Eight months ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine, describing it as a "special military operation." Most military analysts expected an easy victory. The Russians had a significant numerical advantage in personnel and equipment, much greater firepower, air and naval superiority and seemingly bottomless resources with which to impose its will. It was reasonable to believe that Russia would conquer Ukraine rapidly and then replace the existing government before declaring "victory".
Of course, that did not happen.
The Ukrainians had been preparing for this eventuality since at least 2014, when the Russian military and its allied forces invaded eastern Ukraine and illegally occupied and annexed Crimea. With the help of the U.S. and other Western allies, the Ukrainians put in place an extremely effective system of total resistance, in which nearly the entire society was mobilized to defend the nation.
The Ukrainian military has greatly modernized its forces, tactics, strategy and style of leadership and command — again, with significant aid from the West. In contrast, despite the Russian military's efforts at modernization, it remains largely guided by Stalin's famous diktat that "quantity has a quality all its own." That may have been true when it came to defending the Soviet Union against Hitler in 1941, but the realities of warfare in the 21st century have greatly complicated that statement.
Russia's military has suffered numerous setbacks and been exposed as a hollow force, poorly equipped and even more poorly led. Russian forces have suffered heavy losses in Ukraine, with the Ukrainian government claiming that 50,000 Russian soldiers have died, although U.S. estimates are around half that number. Experts have concluded that it will take years to rebuild the Russian military.
After a brief period of initial successes that included the siege of Kyiv and rapid occupation of parts of southern and eastern Ukraine, Russian forces have been consistently pushed back. After a successful offensive several weeks ago in the northeast, Ukraine is now moving against Russian forces as part of an effort to recapture the strategically important city of Kherson.
Russian forces continue to retreat, abandoning vehicles, artillery, ammunition and other critical equipment and supplies. In a stark contrast, the U.S. and NATO allies are providing advanced weaponry, key intelligence and other assistance to the Ukrainians, which they are using to great effect.
Putin has now enacted a de facto draft intended to force 300,000 Russian men into military service, a move that is widely unpopular. There are even rumors that Putin's rule may be imperiled because of the failures in Ukraine, a scenario that seemed unthinkable even a few weeks ago.
John Spencer is a retired U.S. Army major who is chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. He also consults for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the UN and other military and national security organizations. Spencer's essays and other writing have been featured by the New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Policy and other leading publications.
His new book "Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connections in Modern War," was published in July.
In this conversation, Spencer explains how and why the Ukrainian military has been so successful in its fight against the Russian invasion. Ukraine now holds the advantage, he argues, and the tide has turned against Putin and the Russian military. Despite Russia's numerical advantage, Spencer argues, intangible factors such as the will to fight, love of country, trusted leadership and a belief in the justness of one's cause have played important roles in Ukraine's success.
At the end of this conversation, Spencer draws on his own experiences in combat to explain how the average Ukrainian soldier and their Russian counterparts are likely feeling right now. He concludes that the Russian military is broken from the inside out and that the average Russian soldier — especially among the newest wave of "recruits" — has no heart for the fight in Ukraine and just wants it to end so he can just return home alive.
It has been about eight months since the beginning of Russia's war in Ukraine, and matters have changed a great deal, both on the ground and in terms of the larger strategic picture. How do you assess the situation now?
War is the true test of the human soul. We can compare militaries by their numbers, the amount of land they currently control and other metrics. But as we have seen with the war in Ukraine, numbers don't tell the whole story. The Ukrainian military and other forces are not really the underdog anymore. In terms of quality of their forces, leadership, doctrine, how they deploy their weapons, morale and other measurements, they surpass Russia. Most importantly, the will of the Ukrainian soldiers and the population more generally to fight surpasses that of Russia.
The only advantage Russia had in the beginning was in the number of soldiers and amount of equipment. Quality will trump quantity every time. We have seen that story play out in historic ways in Ukraine. Russia is a big bully and Ukraine has stood up to them. At the beginning of the war there was this huge question: How could Ukraine, with a much smaller military, defend itself against Russia, and for how long? I think the world has woken up to the fact that not only could Ukraine win, but that victory is almost a done deal. Ukraine cannot claim victory at this point because there is much more fighting to be done. But ultimately, if the war continues in the way it has these last few months, Russia cannot win. While American and Western assistance have been crucial for the Ukrainians in this war, in the end it is the Ukrainian soldiers who had to use that help effectively and do the fighting.
The Russians are losing the ability to support their forces in Ukraine. Russia is calling up reservists and basically instituting a draft, which is an acknowledgment of defeat. The Russians haven't had to do such a thing since World War II. What the world is seeing with Russia in Ukraine is the dying breath of a giant. Ultimately, we are getting a view into the world of warfare unlike anything we have ever had in human history. We are watching the evolution of modern warfare right in front of our eyes. The headlines are important, but there is so much more going on.
What did it feel like to be in Ukraine?
I've traveled the world and personally experienced war in places like Iraq. When I visited Ukraine, I felt the unity of their people. They are united in the pursuit of freedom. It is something amazing to experience and witness firsthand. I visited places like Kyiv and Bucha. I am a military professional, so of course I talked with soldiers there about tactics and what they personally experienced fighting the Russians. But it was the personal dimension that really impacted me. I heard so many stories from individual Ukrainians about their choice to fight back against the Russian invaders.
For example, I spoke with a 60-year-old man who had served years ago in the military and decided to take up arms again the moment he heard Russia had invaded. The unity and cohesion of the Ukrainian people are an amazing force multiplier. Every person I met was involved in the fight in some way. That is what the Russian invaders are up against.
The Ukrainian government, with assistance from the U.S. and other allies, put in place a strategy called the "Resistance Operating Concept," which has meant mobilizing almost the entire Ukrainian population to resist the invasion. Can you elaborate on how well that has worked?
The concept of total resistance is not new. War is a test of will and ideas. The Ukrainians are in a war for their survival and are resisting as a people. The Ukrainians have taught a masterclass on stoking the will to fight and keeping the momentum going. It is amazing to see how flexible they are in terms of messaging, using multimedia, creating videos and sharing their stories with the rest of the world.
The Russians used to be viewed as the masters of information warfare. But it is the Ukrainians who are dominating that space right now. Ukraine has used the information domain to motivate their forces and maintain their morale by making this a global fight. As a soldier, I know that you need somebody to your left and right to push you forward to attack that hill. That's how it works. War isn't just about killing people. War is a battle of wills. The Ukrainian military and the country's leaders are using information warfare to win that struggle.
You're speaking about the intangibles of war. Can an army really will itself to victory or defeat? When I look at the Russian military right now, I see a force that appears broken. To quote something John Kerry said years ago, who wants to be the last man to die in a war?
These intangibles, by their very nature, are not easily measurable. Nonetheless their impact is undeniable. We know from military science that an individual soldier's or a unit's motivation, morale and cohesion all equal their will to fight. You can arm and train anybody, but there is a science to maintaining their motivation to move forward in battle. You have to give soldiers a cause, something to believe in, to maintain their will to fight. War is a test of your soul. Why are you fighting? Soldiers fight for causes like their nation, their freedom, their family — and certainly for their fellow soldiers. When times get bad, it is those intangibles that will be the difference between victory and defeat.
The war has strengthened the Ukrainians' sense of national identity, which in turns creates a will to win on the battlefield. Compare that to the Russian military right now in Ukraine. The Russian military that the Ukrainians are defeating right now is not the same one that invaded seven months ago. In many ways, the Russian military was defeated months ago. They are abandoning their positions. Units are refusing to fight. Equipment is being abandoned. If you don't have the motivation, the leadership and the will to fight, then soldiers will literally not pull the trigger on their weapons. Sure, they may stand there, may be present and may even not run away, but they will not fight.
There are all these images of the Russian military leaving behind vehicles and equipment en masse in response to the recent Ukrainian offensives, and also surrendering to the Ukrainians as well. It looks like an army in chaos.
An orderly retreat is what Russia did in April. Overnight, they withdrew all their formations, collected all their equipment and used artillery to support their withdrawal. A rout is a chaotic abandonment that is not a proper military movement. Rout is almost a non-military term, but that is what's happening in Ukraine where the Russians are experiencing the complete collapse of military discipline, military organization and military leadership. It is nearly like a chaotic crowd running in all directions. In response to the last Ukrainian offensive, the Russians are disorganized and trying to escape. The fact that the Russians are just abandoning equipment shows the depths of their problems and overall disorganization and how broken in many ways that force is.
It looks as if Russian forces are not even bothering to destroy their equipment and vehicles, or otherwise make them unusable. They are also leaving behind high-end weapons systems, including some of their newest drones, electronic warfare equipment, tanks and other systems.
We are seeing a window into the collapse of the Russian military. This is about much more than the loss of terrain. It is a given that terrain will change hands in a war. The way an army fights is a window into their status. The fact that the Russians have just abandoned so much equipment and supplies — including critical command and control equipment — offers real insight into their problems.
Of course you can't destroy everything or otherwise render it not serviceable. You also can't take everything with you. But when an army just abandons equipment that can literally be turned around by the attacking force and used against you, that is a huge sign of deep problems. The Russians left behind artillery and artillery rounds. They left food and uniforms. They left behind some of their best tanks. I am not being facetious: Russia is now one of the biggest providers of military aid to Ukraine.
Ukraine doesn't have a shortage of motivated people to fight. Ukraine has a shortage of military supplies and equipment. Russia has the opposite problem. Moreover, Russia is now using 1950s-, 1960s- and 1970s-era tanks and other armored vehicles. The situation is that desperate. In the end, what Russia does not have is motivated soldiers — and those soldiers are now voting with their feet and retreating, surrendering and otherwise refusing to fight.
One of the dominant narratives we are hearing is that the Ukrainian military's recent offensive was "textbook" and "perfect." Such terms make me suspicious. What does that actually mean?
The oversimplification of war is dangerous. In military science we have concepts such as the operational art of war, the principles of war and so on. At a basic level, what the Ukrainians have done in their recent offensive was something that is taught at any war college. They are doing the right things in the application of military power in a theater. Of course there are people who want to fit what is happening in Ukraine into their own narrative. For example, some people in the United States military leadership are now using what we see in Ukraine as justification for the directions they want to go in terms of investments in new technologies and the like.
When the Ukrainians launched their offensive in Kherson, the Russians had to respond or they were going to lose 20,000 soldiers — which they still could. The Ukrainians had better intelligence. When the Russians attempted to move forces to save Kherson, they created a big weakness in the eastern areas of Ukraine where the Ukrainian military executed a second offensive, against Kharkiv. That was a well-planned attack with a combined arms formation that included tanks and other vehicles. When the Ukrainians pushed forward with their mechanized brigades and other forces the Russians were so incompetent that they fell apart. Their defenses were not adequate.
I can highlight the great things that the Ukrainians did in terms of intelligence, planning, secrecy and speed. The speed was important: The Ukrainians even used wheeled vehicles to rapidly exploit openings in the Russian defenses and then to capitalize on them. So, yes, there were textbook aspects to Ukraine's attack. But how much of the Ukrainian military's success is also the result of how incompetent the Russians are? As the wisdom suggests, never interrupt your enemy while he's making a mistake. The collapse of the Russian military was a surprise to the Ukrainians, as much as it was to us.
In terms of the operational art of war, what has Russia done wrong?
The Russians did not adopt a model of leadership and organization based on decentralization and empowering junior leaders. Their model is very officer-centric and centralized. Russia also did not develop an effective NCO [non-commissioned officer] corps. A modern military needs to empower its soldiers to take the initiative and by doing so to accomplish great things.
Putin is exercising a great amount of operational control, down to the tactical level. There should be multiple levels of trusted individuals who are then allowed to go out and execute the operation. The other error Russia made was that when they invaded Ukraine they lacked a clear objective, so they did not prioritize the force that was going to achieve it. In the battle for Kyiv, the Russians attacked seven different areas at once. Any reasonably intelligent person who knows about these things would tell you that if your objective is regime change then you have to take the capital and rapidly cut off the heads of government.
The Russian leadership was not stable. They switched out different senior officers in response to their failures. As a practical matter, they also lost a lot of senior officers, including some generals, to Ukrainian attacks, friendly fire and other things. The Russians have really lost the core of their leadership. There is also the much-discussed aspect of the Russian military's failures in terms of logistics, supplies and equipment. Putin did not have the force that he thought he did. Putin does not have Stalin's army, a massive force that can overcome their qualitative deficiencies. Putin does not have the Red Army of old, with its ability to apply mass and force across a wide front. Yet he is still trying to apply that doctrine to the small and now completely eroded and corroded force that he sent to Ukraine.
What does Putin's recent "mobilization" mean, as a practical matter?
It's a draft, which is a global recognition that they're losing in Ukraine. These are not proper reserves, meaning a force that is kept competent on their military skills, as we see with the U.S. military or other Western forces. Putin is calling up people who may have served in the military at some point in their lives, and also calling up younger people who have likely never served. They're going to get two weeks of training. What can you teach somebody in two weeks? I don't know. Now there are reports that some of them only get a few days of training. That's nuts. Those recruits are getting sent directly to Ukraine where they will be added to existing units that are already diminished.
Putin has lost the national infrastructure to build proper military formations, and has also lost many of his military trainers. The heart of Putin's military has already been deployed to Ukraine. Now he is just putting untrained people, using their bodies to fill the gaps in his forces. This will not save him from defeat in Ukraine. In my opinion, Putin is now literally sending men off to die. The forces he already has in Ukraine don't have the will to fight. He is just adding more people who don't want to fight to that already demoralized group.
Russia's problems in Ukraine are only going to get worse. Now there are just going to be more soldiers in Ukraine as part of an army that is losing ground and surrendering.
What could or should the Russian military have done differently?
Objectively, the Russian leadership could have put three times the amount of effort toward what should have been the only objective, which was taking Kyiv, the capital city. If a big enough force had attacked rapidly, they might have overwhelmed the Ukrainians and the city might have fallen in the first weeks of the war, as predicted. Russia's goal would have been accomplished and Ukraine would not be a sovereign nation. Russia would likely then have had to fight one of the largest resistance movements in history, but Putin would have achieved his strategic goal. That is not what happened. I would have fired every person on their general staff, including Gen. Gerasimov [the highest-ranking military officer].
How is the average Ukrainian soldier feeling right now? And what about their Russian counterparts?
The Ukrainian soldier is extremely motivated right now. Their morale is at a high, probably the highest it has been in the war to this point. The Ukrainian soldier has the backing of their nation and the world. They have incredible momentum. They know they are accomplishing something great and are moving towards victory.
The Russians are feeling the opposite. Their morale is at the lowest possible point. Not only are they questioning why they are fighting in Ukraine, but they don't even have any of the basic things — resources, supplies and, perhaps most important, good leadership — that could lift their morale. The Russians don't even have stories about the great things they are accomplishing on the battlefield to lift their spirits. They know they are being defeated.