Why Russia is using increasingly brutal tactics in Ukraine

Russia's attack against Ukraine has intensified in recent days and become more indiscriminate, with scores of Ukrainian civilians killed and vast swaths of infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings destroyed, including hospitals and schools. Michael Kofman, senior fellow for Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, joins Stephanie Sy to discuss Russia's brutal tactics.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to a detailed look at an increasingly brutal battlefield in Ukraine.

    Stephanie Sy has that.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, that is the way to put it.

    In recent days, the Russian attack against Ukraine has intensified. It has become more indiscriminate, with scores of Ukrainian civilians killed, and vast swathes of infrastructure, residential and commercial buildings, even hospitals and schools, destroyed.

    For a closer examination of Russia's tactics, I'm joined by Michael Kofman, senior fellow for Russian studies at the CNA, Center for Naval Analyses.

    Michael Kofman, thank you for joining the "NewsHour," as always.

    With the bombing of that maternity hospital in Mariupol, are we seeing a concerted change in tactics by Russian forces? And what can the Ukrainians do to defend against such tactics?

    Michael Kofman, Center for Naval Analyses: I'm afraid we are.

    And I think folks like me predicted early on that this war is going to get a lot more ugly and, unfortunately, that much of the worse is yet to come in this conflict. We have been seeing the Russian military revert to using artillery fire, multiple-launch rocket systems and a lot of indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, particularly where they get involved in urban warfare.

    Urban warfare is very difficult. It consumes armies and forces. Russian military often relies on firepower, overwhelming firepower. And we have seen throughout this conflict, particularly in the last week, which is really the second week of this war, heavy shelling of civilian areas and the urban environments, with, I think, increasingly growing civilian casualties.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    As you said, Michael, some of this, you predicted, that it would get uglier, as you say.

    It has been two weeks, though, since the invasion. What is surprising you about what you're seeing on the battlefield?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Well, the Russian military has had a number of setbacks. They have definitely not made the progress they had hoped they would make. And the Ukrainian military has shown immense resolve. They have fought hard.

    That being said, unfortunately, if you look on the overall map, you will see the Russian military slowly, but steadily, perhaps fitfully, progressing, trying to complete an encirclement of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and, where they are frustrated, intentionally switching to tactics of barraging urban areas like Kharkiv or maybe Mariupol, to try to compel the civilian population to leave, and to try a signal maybe to other cities that they should surrender or capitulate to a Russian encirclement.

    On the whole, the war where we are now, unfortunately, is very indeterminate. That is, we are much closer to the beginning of it than we are towards the end.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You mentioned some of those major cities that are encircled, including Kharkiv.

    Does it surprise you how long it is taking for Russians to seize and hold territory? We are hearing, for example, reports from the field that Russian troops in some cases are abandoning their vehicles, that they are using unencrypted comms on the field. Are they disorganized? And how much is that going to affect the overall outlook of this war?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Absolutely.

    The initial campaign was absolutely shambolic. They had not prepared for a large-scale military operation. In cases like Kharkiv, they have not encircled the city. Ukrainians have successfully counterattacked there. They have enveloped cities like Mariupol. They're trying to encircle cities like Mykolaiv.

    What's really happening on the Russian fight is that it's not been a well-organized effort. They have logistics problems. And, as they went into the war, they didn't psychologically or materially prepare their troops. In fact, in all honesty, they lied to them. And they pushed them into Ukraine.

    And that's why we have seen cases of desertion. We have seen a lot of vehicles abandoned. Some of them are due logistical problems, but some of them are a clear-cut case of unit desertion on the battlefield due to low morale, whereas Ukraine, while outmatched conventionally, in terms of qualitative level of equipment, has — those fighters of strong resolve. They're fighting for something.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You know, that leads me to the question of whether Russia can really achieve its ultimate political objective of controlling Ukraine, especially as we see dead soldiers, wounded Russian soldiers now in the thousands.

  • Michael Kofman:

    That's a great question.

    So, the truth is that, given the bad assumptions with which they went into the war, an operation which wasn't attempt at quick regime change, in which they got a bloody nose, and had to reconfigure into a large-scale military operation that you now see them making big adjustments and trying to prosecute, from my point of view, I am very skeptical that they can achieve their political objectives.

    And don't get me wrong. They can extract military victories, they can achieve battlefield victories. But I think, in many respects, a lot of their assumptions simply had little bearing on reality. Now they have switched to much more brutal forms of warfare. They are resourcing a military effort, but it's ultimately behind a failed strategy.

    And I have deep skepticism that they can achieve their political objectives in this war.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    So how long do you expect this war to last, Michael?

  • Michael Kofman:

    Yes, I'm afraid my answer is going to be very unsatisfactory.

    Wars are highly contingent. And I know many people are watching this war, they're living it day by day, or, if you're following it like me, maybe hour by hour. But the truth is that this war could go on. It could go on for weeks. It could go on for months.

    I do suspect that at the rate of sort of losses of manpower and material, Russian forces could probably be exhausted within a couple of weeks, but the war won't end. There may be an operational pause to resupply or reorganize.

    Cease-fires often are ways by which both sides rearm and then continue the conflict in a different phase. I think the first chapter of this war is likely to close in the coming weeks. But this war may be here to stay and it may be here with us for quite some time, much longer than we would wish it to be.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Michael Kofman, senior fellow for Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, thank you, as always, for joining the "NewsHour."

  • Michael Kofman:

    Thanks for having me on your program.

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