My Thursday article ridiculing the DIA’s top dog for analysis, Dr. Trent Maul, for his banal comments about Ukraine’s prospects for success was written with the assumption that he was interviewed by Newsweek. Boy, was I wrong. Maul’s musings on Ukraine’s “realistic prospects” of future success also appeared in The Economist and the U.K.’s Telegraph. I cannot discern if he spoke to the three reporters (Economist, Newsweek and Telegraph) individually or as a group? Or, did he only speak to The Economist and the other two repeated parts of his interview and put their own spin on it?
Regardless, this was not just some run-of-the-mill interview. Maul did not wake up Wednesday morning and declare, “Damn, I feel like talking to a reporter today.” He spoke to the press with the full blessing of his boss (the head of DIA) and probably General Milley and SecDef Lloyd Austin.
The Economist piece is titled, How the Pentagon assesses Ukraine’s progress. I want to highlight some key elements that were not published in the Newsweek piece:
An annual DIA report, “Soviet Military Power”, was read avidly during the cold war. But intangibles are just as important. Mr Maul singles out the will to fight—and candidly acknowledges that his agency got it wrong in Iraq in 2014 and Afghanistan in 2021, where American-built armies crumbled almost overnight. . . .
That experience, along with the evaporation of the Iraqi army in the face of the Islamic State group, led DIA to “over-correct” when judging how Ukraine would fare when Russia invaded last year. “We had a similar thought that they were just overwhelmed on paper.” It has proved a teachable moment. Mr Maul brandishes a 40-page “tradecraft note”, published this January, which re-examines how the agency measures a country’s will to fight.
I give Dr. Maul credit for one thing — he admitted that DIA got it wrong. At least he is consistent. Maul goes on describing DIA’s “methodology” notes that casualties, inadequate training and critical shortages in ammunition and other logistics will play a decisive role in whether or not Ukraine’s army remains a viable force. Maul’s explanation to the Economist correspondent is more nuanced than the rosy scenario painted by Ellie Cook in her Newsweek article.
The Economist reporter also spoke to other American officials. One in particular deserves skewering:
One Biden administration official says that Ukraine has around six to seven weeks of combat left before its offensive culminates. . . . “If you look at the battlefield in five years’ time, it could look broadly similar,” says a senior American intelligence official, emphasising that the quality of both Russian and Ukrainian forces is declining over time.
The ironically named “intelligence official” reveals gross ignorance about Russia and its capabilities. The Russian Army is stronger and larger today than it was 18 months ago. The Russian defense industry is operating at levels unheard of in 2022 and producing enormous volumes of drones, artillery shells, cruise missiles, tanks, vehicles and regular ammunition. None of that is true for Ukraine. Missing this kind of data point (or points) explains why you can have an intelligence failure. There is a built in assumption that Russia will be in stasis for the next 18 months. That ain’t going to happen.
The big take away for me from Maul’s interview (or interviews) is that the Biden Administration completely discounts the possibility of a Russian battlefield victory and a Ukrainian collapse. If Ukraine does collapse (which I think is likely) we will witness Afghanistan II — which means the United States once again is caught unawares by a rapid deterioration and will scramble desperately to come up with a Plan B. By then it will be too late.
I think the key variable that will determine the Russian military’s course of action in the coming months in Ukraine is the status of Western ISR. As long as the U.S. and NATO continue to supply Ukraine with floods of ISR data, which means knowing roughly the location and size of Russian forces along the line of contact, I do not think Russia will launch any big movement offensives. A large scale maneuver offensive would require assembling a concentration of troops that would be easily spotted by ISR and then targeted for attack. As long as Western ISR remains intact Russia is opting to disperse forces and attrit the Ukrainians without employing World War I tactics of human wave assaults across open fields.
Unless Russia can come up with a way to deceive Western ISR, it is unlikely to assemble a Division size element that could deliver a decisive blow in some sector of the line of contact. This is what distinguishes a Special Military Operation from a war footing. If Russia decides to attack Western ISR assets that will be a sure sign of a major, escalatory shift in the Russian military’s plans and objectives.