An Army without its baggage-train is lost; without provisions it is lost; without bases of supply it is lost.
– Sun Tzu
Following on from Alexander Scott’s article The Weakening Logistics Chain of the Russo-Ukrainian War: An Unfolding Case Study, this article takes another look at the logistics lessons from the Russia-Ukraine war to date. It examines strategic logistics successes prior to the conflict through to failures being experienced at the tactical level.
If you don’t know the history of Russia and Ukraine, take a quick look at the videos in this Russia-Ukraine Crisis Primer.
On the 24th of February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced his nation would commence immediate military action in Ukraine. This announcement was likely intended to cripple the Ukrainian people with fear, leading to the timely surrender of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and leaving Ukraine under Russian rule. Now, weeks into the invasion and after formidable resistance by both the Ukraine military and civilians, there is no end in sight. At the time of publishing, Russia is stalled in a fight that was planned to be swift and decisive.
Background to the War
Putin’s intent was clear. He sought the isolation of Ukraine from NATO and a promise that NATO will cease its expansion into Eastern Europe. NATO’s non-compliance with this demand was used as the rationale and pretext for invasion. Putin labelled NATO’s expansion as an act of aggression toward his nation’s sovereignty. He also claimed Ukraine as part of Russia based on its historical ties to the Soviet Union. He went further to state that large parts of Ukraine had been ‘nazified’ and claimed mass genocide within Ukraine. Many Western nations have since placed sanctions on Russia, which was cited by Putin as an act of aggression.
How we Measure Militaries
Militaries are often measured by the standing Army size or number of Main Battle Tanks (MBT), fighter aircraft and warships available. Russia, with a reported military many times larger than Ukraine in each of these metrics, was expected to force Ukraine to capitulate quickly.
The war in Ukraine shows that a nation’s military power is not purely measured on its size, but rather its ability to defend, or to project force, and sustain it in conflict. Of course, the skill and tactics of the military also play a large part in achieving this.
Military power should also be measured by the following components:
- Economy – money and raw materials available to sustain the force.
- Industry – intrinsic fabrication of military equipment and supplies or import capability.
- Strategic Infrastructure – air and sea ports, roads, rail and fuel assets.
- End-to-end Supply Chain – supply of individual components of warfare from supplier to front line. For example, bullets, food, repair parts, computer chips and the means to transport them from where they are produced to where they are used.
- Equipment – military and civilian equipment with people to operate it in support of war efforts.
Russia is having each of the above components of military power systematically dismantled via external sanctions while Ukraine operates against the physical military component.
Russian Preparations on the Path to War
After Russia annexed Crimea, two key logistics outcomes were met. Firstly Crimea provided Russia with a naval stronghold to the south of Ukraine. From this base, forces and equipment could easily be projected into Sevastopol for military build-up. This is a strategically important port and guarantees domination of the Black Sea. It also enables control of shipping routes contained within. Secondly, the Kerch Strait Bridge was built in 2019. It linked Crimea to Russia and provided a rail link to the south of Ukraine. This is an important historical event noting Russia’s heavy reliance on rail for military logistics.
Crimea provided Russia with a secure staging base for military build-up prior to the war, as well as ongoing sustainment. This is perhaps why the Russian advance has progressed more quickly in the south. Russia has since fought to connect Crimea to the Donbas Region to form a land bridge to Russia. Controlling the ‘Mariupol Line’ has been a strategic objective of Russia since Crimea was annexed. The region houses additional strategic rail networks, as well as key steel and industrial production, and export hubs.
Russian Logistics during the War
On the first day of conflict, Russia seized the disused Chernobyl powerplant on the northern fringe of Ukraine. Although the reason for seizure was not fully known, control over the asset would be considered strategic as the facility still requires active maintenance to avoid further disaster giving Russia considerable power over Ukraine. The site is also close to the border of Belarus, a nation which supports Russia and its Soviet Union claims in the region. This gave Russia its first foothold in the north of Ukraine and secured a northern avenue of approach into Kyiv on the western side of the Dnieper River.
Numerous other strategic infrastructures have since been seized by the Russian military including airports, sea ports, and the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant (which is the largest plant in Europe). This has in effect isolated Ukraine by sea and allowed Russian forces to control a significant portion of Ukraine’s national power generation capability. Additionally, Russia has struck Ukrainian military bases with missile attacks.
Ukraine Actions on Russian Logistics
Just as Russia has sought to seize and retain key logistics infrastructure, Ukraine sought to deny it from the hands of Russia. On the 26th of February 2022, Ukrainian Railways confirmed that all rail links between Russia and Ukraine had been destroyed. This was seemingly an effort to deny Russian military use. Since that point, Russia has been plagued with apparent logistics deficiencies including entire military convoys being halted for days at a time. Military vehicles have also been reported as running out of fuel on route to Kyiv. Russia, having relied heavily on rail for projecting its military force had to rely on vehicles and road networks. This, in effect, physically dislocated Russian columns from supply bases and disrupted the supply chain of the Russian military.
Ukraine then started actively targeting logistics vehicles. Russia adapted to conceal fuel vehicles as cargo variants but Ukraine quickly identified the tactic. Further, Ukraine were sheltering in the complex terrain of cities and attacking Russian convoys by night, enabling the targeting of critical logistic vehicles. This disrupted Russian communication with higher headquarters and stretched their supply lines. Conversely, Ukraine has an active international supply chain and has received weapons and munitions from other nations, a luxury that Russia currently does not share.
Weather and Environment
In January, US President Joe Biden stated Putin may be waiting for optimum freeze conditions prior to commencing operations. The Ukrainian winter runs from December to February with average temperatures below zero in January which causes much of the ground to freeze. By March, the temperatures had increased to averages of low single digits (celsius). In this spring period, much of the ground defrosts and turns to mud. The Russian T72B3, T80-U, T90-A and T14 MBTs are some of the lightest MBTs currently in service, with all weighing in at below 50 tonnes. Most NATO military MBTs weigh more than 60 tonnes prompting fears that war in Eastern Europe would be extremely difficult not only due to the ground conditions, but also the many bridges unable to hold the load of a NATO MBT.
The Russian military is not new to these conditions, training year round in various weather conditions. Despite this, we have seen many examples of Russian tanks and supply vehicles stuck in mud either during training exercises directly before the conflict, or during the conflict. While many commentators have said that this indicates poor planning for the timeline of the invasion, it potentially indicates something different. Not that Putin and his Generals timed the invasion poorly, but rather that the conflict was planned to be a rapid victory. Some military analysts are saying that Russia’s plan accounted for immediate victory; expecting that Ukraine would either surrender or collapse within minutes or hours. With the thaw well and truly set in, it seems that the window for Russia to achieve a swift ground victory may be closing.
The difference in size between the Russian and Ukrainian military is immense, but the outcomes of the war to date have clearly shown this not to be a decisive factor. While Russia seized strategic logistics infrastructure prior to and early on in the war, it is clear the strategic advantage that provided is dwindling with every tactical failure. Ukraine has protected its own logistics assets while targeting that of Russia’s. While Russia planned for a swift and decisive victory, Ukraine has found ways to make Russia’s operational objectives increasingly difficult to obtain. Ukraine has elongated the war forcing Russia to fight over vast distances in poor conditions with stretched supplies, and without the benefit of strategic rail assets. Regardless of the eventual outcome of this war, much can be learnt by the way in which each state has fought this war, and more lessons will undoubtedly come in the weeks and months ahead.