China Ponders Russia's Logistical Challenges in the Ukraine War


Aug 28, 2023

Footage released by Russia Ministry of Defense on March 9, 2022 allegedly shows convoy of Russia Armed Forces combat and logistic vehicles in an undisclosed area in Ukraine, photo by EyePress News/Reuters

Footage released by Russia Ministry of Defense on March 9, 2022 allegedly shows convoy of Russia Armed Forces combat and logistic vehicles in an undisclosed area in Ukraine

Photo by EyePress News/Reuters

By Lyle Goldstein and Nathan Waechter

This commentary originally appeared on The Diplomat on August 26, 2023.

A saying attributed to General Omar Bradley notes that “amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.” Any attempt by China to use military force to seize Taiwan would be an immense logistical undertaking requiring moving large quantities of troops and materiel across the Taiwan Strait. What then, are Chinese observers learning from the logistical realm of the war in Ukraine?

In this edition of our series on Chinese lessons learned from the war in Ukraine we summarize a recent assessment from a Chinese defense magazine that has consistently provided detailed coverage of the war. The article analyzes Russia's initial logistical missteps, how it has pivoted, and the enduring logistical challenges the Kremlin confronts in the conflict.

In this Chinese analysis three different stages of the war are identified pertaining to logistics. These are, in chronological order, the pre-war buildup and initial attack; a second phase that essentially corresponds to the period after the abandonment of the northern front; and the current situation as it has evolved in 2023.

Any attempt by China to use military force to seize Taiwan would be an immense logistical undertaking requiring moving large quantities of troops and materiel across the Taiwan Strait.

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Referring to the initial phase, the article notes the use of deception in advance of the “special operation” to build up war materiel at strategic points prior to the conflict: “Before the operation began, troops and supplies were amassed under the guise of a war game.” Interestingly, the article fails to mention that Moscow's deception efforts ultimately failed to achieve strategic surprise.

Once the war had begun, Russia attempted to “control key hub cities and establish front line logistics support centers.” Here the article also notes that Russia benefited from short lines of communication and the use of Russian railways to move supplies to the front lines. It says that at this early stage Russia also “set up small-scale damaged vehicle collection and repair points in the border areas.”

After the initial assault floundered, especially proximate to the northern cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, the Kremlin was forced to pivot. In this “second phase” of the war, Russia abandoned its northern front due to a “poorly performing offensive caused by logistical issues.” As a result of poor preparations prior to the conflict, Russia was forced to quickly improvise in an attempt to cobble together the necessary logistical support it needed for a longer war. This included, according to the Chinese analysis, “mobilizing a large number of civilian vehicles to achieve the transportation of goods for military use and basically fulfill the warmaking needs of the front-line troops.”

The rest of this Chinese analysis provides a blunt review of what the Russians have done wrong. First there is a recognition that fundamentally “Russia underestimated the Ukrainian army and failed to make adequate logistical support plans.” The article calls attention to unwarranted confidence in success that was rampant through the entire chain of command, leading to a lack of preparedness. “Before the war, high-level Russian army leadership generally underestimated the enemy, and believed the operation would quickly achieve victory.” Because of the brushing aside of Ukraine's actual military strength, “insufficient supplies of equipment and ammunition were prepared.”

Much attention has been focused on how quickly all types of munitions are being expended in the war by both sides. On this point, the article observes, “In the beginning, the Russian army carried out large-scale strikes using precision-guided munitions. By the second phase, the Russian army's precision-guided munitions were in short supply. This led to the use of more and more unguided artillery shells, rockets, and tactical missiles from the ground forces. The Russian military's long-range strike capability was severely constrained.”

One can be quite certain that this recognition by Chinese strategists of how quickly munitions of various types have been consumed will have People's Liberation Army (PLA) planners also reviewing their own war stocks with the understanding that military conflicts often go on longer than initially anticipated.

The next lesson taken up by these Chinese strategists concerns Russia's available logistical means not matching the Kremlin's preferred strategic goals. Here the article says that “the logistics supply lines were too long; the number of troops and available supplies were not sufficient to meet the requirements of Russia's multi-front operations.” Problems associated with this mismatch are further identified as “slow-moving resupply” and a lack of adequate logistical support troops. Russia's failure to seize Kyiv within the first few days of the war is here primarily attributed to the “inability to use rail and road transport … quickly and efficiently … [which] made it impossible to continue an effective offensive.”

While these initial lessons focused on Russia's errors, the rest of the observations highlight challenges posed to Russia by Ukraine and its Western supporters. First among these include successful efforts by Ukrainian forces to interdict Russian logistics. “Supply lines have been harassed by the Ukrainian army, causing logistical support to not operate normally. The Ukrainian army used small-scale targeted strikes to destroy the bridges and rail lines used to resupply the front-line combat troops.” In addition to the targeted attacks, Ukraine has conducted successful “ambushes in order to bog down logistics convoys.”

These attacks succeeded in part due to Russian transport vehicles being “older equipment without the requisite self-defense capabilities and lacking the patrol vehicles needed to protect convoys and ensure the safety of the supply routes and rear areas.” This analysis, while not directly crediting irregular partisans, seems to acknowledge the danger of guerrillas and special forces operating behind the front working to disrupt lines of communication.

The impact of modern weapons and Western support for Ukraine is next addressed. The Chinese analysis notes that the “Ukrainian army has used drones to bomb and attack Russian logistical support nodes.” These attacks have included “strikes in border regions outside of Ukraine including Belgorod, Kursk, and Bryansk” and “targeted oil refineries with the intent to cut off the supply of oil to Russia's military.” Applying this lesson to a Taiwan scenario, PLA strategists may attempt early on to target Taiwanese weapons systems that could reach into mainland China and potentially disrupt key logistical nodes and support infrastructure.

This Chinese analysis highlights that the “West's continuous aid to the Ukrainian army has put increased pressure on the Russian military's logistical support.” While Russia has since adjusted its supply lines to deal with HIMARS attacks, the article notes that “HIMARS supplied by the U.S. have been used … to attack ammunition depots, fuel depots, supply stations, and other logistics supply bases and supply lines, giving the Russian army's logistical support a great deal of trouble.” (In a previous installment of this series, we examined Chinese assessments of the HIMARS directly and its applications to a Taiwan scenario in greater detail.)

In addition to military weapons provided by the West that have aided Ukraine's ability to degrade Russian logistics, the article also mentions Western sanctions as impacting Russia's defense industry. Sanctions have caused the Russian “defense industry to be unable to quickly replace parts used in certain Russian military equipment. This presents a long-term supply chain issue.” This seems to be a greater admission of Russian military production issues than commonly seen in reports on regular Chinese media.

Of course, there is some irony here given that such disruptions may form a market opportunity for the Chinese defense industry—although that issue is not mentioned here. Evidence suggests that Beijing is currently supplying Moscow with certain critical subcomponents for the Russian military.

While the article is heavy on analysis of Russian problems, it is light on predictions as to whether and how Russia might adapt to the difficulties identified. There appears to be little optimism that Russia can fully overcome the logistical challenges it faces. It should also be noted that the article does not cover how corruption might have degraded Russia's logistical support systems in advance of its war against Ukraine.

It's a safe bet that China would be better prepared from the outset of a Taiwan scenario than Russia was at the start of its invasion of Ukraine.

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Certainly, in considering an invasion of Taiwan, many of the challenges faced by Russia in Ukraine might be further exacerbated for China in a military campaign focused on capturing an island separated by open ocean and thus completely lacking in direct and relatively simple ground lines of communication for resupply. However, it's a safe bet that China would be better prepared from the outset of a Taiwan scenario than Russia was at the start of its invasion of Ukraine—not least because PLA planners are closely watching and learning from the Ukraine War.

The PLA has always taken logistics incredibly seriously. From its early days in the Korean War, the modern Chinese military learned through very painful experience that exposed supply lines will be attacked by the adversary and that troops on the front lines cannot perform well if they lack vital supplies. In a Taiwan scenario, the PLA will most certainly opt to prioritize securing the most vital logistics nodes by aiming to rapidly seize Taiwan's airfields and ports. Nevertheless, they are also quite likely to implement more unconventional approaches as well, including the rapid engineering of artificial piers, as well as aerial drops to include perhaps the extensive use of drones shuttling across the Taiwan Strait.

Lyle Goldstein is director of Asia Engagement for the Washington think tank Defense Priorities. He is also visiting professor at the Watson Institute for Public and International Affairs at Brown University. Nathan Waechter is a policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he lived in China for close to a decade, working in the quantitative market research industry.