War in Ukraine: lessons learned a month later
When Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border in a surprise attack on four axes of attack on the morning of February 24, 2022, Moscow assumed that there would be little military resistance and that the Ukrainian capital, kyiv, would be quickly captured quickly, sparing the civilian population. However, it was clear that this plan would not work from the second day of the invasion: the military resistance was much greater than expected, and even important cities near the border, such as Chernihiv, Sumy and the city of Kharkov , which has more than a million inhabitants, could not be taken out of hand. Only the Crimean front in the south probably met Moscow’s expectations. Here Kherson was captured on the 7th day heading northwest, Melitopol heading east on the 2nd day, Berdyansk on the 4th day, and Zaporizhzhya, an area with the nuclear power plant, on the 9th day. Only the strategically important Mariupol, with its extensive tunnel system, held out and was heavily contested since the eighth day of the invasion. Another unpleasant surprise for Moscow was the passivity of the Russian-speaking population in the east and north-east of Ukraine. Even the Russian media lacks images of people saluting Russian ground troops with cheers.
A “rat tail” of problems
What was planned as a blitzkrieg quickly turned into siege and positional warfare in northern and northeastern Ukraine. The consequences of the initial poor planning are far-reaching and have not been resolved by Russian forces to date. The encirclement of towns near the border immobilizes the main Russian offensive forces and prevents them from advancing so as not to compromise the supply routes. It is precisely this supply that constitutes the Achilles heel of the Russian operation. Assuming rapid military success, there is a shortage of provisions, fuel and ammunition. Shortages and failures also affect the combat morale of Russian soldiers, who do not necessarily understand the reasons for the war.
Additionally, there are heavy overall casualties, which the Pentagon estimated last Wednesday at more than 7,000 soldiers killed in action, according to the NY Times. Thus, according to the Pentagon’s assessment, the Russian ground forces are on the verge of combat incapacitation. This estimate was corroborated on Sunday by an article by Komsomolskaya Pravda, which quoted the Russian Defense Minister as saying that 9,861 soldiers had been killed and 16,153 wounded. However, the newspaper article was immediately deleted and presented as the work of hackers; it is now accessible through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. The losses force Moscow to send new troops from the Far East, from Armenia, and to invite Syrian mercenaries to the front.
Russia struggles to adapt to Ukrainian strategy
The high losses of the Russian forces are also linked to the Ukrainian strategy. In many cases, the Ukrainian army carries out ambushes. These small, well-trained groups are equipped with modern Western bazookas and anti-aircraft missiles. Because they have local knowledge, they can strike out of nowhere, such as destroying the first vehicle in a Russian convoy, forcing the remaining vehicles to stop, and then getting shot down like clay pigeons . Such attacks disrupt already fragile Russian supplies in the hinterland and tie up additional Russian forces that must be sent to protect them.
There is no doubt that we are now in a phase where the Russian armed forces are regrouping and strengthening themselves in soldiers and equipment. Active fighting is now mainly in the Donbass, while Russia relies on attrition, airstrikes and long-range sea-launched missiles. However, the period of relative calm also benefits Ukraine, which continues to equip itself with Western weapons to maintain its guerrilla strategy and even go on the offensive.
Several possibilities for future developments are available to you:
(1) A Negotiated Settlement
This will only seriously come into play if both sides see no real benefit in a military solution. Moreover, any solution should also allow Vladimir Putin to save face. After all, Putin’s personal political destiny is already too closely tied to the outcome of his adventure in Ukraine. But even a compromise with Ukraine would not banish the danger for Putin: the United States could link the lifting of sanctions to the resolution of war crimes committed and the payment of reparations, thus pulling the Russian bear into the diplomatic mill. .
(2) A Russian Victory on the Battlefield
In the current situation, Putin is unlikely to accept such an uncertain peace when he still has a chance of military success. It should not be forgotten that kyiv – despite the withdrawal of Russian forces on Wednesday from 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 capture of Izyum could also encircle the last Ukrainian-held areas of Donetsk Oblast, and the capture of Mariupol in Luhansk Oblast would release offensive forces that could be directed against the heavily fortified Kryvyy Rih or towards the land against the strategically important port city of Odessa, off the coast of which Russian amphibious assault ships have been located since the tenth day of the invasion.
Putin could also be helped 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 particularly affect Western supplies.
(3) A Ukrainian victory on the battlefield
However, Russia’s glaring military weakness could also tempt Ukraine to drive out the Russians on its own. This can probably happen selectively, like in Irpin and Makariv on Wednesday, but is hardly a possibility on a large scale at the moment.
(4) A Prolonged Standoff
This brings into play the two most likely variants. The Russian forces will completely conquer the oblasts of Luhansk and Donetsk and also take Mariupol. The Battle of Odessa could yet follow. Beyond that, Moscow will likely buy time and strengthen its influence in Russian-speaking majority regions of Ukraine 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 calming down 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 therefore conceivable in the medium term because one can also wonder 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 reinforcement and redeployment of Russian troops. Moscow is also unlikely to accept a peace settlement now, especially since the United States and Western states are not offering Russia a face-saving solution. However, as the war in Ukraine unfolds, one thing is clear: with the “Ukrainian adventure”, chess player Vladimir Putin has jeopardized his political future and the reputation of the Russian military – with considerable geopolitical consequences.
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