Great battles in history show that logistics can make the difference between victory or defeat. Will we see that happening again in Ukraine? We spoke about it with two experts from the Dutch Defense Academy.
It seems that the Russian advance in Ukraine has largely stalled. The Ukrainian army has even counterattacked in some places. Russia's hopes for a quick victory have been dashed. Instead, Russian soldiers have found themselves in arduous battles for which they were not prepared. NEMO Kennislink spoke with Paul van Fenema and Ton van Kampen, both specialized in military logistics and affiliated with the Dutch Defense Academy.
Recently, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that they will focus on the liberation of the Donbas in the east in "a new phase of the war". At the same time, we hear a lot about a logistical nightmare that the Russians would have ended up in. Tanks and armored vehicles that would have been left without fuel and soldiers who have to survive on meager rations. Are these things related?
Ton van Kampen (TvK):"The fact that poor logistics are the cause of this nightmare is a conclusion that you should not draw in advance, because we do not know exactly what Putin's strategic goals are."
Paul van Fenema (PvF):“There is a lot of misinformation that constantly says that all kinds of goals are being achieved. It is very difficult to find out the truth.”
But what about those images of armored vehicles left in good condition by the Russians?
TvK:“We are indeed seeing images of that. But it remains to be seen whether this has to do with problems in the supply of fuel, for example, or whether it has simply become defective. It is also possible that the soldiers have deserted. If military equipment has to be left behind for whatever reason, you would expect it to be disabled, because you want to prevent it from falling into the hands of the opponent. So when you see equipment in good condition along the road, you have to wonder what exactly is going on.”
So you're suggesting there's more going on?
TvK:“What most analysts expected was that there would be a rapid Russian advance. It seems that the intention was to capture the most important places in a few days, among other things by deploying airborne units. Once you get hold of strategic places like airfields, you can defend them against counter-attacks. That clearly didn't work.”
“The logistical organization of the Russians also seems geared to a rapid advance. Units can last for a few days without logistical support. But then resupply has to take place, otherwise there will be shortages of, for example, fuel, ammunition and food.”
PvF:“The most important way for the Russians to transport military equipment over long distances is by rail. That is why it is relatively easy and fast to move equipment within Russia. But it quickly becomes much more difficult across the border. And at a certain point you have to get off the track and transfer stuff onto the road.”
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So the tactic of a quick advance has failed and now they are in a situation they were unprepared for?
TvK:“The longer it takes, the more heavily you have to rely on resupply. And that is precisely the weakness of the Russian army. And the soldiers, mostly conscripts, are becoming demotivated because of shortages and because they cannot achieve their attack targets. Moreover, they also become demotivated because they are not received as liberators at all, even though they were told that. On the contrary. They are addressed and verbally abused in their own language. They also don't want to enter the cities because you need well-trained specialists for a city war. This is not possible with an army that consists largely of conscripts. So they try to bomb the cities from a distance in the hope that the Ukrainians surrender themselves. But they were wrong about that too. The Ukrainians are fighting like lions for their country and for their cities. So there is a lot going on, but then only insufficient logistic support.”
PvF:“The shelling of the cities also requires a lot of ammunition. It seems that there is not enough stock either.”
TvK:“The latest development is that there seems to be a regrouping aimed at eastern Ukraine. The Russians will concentrate on the capture of the Donbas, Mariupol and establish a land connection with Crimea. That also seems the most logical because they can support that region logistically much more easily from Russian territory. So that largely solves the problem with long supply lines.”
In the Donbas they can therefore wage a war closer to home?
TVK:“Yes. Deploying troops is one thing, but being able to continue a mission is much more than that. And Russia has always focused on developing their own arms industry, they want to be self-sufficient. But I also have the impression that the Russian arms industry cannot quite keep up with compensating for the losses incurred. And large-scale mobilization for a kind of total war economy is out of the question. That would disrupt the country even more and the Russian population would probably not go along with it either.”
PvF:“Even in a war you eventually get a kind of routinization, in which it ultimately comes down to who can sustain the conflict best and longest.”
So that logistics again.
“Yes, logistics certainly play a major role. But it's also tempting to stare blindly at it. I give an example. You regularly read about high-ranking Russian generals who were killed in Ukraine. It is then said that the lines of communication between Moscow and the front line would be too long, forcing generals to put their own house in order at the front. But in Russian military doctrine, it is very common for generals to operate at the front. So it's no surprise that they die. In the west we are used to generals staying a bit more at a distance from the front.”
Are there any comparisons to be made with military campaigns such as the Napoleonic Campaign, Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Afghanistan?
TVK:“Certainly. You can name many campaigns from the past where there was also insufficient attention for logistics. Barbarossa and Waterloo for example. If the logistics are not in order, things almost always go wrong. That does not mean that if you arrange the logistics well, you will always win. And the importance of logistics has only increased in recent years. It is no longer just a necessary support, but rather a force multiplier. So if you have the logistics in order, you can boost your clout, for example because the vehicles are better maintained and repairs can be carried out faster. Good logistics also boost morale. Soldiers who regularly receive a good meal and good medical care have a higher combat readiness. As a party with a smaller clout, you can also make smart use of this increased importance, as Ukraine is doing now. If you systematically attack the logistic lines, you automatically deprive your opponent of the possibility to keep fighting, no matter how big and powerful it is.”
And we've seen that before?
PvF:“Yes, exactly in the battles you mention. The increasing importance of logistics also means that logistics lines are becoming a target. Armies that should actually lose out try to inflict a kind of wear and tear on the opponent.”
TvK:“If you want to protect your supply lines in response to this, this will again be at the expense of the combat power at the front. You see that happening in Ukraine as well. If you want to carry out an operation across four attack axes with 'only' 150,000 men in a country larger than France, you will eventually be short of manpower.”
Could it have been done differently?
TvK:“Prior to operation Desert Storm, the American action against Iraq in 1990-91, the Americans spent more than six months getting their logistics in order in Kuwait (operation Desert Shield). A huge operation, about which a book has been written with the appropriate title 'Moving Mountains'. In the first phase of Operation Desert Storm, they eliminated the entire Iraqi Air Force with a successful air operation. Once you are dominant in the air, you are less vulnerable on the ground. The Russians in Ukraine have not yet succeeded in that.”
Still strange. Russia has the third largest army in the world with a massive air force. Aren't they capable of much more than they show?
“A short and quick action was planned, and it failed. And there's a military saying, "don't reinforce a defeat," so don't keep putting more troops and equipment into a conflict you're losing. Because then your losses will only increase further. And Putin must also continue to present a success story to his own people. If the losses only increase, this becomes more and more difficult to explain. What's the point in destroying an area you'd like to control first? Much has already been destroyed in eastern Ukraine. It will now take years to rebuild everything.”
PvF:“This is not simply a war where two armies face each other and the strongest wins. It is a war in many different domains, all trying to influence the conflict. Military, in which logistics also play a role, is one side. But the war is just as well fought economically, financially, diplomatically and in cyberspace.”