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The first hint that something was off with the initial Russian war effort came in the very first hours. As violent as the strikes looked on television, I knew they were nothing compared with the kinds of aerial and artillery campaigns that typically begin attacks on sovereign nations with intact armies, as is the case with Ukraine.
Then, as the days wore on, that sense that something was off hardened into a consensus. The initial Russian plan was a costly failure, in part because—incredibly enough—it minimized Russian strengths and maximized Russian weaknesses, apparently in service of a strategy that seems to have been predicated on terrible intelligence that underestimated the Ukrainian military and overestimated Ukrainian support for Russia. But don’t think Russia can’t or won’t change its approach. It has not lost this war, and its “victory” may be truly terrible to behold.
To understand Russia’s early missteps, consider where the Russian military is strong and where it’s weak. Its strength is defined by its firepower. The Russian military possesses an immense amount of long-range artillery. It has invested in rockets and missiles that grant it the ability to pound its opponents from a distance. During wars in Chechnya and Syria, it demonstrated the capacity and willingness to bury its enemies in rockets and bombs.
There’s a reason, for example, that Grozny, in Chechnya, was once called “the most destroyed city on earth.” The Russian military essentially obliterated the city to defeat Chechen rebels during the Second Chechen War. More recently, Russian forces in Syria have been ruthless, committing war crimes, according to the United Nations, in a largely successful scorched-earth campaign that has helped prop up the Syrian government.
Russian firepower helps mask Russian weaknesses in the training, discipline, and skill of its rank-and-file soldiers. It’s still a heavily conscript army, with soldiers drafted for a year of service. A soldier is barely competent after a year of training. Moreover, while elite Russian units do exist, the average Russian-army unit isn’t on par with leading Western militaries.
Yet even highly skilled and better-equipped Western militaries would do more to shape the battlefield before directly attacking an enemy force. The U.S. military, for example, does not fling its troops at relatively intact defensive formations. Americans forget that the 100-hour ground war during Desert Storm was preceded by a weeks-long aerial campaign designed to degrade Iraq’s army. The hours before the ground attack were preceded by a thunderous artillery barrage that blanketed Iraqi positions and demoralized Iraqi troops.
We also fought aerial campaigns in the Balkans that destroyed enemy ground forces so thoroughly that no follow-up NATO ground attack was necessary for victory.
Yes, Russia launched missiles and conducted air strikes to begin the war, but the opening bombardments were obviously and transparently not enough to seriously damage Ukraine’s ability to resist. The Russian military appears to have both conducted risky airborne operations deep behind enemy lines and hurled its poorly trained troops right into the teeth of Ukrainian defenses without truly trying to break them first. That’s why I thought something was off in the initial attack. Terrifying though it was, it was nothing like what it could have been.
Compounding the tactical error, Russia divided its forces, striking a very large European country from multiple directions at once, with no one single striking force possessing the ability to decisively punch through Ukrainian defenses in the opening days.
Why would Russia do this? We likely won’t know the answer for some time, but the most probable reason is the simplest—a catastrophic intelligence failure. Russia seems to have believed that Ukraine would collapse. It didn’t begin its invasion with a truly intense aerial or artillery bombardment because it didn’t think that would be necessary. Why destroy a city you intend to almost immediately control? Why risk inflaming Ukrainian (and world) opinion when you’d be presenting the international community with a fait accompli—something like the Crimean takeover, except on a national scale?
But for all of the stories of Russian failure, here is the very bad news: Russia will far more likely respond to battlefield setbacks the way it traditionally has—with overwhelming firepower—than by seeking peace. The history of warfare (including the history of Russian warfare) is replete with examples of early failures and terrible command decisions. But armies tend to be learning organisms. If the fight doesn’t go as they expect, they adjust tactics.
Indeed, as much as Ukrainian resistance has inspired the West, it’s hard to believe that a few days of fighting have chastened Russia or deterred President Vladimir Putin. Much more likely is that he believes he has no choice but to press on to victory. To preserve his power, he has to win. Prediction is a dangerous business, but the likelihood now is that Putin will step on the gas and increase the violence and intensity of his attack. The possibility that he’ll halt his forces in place—to say nothing of retreating from Ukrainian territory—is far slimmer.
Putin can still lose by winning. In other words, the cost of his likely battlefield victory could be so great that it ultimately diminishes Russian power or even destabilizes his regime, but even so, imagining a scenario where Ukraine wins outright is difficult. NATO-supplied weapons may bleed the Russian army, but they seem unlikely to turn the tide on the battlefield. One can hope that the combination of Ukrainian courage, NATO weapons, and low Russian morale can turn the tide, but the odds against Ukraine are long.
Indeed, we don’t possess a great deal of information about Ukrainian casualties and equipment losses. We don’t know how much longer it can go toe-to-toe with Russian invaders. Russia is still a much stronger nation. It still possesses immense firepower. It can choose to go “full Grozny” and turn Ukrainian cities into the most destroyed cities on Earth.
Yes, that would further galvanize world opinion against Putin, but he’s already isolated. He’s already sanctioned, and the Russian economy is already “reeling.” Moreover, it’s still early in the conflict. If the Russians ultimately break through, seize Kyiv, and kill or capture Ukrainian leaders, hope will give way to despair, the people of Ukraine will pay a terrifying price, and true independence will once again be a distant dream.
This is not a movie. There is no script that gives the underdog the victory in the end. NATO’s renewed solidarity is of limited benefit to Ukrainians under fire in Kyiv. Germany’s increased defense budget does absolutely nothing to destroy the miles-long Russian armored convoys now inching down Ukrainian roads.
The West has woken up. NATO is united. Russia has already been made to pay for its aggression. But its army is still in Ukraine, grabbing more territory every day. It may learn from its mistakes, growing more aggressive to both destroy the Ukrainian resistance and deter additional foreign interference in the fight. If Russia does ultimately break Ukraine, the first flush of hope is likely to be forgotten amid the ashes of defeat.