Examining the state of war in Ukraine after Russia seizes the Luhansk region

As Russian troops step up their offensive in Ukraine, the governor of Donetsk in Ukraine is urging the 350,000 remaining residents to evacuate from the last eastern province partly under Ukraine's control. Meanwhile, Russian shelling pounded the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Michael Kofman, senior fellow for Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to discuss the state of war in Ukraine, we turn once again to Michael Kofman, research program director in the Russian Studies Program at the Center For Naval Analyses.

    Michael Kofman, good to have you back on the program.

    What's the significance of Russian forces seizing all of the Luhansk region?

    Michael Kofman, Center for Naval Analyses: Well, like, with those two main cities, now that they have the rest of the region, they're at least part of the way towards their political objective, which is seizing the entire administrative territory of the Donbass.

    However, a lot of the harder fighting is still ahead for the Russian military. The Ukrainian military conducted a withdrawal from that area, and they are now building a new defensive line. They are going to fortify around the main cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.

    And so, while you could say that Russia has made incremental or fitful progress, it's still very far short of their actual political goals so far in this war.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, short term, Russia's ability to seize those territories in the Donetsk region, Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, why will it be difficult for them to do that just in the short term?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Well, those areas are more fortified.

    And the Russian military, like the Ukrainian military, has taken very substantial losses. So this has become a grinding war of attrition. Territorial gains tend to be incremental, at best. And they require a tremendous amount of use of artillery and other types of fire.

    So, I suspect that we're going to see battles grind on in the Donbass, at least the next month or two. The outcome, of course, is indeterminate. These things are very difficult to predict. But even if the Russian military is able to take this part of the Donbass, right, these successes are not decisive losses for Ukraine, ultimately. And the Russian military is likely to pay a substantial price in trying to gain this territory.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so, longer term, as you say, a war of attrition, that's what both militaries have to fight.

    What's going to determine Russia's ability to sustain that fight?

  • Michael Kofman:

    At the end of the day, these wars often come down to manpower, material, who's able to replace their losses the best, who's able to adjust, and build a force that can sustain the conflict.

    Both sides have significant challenges. The Russian military enjoys a local advantage, particularly advantage of firepower and artillery, in the Donbass. The Ukrainian military right now is in a bit of a valley in terms of equipment and capability. It's solely trying to assimilate Western equipment, artillery, and trying to change the kind of equipment and munitions the force depends on.

    So this is a very challenging time for the Ukrainian military, probably the coming two months in particular. And, that said, the Ukraine somewhat enjoys long-term advantages in this war that is conditioned on sustained Western support, because Ukraine has the manpower and, if it has access to Western military equipment and training to use that equipment, over time, it can develop significant advantages.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ukrainian officials are talking about launching counteroffensives against the Russian forces using those heavier weapons that you just talked about.

    How will those weapons affect Ukraine's ability to reseize territory that Russia has occupied, if at all?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Western military equipment, particularly different types of artillery systems, will help equalize the current substantial disadvantage that Ukraine has, relative to the massed Russian artillery firepower.

    That said, right now, both forces are only kind of capable of localized attacks. Ukraine has been conducting small, localized counteroffensives in other parts of the front, trying to set themselves up in a better position down the line.

    Neither military really has the force capacity left for big offensives or breakout attacks, the kind of things that can generate momentum, right, nor is either military close to collapse. Over time, Ukraine may be in a position to conduct a substantial counteroffensive, perhaps in one of the other regions like Kherson.

    But that doesn't just depend on military equipment. People tend to fixate on military equipment, on technology, on capabilities. They make a significant difference. They are rarely game-changers. You have to look at the quality of the force, and you have to look at the overall military.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so do you believe that, on the Russian side, they can wage the same kind of war that they have been waging in the east indefinitely?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Well, indefinitely is a very hard test to pass. I'm not sure anything could be waged indefinitely.

    But the Russian military is playing to is strength, leveraging massed artillery firepower, right, which minimizes the disadvantages and problems it has in the force, and taking territory incrementally. Yes, they can sustain it for quite some time.

    But they too have big challenges when it comes to manpower, the sustainment of this fight. And the solutions they have taken to keep the Russian military in the fight in what is likely to be a protracted war have their own drawbacks. They come at the expense of long-term degradation of the Russian force. So they may not be that sustainable if we put it into a much longer timeline.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Michael Kofman, thank you very much.

  • Michael Kofman:

    Thanks for having me back on the program.

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