Putin seems to have overplayed his hand and the longer the war lasts, the worse it would be. The longer Ukraine holds out, the greater will be the support provided by western nations, which could also translate to a limited intervention on humanitarian grounds.
The last time hostile tanks closed in on Kyiv and Kharkiv was way back in 1941, when German panzers launched a stunning blitzkrieg across the Soviet Union. The towns were called Kiev and Kharkov then and Ukraine was part of the USSR. The enemy is at the gates again, but this time they have come in from the east and it is Russian tanks and aircraft that bombard them. The scale of fighting and destruction is not as intense as it was in the bleak days of the World War—but war has visited Europe again, and like all conflagrations threatens to go out of control.
War had been impending ever since Russia amassed over 120,000 troops at the borders to back up Putin’s demand of banning Ukraine from joining NATO and the removal of NATO troops and weaponry from lands adjoining Russian borders. The demand was not unreasonable and perhaps would have already been agreed to behind closed-door diplomacy—shorn of a written guarantee. When he escalated the situation by recognising the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk provinces of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, he could have still attained his aims. He could have simply amalgamated these provinces into Russia and established a stranglehold over Crimea, which in any case, they had annexed in 2014. NATO was undecided and divided in its response and these actions would have not crossed the “thin red line”. It would have also created enough political upheaval to enable the fall of Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government and replace it with a favourable inclined regime. Putin was in a position to get all his aims.
Instead, he decided to go in for a spectacular “win-all-or-lose-all” option to take over all of Ukraine. At 5 am on 24 February Russian troops launched a three-pronged attack—one from the east towards Kharkiv, another from Crimea in the south towards the major towns along the sea, and the main thrust from the north and north east heading towards Kyiv—the capital and nerve centre of Ukraine. Even at this juncture, had he kept his military aims focused on the south and seized a strip of land along the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, to link Crimea to Russia—while containing in the north and eastern Ukraine—he would have been able to achieve his military goals in a week or so. Then he could have simply declared victory and held on to his spoils.
Instead, by focusing on Kyiv, Kharkiv and the major cities, he overextended his forces, stiffened Ukrainian response, galvanized world opinion and unified NATO and the United States in their response. He also seems to have underestimated Ukrainian resistance. Yes, on paper there seems to be a huge disparity. Ukraine has a defence budget which is one tenth that of Russia, and Russia has three times the number of troops, tanks, artillery and aircraft. The Russian Army was expected to steam roller their way to the capital in a week or so. But by announcing his intention, it gave the Ukrainian forces time to prepare their defences and call up their reservists. Ukrainian soldiers and civilians fought with a grim determination which seems to have taken a toll on Russian forces. A campaign which perhaps they hoped to complete in 5-6 days a la Georgia, instead has entered its tenth day with no indicator of an early conflict resolution.
HOW THE WAR UNFOLDED
The 120,000 troops which had been inducted from Siberia and concentrated along the border for months before the launch should have been ready for a swift lightning strike, but the initial performance was not up to the mark. They seemed lacking both in training and morale. By some accounts, they were not told of their objectives or what they were to do, due to reasons of secrecy. Perhaps they were expecting to be welcomed as liberators and the resistance took them by surprise. The initial Russian advance was fast for the first two or three days, but lost momentum thereafter. For some reason the Russians have not used their Air Force as much as they could have—barring gunship attacks—nor did they neutralise Ukrainian air defence. The logistics planning too seems to have gone awry, which led to lines of vehicles stranded without fuel. The major cities have been besieged and bombarded, but barring Kherson in the south, not a single major city has fallen in the first ten days of war.
The towns of Mariupol, Melitopol and Mykolaiv in the south have been invested by Russian forces and in all likelihood would fall. The capture of these towns and area adjoining the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea will give Russia control of Ukraine’s coastline. Should they expand operations to capture the port city of Odessa (for which apparently, an amphibious assault is being planned) they will be able to deny Ukraine access to the sea. In the east, the towns of Sumy and Kharkiv, have come in for heavy punishment, but they have not capitulated as was hoped and has taken inordinate force merely to invest them. The Russian Army seems to have unleashed its major forces for the assault and the war seems to be entering its most decisive phase.
Kyiv seems to be emerging as the major Russian objective. It has been repeatedly hit by missiles and artillery to soften it before the assault. An airborne operation to capture Hostomel—an airfield 25 km to the northwest, which could have provided an airhead has only achieved partial success. A 64-kilometer-long column of tanks and trucks has closed in on the city after being stalled for two days (perhaps due to lack of fuel). Russian build-up for the assault on Kyiv seems to be in place, although it will take a sledgehammer to capture the city now, and not the rapier thrust that they had hoped for. Putin seems to view Kyiv as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance that must be captured as a coveted prize (much like the Germans’ fatal obsession with Stalingrad in 1942). But in spite of their overwhelming combat power, it would not be easy. Kyiv is divided by a major river, which will also divide Russian forces entering the capital. The city also has a warren of Metro and sewage tunnels which will permit Ukrainian forces to move under protection. Even if it falls, it may not halt the war. In fact, it could intensify a counter-insurgency campaign by Ukrainian soldiers and resistance forces which could prove long and expensive.
THE LIKELY EFFECT
Putin seems to have overplayed his hand and the longer the war lasts, the worse it would be. The longer Ukraine holds out, the greater will be the support provided by western nations—which could also translate to a limited intervention on humanitarian grounds. The imposition of sanctions—ranging from the exclusion of Russian banks from the SWIFT system to the blocking of its Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, has hurt the Russian economy hard. The ruble dropped in value by 28% in one day, valued at less than a US cent. Russian banks have doubled interest rates to over 20% and the long lines at ATMs showed that the people have made a run for their money. Even the much vaunted $235 billion war chest which had been built up to ride over the sanctions has been blocked in foreign banks. The economic costs of the war will intensify as sanctions mount, and shorn of access to finance, unable to export its gas and oil, Russia could face crippling inflation and financial meltdown. Internal unrest and a growing opposition to the war could further weaken Putin’s position.
Russia has also succeeded in unifying Europe and NATO as never before. In spite of the legitimacy of its earlier demands, he is now the naked aggressor that has broken the world’s rules-based order, and caused a humanitarian disaster not seen in Europe since World War II. While NATO was divided in the initial response, it has closed ranks now, with virtually every nation sending in military aid ranging from anti-tank missiles to helmets. Switzerland has shed its neutrality, and even Germany has overturned a 70-year-old policy and announced an increase of 100 billion euros to its defence budget virtually overnight. Putin’s nuclear bluster has not gone off too well. His nuclear threats are a stark statement of intent of what Russia could do if it is pushed to the wall, even economically. The capture of Chernobyl and Zaporizhzhia, the world’s largest nuclear plant, has also raised fears of a radioactive leak across Europe if the plant is hit by fire or artillery. After four decades, the nuclear spectre is back over Europe, and Russia’s arsenal of 5,500 nuclear weapons, with hypersonic missiles to deliver them, cannot be shrugged away. And Russian actions have given the US the moral pedestal once again (in spite of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other places where it has itself initiated conflict) and allowed it to reclaim the leadership position, which had been severely eroded after its debacle in Afghanistan.
Russia will still be able to gain its military objectives, but it will now require an inordinate amount of force to do so. The victory would be pyrrhic, and while attaining their military objectives, they would have lost their overall national aims. The short swift war, which Putin hoped for has not happened, and no matter how it ends, Russia has lost the vital war of perception.
Putin had embarked on this high-risk gamble to take Russia back to the former glory of the Soviet Union. But he seems to have forgotten one vital lesson of history. The Soviet Union itself began its decline and eventual implosion after it launched the disastrous invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. This invasion, no matter how it ends, could set the stage for a similar marginalization and diminishing of Russia.
Ajay Singh is a reputed military commentator, who has authored five books and over 200 articles.