Michael Kofman Profile picture
Mar 13, 2022 22 tweets 4 min read Read on X
Very long Sunday thread on the extent to which we overestimated the Russian military, a bit about the war, and on how we should think about Russian military power. 1/
First impressions tend to be imperfect at best. You're working with an incomplete picture, anecdotes, and guessing at causality. How much of it is a bad plan, lack of organization, terrible morale, or failure to execute the basics - perhaps all of the above. 2/
The initial Russian operation was a shambolic attempt at regime change, with little planned or organized. In some ways closer to an attempted raid. I think we've seen a smart UKR effort to defend, and a unimpressive Russian attempt to adjust and prosecute this tragic war. 3/
But did the community generally overestimate Russian military power, especially in this case? In short, yes, but that's the least interesting aspect of the conversation. I would add, we may have just as underestimated UKR military as overestimated Russian performance. 4/
I caveat this by saying we probably know very little about the state of UKR military right now, the fog of war persists, and we likely have a one sided perception of how the war is going. UKR is doing a good job dominating the information environment. 5/
The challenge with assessing military power is that it needs a context to express itself. I've said this before in other venues. You can't assess military power in the abstract, it is not like counting money. Forces never walk off paper neatly onto a battlefield. 6/
I’ll offer an example. How you assess Chinese military power in the context of a war over Taiwan is going to be different than how you might view it in a hypothetical war between China and India. The conditions and assumptions really matter. 7/
In the same manner, I'm unsurprised that we got a number of things wrong looking at the Russian mil in the run up to this war. And there will be a debate on which lessons can be generalized about Russian military performance, versus more specific to this context. 8/
Some clearly carry over, like tactics & looking at the fundamentals, but with others it depends. In the same way that US performance in Afghanistan, or Iraq, may not be reflective of US performance in a high end fight against a near peer opponent. 9/
So, why did we overestimate aspects of Russian mil capacity & capability? First, few comparative examples of performance - they haven't tried anything on this scale, against a country the size of Ukraine, and an opponent with some significant parity of capability. 10/
Limited force employment in cases like Syria, or UKR 2014-2015 give you a very stylized perception of military capability. Russia could dictate pace of operations, send optimized forces, etc. Even then, they revealed challenges that the Russian military had yet to overcome. 11/
Large exercises, which I covered regularly on my blog over the years, are scripted affairs. They are closer to theater than anything else. They still tell you useful things, but folks like me took most of what we saw there with large grains of salt. 12/
It's important to remember the community tends to focus on some contexts over others. Whereas the Russian mil may have big logistical issues fighting in Ukraine, along multiple axes, in a different context the terrain or expected distance of advance might prove much easier. 13/
Next, Ukrainian forces are leveraging the urban terrain smartly, ambushing, and engaging in small unit tactics. They're forcing Russian forces into a fight where mass or a larger cohesive force doesn't convey advantage, trading space for time. 14/
And, looking at the choices in Russian mil strategy, that military was not built for this war. In terms of manpower, readiness, and logistics, it was not designed to sustain strategic ground offensives or hold large tracts of terrain, especially in a country the size of UKR. 15/
All of that of course doesn't explain why parts of the effort are an omnishambles. Logistics, comms, weak air defense performance, precision issues with strikes, moving about without recon, etc. I'm seeing adjustments in week 2, but all these issues persist. 16/
I've seen some folks say that there were regular reports of problems from local papers, troops complaining, etc. I've seen those consistently factored into analysis, but generalizing from either positive or negative anecdotal evidence can be an exercise in confirmation bias. 17/
The Russia mil analysis community is far from monolithic, but there was a basis for the perception of Russian mil power heading into this war. It was not driven by positive Russian self-assessments, defense mil PR, or glowing articles in Izvestiya. 18/
Folks in the community take account for the bad news stories along with the good ones. The effects of corruption, or incompetence. Yet these do not easily explain specific or divergent outcomes. Asserting causality requires more than allusions to pervasive conditions. 19/
Often the assumptions, especially in the more applied side of the field, calibrate towards overestimation. You assume a lot more will work, or that opponents will have a good day, for the simple reason that it is better to overestimate than to underestimate. 20/
This war will undoubtedly set the Russian military back by years and severely damage its reputation. But the 'so what' is a more open ended question. How will they adjust? What should we take away from Russian mil performance in this context, and how best apply it to others? 21/
After 2014-2015 I found myself regularly arguing that the Russian mil is not 12ft tall. After 2022 I will probably spend much of my time arguing that it isn't 4ft tall either. History teaches us to moderate these kinds of impressions, neither extreme is especially helpful. 22/

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More from @KofmanMichael

Dec 13, 2023
A few issues with that top line casualty number released, given it includes losses from convicts, and LDNR. On top of that a significant % are also mobilized personnel and contracted recruits. The total number cannot be applied to the original force in a meaningful way. 1/
Given prior estimates the range could be 270-315k on total casualties. It is fair to say the Russian army which existed on Feb 2022 has lost much of its original personnel, and ground force equipment, but the initial invasion force itself had sizable numbers of mobilized LDNR.
The initial invasion force was brittle. Since then Russia has had a structural manpower problem, which it has sought to resolve via piecemeal solutions, and partial mobilization. The issue of rotation, and a deficit of men to conduct it, remains a looming problem for next year.
Read 4 tweets
Jul 7, 2023
A few thoughts on DPICM. Providing cluster munitions to Ukraine, at this stage, could have a significant impact beyond what other capabilities might achieve. Despite the drawbacks, unlocking this stockpile has important implications for the course of Ukraine's offensive. 1/
Ukraine's offensive is limited by the artillery ammunition available. The US, and other countries, provided a significant amount for this operation. Much of this was borrowed from South Korea. Without this ammunition it is difficult to imagine this offensive taking place. 2/
Progress has been slow, difficult, and without sustained breakthroughs thus far. While UA retains the bulk of its combat power, artillery use rate is likely higher than anticipated, especially as the past weeks have seen a largely attritional approach. 3/
Read 6 tweets
Jun 25, 2023
A few thoughts on Prigozhin's armed insurrection/mutiny/rebellion. For now it appears over. Wagner seems to be standing down, and leaving Rostov for LNR. Prigozhin launched a mutiny that ultimately challenged Putin’s power, and the system. Thread. 1/
This was not a traditional coup, but with Putin’s video and FSB statements it became a challenge that would reveal the extent of brittleness in the regime. It wasn’t a good showing for Russian state capacity or competence to respond to this kind of challenge. 2/
I had long wondered whether Prigozhin understood something intuitively about the system, if the regime was fundamentally hollow, prominent members like Shoigu were weak, and Putin could be pressed into deals, etc. or if he was grossly miscalculating. 3/
Read 19 tweets
Jun 7, 2023
A few thoughts on the dam’s destruction and its implications for Ukraine’s offensive. In brief, I doubt it will have a significant impact on UA mil operations. The Khakovka dam is at least 100 miles from where much of the activity might take place at its closest point.
A Ukrainian cross-river operation in southern Kherson, below the dam, was always a risky and therefore low-probability prospect. There is no evidence that such an operation was under way, or would have necessarily been a part of the UA offensive plans.
Destroying the dam does not substantially shorten Russian lines, or make defense much easier, although it does make a UA cross-river operation exceedingly difficult in that area. But, the flood will likely also destroy the initial line of Russian entrenchments along the river.
Read 5 tweets
Jun 3, 2023
Highly recommend this article. Objective insights based on in country experience. It’s very useful to have other researchers, trainers, and those doing field work compare their observations. warontherocks.com/2023/06/what-t…
The way to read this is not as a list of problems or challenges, but as an honest portrayal of a force in transition that’s done remarkably well on the battlefield and continues to evolve. UA is managing attrition, and reconstitution many modern militaries have not experienced.
Like any large force UA has areas of excellence, areas where it is looking to improve, and problems to manage. Even a well funded peacetime force is often uneven. Under these conditions it should be expected. And UA mil is still dealing with a host of Soviet legacy issues.
Read 4 tweets
Apr 22, 2023
I want to highlight this important article from @EvansRyan202. Presently, US policy is optimized to not learn, or to learn the wrong lessons from this war. Missing access & information that could best inform objective analysis and lessons learned. 1/ warontherocks.com/2023/04/bind-u…
Over a year into this war there seems to be little to no institutionalized effort. No observer groups. Folks go on self-initiative to study, observe, learn the history and gain access in a personal or informal capacity. There is very little support. 2/ Image
In my view a fair amount of what we think we know about this war is probably wrong or will require major revisions. Missing observations, lack of data beyond anecdotes, poor causal inference, baseless claims, etc. few efforts to put together a composite picture. 3/
Read 10 tweets

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