In Ukraine, a Bad Miscalculation and a Heroic Defense

The Russian offensive has not succeeded as Putin expected: The invading forces have suffered considerable losses, and their goal remains out of reach

Ukrainian soldiers on Saturday destroyed this truck belonging to a Russian commando unit that tried to advance on Kyiv. Image Credit: Laurent Van der Stockt for Le Monde/Getty Images

Despite numerous warnings from U.S. and other Western officials, a multi-pronged Russian invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 23, surprising many. People could not believe that Russia would launch a major war in Europe, although the threat had been building. It was certainly a departure from President Vladimir Putin’s more methodical approach to seizing territory using the hybrid warfare techniques that have become a Russian hallmark.

Putin seems to have underestimated the amount of force he needed to bring to bear. Several cities that were Russian first-day objectives are still holding out, but the noose is tightening. Ukrainian resistance will be tested by inevitable Russian reinforcements. The heroic nature of the resistance has stiffened the spines of Western governments, and they’ve imposed serious sanctions on Russia, including partially blocking access to the SWIFT international monetary transfer system.

For his part, Putin is showing his frustration, if not desperation, by offering peace talks in one hand and shaking his nuclear stick in the other. The Russian invasion is shaping up to be a tremendous blunder, but can Ukraine survive it as a sovereign state?

The initial attack superficially resembled the “shock and awe” strikes that have characterized the modern war handbook, with missile strikes to destroy air-defense sites and command-and-control centers to pave the way for waves of air attacks to paralyze enemy decision-making. Russia has used land-based Iskander tactical ballistic missiles, which have deadly accuracy, and sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles, which saw their operational debut in the Syrian civil war.

Losing Aircraft

Russian air attacks have involved large numbers of tactical fighter bombers and heavier strategic bombers. The Russians have hit targets across the country but especially around the capital, Kyiv. Important targets for the air attacks included Ukrainian air bases, but the persistence of Ukrainian aircraft intercepting Russian planes shows that the effort has not been entirely successful. Russian aircraft losses reportedly are significant.

The initial air and missile strikes were a prelude to a ground offensive that has struck from four points. Air and missile attacks as well as artillery fire are intensifying in support of that effort, which portend increased civilian casualties.

  • The most significant attack has been the thrust from Belarus in the north down the west bank of the Dnieper River to seize Kyiv directly. As of Sunday, this effort remains stalled outside the city, and many Russians have been killed or taken prisoner after disastrous Russian helicopter and airborne assaults, according to reports. Nevertheless, the use of Belarus as a staging area has given the Russians their best chance of taking Kyiv.
  • An attack from Russia in the northeast tried to quickly capture Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and close to the border. The invaders failed to take the city in their initial thrust, and a renewed effort Sunday remains stalemated. Kharkiv will likely fall eventually but may be the scene of urban street fighting that promises many military and civilian casualties. Russia has also advanced from its territory along the east bank of the Dnieper to close on Kyiv.
  • In the east, Russian forces backed by Russia-supporting separatists in the Donbas region have been expanding the territory they control in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, which Putin recognized as independent states on the eve of the invasion. The effort is also pushing southeast with the likely goal of establishing a land link to Russian-annexed Crimea.
  • A major Russian advance out of Crimea, supported by amphibious warfare ships, has succeeded in swallowing up much of Ukraine’s territory on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. Attacks are pushing east toward the Donbas, north up the Dnieper and west, with the likely objective of Odesa, Ukraine’s main port.

Russia’s multi-axis air, land and sea blitz on Ukraine was intended to stun the country’s leadership and armed forces into submission after only limited fighting, but this has failed. The opening salvoes of missiles launched in air attacks were anemic by U.S. standards and may represent both magical thinking by Putin and a lack of stockpiled munitions. When America hits you from the air, it lasts days or weeks.

The Making of a Hero

Perhaps most infuriatingly from Russia’s perspective, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has stood fast in his capital and seems prepared to turn Kyiv into a latter-day Bastogne, the Belgian town that was surrounded and besieged by Germans during World War II but held out for eight days. His defiant reply when the U.S. offered to evacuate him and his government—“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride”—is already the stuff of legend. And Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko, a famous heavyweight boxer, has assumed leadership of the capital’s territorial defense forces, toting a light machine gun.

Bravery is certainly admirable, and Ukraine’s armed forces have so far proven themselves to be up to the task of defending their homeland with skill and courage. However, it is unlikely that anyone will be riding to the rescue, as Patton’s army did at Bastogne. Realistically, what are the prospects for Ukraine’s defense?

Ukrainian tactics are a mix of regular and guerilla warfare. When the fighting began, the defenders used classic combined arms warfare involving artillery, mortars, infantry and armor to counter Russian mechanized forces attacking from the north. The enemy forces that did enter Kyiv were met with Molotov cocktails and rocket-propelled grenades. Numerous videos on the internet depict burning Russian armored vehicles on Kiev’s streets.

Getting Ambushed

In other places, Ukrainian forces have organized numerous ambushes, well hidden and executed with deadly effect. Many videos and pictures show roads littered with the wrecks of Russian tanks, personnel carriers, trucks and other vehicles. Javelin anti-tank missiles from the U.S. probably have been put to good use in such operations. Some of this damage has been inflicted by highly mobile small units, hitting by surprise and running away. Determined Ukrainian territorial defense units also play a major role in such actions. They take advantage of knowing the area very well, while Russian soldiers are getting lost, taking wrong turns at road crossings and sometimes running out of gas.

An important factor in how the war has unfolded is the inability of Russia to completely suppress Ukraine’s air-defense capability. Ukraine’s army includes a large number of mobile air-defense vehicles that can quickly move to another location after engaging enemy aircraft. Part of Russia’s problem is the difficulty of pinpointing well-camouflaged vehicles in wooded terrain, as NATO forces found in conducting an air war against Serbia in 1999.

A Flawed Battle Plan

Overall, Russia does not enjoy a decisive superiority in the battle for Ukraine. The opposing forces are almost equal in the manpower engaged so far, and in terms of heavy equipment Russia has an advantage of roughly 1.5 to 1. It enjoys a wider edge in airpower, reaching perhaps 2.5 to 1. This, again, demonstrates how ill-conceived Putin’s war plan is. He was hoping to topple Ukraine’s government at the outset and awe Ukraine’s armed forces into submission with a show of force.

At the same time, the war is not over. Putin will likely double down. After some reorganization and resupply, expect Russian forces to grind relentlessly forward. There will never be enough forces to occupy the whole of the country, but this was never the objective. Putin may still accomplish his goal of installing a friendly government in Kyiv that rules a compliant eastern Ukraine, with a neutralized western rump Ukraine that will never join NATO or the European Union.

The best chance Ukraine has of remaining more or less intact is to continue its courageous resistance and hope for a negotiated settlement, ideally under U.N. auspices. Even Russia’s allies are edging away, and its enemies are becoming bolder in their enthusiasm for more crippling sanctions and more military support for Ukraine. Crowds protesting the war in Russia are growing while some of Putin’s high officials are seeing the disastrous effects of his policy. The longer the war continues, the more unstable Putin’s position becomes, abroad and at home.

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