By Derek Bisaccio, former FI International Military Markets – Eurasia analyst and guest blogger.
In the morning hours of February 24, Russia launched a “special operation” in Ukraine, carrying out an assault on the country from the north, northeast, east, and south. Russia’s forces – particularly if augmented by the participation of Belarus – are numerically superior to Ukraine’s, and the Russian military fields a wider quantity and variety of modern weapons. War rarely plays out in reality as it does in a tabletop simulation, but the advantage clearly tilts in Moscow’s favor, especially as Ukraine is fighting the Russian military alone.
Even so, the Russian advance has been slow. A week into the invasion, Russian troops advanced into the first major Ukrainian city, Kherson, located northwest of the Crimean peninsula along the Dnieper River. But Kiev, the capital, remains in the Ukrainian government’s control. Casualty figures are at this stage unverifiable and both combatants have a reason to embellish the other’s losses, but it is likely that the Russian military has faced significant casualties, judging from the large number of armor, artillery, trucks, and aircraft that can be confirmed as destroyed.
There are several reasons why the Russian advance has been slower than would have been expected, starting with its own side. The U.S., which has publicly shared a large amount of intelligence, issued a press release on Tuesday pointing to “a logistics breakdown with vehicles running out of fuel and troops running out of food.” Much anecdotal evidence shared on Telegram and other social media websites backs up that assessment. Logistic challenges, especially early in a war, are not uncommon and not necessarily fatal to an operation, as Ryan Baker pointed out in The Washington Post, but have proved costly in terms of manpower and morale.
Moreover, the Russian leadership appears to have badly underestimated the willingness and capacity of the Ukrainian military to fight, rather than capitulate, as numerous Russia experts told Defense One. The Russian military possesses strong electronic warfare capabilities, but appears not to have deployed them to the extent it could have to support a ground war. Ditto for the Russian Air Force, which “has largely been sitting on the sidelines,” Michael Kofman, a Russia expert with CNA, told Defense One. As a result, the Ukrainian Air Force has persevered, giving rise to stories about mythical Ukrainian pilots that, while probably untrue or highly exaggerated, have nevertheless emboldened Ukraine’s defenders.
This is also not the same Ukrainian military of a few years ago. In the wake of the events of 2014, Ukraine’s military has undergone a significant amount of change, represented best by the expansion of its defense budget from under 20 billion hryvnia in that year to well over 100 billion hryvnia heading into the 2020s. Plenty of that money has gone to personnel expenses, but a rising share of the budget was devoted to procurement of new military equipment and overhaul of existing inventories. Kiev began purchasing Javelin missiles from the U.S. in 2018, but also pursued production of its own anti-tank weapons. Aspirations to field the T-84 Oplot main battle tank in large numbers were shelved in favor of upgrading the Army’s T-64s. Most notably, beginning with President Petro Poroshenko and continuing under his successor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine purchased Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2, an unmanned combat aerial vehicle whose value to the Ukrainian war effort has been clearly documented.
After years of war with the separatists in the east, many Ukrainian servicemembers and veterans have combat experience, earned through conventional warfare with Russia and its proxies. Fighting a defensive war is a powerful motivator – as is the sight of the country’s leaders on the streets – and many Ukrainians have sought to join the military or fight as partisans against the Russian military. Besides making this stage of the war effort more painful for Russia, the involvement of Ukrainian partisans also is a warning about what the Russian military would face should it seek to occupy Ukraine following conquest.
While Kiev and Moscow have begun some dialogue on diplomatic resolution, both Russia and Ukraine are, at this point, expecting that the other will fold. Absent a longer battle, neither can be expected to make significant concessions. Russia, with its military superiority, expects that Ukraine can only hold out for so long before the resistance crumbles, paving the way for Russia to topple President Zelenskiy and replace his government with one favorable to Russian interests. A new status quo resulting in a reformed Kiev, obedient to Moscow, would reject NATO and EU membership, thus securing Russia’s southwestern flank against any further encroachment of Western powers.
Ukraine is similarly angling for Russia to run out of steam, by inflicting heavy casualties on the attacking forces and relying on sanctions from Washington and Brussels to force a domestic Russian backlash against the invasion. While the Kremlin has demonstrated unwillingness to bend to popular protests in years past, it has generally done so with the help of the passivity of the Russian elite. Those oligarchs stand to lose tremendously under the new sanctions regime imposed by the West, prompting several to cautiously speak out against the war. This approach would survive in the event that Ukraine’s military is defeated (which is still a strong possibility), as Ukraine’s armed forces and partisans would resort to guerrilla warfare to bleed the Russian military or whatever puppet administration is installed in the capital.
In his March 1, 2018, address, Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the perception in Russia that the West had walked over Russian interests after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He remarked, “No one listened to us then. So listen to us now.” The statement was made all the more ominous by the content of the speech: the unveiling of a number of Russia’s newest strategic weapons projects, aimed at preserving and upgrading the Russian nuclear deterrent. His address came at the tail end of a major Russian modernization program, which supplied all branches of the military with new and modernized weapons, and several years after Russia successfully intervened in the civil war in Syria.
With his invasion of Ukraine, the first major war the revitalized Russian Army has fought, President Putin has certainly gotten the world’s attention, but thus far he has energized his opponents, rather than disheartened them. NATO no longer looks “braindead” – a term used by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 when commenting on the Alliance’s listlessness – and Ukraine has been invigorated, embroiling his troops in what could become a quagmire for the Russian military.
Whether or not he achieves a tactical success in Ukraine, Putin may have just dealt himself a more strategic setback in his long-running standoff with the West.
With a geographic purview that includes the states of the former Soviet Union as well as Afghanistan and Pakistan, Forecast International’s International Military Markets – Eurasia service covers a multifaceted security environment characterized by energy politics and conflict flashpoints. Eurasia serves as a convergence point for Russia’s assertive foreign policy, growing Chinese influence, latent Islamic fundamentalism, and U.S. and European efforts to ensure access to burgeoning energy markets. International Military Markets – Eurasia offers analytical insight into the complex geopolitical and economic realities of these emerging markets. Click here to learn more.