Amateurs talk strategy; professionals talk logistics. No one ever mentions a third group, which makes it difficult to classify those who planned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s unclear if they broached either subject.

“When you fail at both, you’re digging yourself a hole that is very, very difficult to get out of once the shooting starts,” says David A Shlapak, senior defence researcher at RAND. “I think that’s the situation the Russians are confronting.” Scarcely a month after crossing the border, they had to withdraw from northern Ukraine. Like so many expensive Russian vehicles, the assault on Kyiv was abandoned at the roadside.

“They seemed totally unprepared, even though they had known for months and months that they were going to be doing this,” agrees retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, the former commander of US Army Europe. He’s as well placed as anyone to update those famous words on logistics, which are usually attributed to Omar Bradley. There are amateur and professional behaviours, but the word Hodges lands on is “criminal”.

“You have soldiers that have rations that are expired,” he says, incredulous. “Not only is that criminal, but it’s an example of corruption, and a total failure of the chain of command. Who’s doing the quality control? You knew you were going into combat – it’s cold and the weather’s bad – and you send your soldiers with expired rations?” And yet, despite attacking a near-peer neighbour, the Kremlin appears to have believed its ‘special military operation’ wouldn’t involve much combat at all. Shlapak isn’t sure any modern military would succeed at supporting such a large invasion force through the fight Russia is facing, but the Kremlin’s failure to properly prepare has been laid bare for all to see. “I go back to that combined failure of strategy and logistics. At some point it becomes this vicious circle where it’s hard to disentangle the causality from one or the other.”

That doesn’t excuse us from trying to do so. Russia has shown how not to conduct a war in the 2020s, which means it is in the best position to learn from its mistakes. Nato forces are susceptible to many of the same ones. They need to take notes.

Fail to prepare

The first error would be to underestimate the opponent. For all its perceived expertise in information warfare, the Kremlin may have fallen for its own propaganda about the illegitimacy of the Ukrainian government. To the extent that he can divine a clear strategy, Shlapak compares it with the “Rumsfeldian” one that typified the 2003 invasion of Iraq: “They didn’t see past crossing the border.

“I think they saw this as almost an administrative move versus an invitation to actual warfare. Telling soldiers they were going on an exercise may in fact reflect what many in the Russian high command thought was going to happen.”

A select few had very clear instructions – if not the tools or support to carry them out. Just hours after the first shots were fired, Russian airborne troops attempted to seize Hostomel airport to the north of Kyiv and Vasylkiv airbase to the south. From there, the plan was to launch a rapid strike on the capital that would depose the Ukrainian government before Russian logistics became too stretched. Neither attack worked. Shlapak sees clear parallels with Arnhem. Like the British paratroopers tasked with capturing the famous bridge in the Netherlands in 1944, Russian airborne forces encountered unexpectedly fierce resistance, and their promised support didn’t arrive in time to turn the tide. “I think they put these guys forward with the anticipation that the mechanised force would rapidly close to relieve them. And, of course, that utterly failed to happen.”

So went plan A. Free use of airstrips around Kyiv would have enabled the Russians to put supplies, troops and equipment forward, easing their reliance on roads. Capturing and holding major Ukrainian cities is also key to Russia’s primary logistical concern: control of the railways. The two countries share the same wide-gauge rail network, and Russia – so reliant on trains to move supplies across its vast territory – has relatively few military trucks. Confined to tyres, the Russian army only has capacity to efficiently resupply units roughly 90 miles from depots, according to a War on the Rocks article by former US Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vershinin. That’s in secured territory with a full complement of trucks. Within weeks of the invasion, Russian logisticians were already repurposing civilian vehicles to replace the hundreds destroyed by Ukrainians. As far as special military operations go, it was the worst of both worlds. Too big for its truck supply, the invasion force was too small to secure any alternative.

Traffic control

As a result, instead of pressing pincers into Kyiv from bases in Hostomel and Vasylkiv, Russia’s main assault on the city wormed ponderously from the north – a 40-mile convoy stalled and hungry on a single road. Commentators looking for a reason it failed to take Kyiv are almost spoiled for choice. Was it the poorly maintained equipment, the muddy conditions, fuel and food shortages, communication breakdowns or Ukrainian attacks that ultimately made the difference? Or was it perhaps the decision to drive right into all those issues at once?

“They seemed totally unprepared, even though they had known for months and months that they were going to be doing this.”

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges

“It’s ridiculous,” says Hodges. “This is basic stuff. Usually, just a brigade on the move requires at least two roads to sustain it. The fact that they had literally thousands of vehicles on one road that they could not get off showed a gross lack of experience.”

It’s not the only thing. Russian units across Ukraine have clogged up main roads with tactics more suited to parades than invasions. “You saw these amazing videos of armoured columns moving through villages and towns, with absolutely no flank support and the infantry remaining mounted in their fighting vehicles,” says Shlapak, shocked at Russia’s inability to implement combined arms formations. “To a first year at West Point, or a student at Sandhurst, the results would be utterly predictable: those columns get chewed up.”

If anything, Russia seems to have opted for intimidation over function. Instead of integrated brigades, divisions and armies adapted for a high-intensity land war, the invasion force was generated from battalion tactical groups. It’s a high-speed approach that allows the Kremlin to show strength without worrying the Russian public, and one that worked well in limited conflicts in Syria, Crimea and the Donbas. As Gustav Gressel, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations has explained, it’s also completely unsuited for picking a fight across the whole of Ukraine.

“Understanding geography and time-distance factors has almost become a lost art,” says Hodges. “This is a return to large formation movements, which we weren’t dealing with in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Deprived of the coordination structures of brigades and divisions, disconnected commanders and units quickly lose track of each other when things go awry. Supply lines stop moving and logistical capacity becomes irrelevant because no one knows what’s needed or where to go. Meanwhile, poorly integrated artillery, air defence and air force units have to rein themselves in to prevent friendly fire in areas of intense combat. It’s the ideal scenario for any opportunistic defender, and Ukrainian forces were only too happy to press their home advantage with drones and targeted ambushes.

“A competent adversary is going to exploit every seam that you offer them, every miscalculation and bad assumption you make,” says Shlapak. “So, you need to be cautious about believing that your plan – which is dependent on exquisite levels of coordination and timing and executing everything to the nth degree of perfection – is going to work, because it’s not.”

Looking forward, he’s concerned that the new US model of multi-domain operations could be difficult to sustain in an “intrinsically messy” war between capable powers. Working with other Nato nations might only exacerbate the problem. The organisation’s response force is itself a loose collection of battalions – as are the armies of many of its members in central and eastern Europe. Were they to be attacked, Hodges worries that support from forces prepared for high-intensity conflict may not reach the battlefield in time. “We still have a major problem in being able to move across Europe in peacetime conditions as fast or faster than Russian forces can move,” he warns. “There’s not enough rail capacity and it’s still too difficult to move heavy equipment around Europe.”

TikTok to H-Hour

Not that this Russian assault came as much of a surprise. It may not have been set up for war, but the large army on Ukraine’s borders gave the rest of the world a good idea that one could be imminent. As Hodges points out, the best strategic move would have been to keep it there. The army was strangling Ukraine’s economy before it crossed the border – and could have collapsed Zelensky’s government right there – but even that would have taken costly logistics. “There were observers, including myself, who thought that the sheer size of the force was a very sound indicator that an actual invasion was coming,” says Shlapak. “As a signal, it was simply too expensive.” The preparatory manoeuvres Russian units carried out on the border also degraded their equipment – a particular issue for battalion logistics, as repair workshops are brigade and division level assets. Breakdowns have been a persistent problem since the invasion began.

Here, too, the Kremlin failed to appreciate quite how slippery and insurgent information can be. With footage of military movements now easy to record and share on social media, the security of a large-scale operation is harder to preserve than ever before. “It’s a lesson to all militaries that, in the age where everybody with a mobile phone is Walter Cronkite, the idea that you’re going to be able to sneak up on people is not supportable,” says Shlapak. “If you move large forces around in populated territory, you’re going to be seen. You have to plan to operate in that sort of information-dense environment.” Though Ukraine downplayed the risk of invasion, it was ready for what was coming. After Russia had telegraphed its intentions with hundreds of thousands of troops, landing a handful around Kyiv was no way to achieve its war aims.

That initial timidity led to a brutal war of attrition and, to return to Hodges’ apt term, a criminal campaign of siege and murder. Massing forces on the border might be expensive, but you can’t launch an invasion to keep costs down, no matter what you think of your opponent. Hodges is at pains to stress that no military has enough rockets or missiles to sustain the kind of intense urban combat currently shattering Ukraine – but he doesn’t think even a shortage of ammunition can stop the killing now. In war, incompetence bleeds all too easily into terror and suffering. Russia is much more comfortable weaponising that than Nato.

“Nobody should walk away from this thinking that Russia is not terrifyingly dangerous,” says Hodges, who already sees evidence that the Russian military is addressing the problems caused by its reliance on battalion tactical groups. “They’re not elegant – they’re brutal and they’re medieval – but they’re not stupid.” They may not mean to trap themselves in hellish situations, but they will capitalise on them any way they can. The forces that recently withdrew from northern Ukraine left a trail of torture, rape and murder in their wake. Lied to, let down and mistreated by their commanders, soldiers in Bucha massacred civilians. Putin’s giving them military honours for it.

24 February

Russia launches invasion of Ukraine

25 February

Battle of Kyiv begins

1 March

40-mile-long Russian army convoy is spotted on the outskirts of Kyiv

2 March

Russian army attempt to circle Kyiv to create a blockade

7 March

UK Ministry of Defence claim Russian convoy “delayed by staunch Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdown and congestion”

11 March

Some elements of Russian convoy break off and are deployed into firing positions

16 March

US Department of Defense say Russian convoy remains stuck in place

22 March

Ukrainian counter-offensive begins

29 March

Russia’s military announces plan to pull out of Kyiv, recasting the invasion as the “liberation of the Donbas” in eastern Ukraine

2 April

Battle of Kyiv ends as Russian forces withdraw