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

Sep 21
A few incomplete thoughts on the question of mobilization. It won't solve many of the RU military's challenges in this war, but it could alter the dynamic. Fair to say that these are uncharted waters, and so we should take care with deterministic or definitive claims. 1/
I wouldn't suggest that this can turn around Russia's fortunes in the war. However, I would take care being overly dismissive, especially looking out towards the medium term of this winter and 2023. Force availability and manpower matters, hence the implications can vary. 2/
The Russian military has had structural manpower deficits throughout the war leading to problems with recruitment, retention, and rotation. Units can't be rotated, leading to exhaustion. Number of refuseniks grew. Hiring short term volunteers exacerbated retention issues. 3/
Read 21 tweets
Sep 8
Brief thoughts on UA Kharkiv offensive. It appears ambitious, intended to envelop Izyum and try to trap Russian forces there. Likely seeking to interdict ground lines of communication at Kupyansk. The Oskil river east of Izyum makes the pocket vulnerable for RU forces. 1/
UA offensive looks to have made substantial gains, placing RU forces in a precarious position. From what one can tell, and these are early impressions, the advance made good use of armor in conjunction with infantry. 2/
Russian forces appear to have been spread thinly, and mil leadership unprepared despite earlier evidence of UA buildup. I think it’s fair to assess that RU was caught by surprise with little in the way of reserves locally available. 3/
Read 8 tweets
Sep 7
Good thread by Jack. I've largely shied away from this conversation, because I often saw it falling victim to the false certainty of shaky numbers and estimates that seemed predicated on big assumptions.
My intuition has been that Russia probably had less usable ammunition to start than being given credit for, but also a lower daily use rate (15-20k vs the 50-60k figures which struck me as unrealistic), and production capacity which could be ramped up over time.
I suspect Russia has run low on certain types of ammunition, perhaps large caliber MLRS, 122mm artillery rounds, and PGMs. And that as Jack suggests, there will be bottlenecks in production. That said, I doubt US sanctions have much to do with Russian arty ammo production.
Read 5 tweets
Sep 4
A few brief thoughts on the UA offensive. First, its best to manage expectations, these types of operations take weeks or months to play out. In my view its very early, there is limited information available, and far too soon to issue judgments. Thread 1/
My best guess on UA approach is to steadily press Russian forces towards the Dnipro river. Perhaps splitting the main Russian group of forces between those defending the city Kherson and those holding territory east of the Inhulets river. 2/
As Russian forces are pressed to choose between retreat and envelopment, over time they will likely withdraw to secondary defensive lines, steadily compressing the battlespace. If successful, UA may begin to isolate these groupings into several large pockets. 3/
Read 14 tweets
Aug 25
Redoing short thread since it didn't post right. I think that there are different ways to interpret the exec order. My own view is that it is partly codifying the present situation in the Russian military, but also reflects future expansion plans, which may be aspirational. /1
The order in my view does not necessarily presage a larger draft, or greater mobilization - it could, but it may be a way of accommodating the various current recruitment efforts to create additional volunteer battalions in the force, and build in room for force expansion. /2
The volunteer units in aggregate do not amount to a dramatic expansion of the force. But Moscow may expect to integrate occupation forces, and LDNR troops, especially if they go through with annexation. Putin had mentioned he supported giving LDNR fighters army veteran status. 3/
Read 6 tweets
Aug 25
Good thread by Dara. I think that there are different ways to interpret this order. My own view is that it is in part codifying the present situation in the Russian military, but also reflective of future expansion plans, which may be aspirational. /1
The order in my view does not necessarily presage a larger draft, or greater mobilization - it could, but it may be a way of accommodating the various current recruitment efforts to create additional volunteer battalions in the force, and build in room for force expansion. /2
The volunteer units in aggregate do not amount to a dramatic expansion of the force. But Moscow may expect to integrate occupation forces, and LDNR troops, especially if they go through with annexation. Putin had mentioned he supported giving LDNR fighters army veteran status. 3/
Read 5 tweets

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