In the spring melting snow and rain often make roads in Ukraine impassable © Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images
In the spring melting snow and rain often make roads in Ukraine impassable © Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

What part are supply chains playing in the Ukraine war?

8 April 2022

New light has been shed on the critical importance of supply chains by the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s progress has been limited by a number of factors including the Ukrainian resistance, but chief among them has been problems getting supplies to the front line. Fuel shortages, broken vehicles and supply lines have played a crucial role throughout the conflict.

On April 1 the destruction of a fuel depot in Belgorod impacted Russia’s convoy of military vehicles pushing into the country, slowing them further. Conversely, Russia has focused efforts on destroying bridges throughout Ukraine to prevent humanitarian aid from entering or civilians from evacuating. On both sides logistical factors are playing a vital role.

Russia’s invasion has faced supply chain difficulties from the start. The 40-mile long tank convoy travelling to Kyiv was periodically halted, which experts agreed was probably related to fuel shortages.

But as Ryan Baker, research analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses, noted in an article for the Washington Post: “Supply problems are the norm, not the exception. Even successful offensives usually have moments of high drama caused by supply shortages.”

Baker has written a dissertation on warfare logistics which said military supply chains in wartime connect each defensive position to sources of supply and communication well behind the front, including supply warehouses, bulk fuel storage sites, equipment repair depots, and a variety of other necessities.

The most effective way for an attacker to seize territory is to build up forces in order to penetrate their opponent’s defensive line, then move into the unprotected rear and disrupt the flow of supplies and reinforcements and destroy military infrastructure.

The longer a supply chain gets, the more infrastructure is needed for replenishment, says Baker. Malfunctions and broken parts will become increasingly more frequent, exacerbating supply shortages.

“I conclude that a force cannot reach its territorial objectives without enough logistical capacity to meet the resupply requirements...” says Baker.

Dr David Stone, professor of Russian Studies at the Naval War College, speaking in a personal capacity, tells Supply Management: “There’s also a production issue for military equipment. In wartime, ammunition and equipment gets used up a lot faster than it’s built. Most countries build a little bit of supply every year, but then if shooting starts, they use it up much faster. Compare that to cars . . . every year a few cars go out of service, and a slightly larger number of cars are manufactured and sold. Much more predictable.

“So one of the questions we’re looking at in Ukraine is how fast both sides are using up their equipment. Are the Russians burning up fuel and ammunition and armored vehicles faster than they can replace them? Certainly the answer is yes; the question is how much faster, and when do they run out? The Ukrainians are using up a lot of anti-tank missiles, and getting more from outside. How fast are things coming in, and how fast are they being used up?”

A force cannot reach its objectives without enough logistical capacity

Baker, looking back at Germany’s attempt to invade Russia in 1941, says it is not any one specific shortage that will cause an invasion’s downfall, but rather an “accumulation of resource deficits”.

“It wasn’t until German soldiers were on the outskirts of Moscow and were exposed to subzero temperatures, low on ammunition and living off a third of their daily rations that the advance stalled for good,” he says.

With Russian forces now withdrawing from the outskirts of Kyiv to regroup and intensify attacks on Donbas, it appears Putin’s forces are going through resources faster than they can be supplied. In a blog, defense analysts at the Atlantic Council think tank suggest Putin’s offensive stalled due to “significant logistical issues”.

“We have seen several reports of Russian armored forces running out of fuel, which is to be expected considering that Ukrainians have targeted the lengthening Russian supply lines and have destroyed approximately sixty fuel tankers,” the blog said.  “As Russia commits more forces to the conflict, it will focus on hardening its supply lines.”

Stone agrees on this point, noting: “Russians are, it seems, having a big problem getting supplies – fuel, ammunition, but also even food – up to their front line units. Ukraine is the size of Texas, and the Russian advance has been tied to the roads. In part that’s for speed, but it’s also in part because of mud season (the rasputitsa) that makes off-road travel extremely difficult.”

Russia’s regrouping, then, appears to be an attempt to avoid the overextension that comes as a consequence of long supply lines. The risks of overextension are great. Stone explains: “Russians have left a lot of population (and territorial defense forces) behind their advancing spearheads, which can then hit resupply convoys. Armored vehicles eat a ton of fuel—US tanks get three gallons to the mile. 

“One of the key questions about further Russian advances is how much fuel they have. Armored vehicles without fuel are useless – and eventually their batteries run down. That means problems with communications, even with soldiers staying warm in freezing weather.”

Modern warfare is no stranger to extended supply lines and halted convoys, however. Baker’s analysis cited the US-led campaign to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, as well as the 2003 Iraq invasion. The former nearly ran out of fuel on day three, while the latter took about two weeks to cover the 350 miles from the Kuwait border to the outskirts of Baghdad.

Stone puts the mounting complications, extended nature of the conflict, and numerous logistical issues down to overconfidence. “The Russians assumed the Ukrainians wouldn’t put up much of a fight, so there wasn’t much need to worry about the logistics of resupply. When things didn’t go well, life got much more complicated.”

Parallels with business supply chains

So can any parallels be drawn between military supply chains and those in the business world?

“There’s a fundamental difference between military and business thinking about supply,” Stone tells SM

“Business wants to cut costs above all, and so is generally willing to accept some lack of resilience or surge capability. So just-in-time supply makes good sense. Why pay to have inventory of inputs just sitting around doing nothing? Ideally, what you need would show up just when you need it.

“The military has to plan for the worst case, and so generally wants to make sure it has extra of what it needs. It’s not facing a profit imperative, and wants to make sure it maintains resilience even if supplies are interrupted.”

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