Russia’s path to victory in Ukraine has been blocked by angry civiliansits broken down tanks dragged (and mocked) by farmers in tractors, his soldiers targeted by a surprisingly successful Ukrainian resistance.
But a month after the invasion, it seems that Russia’s worst enemies have been its own: overconfidence and lack of preparation.
The Russian invasion devastated major cities and drove more than 10 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations, and thousands of civilians are believed to have died. And yet, Ukraine has not fallen.
“Political goals and unrealistic timetables have led to a [Russian military] strategy,” tweeted Russian expert Michael Kofman, while think tanks and military observers conclude that Ukrainian forces “defeated the first Russian campaign of this war”.
How could the West have been so wrong about Russia?
Errors based in part on misinformation: analyst
“The history of warfare is full of big players getting their ass kicked,” said Stephen Saideman of Carleton University, director of the Canadian Defense and Security Network.
Saideman points to the mistakes Putin made, based in part on misinformation passed to him.
Putin is sitting in the Kremlin, bitterly denounce Russian “traitors” and would have issue arrest orders for spy leaders tasked with providing intelligence prior to the invasion. On Wednesday, it was announced that one of Putin’s top aides, Anatoly Chubais, had resigned.
At a rally in support of Russian forces last week, Putin recited Orthodox scriptures and looked back on 18th century military victories. The storms of war “will contribute to the glory of Russia”, he told the crowd at the Moscow stadium.
“He was led to believe that the Ukrainians would fall back immediately,” Saideman said, adding that he suspects no one dared to tell him Russian forces would not prevail. “It is very difficult for authoritarian regimes to assess themselves because there is a culture of lies and a lack of accountability because there are serious consequences to disappointing Putin.”
This seems to have taken a toll on morale right down to the troops in the field, who were at first tricked into thinking their mission was just a training mission.
“We didn’t really think we were going to enter Ukrainian territory”
“We were told that we would have joint exercises in Belarus. That’s all,” said Dmitry Astakhov, a lieutenant colonel with a Russian police rapid deployment force. He spoke to the media earlier in March after being captured. “We didn’t really think we were going to enter Ukrainian territory.”
“The Russian command did not trust the Russian soldiers, and their will to fight against the Ukrainians”, concludes Konrad Muzyka. He is a military analyst at Rochan Consulting based in Poland. “The Russians see the Ukrainians as their brothers and find it difficult to fight them.”
So far, around 200,000 Russian troops have been ordered in. On Wednesday, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian troops have been killed so far. That’s more than double the number of Americans killed in two decades of fighting in Afghanistan.
A previous report in the Russian pro-Putin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda, 9,861 soldiers died and 16,153 were injured. These figures were quickly suppressed, as Moscow attempted to present the invasion as a Russian success.
Throughout Ukraine there are numerous local reports of Russian soldiers simply walking away from their tanks and armored vehicles. Military analysts like Patrick Fox have also noticed an unusual number of high-ranking Russian officers – including brigadier generals – leading from the field when they would normally be in remote command posts.
That suggests they aren’t confident their troops are properly trained or motivated enough to fight, said Fox, a US Air Force veteran. “They say, ‘OK, I’m literally going to stand over my brigade commanders’ shoulder and I’m going to explain to his people how to do this’.”
At least four of those generals were killed by Ukrainian forces, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A member of his entourage told the the wall street journal Ukraine has a team dedicated to tracking down and targeting senior Russian officers, using equipment and intelligence provided by NATO.
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Equipment, coordination challenges
For Russia, equipment has been a challenge. Tanks and trucks have broken-down, apparently due to poor maintenance. And the logistics of resupplying his force were “absolutely terrible,” Fox said.
“We see things falling apart,” Fox said. “Their troops aren’t eating, they’re running out of ammunition. They’re running out of gas, and then they abandon vehicles.”
All of this points to invaders who “didn’t really prepare for a long war,” Muzyka said.
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Perhaps most baffling to military analysts is Russia’s apparent inability to coordinate its forces. Tanks were target by Ukrainian soldiers using shoulder-fired missiles, with no Russian ground troops to protect them. Blocked convoys, such as the one which have stretched more than 60 kilometers outside kyiv for more than a week, are particularly vulnerable to ambushes.
“Their combined arms capability, which is crucial in any modern warfare, is much less robust than we thought to carry out this type of operation,” Fox said.
Much of the communication and coordination was done via cell phones or easy-to-monitor unencrypted transmissions that were routinely intercepted by Ukrainian forces, foreign intelligence agencies, and even amateurs. shortwave radio operators.
Air power was also lacking. Analysts like Muzyka speculated that Russia would start the invasion by annihilating the Ukrainian fighter fleet and its air defenses to give Moscow a clear field to protect its ground forces and launch attacks at will. This was not the case.
“Russia and the Soviet Union have always prided themselves on having a very robust air capability. And what we see now is complete opposite,” Muzyka said. “I have no idea why this is happening.”
Weeks after the invasion, the US Pentagon says Ukraine still has a significant portion of its own air defense system and the space above the country remains “contested”. Russian helicopters made spectacular catches direct hitsproviding Ukraine with useful propaganda.
Many fear further escalation to come
Some Western analysts have warned against delisting the larger and traditionally stronger Russian military, saying this war is far from over and expecting the Kremlin to learn from its early mistakes. They point to similar Russian tactics in Chechnya and Syria, where long, dogged campaigns razed towns and ultimately succeeded – albeit at high human cost.
But from what we know of its performance in Ukraine so far, Russia’s conventional war machine appears to have stumbled, falling short of the expected image of a superpower.
Many fear that in desperation, Putin may turn to more drastic measures. He has done this before, killing civilians with inaccurate bombardments when his forces cannot defeat military targets in broken cities like Mariupol.
WATCH | Could Russia use chemical weapons in Ukraine? ‘They are able:’
An escalation to far more gruesome nuclear alternatives is also to be feared. noted is “within the realm of the possible”.
Chemical weapons would be even more likely “if [Russian forces] meet serious resistance in cities like Kyiv,” Fox said. This approach would be used to demoralize the population, while causing massive casualties.
“We’re going to end up here with a weakened Russia,” said Paul Maddison, Canada’s former high commissioner to Australia and now director of the UNSW Defense Research Institute. “And that will lead us into dangerous times.”
He sees Putin as relishing the role of ‘disruptor’ – especially now that his reputation as a warrior is in question.