End of the beginning: A week of war in Ukraine

BEHIND THE LINES: So it is far too soon to draw any but the most preliminary observations. 

 A MAN walks past destroyed military vehicles in the Kyiv region on March 1. (photo credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)
A MAN walks past destroyed military vehicles in the Kyiv region on March 1.
(photo credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko/Reuters)

A week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that the progress of Moscow’s forces has been significantly slower than Russian commanders had expected. A number of factors appear to account for this. The three most significant elements are: firstly, technical difficulties and the employment of inadequate initial tactics by the Russian forces; secondly, Russia underestimating of the enemy, and the unexpected scale and intensity of Ukrainian resistance; and thirdly, the overly ambitious goals relative to the means available of the initial Russian assault. This last element may relate also to the background of the Russian leader, and his resulting preferred modus operandi.

Before considering each of these elements, a caution: the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not turned into a fiasco, and in fact, Moscow’s forces have made some progress. The advance has not yet penetrated the major cities, but a glance at the map shows that a crescent of de facto Russian control now extends along the border from Mykolaiv and Kherson in the south, along the breakaway “republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk, and then northward to the areas surrounding the crucial cities of Kharkiv and Kyiv. 

It is only a week into the war, and no international diplomatic or military means are in sight to call a halt to the fighting. So it is far too soon to draw any but the most preliminary observations. 

Nevertheless, Russian forces have without doubt experienced notable difficulties. Some 50-60% of the force that Putin assembled around Ukraine’s borders has now been deployed in Ukraine. A week into the war, Ukrainian air defenses remain operational. Kyiv claims to have shot down 14 fixed wing aircraft and eight helicopters. Among the fixed wing aircraft were two IL-76 transporters, carrying Russian paratroopers. Western observers were astonished at the recklessness with which these craft were employed, given the absence of air superiority. 

On the ground, meanwhile, many observers have noted widespread shortages of fuel experienced by Russian mechanized units, testifying to inadequate logistical preparation. On occasion, as in the Chernihiv area this week, Russian units were forced to halt their progress because of this lack of fuel. There have been (unverified) reports also of Russian units deliberately emptying their vehicles of fuel so as to avoid advancing.

 A local resident paints anti-tank obstacles built to defend the city, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Uzhhorod, Ukraine February 27, 2022. The inscription reads: ''Uzhhorod'' (credit: Serhii Hudak/Reuters) A local resident paints anti-tank obstacles built to defend the city, after Russia launched a massive military operation against Ukraine, in Uzhhorod, Ukraine February 27, 2022. The inscription reads: ''Uzhhorod'' (credit: Serhii Hudak/Reuters)

Alexander Grinberg, a Moscow-born former officer of IDF Military Intelligence, noted in conversation with this writer a “chronic lack of professionalism and equipment in the ranks of the Russian military.”

Grinberg added that “maybe due to the rampant corruption but also due to other reasons, the bulk of the Russian units in Ukraine lack military radios and use cell phones instead, which makes them interceptable. One can speculate about the initial goals and planning of the war, yet it is clear that the military neither expected a fight of such intensity nor modernized the units.” 

THE SKILLED and determined employment by the Ukrainians of US-supplied Javelin anti-tank rockets have reaped a significant toll on Russian tanks and other armored vehicles. Logistical problems appear to be exacerbated by inadequate tactics. A number of reports describe the entry of Russian tanks into built-up areas unaccompanied by either mounted or dismounted infantry. Such recklessness has made the task of the defenders easier in destroying Russian armor. (Again, a caveat: the Russian lead elements have not been stopped; they have advanced, but at a slower pace and a higher cost than anticipated, and not into the main urban areas.) 

These Russian difficulties clearly derive from an underestimation, or perhaps better a misinterpretation of the Ukrainian enemy. Moscow evidently anticipated that the going would be easier, removing the need for appropriate caution in both the air and on the ground. 

From what might such faulty analysis derive? In this regard, it is worth listening again to President Vladimir Putin’s speech of Wednesday, February 23, on the eve of the operation. The speech reflects not just the Russian leader’s own prejudices. It is a distillation of a commonly heard Russian perspective on the very notion of a separate Ukrainian nationhood. Putin described the current situation of Ukraine as that of a “colony, with a puppet regime.” He dismissed the notion of a separate Ukrainian historical identity, claiming that, “since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians.”

Such views are not the personal invention of the Russian president. Rather, they are supported both by the ideological writings of the writers that he reportedly favors, such figures as Ivan Ilyin and Alexander Dugin, and more importantly by a common and dominant perception among many Russians that Ukrainian nationhood is a kind of pretense.

In this view, Ukrainians are a familiar, even likeable presence, with an appropriately modest place in the scheme of things. From this perception, the notion of a Ukrainian bid for independence and sovereignty contains a somewhat comic element. Ukrainians are seen as misguided brothers, who if necessarily must be firmly brought back into the fold. 

This perspective may well have led to an erroneous assumption that resistance to the Russian invaders would be brief, and cursory.

THE CONSEQUENT underestimation of the challenge appears to have produced over-confident and inadequate planning, and poor preparation on the part of the Russians. Observation of the initial methods used to try to grab a foothold in the cities reflects an additional element in the Russian leader’s personal make-up. Namely, his background in intelligence and clandestine methods, and his greater familiarity with these than with conventional military tactics. 

In a February 27 tweet, Kamil Galeev, a Russian researcher and journalist, insightfully focused on the Russian president’s description of the Ukraine invasion as a “special operation.” Galeev continued that Putin’s “declaration of ‘special operation’ in Ukraine is sincere, because he didn’t expect the war. He doesn’t know how to do wars. For all of his life he’s been organizing and launching the special operations.”

In this regard, it is worth remembering that in the first two days of the war, the Russians attempted a lightning airborne assault on the strategic Antonov airport outside Kyiv, with the intention that it should be held as a “bridge” to allow the arrival of further forces for a rapid assault on the Ukrainian capital. 

Contrary to Russian expectations, Ukrainian troops rallied and the Russian force was surrounded and destroyed. Similarly, Kyiv completed a 36-hour hard curfew on Monday morning, following indications that elements associated with the Wagner military company had entered Kyiv, with the intention of carrying out assassinations of Ukrainian leaders and, presumably, spreading fear and chaos in the Ukrainian capital. No such assassinations have yet occurred.

So where are things headed? The enemy was underestimated, early attempts at lightning victory have clearly failed, though some progress has been made. Ukrainian defenses have not collapsed, and the state has not been decapitated, yet, by “special methods.” What will happen next?

Clearly, the Russian leadership has no intention of folding. Putin’s alerting of nuclear deterrent forces on Sunday seems designed to alarm the West and deter increased assistance to Ukraine. As to what will follow; predictions are a fool’s errand in this context. But Russian military history is replete with examples of initial fumbling and errors. These – Finland, Chechnya – were later “rectified” by the application of overwhelming force, often centering around the use of heavy artillery. 

If Putin indeed intends, as it appears he does, to take the large cities of eastern Ukraine, the war is still far from its peak of intensity.