When Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border in a surprise attack on four attack axes on the morning of February 24, 2022, Moscow assumed that there would be little military resistance and that the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, would be quickly captured quickly, sparing the civilian population. However, it was clear that this plan would not work out as early as Day 2 of the invasion: military resistance was far greater than expected, and even important towns near the border, such as Chernihiv, Sumy, and the city of Kharkov, which has a population of over one million, could not be taken in a coup de main. Only the Crimean front in the south likely met Moscow’s expectations. Here, Kherson was captured on the 7th day in a northwesterly direction, Melitopol in an easterly direction on the 2nd day, Berdyansk on the 4th day, and Zaporizhzhya, an area with the nuclear power plant, by the 9th day. Only strategically important Mariupol, with its extensive tunnel system, held out and has been heavily contested since Day 8 of the invasion. Another unpleasant surprise for Moscow was the passivity of the Russian-speaking population in eastern and northeastern Ukraine. Even the Russian media lacks images of people greeting Russian ground troops with cheers.
A “rat’s tail” of problems
What was planned as a blitzkrieg soon turned into a siege and position war in northern and northeastern Ukraine. The consequences of the original poor planning are far-reaching and have not been resolved by Russian forces to this day. The encirclement of towns near the border ties up key Russian offensive forces and prevents them from advancing so as not to jeopardize supply routes. It is precisely this supply that forms the Achilles’ heel of the Russian operation. Assuming an early military success, there is a shortage of provisions, fuel, and ammunition. The shortages and failures also affect the fighting morale of Russian soldiers, who may not necessarily understand the reasons for the war.
In addition, there are heavy overall casualties, which the Pentagon last Wednesday put at more than 7,000 soldiers killed in action, according to the NY Times. Thus, according to the Pentagon’s assessment, Russian ground forces are on the verge of combat incapacity. This estimate was corroborated Sunday by an article in Komsomolskaya Pravda, which quoted the Russian defense minister as saying that 9,861 soldiers had been killed and 16,153 injured. However, the newspaper article was immediately deleted and portrayed as the work of hackers; it can now be accessed through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The losses are forcing Moscow to commit new troops from the Far East, Armenia, and invite Syrian mercenaries to the front.
Russia finds it difficult to adjust to Ukrainian strategy
The high losses of Russian forces are also related to Ukrainian strategy. In many cases, the Ukrainian army carries out ambush attacks. These well-trained small groups are equipped with modern Western bazooka and anti-aircraft missiles. Because they have local knowledge, they can strike from nowhere, for example, by destroying the first vehicle in a Russian convoy, forcing the remaining vehicles to stop, and then being shot down like clay pigeons. Attacks of this type disrupt already fragile Russian supplies in the hinterland and tie up additional Russian forces that must be dispatched to protect them.
There is no doubt that we are now in a phase in which the Russian armed forces are regrouping and are being reinforced with both soldiers and material. Active fighting is now mostly taking place in the Donbas, while Russia is relying on attrition, air strikes, and long-range sea-launched missiles. However, the period of relative calm also benefits Ukraine, which continues to be equipped with Western weapons to maintain its guerrilla strategy and even go on the offensive.
There are several possibilities for future developments:
(1) A negotiated settlement
This will only come into serious play if both sides see no real advantage in a military solution. Moreover, any solution would also have to allow Vladimir Putin to save face. After all, Putin’s personal political fate is already too closely tied to the outcome of his Ukraine adventure. But even a compromise with Ukraine would not banish the danger for Putin: The U.S. could tie the lifting of sanctions to coming to terms with war crimes committed and to reparation payments, thus pulling the Russian bear through the diplomatic grinder.
(2) A Russian victory on the battlefield
In the current situation, Putin is unlikely to agree to such an uncertain peace while he still has a chance of military success. It should not be forgotten that Kiev – despite the withdrawal of Russian forces on Wednesday by 15 to 20 kilometers northwest of the city – is within range of Russian guns. Moreover, Russia could still capture Mykolaiv on the Crimean front. The seizure of Izyum could also encircle the last Ukrainian-held areas of Donetsk oblast, and the taking of Mariupol in Luhansk oblast would release offensive forces that could be directed against the heavily fortified Kryvyy Rih or landward against the strategically important port city of Odessa, off whose coast Russian amphibious assault ships have been located since the tenth day of the invasion.
Putin could also be aided by the intervention of Belarusian units, which could invade northern Ukraine if Alexander Lukashenko sees his future chances dwindle with Putin’s failure. This would hit Western supplies in particular.
(3) A Ukrainian victory on the battlefield
However, Russia’s glaring military weakness could also encourage Ukraine to drive the Russians out on its own. This can probably happen selectively, as in Irpin and Makariv on Wednesday, but is hardly conceivable on a large scale at the moment.
(4) A protracted stalemate
This brings the two most likely variants into play. Russian forces will fully conquer both Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts and also take Mariupol. The battle for Odessa could still follow. Beyond that, Moscow will likely play for time and strengthen its influence in Ukraine’s majority Russian-speaking areas through referendums and the creation of more “people’s republics.” However, rebuilding the destroyed cities will be beyond Russia’s capabilities.
(5) Vladimir Putin is ousted or resigns
Finally, things are getting quieter in the circle of power around Vladimir Putin. In addition to replacing high-ranking military and intelligence officials, longtime adviser Anatoly Chubais is reportedly already out of the country. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Russian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov have not been seen in public since March 11. A collapse of Putin’s power is thus conceivable in the medium term because it is also questionable to what extent the general staff will follow him.
It is probably premature to speak of a collapse of the Russian armed forces at this stage. We are currently in a phase of buildup and redeployment of Russian troops. Moscow is also unlikely to accept a peace settlement now, especially since the U.S. and Western states are not offering Russia a face-saving solution. However, as the Ukraine war develops, one thing is clear: With the “Ukraine adventure,” chess player Vladimir Putin has gambled away his political future and the reputation of the Russian military – with far-reaching geopolitical consequences.
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