Their daily assessments of the course of the Russian invasion make news headlines. The change in the situation at the front can be followed in detail down to the streets on the interactive maps that they prepare every day. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) analyzes data from open sources — satellite images, footage from combat sites, government reports, reports from military bloggers and local authorities.
Tetiana Gaiduk, creative director at Truman and host of the Ukrainian project KYIV NOT KIEV, had a conversation with George Barros, ISW's Geospatial Intelligence Team Lead, about the prospects of a new Russian offensive and a Ukrainian counteroffensive, problems in the Russian army and the evolution of its command, as well as the situation in hot spots along the contact line, in particular in Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
The Russian campaign for the first year of the war has gone very badly. The Russians made a lot of mistakes. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) did not confirm the invasion forecast until mid-February 2022, because the actions of the Russians on the Ukrainian border did not look like a competent plan for this invasion. However, the situation is changing.
«They are learning and improving, and the window of opportunity for Ukrainian Forces to exploit Russian mistakes is closing, which is why it is very important that we (the US – ed.) send Ukraine as much equipment as possible, as quickly as possible, to defeat the Russians while they are still vulnerable,» George Barros believes.
Among the systemic problems of the Russian army, he names the problem with the force generation first. "The Russian conventional military has been defeated," says the expert. All the combat units that matter fought in Ukraine, have taken different losses and regrouped to a certain extent.
"It means Putin does not have an effective pristine, clean reserve force that he can use anywhere in Ukraine", he continues and details that various Russian force generation efforts — like trying to use prisoners for the Wagner Group, and the use of The BARS Reserve System — have not generated sufficient results for the Russians. Meanwhile Putin is hesitant to undergo full mobilization or more waves of mobilization.
Among other problems, he cites command and military culture. The Ukrainian military has successfully adopted the advanced Western practices of NATO countries, in particular the concept of taking the initiative and acting within the intent. Commanders of the Ukrainian Armed Forces understand their mission, their bosses’ support, and do not have to wait for directions from the centralized power vertical to make decisions when that dynamic situation appears. This is not characteristic of Russians, within the framework of their Soviet military mentality. This paralyzes the decision-making process in the Russian army.
«The Ukrainians have successfully eviscerated the Russian officer's core,» Barros says. The ISW has reports about how within the military academies cadets are being promoted early, graduated early, and being sent to command units that they are not ready for. "It is going to take a generation to rebuild the Russian officer core," he believes.
George Barros leads the geospatial intelligence team. Analyzing satellite data, it is possible to notice general trends in the technology and tactics of Russian assault operations in different areas of the front.
"One of the clearer things that we can see is the use of human wave tactics by assault squads in the Bakhmut area. With satellites or even other airborne sensors, like drones, it is easy to see how the Russian forces, in particular the Wagner Group forces, are essentially foot-mobile infantry. They often operate without any form of arm support, which creates horrific casualties, and we can see their corpses littering the battlefield."
On March 22, the representative of the US National Security Council, John Kirby, made a statement that Putin is planning a new offensive, possibly from many directions. "So far from open sources, we have not seen any new concentration of Russian forces in any particular direction, which would indicate a new Russian offensive," Barros comments on that. However, he adds, Kirby has access to classified information that ISW experts don't, "so perhaps John has seen some information on intelligence that we are not privy to."
Answering the question, which was sent to the KYIV NOT KIEV by the British ‘The Independent’, why is Ukraine giving everything it has to hold on to Bakhmut despite high military losses, Barros does not agree that Ukraine is giving everything it has:
"From open sources, we have not seen any indication that Ukrainians have deployed reserved forces on a significant scale in order to hold Bakhmut."
Expert compares fights for Bakhmut with last year defense of Rubizhne and Lysychansk. The tactical situation there also looked dire. But Ukrainians successfully used those battles to bleed Russian forces very heavily.
"I am not going to forecast that the Ukrainians will lose Bakhmut; they very well might, but if they do lose it, it will be a tactical defeat of losing a city for the operational success of destroying a tremendous amount of combat power," convinced ISW professional.
In his opinion, the Russians are using Bakhmut to largely destroy Wagner Group and "put Prigozhin in his place." The Russians had to commit their airborne forces to the fight in Bakhmut as well.
«It’s forces that will not be in the best conditions to be able to defend against the Ukrainian counteroffensive,» says Barros and calls Ukraine's decision to hold Bakhmut prudent for now.
For Barros, the situation near Avdiivka looks different from Bakhmut: «It doesn't seem that the Russians have also amassed the same level of quantity in the forces they brought to Bakhmut to try to make tactical gains simply by brute force and at a great human cost.» It seems to the expert that the Russians can prioritize Avdiivka after suffering defeat near Vuhledar.
"We assess that the Russian campaign in Luhansk is going to culminate soon. If the Russians take Bakhmut, that will almost certainly rapidly culminate the campaign because they will not have the capability to continue going after that. If the Russians capture Bakhmut, that will be the bookend to the Russian spring offensive."
As for weapons that can make this counteroffensive successful and change the dynamics on the front, as HIMARS once did, Barros is skeptical. "There is no silver bullet," he says. But he adds that to improve the ability to wage war, Ukrainians will need tanks and armored vehicles.
A lot of attention is drawn to the infighting inside the Kremlin. "There is a lot of romantic thinking about what if there is a problem here, what if Putin goes away, what if there is a power change, etc," Barros quips. He considers talks about removing Putin unrealistic, but his opinion on such a scenario is as follows:
«Any of the "siloviki" in the Kremlin that could in theory come after Putin—they all come from the school of Russian historical revisionism, Russian imperialism. They all do not respect the sovereignty of the states of the former Soviet Union or the former Russian Empire. They see these territories as Russian territory, and they will continue to conduct warfare against Ukraine in order to achieve these objectives. There is no basis to assess realistically that the Kremlin`s intent for Ukraine will ever change."
George Barros of ISW to KYIV NOT KIEV about Russian spring offensive — video
KYIV NOT KIEV is an English-language news blog about Ukraine that was created by the Truman team in 2020. Its goal is to enhance Ukraine's communication with the international community. The project has gained recognition for its in-depth interviews with foreign ambassadors to Ukraine. Recently, the KYIV NOT KIEV team launched the "Changemakers Season", featuring interviews with prominent Ukrainian and foreign officials, businessmen, scholars, and thought leaders on various Ukraine-related topics.