A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 25, 2023

Why the Math of Logistics Has Proved the Futility of Russia's Ukraine Plan

Russia never had the mass of troops in one location, let alone the logistics to supply them. From a purely organizational standpoint - let alone a military one - the invasion was doomed to fail before it began. JL

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Simple math proved the futility of Russia’s war plan: of 180,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine, 15% were actual combat soldiers, which meant their invading force was only 27,000. Divide 27,000 Russian combat soldiers across four axes, and we’re at 7,000 per axis. Divide further amongst various attack vectors, and you’re talking a few thousand per direction, all needing the support of Russia’s rickety logistics system. Russia extended its supply lines hundreds of kilometers into hostile territory. It was a shooting gallery for Ukrainian raiding parties. Their attack never had a chance of success.

In the early days of the war, while most reports talked about Russia’s armored and airborne vanguards, pushing in from four different axes and over a dozen lines of attack, I was talking about something else: logistics. 

It was easy to be intimidated and impressed by the raw numbers of Russia’s troops, tanks, armored infantry vehicles, and artillery guns. A simple read would conclude that 180,000 well-armed Russians flooding across the border would be challenging for any defenders to manage. I took a look at all that, and came to a different conclusion: Russia was going to have a difficult time fielding enough troops to make a difference, and feeding and fueling that war machine would be problematic. As a jumping-off point, I talked about my own military service as a fire direction specialist of an M270 MLRS rocket artillery unit, from 1989-1992. 

One of my platoon’s ammo trucks

While my military training was focused on fire direction—relaying coordinates from field spotters (this was way before drones) to the rocket launchers themselves—in practice, my job was mostly about logistics. By the time I got out, I was in charge of making sure an MLRS platoon—three launchers and three ammo trucks—had food and water, that the vehicles were fueled, that the launchers had ammo, and that the trucks knew where to pick up and drop off additional rocket pods. 

When stuff broke down, I had to bring in mechanics (if it was vehicles), or other specialized maintenance personnel (for things like the radios, which always broke too). If anyone was injured, I called in medics. (We once had multiple incidents of frostbite during winter exercises.) I made sure that everyone in my platoon had everything they needed to do their jobs.

M270 MLRS launcher firing. I took the picture during field exercises sometime around 1990-1991

Fielding those M270 MLRS launchers took a lot of people. They had crews of three. So my platoon had nine soldiers that pressed a button that fired something lethal. The rest of us supported those nine. And there was a lot of “the rest of us.” 

Our MLRS battery had three firing platoons. Nine M270 launchers. 27 soldiers who pressed buttons that fired stuff. Supporting those nine launchers and 27 soldiers, the entire battery had around 300 soldiers and 55 additional vehicles. As a rule of thumb, I estimated that in any military unit, only about 15% of soldiers actually did combat, and there the rest were in support. (Mechanics, supply, drivers, medics, technicians, cooks, leadership, etc.)

As I watched early videos of Russian units flooding into Ukraine, I noted they operated at roughly the same ratio of combat vehicles versus supply ones. The videos laid out the entire artillery battery—five artillery guns, and a convoy of 33 support vehicles behind it.

Furthermore, Russia’s assault units were organized around the Battalion Tactical Group (BTG), comprised of roughly 10 tanks and 40 infantry fighting vehicles. While the whole group had 600-1,000 men, Russia’s own documents indicated that only 150-200 of them were actually fighting soldiers. The rest? Support. 

Nowadays, Russia has given all that up. Everyone is cannon fodder. The BTG is dead, we haven’t seen any in action in a long time. But that wasn’t the case when they first rolled into Ukraine. 

Here’s where simple math proved the futility of Russia’s war plan:

The consensus estimate a year ago was 180,000 Russian soldiers in Ukraine. If 15% or so were actual combat soldiers, that meant that their invading force was, in reality, only around 27,000. 

Russia attacked down to Kyiv from Belarus, with two prongs—one through the Chernobyl exclusion area on the western bank of the Dnipro river, and toward Chernihiv on the eastern side. The second axis was through Sumy and Kharkiv, with a prong pushing toward Kyiv, the city of Dnipro, and toward Izyum. The third was the Donbas, with prongs all across that entire border, toward Severodonetsk, Popasna, Mariinka, Bakhmut, etc. The fourth was in the south, up from Crimea, with prongs toward Kherson, Melitopol, and pushing up into Zaporizhzhia oblast. 

March 26, 2022 map

Divide 27,000 Russian combat soldiers across four axes, and we’re at around 7,000 per axis. Divide further amongst all the various attack vectors, and you’re talking a few thousand per direction, all needing the support of Russia’s rickety logistics system. Their attack never had a chance of success. 

In hindsight, we’ve learned of a multibillion-dollar Russian effort to buy off Ukrainian soldiers and politicians. It worked in Kherson and nowhere else. Some documents suggest Russia expected half of Ukraine’s armed forces to defect to them in the first days of the war. It’s one reason why they likely didn’t hit Ukrainian barracks and other troop concentrations in the war’s first hours. It was a stunning miscalculation that cost Russia dearly—both in launching the undermanned assault in the first place (had Putin known what would happen, would he have attacked in the first place?), and then waging the war against a near-full-strength Ukrainian resistance. 

Early in March, this is what the map looked like between Kyiv and Sumy:


Russia extended its supply lines hundreds of kilometers into hostile territory in its attempt to reach Kyiv from the east. It was a shooting gallery for Ukrainian partisans and army raiding parties. Pictures of burning Russian supply trucks were plentiful. Russia asked an army built around defending the Motherland, supplied by rail, to do something it wasn’t trained or equipped to do.

Remember the “40-mile convoy” the media couldn’t stop breathlessly reporting on, snaking its way south from Belarus toward Kyiv? Rather than something to be feared, it was a gift to Ukraine. Armed Bayraktar drones and partisans feasted on the Russian sitting ducks.

When Russia finally surrendered that entire axis and gave up its designs on Kyiv, it wasn’t because they feared their troops in the area were in danger of being overrun by Ukrainian defenders. It was because of logistics. Their logistics failed them, and they couldn’t support a continued push toward Kyiv.

So Russia then moved on to the next phase, pushing successfully toward Izyum. Having secured Mariupol in the south, the Russian gambit was clear—with a reported one-third to one-half of the Ukraine army sitting in trenches in the Donbas, Russia would execute a pincer maneuver to cut them off from their supply lines. 


You can see in the map above what I thought at the time I made this map last year (“pipe-dream pincer”). It was a stupid idea. Had Russia managed any penetration behind Ukrainian lines, this would’ve happened:


There was no way Russia would be able to advance deep into Ukraine’s rear without struggling to supply and hold that territory. And this certainly bore out. Russia never managed to move more than 25 kilometers past Izyum in any direction. To the south, Russia was stopped at Dovhen’ke, the little insignificant town with its defenders that held back the Russian juggernaut for months. When the tiny settlement finally fell, it was the end of Russia’s line. They never moved past it.

Eventually, the Izyum approach was abandoned thanks to Ukraine’s surprise flash liberation of Kharkiv oblast, and particularly the liberation of Kupiansk—a key logistical keystone hub in the entire region. 


Without Kupiansk and its critical rail lines from Russia, the invaders were forced to retreat from almost all of Kharkiv oblast, Izyum included. Logistics matter! 

A couple of months later, 20,000 to 30,000 Russian troops in Kherson City and its surroundings were cut off after Ukraine destroyed the two bridges supplying those forces (near Kherson City, and the dam at Nova Kakhovka). Barging and air lifting ammo, food, spare parts, and equipment to those forces wasn’t sustainable, and Russia begged out without much of a fight. 

The problem with all that success is that Russia now has over 300,000 troops in Ukraine, most of them concentrated along a single axis—the Donbas and the “land bridge” connecting Russia to Crimea through Zaporizhzhia oblast. They’ve dug extensive defensive fortifications. Supply lines are condensed, and not far from Russia proper itself. There are no salients; the front lines are relatively flat. 

Current active front line

Up north, Ukraine will want to push through Svatove and toward Starobilsk, which would cut Russia’s supply lines into northeastern Ukraine. And down south, if Ukraine could liberate Melitopol, it would similarly cut off supply lines from Crimea. Even better, take down the Kerch Bridge, and everything Russian down south is under serious difficulties. 

But neither will be easy. Both routes are heavily defended, and even untrained mobilized Russian mobiks are a hindrance to attack. Speed bumps, even human ones, do their job of slowing things down. But that’s why combined arms warfare will be so critically important, and why the prospects of a Ukrainian winter offensive, once widely anticipated, are pretty much nil. There’s no reason to waste lives and material when heavy Western armor is on its way, while the U.S. drills Ukrainian commanders on combined arms operations in Germany’s training fields. 

Ukraine has gotten this far because it has always worked to undermine Russia’s logistics. It’s why they are screaming for longer-range rockets, to hit Russian ammo depots further behind enemy lines and force those supplies even further back. Ukraine’s success in shrinking the active front line is also its great challenge, as Russia squeezes more men into a smaller space.

But Ukraine won't win by killing 300,000 Russians. It will do so by cutting off their food and ammunition. Russia lost the war because of logistics, and Ukraine will win it for the same reason.


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