is assembled at the border. He goes on to explain some potential weaknesses in Russian formations and tactics for exploiting them:
- A reliance on artillery, their traditional strength. This covers one of their weaknesses – a lack of skilled professional infantry.
- A Russian army brigade has several battalions in theory, but in reality can only create a battalion tactical group with about 36 squads (compared to a US Army brigade, which can have ~60 squads).
February 14, 2022
ABCNews has some reporting by the AP dismissing mud as a potential impediment to a Russian attack, including quotes from Russian officials and military analysts saying it won’t be a problem. The article won’t age well.
February 4, 2022
Putin meets President Xi Jinping of China before the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Beijing. The New York Times later reports that western intelligence concluded Xi had asked Putin to delay the invasion of Ukraine until after the Olympics finished on February 20th. Presumably this is to avoid overshadowing the event.
January 23, 2022
The Financial Times has an infographic comparing the strength of the Russian and Ukrainian armed forces.
January 14, 2022
David Axe writes on Forbes a similar analysis, citing Alex Vershinin’s previous article, but adding the following:
- Russia has roughly 10 MTOs (the material-technical support brigades that actually run the trucks), which, as previously discussed, have about ~400 trucks each, but “many of which are usually inoperable.”
- There are about 50 battalion tactical groups formed at the border, each of which is normally 600-800 troops. Add all the other battalions and there isn’t enough capacity to supply the invading troops.
- Civilian contractors (working for a state-run firm) are embedded in the brigades, and this untested combination already has conflicting priorities to sort out (operational effectiveness vs profit motives).
November 23, 2021
Alex Vershinin at War on the Rocks has a pre-invasion analysis of Russian logistics that proved very prescient and arguably predicted the current ground situation:
- Russia’s military is not designed for large-scale ground offensives far from their railroads. “No other European nation uses railroads to the extent that the Russian army does.” This is at least partly due to the massive size of the country.
- Most Russian brigades (on paper) have two artillery and two air defense battalions, which is at least double what a comparable US brigade would have. This translates to higher logistics requirements.
- Forward operations by railroad are complex – you have to secure the area from enemy artillery and sabotage from special operations forces, do special preparation of the storage and staging areas because you’re unloading explosives, and set up sorting and repackaging stations that are appropriately spaced out, etc.
The lack of suitable railheads (and in any case – enough rolling stock to actually move along them) means Russia needs to fall back to resupplying by truck in Ukraine. Using publicly available information and napkin math we learn that:
- A Russian combined arms army has 2 support brigades with about 150 cargo trucks, 50 trailers, and 260 specialized trucks (so about ~410 vehicles).
- A typical army (with 56 to 90 multiple launch rocket systems) that fired a single volley of rocket artillery would require 56 to 90 trucks just to replenish rocket ammunition, considering how bulky the rockets are.
- The army will also need to supply 6-9 tube artillery battalions, 9 air defense artillery battalions, 12 mechanized and recon battalions, 3-5 tank battalions, mortars, anti-tank missiles, and small arms ammunition.
- The army will also need food, fuel, engineering tools and spare parts, and medical supplies.
In the 2008 war in Georgia, some Russian forces depleted their ammunition in 12 hours, so extrapolating from that, the Russians would have to replace substantial amounts of ammunition every 12 to 24 hours. The article asserts a Russian army doesn’t have enough trucks to sustain itself beyond 90 miles from a supply dump.
Some quick searching indicates a Russian tank battalion usually has 31 or 41 main battle tanks, so we’re talking on the order of ~150 tanks in an army, each of which gets 290mi range on 320 gallons of fuel. I’m currently unsure how to convert this into “fuel requirement per day” which could help us estimate how many truckloads of fuel would need to be dedicated to sustaining the tanks alone.
But using the 90 mile limit, we can calculate how many truckloads of supply an army needs daily:
- Assume 12 hours / day active time per truck. The rest of the time is maintenance, refueling, meals, overhead/coordination, sleeping.
- At a distance of 90 miles, ideal conditions (good roads and minimal congestion), and 12 hours active time, a truck can maybe make 2 trips a day (2hrs each way @ 45mph, an hour to load and unload).
- This gets us about ~800 truck loads per day.