ISW researcher on Russia’s goals, strategy, weaknesses in war against Ukraine

18 September

In the photo - Natalia Bugaeva, researcher of the American think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) (Photo:Valentina Rostovikova  / YES)

In the photo – Natalia Bugaeva, researcher of the American think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) (Photo:Valentina Rostovikova / YES)

Author: Olga Duhnich

Nataliya Bugayova, a researcher at the U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War, predicts a long Ukrainian counteroffensive and notes that Russian propaganda is now in such a difficult position that it does not even restrain its military bloggers, who report on the real situation at the front.

Ukrainians are far from the only people interested in analyzing the successes and speed of the Ukrainian military, especially following the historic liberation of Kharkiv Oblast. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) also regularly analyzes the current situation on the frontlines and makes realistic forecasts about Russia’s actions and strategy.

NV: What are the main problems of the Russian leadership and the Russian army in the war in Ukraine at the moment?

Bugayova : First of all, they have spent a lot of military force to capture rather limited targets, and we are talking about professional soldiers who are able to fight effectively. Now the task of replenishing this force is very urgent. There are a limited number of places where they can replenish this resource. We already see that they have started to move from recruiting soldiers to the army in the peripheral regions of the Russian Federation, to recruiting in the central regions, including St. Petersburg, and this process is not quite successful. The second problem is the integration of new people, their training, and the creation of coordinated units from these people. This requires officer resources, which are increasingly limited.

The third problem is that they are not very successful in consolidating administrative control in the occupied territories. There is resistance, guerrilla movements, and incompetence on the part of Russia; they do not understand the Ukrainian cultural context and there is a problem with proxies. More global problems, if we divide the whole problem into two parts, are people and weapons — the Russian military-industrial complex. In the long term, there will be serious problems if the West continues to implement export controls on microelectronics. This is an approach that will not allow Russia to circumvent the sanctions that have already been imposed on it. And the third problem, though it is not so urgent yet, is how the Russians are reacting to the failures of their army.

Broadly speaking, Russians have not yet reacted to their military losses, and they are not reacting to the atrocities committed by their own army — but they definitely react to military failures. When the cruiser Moskva was sunk, when there was a gesture of “goodwill” with regard to Snake Island, or when Russian troops withdrew from Kyiv and now, when there was a rapid counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast. In Russia, this sparked a public discussion and, most importantly, it affects Putin’s promises to his people that he is running a great state capable of conquering many. The failure in Kharkiv Oblast does not make the Russian president instantly vulnerable, but it is a problem that will soon have to be addressed.

NV: Can Russia somehow escalate the war from its current state without an operational pause?

Bugayova: The Russian army’s offensive in eastern Ukraine is reaching its culmination. And so it is very important that the counteroffensive by Ukraine continues in order to maintain the advantage and not to give the Russian army the opportunity to regroup its resources. However, Russia still has weapons of mass destruction, both chemical and nuclear weapons. Their use is unlikely, but it cannot be ruled out. I believe that we are not yet at the stage when their use is possible. Again, such weapons need a mission. Such a mission can be formulated as — to kill the will of the Ukrainian people to win, but I am not sure that even such terrible acts can kill this will of Ukrainians. After all, this will is the cornerstone in the current war. To be more precise, there are two such cornerstones: the will of the Ukrainian people to win, the readiness to fight for it and the support of the West with weapons. As long as these two factors are present, Russia is unable to achieve its goals.

NV: After their withdrawal from Kyiv Oblast, Russian troops threw all of their forces into capturing Donbas, and the HIMARS supplies have slowed this situation down a lot. Can we assume that the Russians will no longer be able to achieve such success in Donetsk Oblast as they did a month or two months ago?

Bugayova: Yes, their offensive in Donetsk Oblast is stalling. At the moment, I do not think they are capable of a breakthrough. Russia’s goals have remained unchanged, which is full control over Ukraine. There is no indication that they have changed. Our key assumption and our planning should be that they will remain (unchanged). What is changing is the ability to implement those goals. Ukraine has forced Russia to narrow its operational objective — to concentrate on Donbas, which they also failed to take, then they concentrated on Severodonetsk, spent a huge amount of resources on capturing that city, and are at the stage where they are culminating. If you give them a long pause, for example, for a year, they can recuperate again.

NV: The Ukrainian army is also counter-attacking in the south, but it is much more difficult to advance there because of the enemy’s rather strong defensive positions. What will determine the success of the Ukrainian army’s counteroffensive on this axis?

Bugayova: A counteroffensive of this nature will take time to implement, and its success will depend on whether the West will support this counteroffensive at each stage with weapons that correspond to the phase of this counteroffensive. Now we see a coherent counteroffensive, which has several tasks: the degradation of the enemy’s logistics, the prevention of Russia’s consolidation of a large number of military forces on one axis, and the de-occupation itself. It is important that the West continues to support Ukraine.

NV: We see that Russia is now actively trying to negotiate a reduction of combat activity in this war, and it is clear that it also seeks an operational pause to build up resources. What can Ukraine do to oppose this intention?

Bugayova: All that Ukraine can do is to continue the counter-offensive, to do it successfully — this is the best argument, in particular for Western support. Russia will now throw all of its resources to break the coalition of Ukraine and the West, meaning first of all, the United States and Ukraine. The diplomatic front is very important here, and we must constantly work to keep this coalition intact.

NV: Some experts say that we have already moved to the phase of continuous ousting the enemy from our territories, and this phase will be quite long. Do you agree with this?

Bugayova: Yes, this counter-offensive will be quite long and it is important to have a corresponding attitude and patience. There will be different phases of this counteroffensive, different dynamics, sometimes the Ukrainian army will win somewhere, sometimes it will lose. Therefore, it is also important to manage the expectations of the population regarding victory and progress in the war.

NV: You said that Russia’s strategy remained unchanged in this war. How have their tactics changed?

Bugayova: The Ukrainian army has forced Russia to narrow its operational goals, but the main goal — to control the whole of Ukraine remains unchanged. They just can’t do it. Initially, Russian troops did not concentrate anywhere at all, then their successes were associated with a large concentration of forces and resources in certain points to capture very limited targets. After that, we see that they realized the failure of this strategy, and adaptation to what they have today began. The first and foremost goal is to replenish the human resources that are constantly being lost, and they can do this only to a limited extent. We already see attempts to form battalions of volunteers from each region, they are trying to recruit from prisons, so they are trying to change tactics. This quantitatively increases the army, but does not bring the necessary qualitative improvements.

Even if they garner, say, several tens of thousands of soldiers, do they give them time for training to form them into coordinated working units? Most likely not, as soon as they hire them, they immediately send manpower to the front. This is the dynamic now.

NV: By what actions will it be possible to understand that Ukraine has finally turned the tide at the front?

Bugayova: I do not think that there will be any one moment. Here we should talk about the conditions necessary for Ukrainian sovereignty. If there are Russian troops on the territory of Ukraine and especially in the south, it is a constant threat to sovereignty. Again, coming back to Russia’s goals, they remain unchanged, and if there is a [Russian] grouping in the south, it doesn’t matter — in a year, two years, five years they will go on the offensive again.

NV: In the south of Ukraine — do you mean the territories before Crimea or together with Crimea?

Bugayova: At least Kherson City and Kherson Oblast, but also Crimea, because it is their main logistics base. Therefore, the condition should be de-occupation at least to the territories under the control of Ukraine as of Feb. 23, 2022, and degradation of the logistics capabilities of the Russians in Crimea. The second is Ukraine’s strengthening of its capabilities, which also reduces risk.

NV: Missile attacks on Ukrainian cities away from the front line have slightly decreased in intensity. Is the motivation of Russians to hit peaceful targets changing?

Bugayova: Several factors are at work here. There is evidence that Russia today has a limited number of precision missiles. They have a dependence on Western electronics to create these systems, and therefore there is a limit to what they are willing to spend on Ukraine. It takes more than one missile to hit the capital, so they spare the resources there. But let’s return to their objectives. The current goal is to establish control over Donetsk Oblast, but that does not mean that they will not come. Most of Russia’s missile strikes on the rear are to intimidate Ukrainian citizens. This is an important political motive of Russia in this war. To take away the Ukrainians’ sense of homeland, the concept of the nation. The missile attacks will continue so that people leave Ukraine — this is also one of their goals. This limits both the economic base and resources for mobilizing people to the army. It breaks down social ties. This is an important objective for Russia.

NV: What data does the ISW use as a basis for analyzing information, and how do they collect this data?

Bugayova: We use solely open data. This includes official sources published in Russia and Ukraine — the Ministry of Defense, the General Staff and others. The second is social media. For example, we have built our own list of Russian Telegram channels — military bloggers who publish a lot of comments on their assessments of the war. There is also open satellite data. We have been building our database for many years. At the same time, we looked at Russia globally, not only in Ukraine and post-Soviet states, but also in Syria, the Balkans, Africa, everywhere we also have our own sources of information. The main thing is not the sources themselves, but the methodology of their processing and how to choose the core from a huge amount of information.

NV: How serious an allowance should be made for Russian propaganda and lies?

Bugayova: Given the role of information campaigns in Russian strategy, propaganda itself is often a source of insight. Russians start preparing for military actions by preparing the information ground: from there you can learn a lot about their intentions, about their vulnerabilities, about how their propaganda changes. It is always a source of insight.

Secondly, we always analyze the nature of each source — who owns it, when the owner changes, how the nature of the source itself changes. It is important to follow this.

NV: How has the tone and nature of Russian propaganda changed over these six months?

Bugayova: It has become very noticeable where there are vulnerabilities in the propaganda narrative. For example, for a very long time they brainwashed the population with the narrative that Ukraine is a bunch of neo-Nazis and that the Russian army is invincible. And today it is very difficult for them to explain why they need to expand recruitment for the Russian army and introduce full mobilization. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why large-scale mobilization has not been carried out so far. The situation is really complicated in this matter, and more and more often the gap between reality and what they want to convey is extremely difficult to close.

The second is the phenomenon of military bloggers, who are still giving their assessments of what is happening on the battlefield with the Russian army. I say “so far” because we already see the Kremlin’s attempts to limit their activities. For example, they are now openly talking about the failures of their army, and this is an interesting phenomenon from which we can also learn a lot. But further we see: the gap between the desired and the real is growing, and propaganda also has to cover this gap, and they do not always succeed. In general, in Russia, the brainwashing of the population for “Great Russia” has led to the fact that many people support the war on paper, but this does not mean that they are ready to go to war. There are no lines at military registration and enlistment offices; and problems with recruitment are enormous. That is, propaganda has reached massive rhetorical support for the special operation, but Russians are not ready to fight en masse in this war, to sacrifice their lives. Rhetoric does not lead to concrete actions.


  1. “Bugayova: The Ukrainian army has forced Russia to narrow its operational goals, but the main goal — to control the whole of Ukraine remains unchanged. They just can’t do it.”

    Which is why RuZZia must be crushed.
    Ukraine faces an implacable enemy that is driven by a satanic hatred.
    When this terrible war has been finally won, Ukraine will need going forward a nuclear deterrent, one million combat troops with the same number in reserve, a large modern Air Force, a navy and a state of the art air defence architecture.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Agreed, like I said, Ukraine will have to become NATO east whether or not they join NATO, that will probably be their role.
      I also agree with her that as long as Putler or another nazi nationalist is in office they will want to control Ukraine. They are nothing without Ukraine and they think they have to manage Ukraine, they just can’t break away from the Stalinist tactics.

      Liked by 3 people

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