U.S. Military Expert John Spencer: ‘Ukraine’s Position On The Battlefield Is Very Strong’

John Spencer is a retired U.S. Army major and expert on urban warfare. He currently serves as the chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum. Spencer is also the author of the Mini-Manual For The Urban Defender, which draws on his decades of military experience. It has been translated into Ukrainian and is used by the country’s military.

In an interview with RFE/RL’s Georgian Service, Spencer says Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to end the Russian invasion of Ukraine anytime soon but he predicts Ukraine will ultimately prevail. He says the recent decision by Washington to deliver a Patriot missile battery to Ukraine may not be a game-changing move, but it could trigger other Western allies to donate similar systems, bolstering Kyiv’s defenses. Spencer also says the West has been too tentative in delivering weapons to Ukraine due to what he considers unfounded fears of how the Kremlin will react.

RFE/RL: It’s been just over 300 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his country’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Although predictions are difficult at best, how much longer do you think this conflict will last?

John Spencer: We start with a difficult question, which I would ask like this: How many more months? I do not share the opinion of the people who think that this war will last for years. Ukraine’s position on the battlefield is very strong, and it has equally strong allies off the battlefield.

Do you remember Sun Tzu (author of Art of War)? This wise Chinese monk teaches us that if you want to defeat your enemy, you must defeat his strategy. Putin’s initial strategy failed back in April when he tried and failed to take Kyiv. His second strategy, aimed at alienating Ukraine’s allies, did not work either. And his current campaign, whose goal is to freeze Ukraine, to bring darkness to Ukraine, is also futile. And this burden was placed not only on Ukrainians, but also on its allies. We can already say that it didn’t work either. Ukraine was not abandoned by its allies; moreover, they promised to be by its side as long as Kyiv needs it to protect its freedom and resist the Russian occupation.

But back to the original question — how many more months? I think it’s clear that Putin is not going to let his own intentions go; he doesn’t care how many Russian soldiers will die. But the Russian Army is in trouble, very big trouble. Putin wants to slow down the war. He needs time to give at least a little military training to the thousands of people who were forced into military service. At this point, I don’t see any direction in which the Russian Army can advance. Their only goal is to keep what they’ve captured and I think they won’t succeed, either.

I think by next summer Ukraine will have caused the Russian military to culminate, because Russia doesn’t have resupply, it doesn’t have alliances, it barely has manpower. And even in manpower, most of its core officers and trained people are dead or dying. So just putting a bunch of men with a weapon in their hands used to work in World War II, when you could do it by the millions — and that was the Soviet strategy — but that doesn’t work in today’s battle.

RFE/RL: Mykhaylo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said he thinks that’s exactly the strategy Russia is going to opt for: to swamp Ukraine with bodies, numbers. And you say that won’t work. But can it end even worse and even backfire for Russians?

Spencer: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there is an issue of where you throw so many bodies at a position and they run out of bullets. This is where Ukraine’s strength is; it has a will to fight, but it also has an endless supply of ammunition. So, throwing more and more bodies, it gives a lot of target practice, Ukrainians will become the most proficient — well, they already are becoming the most proficient military in the world — because they’re learning how to kill Russians better than anybody in the world. That strategy works when you can deplete the other side’s ammunition and other supplies.

And again, this is why professionals talk logistics and amateurs talk tactics. Ukraine will not run out of bullets, it won’t run out of soldiers. Russia doesn’t have a million soldiers to put into the fight. In order to do that, you have to threaten Russia’s survival, you’ve got to make this a fight about Mother Russia, you have to make this about a fight for survival. And Russians have already shown that they don’t believe that this is a war for survival. That’s why more men left the country than joined the mobilization.

RFE/RL: Speaking of logistics, can Russia solve its logistics problem?

Spencer: Not as the sanctions continue, no. They can’t do it at scale. The reason they don’t have a million-man army is not because they don’t have the soldiers. They don’t have the capability to logistically feed and supply those. Also, Ukraine is attacking smartly. They don’t attack Russians face-to-face like the Russians want. Ukraine is fighting Russia’s ability to stay in Ukraine, and you do that by attacking their supply points, attacking the roads behind him. And that’s why some of those Western long-range munitions are so important to attack Russia’s ability to supply their soldiers. And this is why they don’t have the logistical backbone to field a million people to the war, let alone being able to just capture a million Russians and get them into Ukraine.

RFE/RL: And yet whatever numbers Russia managed to muster via mobilization, it seems to have helped them plug gaping holes in the front line. And while the consensus in the West seems to be that Putin’s mobilization has failed, if you ask Ukrainians, for example, Ukrainian Army commander Valeriy Zaluzhniy and the above-mentioned Podolyak, they don’t seem to share that optimistic outlook that the mobilization failed utterly and completely.

Spencer: Yes, they did rush people with like three days of training into places in the south. But then they sent large batches of people off to training and those still haven’t arrived. So, there are waves and, you know, differences in the mobilization. And I agree with you on the Ukrainians’ part — it’s the geography of Ukraine — it is hard to make people understand how big it is, and how big these locations are.

So, I agree that quantity does have its own quality, which is a [Soviet leader Josef] Stalin quote, right? And it’s having an impact, but they’re still taking casualties. They’re still trying to train people. This is really where I think people miss out on the thing about time. Russia wanted to buy time with this mobilization by rushing some of the soldiers knowingly with no training just to the front, hand them a weapon, and tell them to hold that ground. In some places that didn’t work. And like you say, in other places, it probably helped the Russian formations.

So, did a Russian mobilization buy them more time to determine where to send more fresh forces, where to send them into training, prepare more forces, like in Belarus, and things like that? Absolutely. While the West has supplied Ukraine with some great weapons, there has not been enough to end this war quicker. Because as we slowly, incrementally arm Ukraine, yeah, that’s very helpful. But it also is, it’s very slow. They need so much more to accomplish their goals. And the more time that Russia has, the question of how long this goes on is, the more time you give Russia, the more time they can hold onto what they have now. The less weapons that you give Ukraine that can reach out farther, like ATACMS (army tactical missile system) or more HIMARS (high-mobility artillery rocket system), the longer this goes on.

So, this is an element of the West and not just the United States is that if they want this war to end faster, they have to give more, If they want this war to continue, then continue to do this incremental political negotiations over single pieces of equipment, and slowly you’ll get weapons that are needed in there and then…Ukraine will win. There’s no question. They’ve already won. They will achieve their goals, no question. But then how long that will take depends on those supplies.

RFE/RL: Is there any chance that after an initial period of, let’s call it being shell-shocked, Russian forces, mobilized or not, is there any chance that they will adapt? That they’ll become a better fighting force?

Spencer: That’s a legitimate question. That is actually a very real [danger] — the more time you give the Russians, some of them, the more time they have, the more combat capability they can develop. Even new, untrained people — and this is true for all wars — they will start to build bonds between each other, they will start to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Equipment doesn’t do that. But people do that. So, absolutely, I agree with you. This is why Russia wants, especially during the winter, things to slow down so their soldiers get better trained, get better organized. They can kind of pull units together and form new units, that kind of stuff.

And soldiers do learn quickly. Ukrainians learn faster, and we’ve seen that and they’re able to adapt and innovate more quickly. But the same goes for Russian soldiers, even if they’re poorly led, at the small-unit level, if you give them enough time — necessity is the mother of invention. So, if the Russians can slow down the Ukrainians, that buys them time to become stronger. That’s a fact. So, as they get more time, and as they get better, the cost to the Ukrainians to repel them increases. And that is attrition warfare. The strategy for Russia is to slowly wear down Ukrainian capability as they grow stronger; but on the other side, Ukraine is also getting stronger as this goes on. And it has tens of thousands of soldiers training in other countries and receiving new equipment.

I always talk about time, but the other element is surprise. So, Russia is not going to surprise Ukraine with a massive offensive anywhere along the line. And that’s why I discount a push toward Kyiv out of Belarus. I know Ukraine thinks it is a viable threat. And it’s something they had to prepare for. But they’re not going to surprise the Ukrainians. And as Sun Tzu said — and any military strategist — “intelligence and the ability to surprise your enemy, is your superpower.” And Ukraine has superior intelligence both not only in their own human intelligence and behind the enemy lines, but with better Western satellite imagery, all this information.

So even if, let’s say Russia was able to mobilize 300,000 people and give them new equipment, they’re not going to be able to surprise anybody. But if they were able to mobilize and do a massive push somewhere, the Ukrainians would pay a very high price to stop that, even when they know it’s coming. But it doesn’t mean Russia wins. It just means it increases the cost, because Russia can’t, it’s very unlikely Russia can surprise Ukraine anywhere.

RFE/RL: You say you don’t think a renewed push toward Kyiv is likely. Commander Zaluzhniy appears to think otherwise, if his recent comments are anything to go by. And before we dissect those remarks in a recent interview, let me ask you, as an urban-warfare expert — and you also published the “urban warfare mini-manual,” which also helped Ukrainians quite a lot — is it doable? What does it take to take Kyiv? Is it even realistic?

Spencer: It is realistic and that’s a great question. And that’s why I traveled to Kyiv in July to analyze exactly how the Ukrainians prevented the Russians from taking Kyiv in February. And if Russia was to try to attack Kyiv again, it would be similar to February, where they would have to use speed and firepower to get into the middle of Kyiv. No, Russians need to surround Kyiv and siege it, that’s just not possible, it is not an objective, it never was their objective.

They needed to figure out a way to get into the middle and take out the government and raise a Russian flag on the government building. If that would have happened, the insurgency and the resistance wouldn’t matter as much. The political goal here why Kyiv is important is because it’s the center of gravity for political power in Ukraine. And if the Russians can kill Zelenskiy, if they can insert intelligence agency agents into the capital, then they still achieve their goal.

Militarily, though, you’d have to do what’s called a joint forcible entry like we saw them try with the airport of Hostomel (northwest of the capital, Kyiv). You’d have to create an air corridor with airpower, or you could do it over ground invasion. Again, you could do a penetration like they attempted. So, the Russians actually tried about three or four different ways to take the city in February, but their key advantage was surprise — even if they didn’t think they would encounter that much resistance, they still could have done it just by sheer speed and surprise.

People always want to compare military to military. And what I found in Ukraine was that yes, that’s a factor, but when millions of people of the population don’t want you there, they can do a whole lot to make it a lot harder for you to achieve your goals, even if they’re not shooting at you.

They don’t have that anymore. But if the commander of the Ukrainian military said is a viable concern, then I 100 percent agree with him. So, then he, like he did back in February, has to allocate resources in the capital to prevent a possible attack on Kyiv. But this is a numbers game, right? People always want to compare military to military. And what I found in Ukraine was that yes, that’s a factor, but when millions of people of the population don’t want you there, they can do a whole lot to make it a lot harder for you to achieve your goals, even if they’re not shooting at you. And this is why I did the Mini-Manual For The Urban Defender, and Ukraine followed that. They blocked the roads, they flooded the rivers, created ambushes, blew up bridges, made it harder for Russia to do what it wanted to do quickly.

And to be able to reinforce it, too — that’s the other element of being able to adapt that Russia doesn’t have. Even if Russia comes up with this genius plan on how to take down Kyiv, what we’ve seen over and over again, is that Russia doesn’t have the capability to have a reserve and to adapt to failure. All militaries face failure on the battlefield, but it’s just whether they can bounce back, have a reserve force, have a backup plan to recover from their failures or their losses.

And this is again why I think it is very unlikely that Russia could take Kyiv. Even if they tried a rapid air campaign, Ukraine would see all of that — the different air-intelligence platforms they have can see that. And one of the reasons why I’m so interested in Ukraine getting a Patriot missile battery is that it comes with a very powerful radar, which increases their ability to see what’s in the air.

RFE/RL: Are we about to enter the age of Patriot missiles, much like we saw with U.S.-supplied HIMARS? How much of a game-changing move could this be? I also remember you were frustrated about the number of HIMARS the United States gave to Ukraine. Is it the same with Patriot, seeing as we are so far talking about one solitary unit?

Spencer: Absolutely, yeah. I was very frustrated, especially in the beginning when there were only four of them originally. Were HIMARS a game changer on the battlefield? Absolutely. Would the Patriot be a similar level of a game changer? Not as game-changing, but it will be very significant because it isn’t just the Patriot, it’s the ability of Patriot to integrate — what Ukraine needs is an integrated air-defense system around its cities, and its critical infrastructure, not around the entire country, because that’s impossible to do.

The Patriot is a game changer in the political sense that that level of item…opens the doors to other countries to give air-defense systems. Is the Patriot the only thing Ukraine needs? Absolutely not. You’re not going to fire Patriot missiles at Iranian drones. The Patriot is so powerful, although it’s one battery, because of its ability to integrate both with the radar and its mission-command systems, all the other systems that are in the city that you need as well.

The Patriot — which is ridiculous that it hasn’t happened until now, until after Ukraine has been turned dark — should have been given months ago. There are like 12 countries in the world that have it. It’s not like it’s this unique, exclusive United States weapons technology — it is very old technology. Hopefully, the Ukrainians have been training on it already a long time ago. And it should get there as fast as it can. And hopefully that opens the door to other countries sending even more air-defense systems. And it doesn’t have to be a Patriot. There’s a whole long list of them.

Patriot is a very reliable, very tested and true system. But it’s not what you fire at Iranian drones; you need other systems that can detect whatever is being fired, identify the right weapon, and then shoot it down. What we’re seeing is that Ukraine is getting up to a 100 percent on some days, destroying whatever is fired at them through an integrated system. But the longer we wait to get a Patriot into Ukraine, the more it costs Ukraine, and the slower this war goes on. Because the missile strategy, the bombing strategy, is one of Russia’s primary strategies. And until we take that away from them, they’re going to keep doing it.

RFE/RL: General Zaluzhniy has been specific about what he thinks he needs to allow his forces to defeat the Russian military: 300 tanks, 600-700 infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), 500 howitzers. Is that reasonable, and, more importantly, realistic?

Spencer: I don’t think that the list is too steep. The West combined could of course provide that in a week, if there was some real leadership where the goal is complete Ukrainian victory as fast as possible. So, I 100 percent agree that that’s a doable list, there is nothing on that list that is game-changing technology. Of the reasons that people use to not provide certain technologies, there’s always this one about the technology falling into the enemy’s hands, which is ridiculous because all these technologies were built to fight against Russia or China. And Ukraine is fighting one of the world’s evil regimes. It’s fighting for not just Ukraine, it is fighting for Europe.

So, the fact that Europe is not emptying its coffers for Ukraine to defeat the only aggressor up against Europe is ridiculous. The fact that Germany hasn’t provided the Leopard 2 tanks and a lot more is ridiculous. There is a massive political conversation happening behind closed doors that that shouldn’t be happening; this risk calculation of: “Could Russia escalate the conflict? Could the conflict spill over?” This isn’t about a border dispute between Ukraine and Russia. This this is about sovereignty, self-determination.

The ability to strike Russia? That’s another one of the ridiculous political claims. I don’t think this is a prevailing thought. But these people have a seat at the table. When people try to calculate Russia’s next moves, if Russia does see that as a threat to their survival, like, look, we need to take leadership and Russia is doing things to Ukraine that it thinks it can do without causing the world to react more than it already is. So, we’re playing the same game of, well, these are the things that we can provide. And I don’t think this will allow Russia to do more. What else is Russia going to do?

RFE/RL: Perhaps Putin could turn to the nuclear option?

Spencer: Yeah, right, which would be the end of Russia, right? Russia can’t fight NATO. It can’t fight Ukraine. Everybody’s concerned about nuclear war, absolutely, and we should all be concerned, as Russia is showing itself as an unstable international actor with nuclear weapons. It is a concern. But that concern has some people so scared that they’re willing to appease Putin in not providing military aid to Ukraine, while we sit back and let him break every rule, from genocide to recolonization, that we say we stand for.

That thought, that if you give them a weapon that can strike into Russia, they should absolutely be able to, Ukraine is our trusted partner. One of the most beautiful strikes they’ve done is the strike against the strategic bombing base that has been launching shells as the world sat back and watched as Russia turned Ukraine black. It turned off the lights of Ukraine and the world did little to stop it. So why wouldn’t Ukraine attack the bombers that are bombing Ukraine? That’s just silly.

It’s the same thing with the idea that the Western authorities told Ukraine not to strike at [General Valery] Gerasimov (chief of the Russian General Staff) when he was in Izyum, in Ukraine. Again, these is ridiculous political appeasement that actually caused Ukraine to suffer more. Although I’m very proud of the United States, in the aid they have given, I’m very disappointed at the speed and level that they’ve given things.

RFE/RL: You said Zaluzhniy’s military equipment request is reasonable, but will the West fulfill it?

Spencer: Unfortunately, I personally think not at that scale, and not in one batch. For some reason, the world has to see Ukraine suffer to give things. Like we saw in Bucha, like we saw in Irpin. The fact that, you know, Ukraine had to be turned black (with no electricity) before we started sending the air defenses that were already promised, is very important that we need leadership. And I don’t think that we had the momentum of that leadership based on domestic situations across the world to include the United States, that you would see that that delivery quickly. Like, you know, in six months, will many of those things be given? Probably. I would like to see global leadership saying, “I hear you, I’m sending it,” because that is as easy as that is. And this is the problem. This is why I get really frustrated. We all know Ukraine is going to win. But because of the fact that we won’t show that leadership, it is going to come at great costs, and take longer than it needs to.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, Vazha Tavberidze has been interviewing diplomats, military experts, and academics about the war’s course, causes, and effects. All of his interviews can be read here.