Russian President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmingly more firepower, manpower, naval supremacy and favorable geography than Ukraine. So the world has been shocked that he has failed to demonstrate military dominance in the first few days of his invasion of Ukraine. The Russian military has not only performed more poorly than expected, but it has made blunders that have been ably exploited by Ukraine’s defenders and the steadfast leadership exhibited by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Ironically, Putin’s months of gaslighting the world by scornfully denying his preparations to invade Ukraine appear to have backfired by convincing his own people all too well.
Why has Russia’s initial advance into Ukraine been so chaotic? It appears Putin and his military planners believed their own propaganda that Ukraine’s Russian-speaking citizens were begging for them to use force to liberate them from their “Nazi” government, while discounting the willingness and ability of Ukrainians to fight back.
Thus they thought they could repeat their mostly bloodless seizure of Crimea in 2014, in which disguised commandos captured the peninsula and confiscated most of the military hardware, including nearly the entire Ukrainian navy, while facing limited resistance from stunned Ukrainians. Likewise, the apparent Russian war plan in 2022 emphasized speed and shock to try to quickly capture Kyiv and compel the surrender of the Ukrainian government before too much collateral damage turned public opinion in Ukraine and abroad decisively against Russia.
Since Putin seemed to want to effect regime change in Kyiv without alienating too many of the Ukrainians who would be governed by his puppet president, he jettisoned the established doctrine that emphasizes slowly and methodically using reconnaissance and long-distance bombardment to destroy enemies from afar. Instead, many Russian ground units raced toward Kyiv pell-mell, only to get lost, run out of fuel, stumble into deadly ambushes or find themselves blocked by human barricades of Ukrainian civilians.
The relatively lightly armored Russian advance forces — including paratroopers, special forces and disguised infiltrators ill-suited to storm a city without support — were in position to try to seize key objectives around Kyiv in the first few days. But when they recklessly tried to rush the well-defended cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Kyiv, they were beaten back with heavy losses. Quite simply, the Ukrainians were prepared to defend these places tooth and nail, not evaporate at the slightest pressure.
Meanwhile, some mid-sized cities — like Kherson, Sumy and Nova Kakhovka — were initially overrun by Russian forces, only to have been at least temporarily retaken by Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainians were helped by Russian planning that left inadequate forces and supplies to hold the cities, suggesting that Putin was counting on decapitating the government in the first few days and thus not concerned with having enough troops to guard the rear and maintain supply lines. That made them vulnerable to resilient local Ukrainian formations that regrouped and counterattacked after losing ground rather than breaking into uncontrolled retreat.
In the air, against all expectations, Ukraine’s air force has survived, and its warplanes and drones are harrying Russian troops and helicopters despite being grossly outgunned. The fact that the force is still flying and fighting against such an adversary is extraordinary, though it’s been aided by the fact that Russia’s huge air force has been bizarrely missing in action in many places after the initial strike.
And ironically, Putin’s months of gaslighting the world by scornfully denying his preparations to invade Ukraine appear to have backfired by convincing his own people all too well. Now many aren’t sold on the war. While Ukrainians are fighting to defend their independence, half-heartedness among Russian soldiers may partially explain the unusually large numbers of vehicles they’ve abandoned and the rate at which they’ve been captured.
But the good news is not the complete picture. Unfortunately, Putin’s criminal war upon Ukraine is likely entering a new, even grimmer phase in the coming days — even hours. While Ukrainian perseverance may warm hearts, we can’t delude ourselves that this remains anything but a highly unequal struggle certain to cost thousands of lives, many of them civilian. And it’s one that could still end with some or all of Ukraine indefinitely occupied by Russian forces and governed by a puppet regime.
For starters, initially only just over half of the Russian forces surrounding Ukraine had been committed to the fight in the first four days. Furthermore, Russia’s Crimea-based forces in the south have broken through Ukrainian defenses and are now threatening to cut off eastern Ukraine from the west.
At this moment, a massive 40-mile column of Russian armor, artillery and infantry is winding its way to encircle western Kyiv (albeit slower than expected due to fuel shortages) at the same time other forces approach from its eastern side. Thus, barring an unanticipated early termination of hostilities, it looks inevitable that at least three large metropolises — Kharkiv, Mariupol and, above all, Kyiv — will be cut off from external support and heavily besieged.
And as it becomes clear that Putin’s assumptions about Ukraine were wildly optimistic, Russia is likely to start to mimic the actions it took in Chechnya and Syria rather than Crimea.
The urban warfare tactics developed by Russia’s military in the Second Chechen War involve slowly creeping troops on foot forward until resistance is encountered and leveling the relevant city blocks with tank shells, air strikes and massive artillery bombardments.
And if Russia repeats the “kneel-or-starve” tactics it used bombarding rebel-held cities in Syria, it may begin deliberately attacking civilian targets such as hospitals, bakeries and water pumping facilities, hoping to flush out civilians it perceives as supporting any resistance.
To support such tactics, Russia has deployed multiple-rocket launcher systems that scatter hundreds of cluster bomblets over a broad area and TOS-1A armored vehicles that can launch thermobaric munitions, which can suck air out of lungs and crush everything within dozens of meters of the area of impact.
As of Monday, it was already evident that Russia’s military was reverting to traditional methods of massed, indiscriminate bombardment. Ukrainian cities may still hold for days or weeks and cause heavy Russian casualties, but without external supply lines, they cannot do so forever. And it’s unclear whether Ukraine can effectively shift its forces and mount counterattacks from western Ukraine.
The situation is not hopeless, as Russia has come under unprecedented international pressure for the ill-judged aggression, including sanctions strong enough to cripple the economy. That means Putin must beat the clock to show “progress” in his war lest domestic support collapse and put him at risk of a palace coup.
Even if Russia’s nuclear arsenal makes direct military intervention prohibitively risky for the outside world, it can still help to reinforce Ukraine. Humanitarian aid may alleviate starvation and provide lifesaving medical care in besieged areas. Arms transfers and body armor could help Ukraine continue to resist Russia’s many armored vehicles and low-flying helicopters.
But no one should fool themselves: There remains every reason to fear that the worst has yet to come. In the long run, Russia may struggle to sustain a brutal occupation of Ukraine. But if the country manages to prevent that occupation from occurring in the first place, it will likely only have been after enduring horrific attacks and terrible sacrifices.