Grid convened a Twitter Spaces conversation to look at the state of the war at the three-month mark, with Grid Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating and Rita Konaev, senior fellow at the Center for New American Security and an expert on armed conflict and the Russian military in particular. They get at the “inner rot” of the Russian military, the battle for the east, what Russian occupation of newly captured territory may look like and more.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: Rita, you have a piece just published in Foreign Affairs on this question: “Can Ukraine’s military keep winning?” And I’m also mindful of something you say within the piece: “Attempting to predict the trajectory of this war has proved an exercise in futility.” So with apologies, help us to understand where we are and the trajectory of the war at the moment.
Rita Konaev: Before we get to the overall trajectory, I think one point that is key to bring up is the fact that 6 million refugees have been displaced and have fled the country since the war began. It’s barely been three months, and you have that level of human suffering and human destruction. And that is a figure that doesn’t even take into account the domestic displacement. So those of us in the military analysis space, we really need to come to a closer understanding of this, because these are not just movements and maneuvers. These are human lives at a mass scale.
Looking back, as we have been following this war, we were thinking when the Russians redirected its forces to the east that we were at a point of inflection. In fact, this pivot toward the east is something that Russia has been talking about for close to two months now. So the point of inflection is a bit longer than just one point. Nonetheless, with this shift to the east has come a change in the terrain, a change in the war’s geography that has required a real change in strategy and change in an operational approach. And I think we’re seeing that already.
Outside of Kharkiv and Mariupol, we’re seeing less discussion of these urban and suburban battles, and that has a lot to do with that geography and terrain in the east, which is much more open and much more rural, and which really demands a different set of tactics from both sides, and a greater emphasis on heavier weapons, and the open maneuver and movement of forces across greater distances. What Ukraine has excelled in thus far has been different — that type of urban defense that we’ve seen just recently, driving the Russians out of Kharkiv, and previously, preventing them from taking Kyiv.
Looking at the war to the east, those types of tactics are going to be less — I don’t want to say effective, but less in demand. And we’re seeing because of that a greater emphasis on the type of military equipment that the West is providing Ukraine — because the importance of that equipment has been amplified by the change in the geography of the war. That’s why you’re seeing that focus on getting more and more heavy weapons to Ukraine. Because the tactics that worked previously, that relied a lot on urban defense, on cover and concealment, the almost asymmetric insurgency-style tactics — these are going to be less in need and less effective in what seems to be a more conventional fight and a conventional stage of the war.
G: From the moment that the Russians announced this pivot — I think it was the 25th of March — we started to hear the point that you’re amplifying now, that it’s a whole new landscape. It would advantage the Russians, for the reasons you’ve just given. So why is it that the Russians, who have now concentrated so much force there, why haven’t they just rolled over some parts of the east?
RK: Well, I think a major part of that is because the war didn’t just start with this shift. There was the beating that they took in the beginning, the — I don’t even know how to describe it — the utter failure of the early stage of their planning and campaign and what it revealed about the inner rot of the Russian military. The command and control problems, the problems in terms of conduct, even basic tactics, let alone the ability to conduct sophisticated military operations. What I said in the [Foreign Affairs] article — that trying to predict a war is an exercise in futility — part of that has been because we had based a lot of our assumptions and assessments of the Russian military on our reading of their doctrine. So to a great extent, a lot of us were expecting them to fight according to their doctrine, which is why doctrine even exists to begin with of course, and what we have seen is actually them fighting against their doctrine.
They have not been utilizing any of their most effective assets — their sophisticated integrated air defenses, their electronic warfare capabilities. Their cyber — we don’t really know how they’ve been employing their cyber capabilities. Their special operations forces have not been proven to be as good as they were assumed to be.
In many ways, that cost from the beginning of the war cannot just be discounted now simply because they decided to shift to the east.
And there are other issues in terms of why they can’t just roll over the Ukrainian defenses, as you put it. First, there’s no discounting the morale of the Ukrainian resistance. You know, we’ve talked about it being essentially a force multiplier. The Ukrainians are also fighting on their home turf. Now we will see whether this home turf continues to give them an advantage. That will depend on their ability to support logistics and keep the supply lines protected. Because the shift of the war to the east extends the supply lines for the Ukrainians, it’s harder to get a lot of the military equipment that is coming out of the west to the eastern front.
So on the one hand, the home-turf advantage gives them that plus, but on the other hand, because the supply lines are longer, presumably the Russians would be able to attack them and target them. But we haven’t seen Russia do that, not in any significant way. So terrain can help, but you have to let it help you. You have to play to your strengths if you want to win, and Russia has been doing the opposite of that.
G: As we watch for developments in this new front, what are you watching for as an expert — any tea leaves, new developments that you think could tilt the balance toward one side or the other?
RK: I don’t have any brilliant answers here. But I don’t think it’s going to be very easy to tilt the balance. I think what we are going to be watching is an assessment of our own patience with this war, because all the factors are pointing toward more of an attritional positioning of forces. Meaning, I don’t think we’re going to be seeing any sort of major advancements and movements — if anything, we’re going to see the smaller battles that are going to be costly, but are not going to be yielding any sort of operational, let alone strategic type of victories.
The other thing I want to point out is that there’s a nascent conversation about what life is going to look like under Russian occupation in areas that have fallen to the Russian forces, especially given what we’ve seen in the areas that have been liberated from Russia — you know, the horrific and shocking human rights violations and effectively war crimes. In these areas that Russia now controls, I think this is going to be really hard to track, because there’s going to be an effort from Russia to crack down on any sort of information coming out of there. Perhaps we’re going to be seeing the evolution of an urban insurgency in cities like Kherson that are falling to Russian occupation. It will be important for us to get as much information as possible out of there.
G: Josh Keating, you have been reporting on possible endgames for the war, which for all the reasons Rita laid out is a tough assignment. You did a piece early on for Grid about the same subject. Suffice to say that the “endgames” then don’t look like the “endgames” now?
Joshua Keating: I wrote the first version of this about a week after the war began. And I think even at that point, it was clear that Russia was not going to just roll over Ukraine. But even so, what we notably did not include on our list of scenarios at that time was any sort of Ukrainian victory or Russian forces being pushed back to where they were in February.
Ukrainian officials now say they’re talking about pushing back the Russians from these “people’s republics” [of Luhansk and Donetsk] entirely; we didn’t even entertain those as possibilities. And while I still think this is going to be tough for Ukraine to accomplish, you hear both Ukrainian officials and Western politicians and analysts saying that those are the only acceptable options now. So that’s been a major shift in rhetoric. But I think as Rita was saying, we are entering a phase where it looks more like a war of attrition, where large-scale exchanges of territory are going to become less frequent.
And in those first few weeks of the war, people may remember there was a kind of ongoing process of negotiations. Shuttle diplomacy by the governments of Turkey and Israel. We’re hearing less about that now. [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy said after the massacres at Bucha were revealed and in the wake of the siege of Mariupol and other cities that it would be much harder politically for Ukraine to make any kind of concessions.
So right now, I think we’re in a place where we’re entering a kind of stalemate. Neither side seems in a hurry to make any kind of concessions. They’ll both want to enter any eventual ceasefire talks in the strongest position possible. Right now, that means more fighting.
G: Somewhere there’s a Nobel Peace Prize waiting for somebody who can figure out some avenues of common ground here. Are there any elements of common ground that help a negotiating process now, given what’s happening?
JK: There are still some channels, some international officials talking to both sides. President [Emmanuel] Macron of France has been speaking with Putin regularly and coming under quite a bit of criticism for it. [U.N.] Secretary General António Guterres was in Moscow recently, and also recently there was the first conversation in a while between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Russian counterpart.
It just doesn’t seem that politically right now either Russia or Ukraine are in any mood to make any kind of major political concessions, while the situation on the battlefield is still sort of fluid and still contested.
G: Rita, do you think that Vladimir Putin could make the case to his public that keeping the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk in the east, plus perhaps Mariupol or whatever other territory he holds at the moment, that this would be a “victory”? Not to suggest that any of that would be acceptable to the Ukrainians, but is it something that Vladimir Putin could sell to his own people?
RK: Well, the thing is, that’s not what he is going to sell, right? He is going to sell the argument that Russia is under attack from the West, from NATO, from the U.S., and that the regime in Ukraine is some sort of arm or extension of Western oppression against Russia. So he is not going to discuss specific territorial accomplishments and battle lines. Russian propaganda is going to shift the narrative away from Ukraine, from the actual reality on the ground as much as possible. And to phrase and frame the conversation in terms of aggression by the West against Russia and Russia’s heroic effort and resistance against it.
G: So let me take that answer and something you said, Rita, about the remarkable Western supply chain of weaponry that as far as we can tell continues to pour in to Ukraine. You’ve both referred to this before as a kind of game-changer on the ground. Why have the Russians been either unable or unwilling to go after those convoys with greater success?
RK: There are no easy answers. And we can see what we can see. But I would imagine it’s a combination of factors, part of it being incompetence and being overstretched. But I think there’s also the issue that there’s a lot happening under the surface that we in the open-source space are just not privy to and party to. We are not seeing the type of intelligence that Ukraine is receiving from its allies and partners in the West, and how exactly that is helping it execute operations and protect its movements. We’re also not seeing what could be happening to target Russian communications.
I think it’s actually good that we are not seeing these details. I begin to worry whenever I see articles that discuss the extent of that intelligence collaboration because I think that’s something that is probably best kept under the surface right now, if we want to help Ukraine.
Several months ago, when the first couple of Russian generals were targeted and hit, I think it was already quite clear that the extent of the intelligence collaboration and sharing was profound and vital for Ukrainian success. Do we need to get into the nitty-gritty of it? Perhaps not.
G: Rita, you raised the issue of the new Russian occupation — in Mariupol and Kherson before that. Practically speaking, what do you think the Russians are going to be doing in these places? It’s one thing to assault a place and bombard it to smithereens as they have done in Mariupol. Each place is different — but what’s involved militarily and otherwise now, in a kind of Russian takeover?
RK: Well, that’s part of the Russian approach. Their approach is victory by reducing places to rubble and massive depopulation of cities and shipments and movements of the people who are fleeing either toward Russian territory or forcing them to live elsewhere. They probably had very little intention to administer the type of an occupation structure that was looking to reconstruct or rule in any sort of effective way. And I think once they realized that there was no hope of gaining some sort of local collaborators and local representatives of the Russian administration, and there was very little hope of taking it by force easily without destruction, they shifted to what they unfortunately do well, which is destroy civilian infrastructure.
The point that you made about how this is going to be different from one area to the next is quite vital. Because in Kherson, we haven’t seen that level of destruction. But does that mean that the occupation itself is going to be less brutal? I think that’s going to depend on what are the aims, how long they’re going to be there. What is the nature of the Ukrainian leadership there? Who is going to be willing to work with the Russians to keep the city safe and to protect the people?
And it’s going to vary in the areas that are more rural and more open in the east. Much of this territory has already been under Russian occupation since 2014. So we shouldn’t really expect, you know, a cohesive approach. I think it’s going to be piecemeal, very different from one area to the next.
G: Josh, back to your revisit of the question of “endgames.” Based on the folks you spoke to and the reporting you’ve done, what seem to be the one or two leading candidates among those scenarios?
JK: I think we’re entering a phase where we might not see major exchanges of territory. Again, I think Russia may be nearing a place where it can kind of freeze the front lines where they are. We sometimes forget when we talk about the war, which started in February of this year, that a lot of these areas have been combat zones since 2014. And so we might see a return to a place where there’s a kind of fixed Line of Control with shelling across it and casualties, but not the massive movements and exchanges of territory that we’ve been seeing, you know, in the last few months.
Generally what I’m hearing is that in terms of a major offensive, Russia probably can’t continue given the losses it’s been suffering and may not be able to continue at the intensity it has been fighting much beyond this summer. That means some sort of operational pause may be needed in the months to come. I think that we are in a phase now where the two sides are trying to press their advantage as far as they can, before we see either some stalemate setting in or some kind of temporary ceasefire.
Any ceasefire that does get agreed to — we should probably assume it’s not going to be a final one, that it’s not going to last. And that most likely, this is not the last phase of the war that we’re witnessing now.
G: Josh’s point, Rita, takes me to something I was going to ask you, as a last question. You’ve both used the term “attrition”; which side in your view can hang on longest, if there is a war of attrition? Does that particularly benefit one side or the other?
RK: I would say for Russia, whether they can win or persevere or persist through a war of attrition is eventually a political decision. For Ukraine, I think the politics is already on the side of hanging on as long as possible, because the war is on their territory, it’s a war for the survival of their nation and their independence. So there is little debate about whether they hang on or not, because they’re fighting for their lives.
For Russia, this was a war of choice, and the decision to continue to pour resources and lives and everything else into it at the expense of whatever military capabilities they were hoping to save and salvage for potential future confrontation at the expense of their economy, at the expense of any sort of military modernization goals that they might have had — it’s eventually a political decision. So I think we can keep counting tanks and balances of forces, and of course, the factor of continuous Western support to Ukraine or morale or whatnot. All of these factors matter, of course, but at the end of the day, politics is going to decide where this goes.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.