The Failed Logistics Of Russia’s Ukraine War

russia ukraine war

It all happened so quickly. On February 24th, 2022, just after 2:00 AM Ukraine time, Vladimir Putin, the autocrat of Russia, announced, in a pre-recorded TV address,  a “special military operation” in Ukraine.  To the rest of the world, that meant war.  Within minutes, the shelling started, the skies lit up, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine had begun.

To many Ukrainians, though, this was perceived not as a beginning, but a continuation–a continuation of the conflict that began some eight years prior in the spring of 2014. Ever since Russia and the rebels it backed overtook Crimea and swaths of Eastern Ukraine, the country has maintained an enlarged and active military presence along Ukraine’s borders. In 2017, for example, Russia reestablished the famed-but-disbanded 8th Combined Arms Army here, in Novocherkassk.

Revived under the pretense that it was a defensive decision, the 8th Combined Army has since grown–adding artillery; missile sub-units; and even, some analysts believe, incorporating separatists into its own ranks. This is hardly an isolated development. From Sevastopol on the southern tip of Crimea to Klinsky along Ukraine’s Northern border, Russian bases, staging points, and general military infrastructure have grown to increasingly surround Ukraine since 2014.

This extension of military might be made possible by the physical seizure of the land and, in the eyes of the Russian leadership, justified by the threat that Ukraine could retaliate or try to seize back occupied territories. This extension has also, in turn, quite literally paved the path for Russia to amass an extraordinary 75% of their principal combat units within striking distance of Ukraine.

On Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021, The Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced that 90,000 Russian troops had encircled the country’s borders and occupied territories–the Russian forces that were in the region for supposed exercises simply weren’t leaving. Not only were they not going away but, as the next few months would reveal, their numbers were growing. This is a satellite image from outside the western Russian town of Yelnya in September, and this is the exact same spot on November 1st. From an empty field and a dirt road to the staging area for the Russian 41st Combined Army, normally headquartered some 2,000 miles or 3,000 kilometers away, suddenly sat north of 1,200 tanks, howitzers,  towed artillery, and support vehicles.

And November only marked the beginning. Satellite images and social media posts tracked soldiers and supplies pouring into Southwest Russia across December. But what alarmed analysts most was the fact that along with the soldiers and supplies there were medical units, hospital tents, and fuel reserves–the Russians were amassing the infrastructure for war. The likelihood that this was a simulation plummeted. In January, Russian forces rolled into Belarus for joint exercises.

Weeks later, it was announced that the soldiers would stay. Established staging areas like Yelnya further expanded while new ones popped up, forming an increasingly foreboding arc around Ukraine. Now, behind the scenes, what made this massive domestic mobilization of troops, weapons, and supplies possible was Russia’s vast rail network. This rail network’s extent, earning its status as the third-largest in the world, is a byproduct of the country’s size, sparsity, and the suspect nature of its road network.  Meanwhile, the degree of state control, with the government owning some 20,000 of the country’s 21,000 locomotives, is a legacy of the Soviet era. This control and extensiveness combined means that Russia’s military is able to rely heavily on the rail network. It was training that moved the troops, tanks, and trucks to and from Yelnya, into Kursk, and across the Bryansk and Smolensk oblasts. Digital forensics has shown that it was also trains that moved supplies from Eastern Russia all the way to Belarus. And it was largely thanks to these trains, or Russia’s reliance on them, that outsiders were able to so precisely document the military buildup as dashcams filmed transiting tanks at rail crossing–videos which then ended up on TikTok and circulated the world over. Trains set the stage.

But then, in the first weeks of February, under a curtain of clouds, Yelena emptied out–its troops and supplies tracked south. As these Russian forces pushed ever nearer to the Ukrainian border, tanks appeared in Kursk, just a 140-mile or  220-kilometer drive from Kharkiv, while additional troops and trucks were amassed near Gomel, Belarus–20  miles or 32 kilometers away from the border.

Across three-and-a-half months, 175,000 Russian troops had stacked up all along Ukraine’s border, ready to unleash death and destruction in the country they believed they were there to liberate. In the opening hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the invading force worked to cripple Ukraine’s military infrastructure. Some of the first volleys of the conflict involved airstrikes on Ukrainian air bases, in an effort to help  Russia quickly gain air superiority without strong resistance. Eleven were destroyed across the first day of hostilities. By noon, the focus shifted from anticipatory defense to offense as dozens of Russian helicopters landed troops at Hostomel Airport, mere miles from Kyiv. This was seemingly in an effort to create an air bridge–seizing control of the airport to allow planes to bring in more troops who would push out into Kyiv. An air-based supply line could assure a certain level of logistical support regardless of conditions on the ground between the border and Kyiv.  However, also recognizing this, Ukraine tasked its 4th Rapid Reaction Brigade to retake the airport, which it successfully did by 8:00 pm.

Across the same day, as fighting reached the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone and troops poured in from every direction, work continued behind the frontlines to support the continued invasion. In Brest, Belarus, Russian forces could be seen unloading supplies from railcars and assembling into a convoy configuration facing south, towards the warzone. In Chojniki, near Belarus’ closest point to Kyiv, satellite imagery captured a road that the Russians converted into a helicopter base, with an  “X” marking each landing zone. To the east, in Russia itself, a field hospital could be seen ready to treat early casualties, while nearby, another makeshift facility home to artillery and rocket launchers used in the opening hours of the conflict stood ready for more. However, despite all the well-planned war infrastructure constructed around Ukraine, things inside the warzone were seemingly going less to plan.

As the sun rose from a bloody night onto the second day of battle, Russian forces set their sights on Kyiv–the country’s capital, home to its government and lauded leader, Volodymyr Zelensky Under the assumption that Russia’s ultimate ambition was to install a puppet government, Kyiv was the grand prize for the invading force,  and yet they only made it to the city’s suburbs. Still there, they met fierce resistance and made little progress–turning the night that many feared would mark the capital’s fall into but a night.

As day two became three, photos and videos emerged that started to paint a more cohesive picture. Russian tanks were running out of fuel and left abandoned, strewn across the country; the invading troops were seen looting stores for food, potentially due to a lack of their own; stories emerged of Russian forces asking Ukrainian civilians for supplies and directions, seemingly unaware of the average person’s opinion on them in the country they were attempting to conquer. Across the board, as they approached the urban areas that could only be taken with the most tactful coordination, the Russian military was looking disorganized and disconnected–just a few disparate forces tasked with going in, guns blazing, to induce a quick and easy surrender. Of course, that is not what came to fruition.  The Ukrainian defense included recognition of what the Russian offense seemingly missed: the importance of logistics.

In the famous words of General John J. Pershing, “Infantry wins battles, logistics wins wars.”  So, Ukraine went for Russia’s logistics. On social media platforms adapted to organize the country’s guerilla-style defense, posts circulated stressing the value of destroying fuel trucks. Of course, if you stop the fuel trucks, you stop the tanks, and unlike tanks, fuel trucks are typically unarmored and can be destroyed with cheap,  accessible bullets or Molotov cocktails. When the Russians started disguising their fuel trucks to look like more traditional transport trucks,  posts and messages quickly followed making the updated target profile clear.

Ukrainian forces also destroyed two key bridges into Kyiv, allowing them to focus on defending a  smaller number of choke points, and similar tactics were used elsewhere in the country. The Ukrainian military also destroyed all connections between the Russian and Ukrainian rail networks to prevent the invading force from taking hold of them to ramp up their supply lines. Elsewhere, across the country, towns and cities dismantled their street signs or, in some cases, painted over them to read “welcome to hell,”  making it harder for Russian troops, many of which relied solely on paper maps, to navigate around the country. Meanwhile, with the Russian military relying nearly entirely on analog, unsecured radio communications, amateur radio enthusiasts and hacktivist organizations like Anonymous worked to block and surveil enemy radio frequencies–some even went further to broadcast pig sounds,  thematic music, or written messages that would appear when analyzed on a spectrogram. Russia countered this with strategic disinformation, purportedly spreading this post listing fake frequencies across social media, but the Ukrainian side quickly caught on and spread the corrected frequencies across their means of communication.

Now, to experts, the Russian military’s logistics difficulties were hardly surprising. In fact, they represented a historical throughline.  When analyzing the disastrous Soviet-Afghan War of the 1980s, poor logistics performance is an oft-cited reason for the USSR’s failure to achieve its objectives. According to tacticians, their logistics support forces were inflexible and under-equipped, which left the fighting forces too under-equipped to perform their jobs. Of course, thanks to their vast railway network, which nearly entirely falls under state control, Russia’s military has that incredible domestic mobilization capability. In fact, some 30,000 of their personnel serve in the Russian Railway Troops, whose task involves the defense, use, and construction of railways for military purposes. This force, larger than that of most countries, is indicative of just how crucial this one infrastructure asset is to their military machine. However, this domestic advantage, this reliance on the rails, simultaneously represents an Achilles heel when conflicts take place beyond their borders.

When war stretches past their furthest railyards, Russian military logistics capabilities are, at best, mediocre. In the case of this invasion, the primary advanced railyards being used are in Belarus and Russia itself, so for any further supply lines, especially any stretching into Ukraine, Russia had to resort to trucks. And simply put: Russia doesn’t have enough trucks.

Each of Russia’s combined arms armies, the largest organizational unit of their ground forces, is typically supported by one material-technical support brigade–essentially, their logistics support forces. Each of these brigades is composed of around a thousand personnel operating 408 transport vehicles capable of hauling 1,870 tons of cargo. This, it turns out, is rather inadequate.  According to retired US Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vershinin, a conflict modeling and simulations expert, Russia’s forces, under their current configuration, are simply incapable of properly supporting a fight more than 90 miles or 145 kilometers from supply dumps–in this case, railyards. And these assumptions were based on a 45 mile or 70 kilometers per hour average transport speed, which is likely only attained when the territory is firmly within Russian control–something that proved elusive in the opening days of this invasion. A highly-active conflict reliant on rocket artillery fire, which accurately describes this war, is even more resource-intensive on the logistics support forces as each individual rocket requires a  dedicated truck for transport to the launcher. With the frequency of artillery fire in the early days of the invasion, a large chunk of Russia’s material-technical support brigade’s capability was certainly tied up in supplying ammunition to launch sites. This general incapability is seemingly reflected in Russia’s strategy in Ukraine. Currently, the predominant characterization is that Russia believed that through a combination of dramatic airborne and land-based attacks in the opening hours and days of the invasion, the Ukrainians would quickly capitulate. They’d either surrender or Russian forces would quickly reach Kyiv, topple the government, and install a puppet government–a belief that was supported by nearly all independent analysts prior to the conflict’s start. Analysis suggests that when invading, Russia’s forces can operate largely self-sufficiently, without logistics support, for about three to five days. So, when the conflict did not conclude within that time frame, the Russians found themselves scrambling to regroup and resupply.

Now, most western forces, which are generally much better equipped from a logistics standpoint, operate on a pull-based system where fighting forces request resupplies as needed, based on what actually occurs. Meanwhile, the Russian military operates predominantly on a push-based system, where forces are resupplied on a more predictable basis, as determined by leadership. This means that, in practice, there is more strategic decision-making and prioritization on which forces most need or warrant resupply, and which materials are most important to resupply.

So, in Ukraine, it’s likely that ammunition was prioritized ahead of, say, fuel for tanks on less strategically important fronts. In the context of perpetual logistics limitations, as is the case for Russia’s military, this is likely the more effective approach, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s certainly less effective than the western pull approach, which focuses on flexible logistics that adapt to real-world conditions. In short, western forces let strategy lead logistics, while Russian forces let logistics lead strategy.

The single factor that can best address these issues, however, is time. The Russian military does have the capabilities to set a warzone up for a more prolonged conflict.  Its material-technical support brigades include tactical pipeline battalions, for example, that can quickly construct networks in Ukraine to bring fuel and water closer to the active fronts, without the need for burdensome supply convoys.  Russia’s Railway Troops can do the same with rail infrastructure–mending or constructing networks to support a long-term conflict or occupation. And the country can take a page out of the Soviet playbook, leveraging the full might of the public and private sectors to support the military’s operations. What the opening days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have done, however, is exposed a weak point in the nation’s military might–or perhaps, demonstrated that the weak points of the Soviet military are still present. Logistics capabilities are arguably one major strategic advantage of many western militaries–especially the US, whose global network of military bases and massive sea and airlift capabilities allow it to properly supply a conflict truly anywhere on earth. For Russia to have failed so visibly mere miles from its border exposes its Achilles Heel to any future adversary.

Tragically, however, these early struggles appeared to make the Russian military only more desperate. As the conflict prolonged, the invaders resorted to looting, shelling civilian areas, increasingly destructive weaponry, and to more deadly techniques to compensate for their lack of strategic tact. Therefore, the true cost for Russia’s failure is borne on the innocent casualties of war:  Ukrainian defenders; Russian conscripts; and perhaps most tragically, the Ukrainian civilians who were displaced, injured, or killed simply for staying in the place they called home.