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One month on why has Russia lost control of events in Ukraine?

Driving into work on the morning of 24th February, I turned on the radio to hear the dreadful news that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had ordered the invasion of Ukraine. My impressions at the time were that an already fragile international order had been catastrophically undermined, and I expected that Putin would yet again get away with an unprovoked and unchallenged act of aggression. I thought the Ukrainians to fight bravely, but would be overwhelmed in a matter of days, and that Moscow would complete its work in subjugating its neighbour, after its annexation of the Crimea and its instigation of a proxy war in the Donbas eight years previously.

The escalation of Russia’s war against Ukraine has caused a major humanitarian crisis, with 4.1 million refugees fleeing the country, compounded the devastation caused by the indiscriminate bombing and shelling of cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol by the Russian armed forces. The global economic impact of an attack on Europe’s breadbasket is also likely to be grave. Yet over 40 days after Putin launched his ‘special military operation’ Kyiv remains unconquered, Russia’s offensive across all fronts has stalled, and an army that Russia’s President once boasted could conquer not only Ukraine’s capital – but also Poland’s, Estonia’s, Latvia’s, Lithuania’s and Romania’s – in forty-eight hours has received a bloody nose. Ukraine’s air force and air defences have survived and remain combat-effective, and its ground forces are liberating lost territory. For the first time in his Presidency Putin has launched a war, but lost control of the course of events. My aim with this post is to summarise the reasons why.

Firstly, the scope of Russia’s invasion was vastly over-ambitious. Rather than (say) seeking to consolidate the annexations of 2014 by launching an assault in the South-East to connect Crimea with the Donbas, Moscow resorted to an all-out onslaught which seemed based on the presumption that the Ukrainian government and military would swiftly collapse, leaving Russia’s army and Rosgvardia paramilitaries with the simple task of mopping up and establishing a puppet regime. Reckless gambles such as the airborne assault on Hostomel on the first day appear to have been based on the presumption that subjugating Ukraine would be a cakewalk, and both the ferocity and the extent of Ukrainian resistance has taken the Russians by surprise. Russia’s Ministry of Defence has been very cadgy about admitting combat losses, but subsequent studies of the war may well reveal significant lossesto the VDV (airborne) and spetsnaz units that constitute the Russian military elite.

Secondly, a military operation on this scale requires a unified and coherent command structure, yet the US Department of Defense has publicly stated that it cannot identify the overall Russian commander responsible for overseeing the invasion of Ukraine. Given the origins in Soviet military thinking of operational art and the operational level of war this suggests an astounding failure by the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to ensure that basic principles of the management of war are being applied. Without a central point of control, military operations becomes a disjointed set of tactical actions conducted by land, maritime and air forces. It is difficult to explain the absence of coherent command over the war in Ukraine given the apparent lessons Russia’s Ministry of Defence has learned from previous conflicts; what is significant is that this dysfunctional command structure exists.

Thirdly, there is a stark difference between pre-war assessments of Russian military power and its battlefield performance. It is important to note that prior to February 2022 specialists on Russia’s armed forces did warn about overblown press assessmentsdrawn from a superficial observation of their military exercises, while other military commentators did draw attention to Russian logistical weaknesses and also the flaws in its Battalion Tactical Group structure. The current debacle in Ukraine is also a reminder that doctrinal pronouncements, high-profile weapons procurement decisions and flashy propaganda videos are no test of a military’s ability (or otherwise) to fight, and that this can only be tested in war. Readers with long memories will perhaps recall sombre announcements in late 1990 that the fourth-largest army in the world would inflict heavy losses on US and coalition forces involved in Operation Desert Storm. Recent operations in Ukraine have likewise demonstrated the failure of Russian military reforms, and an inability to professionalise a force that still relies largely on ill-trained and poorly-motivated conscripts. The ugly side of this failure can, however, also be seen with the widespread reports of looting, rape and murder of Ukrainian civilians, which testifies not only to the brutality of Russia’s war effort and the viciousness of Moscow’s anti-Ukrainian propaganda, but also the indiscipline of its draftees.

These weaknesses require an enemy to exploit them. Ukrainian servicemen and volunteer fighters have waged both a courageous and a skilful defence, which is the result of eight years both of military reform but also preparation and training for a Russian invasion, aided by US, British, Canadian and other NATO training missions. Territorial defence may appear a superficially straightforward mission, but even with a nation in arms bound by strong political cohesion defenders face hard choices in deciding operational priorities and in determining which enemy axis of advance should be prioritised, a task which becomes far harder when the aggressor has the strategic initiative in deciding when to launch his attack. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is deservedly the face of his country’s moral leadership, but future histories of the war may well focus on the professional judgement of its military command, particularly its overall chief, General Valeri Zaluzhnyi.

In summary, it is important to emphasise that the war is not over. Putin’s ego may lead to escalation, and a potential nuclear crisis with NATO. Russia’s armed forces still have the ability to inflict massive destruction by air and artillery bombardment, and can intensify their indiscriminate attacks on Ukraine’s cities. The collective will of the Western powers in imposing sanctions on Russia while arming and sustaining Ukraine’s war effort may fade, with political leaders in Europe growing more concerned with domestic energy prices than a war to the East, or a resurgence of Trumpism in the USA. But the first round of this war has gone to Kyiv rather than Moscow. Russia, Ukraine, and the international community as a whole are for the first time faced with consequences of Putin’s own failures as a strategist. 

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