Infantry wins battles. Logistics wins wars.Gen. John J. Pershing
On November 3, 2021, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced that some 90,000 Russian troops had encircled the country’s borders and occupied territories. Satellite images and social media posts documented the soldiers and supplies pouring into southwest Russia throughout December and setting up medical units, hospital tents, and fuel reserves. Russia was amassing the infrastructure for war.
Over the next three and a half months, 175,000 Russian troops had positioned along Ukraine’s border, ready to unleash death and destruction in the country they believed they were there to liberate. In January, Russian forces marched into Belarus for “joint exercises” but within weeks it was announced that they were staying, establishing staging areas for entire battalions in an ever growing arc around the country.
What made this massive domestic mobilization of troops possible was Russia’s vast rail network. This network, the third largest in the world, is almost exclusively state controlled, with the government owning some twenty thousand of the country’s twenty one thousand locomotives. This control and extensiveness combined allows Russia’s military to effectively monopolize the use of tracks, transporting troops, tanks, and trucks quickly over the vast and sparse distances required.
This also allowed for the quick mobilization of troops and supplies all over Eastern Russia and into Belarus. Unfortunately for Russia, this reliance is also difficult to hide in the age of social media and provided the Ukraine with valuable intel during the months leading up to the inevitable invasion.
On February 24, 2022, the Russian offensive began by targeting Ukraine’s own military infrastructure. Focusing strikes on Ukrainian air bases in an effort to gain Russian air superiority with as little resistance as possible. Eleven bases were destroyed on the first day of hostilities, and by midday, Russia landed troops at Hostomel Airport mere miles from Kyiv.
This was in effort to create an “air bridge,” seizing control of the airport to allow planes and helicopters to bring in more troops and create a supply line that could provide a certain level of logistical support regardless of the conditions on the ground. As Russian troops began pouring in all across the border, tanks, trucks, and supplies were unloaded from railcars and assembled into convoys heading south towards the warzone.
However, despite all the well planned war infrastructure set up around Ukraine, things inside the warzone were going less to plan. As Russian troops attemtped to push into Kyiv, they met fierce resistance and made little progress, never pushing beyond the city’s suburbs.
As the days went on, photos and videos began to show tanks and trucks that had run out of fuel and were left abandoned across the landscape. Invading troops were seen looting stores for food potentially due to a lack of their own. Reports emerged of Russian forces asking Ukrainian civilians for supplies and directions, seemingly unaware of the public consensus on them in the country they were trying to conquer.
The Ukrainians Strike Back
Ukraine went for Russia’s logistics. First, taking back control of Hostomel Airport to shut down the Russian air bridge. Social media platforms were effectively adapted to organize the country’s guerrilla style defenses. Posts circulated stressing the value of destroying fuel trucks, which are typically unarmored and can be rendered useless with bullets and cheaply made explosives. Russia attempted to disguise their fuel trucks as normal supply trucks, but that effort was quickly exposed online.
Ukraine also destroyed two key bridges into Kyiv allowing them to concentrate on a smaller number of chokepoints. They then destroyed all connections between the Ukrainian and Russian rail networks, keeping Russia from using them to ramp up their supply lines. Across the country, cities and towns dismantled or painted over their street signs, making it harder for Russian troops, many of whom relied solely on paper maps, to navigate around.
The Russian military relied almost exclusively on analog, unsecured radio communications, providing an easy way for civilians and hacktivist organizations to block and surveil frequencies or just broadcast over them. Russia attempted strategic disinformation, spreading fake military frequencies, but the Ukrainian resistance quickly caught on.
Why Russia Failed
To experts, this Russian failure was familiar. During the Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, poor logistical performance is often cited as a major reason for the USSR’s failure to achieve its objectives. According to tacticians, their logistics support forces were “inflexible and under equipped.” Fast forward some forty years, and the same problems persist.
Around thirty thousand personnel serve in the Russian Railway Troops, whose tasks involve the defense, use, and construction of railways for military purposes. The size of this force is indicative of just how crucial this one infrastructure asset is to their entire military machine. But this strength simultaneously represents an achilles heel when conflicts take place beyond their borders and railways, causing them to rely exclusively on trucks, and simply put, Russia doesn’t have enough trucks.
According to experts, Russia’s forces are incapable of properly supporting a fight more than 90 miles from supply dumps or, in this case, railyards. In those early days, the Russian offensive was highly reliant on rocket artillery fire, which was very resource-intensive on the logistics support forces because each individual rocket required a dedicated truck for transport to the launcher. A large chunk of Russia’s support capabilities were tied up in supplying ammunition to launch sites, throwing other crucial resources to the wayside.
Whereas most Western militaries operate on what’s called a pull based logistics system where forces request resupplies when needed based on the current ground conditions as they change, the Russian military operates on a push based system where supplies are distributed based on estimated time scales determined by leadership. This means that there is more strategic decision making and prioritization on which forces most need resupply and what materials that includes. So, it’s likely that ammunition was prioritized ahead of say, fuel for tanks or food for soldiers on less strategically important fronts.
Russia believed that through a combination of intense airborne and land based attacks in the opening hours, the Ukrainians would quickly surrender, allowing Russian forces to reach Kyiv and topple the government. Post invasion analysis suggests that when invading, Russian forces can operate self-sufficiently, without logistics support, for three-five days. So when the conflict obviously did not conclude in that time frame, the Russians found themselves scrambling to regroup and resupply.
Russia has the capability to set up wazones for more prolonged conflict, but a long term campaign simply wasn’t what Russia wanted or thought was necessary. For Russia to fail so miserably so close to their border, exposes an achilles heel to any future adversary. At the very least, it demonstrated that the weaknesses of the former Soviet military are still present. Unfortunately, Russia’s desperation is only exacerbating the hellish conditions that the Ukrainian people are forced to endure.