With the retreat of Russians from the North of Kyiv and the stagnation of the invasion of eastern Ukraine, the myth of the mighty Putin’s army has been put into doubt by many western analysts. The failed attempt to take Kyiv has cost Russians thousands of dead soldiers and countless lost vehicles and equipment.
Still, Russia has not lost the war yet and its forces are regrouping in the east of Ukraine to try to conquest the Donbas region, while Ukrainians boosted by their recent victories are picking up the offensive and have started to deploy some counterattacks even in Russian soil.
Our journalist Juan Felipe Vélez spoke with Ryan Mcbeth, a heavy weapons expert, software engineer, and National Guard Veteran, about his opinion on both armies’ logistics, air, and cyber warfare during the conflict in Ukraine.
Before the retreating from the north side of Kyiv, we saw a 40-mile convoy stalled and making their troops sitting ducks for Ukrainians, what’s happening with the Russian logistics?
Some people have said that there’s a problem with corruption: that officers are stealing money. Other people have said it’s simple things like cheap Chinese tires. I think the real problem is something called friction.
General Von Clausewitz, a Prussian general, who wrote a very influential book on war, talks about friction, that is all the little things in war that add up to major problems as you encounter them.
I think the Russian army is essentially suffering from the friction of all of the little things that are adding up to big problems. Failure to get some oil might cause an engine to overheat, the engine overheats, and now the truck is stuck in front of other trucks; and they have to pull a truck out of the way, and so on.
What are those frictions that the Russian army has?
There is something to call tooth to tail. The tooth is the fighting ability of your army and the tail is or logistic ability.
When your logistical ability is greater than your fighting ability it shows that you are an expeditionary military, meaning you can support your military as it moves out of your borders. I think one of the issues with the Russian military is that they’re brigades and the brigade is a building block of a fighting force.
Their brigades are very heavily ‘toothed-up.’ There are a lot of combat troops and there are not enough support troops. Part of that is how the Russian army fights. They fight with heavy artillery in an environment with integrated air defenses. It’s very difficult to feed the bear.
We’ve heard a lot of technical problems on the Russian side. Are we seeing those kinds of problems in the Ukrainian army too?
They’re not going to show them. You don’t show what you call sources and methods of what the Ukrainian army is doing because you don’t want Russia to know.
It’s most efficient to ship any kind of munitions (or ship anything) by boat. It’s slightly less efficient to ship by rail. One of the problems that Ukraine has is that the Black Sea has been closed off. Russia owns the Black Sea. The port of the Odesa has been shut down and all of their ports have been shut down.
If there’s no way of getting supplies in by ship that means these supplies have to come in by rail or by truck. The Ukrainians have to go into border crossings from Hungary, Poland, or Slovakia, and they have to pick up those supplies and truck them over a road that is probably under constant observation by the Russians.
Once the trucks get into Ukraine, they’re being hunted. Instead of dumping or collecting all of these weapons and supplies in a single place and then sending them out, they have to organize and cross load these convoys to send stuff out to different cities in small groups. You don’t want a big convoy or else you’ll get hit.
Ukraine is starting a counteroffensive to recover lost territory. How do you see Ukrainians on the offensive side and Russians on the defensive?
When on the defensive, weapons like the Javelin and the NLAW had been a total game-changer in this war. On the offensive, these high-tech weapons aren’t that useful. The Javelin and the NLAW are made to ambush.
I think Ukrainians had the advantage because they were defending and they had experience, whereas a lot of the Russian troops did not have experience.
When Ukraine tries to do a counterattack using their armor (their T-80s and T-64s) they’re essentially going to have parity with the Russians. There might be a slight advantage for Ukraine because they know the territory, but it’s easier to defend than it is to attack.
The Russian air force has been particularly absent from the headlines in this war. Why are we not seeing such a prolific role of the VKS as we did in Syria?
So far, I believe Russia has lost 17 fixed-wing aircraft and 17 fighter aircraft. The airspace above Syria is uncontested. The rebels don’t have the kind of anti-aircraft weapons that the Ukrainians have; they just don’t. Russia can fly pretty much with impunity and do whatever they want.
The airspace service in Syria, in addition to being uncontested, is also deconflicted, meaning Russia has people on the ground that can talk to the aircraft and ask for a bombing run or whatever. Russia also has a low OPTEMPO or operational tempo, meaning they’re not putting a lot of flights in the air
Deconfliction over a small space like Syria is still hard, over Ukraine you have a huge area that you have to cover. You have Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles that are a similar brand as the Russian missiles, you have the Ukrainian air force that has similar brand planes as the Russian air force. It is a recipe for friendly fire and it’s scary.
I guess that Russians are opening safe corridors where they’ll tell their surface-to-air missiles: listen, don’t shoot anything in this corridor while these planes do a bombing run, and then, after this specific period, close the corridor and you can shoot whatever you want.
How is the lack of guided missiles affecting the performance of the Russian air force?
Russia doesn’t have enough guided bombs and they don’t have enough sensors or pylons that can be added to the aircraft that can help guide the bomb down. A guided bomb is more efficient because you can send one plane and one bomb to do a job; you’re risking fewer planes and using less fuel.
If you try to use dumb bombs and carpet bombs on an area, it hurts you ultimately, because you might have to fly several missions to accomplish the same thing that you could have accomplished with one smart bomb.
Zelensky is begging NATO to declare a no-fly zone over the Ukrainian sky to avoid a Russian aircraft from deploying. Is it necessary?
I think that due to the high operational tempo of all of these aircraft missions, pretty soon, we’re going to see the Ukrainian air force down to a couple of flights a day and the Russians down to a couple of flights a day.
Every aircraft is maintained by hours of flight. If you fly an aircraft for one hour, it might need X amount of hours for maintenance. If you fly the MIG-29 for one hour, you need 11 hours of maintenance on that aircraft. If a sortie takes four hours you’re talking 44 hours of maintenance.
You can turn that plane once or twice, or you can land it and get someone else in there and take off, but every you do that you’re running the risk of a mechanical problem, destroying the aircraft, or running it inoperative.
I don’t think we’re going to need a no-fly zone because there’s not going to be any aircraft left. They’re all going to be down for maintenance pretty soon.
Russians are famous for their cyber warfare, how does it work?
Typically, Russia uses what’s called a hybrid threat, which means having people at an organization that are agents, or people unaware that they’re working for Russia. You have insider threats and you have state-sponsored threats. Fancy Bear is one of Russia’s state-sponsored cyber warfare units.
You also have this hybrid threat of internet criminal organizations and these criminal organizations are used as reconnaissance. Typically, what Russia does is hire criminal organizations and these insider threats to gather intelligence.
Once they’ve gathered the intelligence that they need to exploit, that’s when the actual Russian units will be employed to use cyberweapons against a certain target. The way forward was paved by criminal organizations and insider threats.
Why haven’t we heard more about cyber-warfare in this war?
We don’t know, there are a couple of options. The first option is that cyberwarfare just isn’t effective. It’s not as hyped as people thought it was going to be or kinetic physical attacks are just easier to do. They’re more effective than cyber-attacks.
Another option is a sort of détente where Russia doesn’t want any cyberattacks against Ukraine to spill into NATO countries because that could cause a war, so it might be a form of détente where Russia is intending not to use these weapons.
The third possibility is the most likely and that is that Ukraine is just doing a good job. Ukraine has an entire unit, literally, a cyber-corp made up of information technology professionals, and they’re in a rough neighborhood. It’s. Like being the fastest runner in your neighborhood because you always get picked on, Ukraine is in a very bad part of town and I think they have hardened their cyber defenses to help prevent attacks like this.