For a real reversal of Russia’s fortunes, Putin will be banking in the coming weeks on his forces, replenished by mobilised reservists and conscripts, pulling off a major new offensive.
London: When Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border a year ago, how many observers predicted that one year later the war would still be going on? Probably none, or as close to zero as you can get. After all, the mighty Russian army would sweep aside all opposition and be in Kyiv before the blink of an eye. A pro-Russian puppet government would be in place within days, consisting of a network of collaborators and probably headed by Victor Yanukovych, the former Ukrainian president who had plundered the country before fleeing to Russia at the time of the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Or so the Kremlin had planned.
Instead, a mixture of chaotic blunders by Russia and the extraordinary bravery of the Ukrainians, determined to keep alive their belief in nationhood, has led things to where they are today. Some experts are predicting that there is a long way to go before there’s any resolution of this war. In a TV interview last week, the former British Army Chief, General Sir Nick Carter, shared his bleak prediction on how long the war will last: “I fear we could be having this conversation in a year or potentially two years’ time”, he said. On the Russian side, the boss of the mercenary Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, also said on Moscow TV last week that it could take “two years of work” to capture just the Donbass region, or “three more years to capture that part of Ukraine east of the Dnipro river”. Others are even gloomier, pointing to the Korean War which broke out in 1950 and, although the fighting ended three years later when the armistice was signed, has never technically ended. The same, they say, could happen to Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Dread the thought.
So, from the Russian point of view, what went wrong?
According to the Kremlin, nothing has gone wrong. “All is going to plan”, is the risible mantra repeated time and time again by the Kremlin, attempting to escape reality. Even to President Putin’s greatest supporters, “all is going to plan” is clearly nonsense. The number of Russian soldiers killed or severely wounded has not been released by the Kremlin, but according to American and other Western officials, the figure could be as high as 200,000. Reliable sources report that about 800 Russian troops are being killed every day. Add to that the 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers and 50,000 civilians probably killed so far, as well as the 7.8 million Ukrainians recorded by the UN as refugees crossing into Europe, you have some idea of the death and destruction unleashed by Vladimir Putin a year ago. Was this “the plan”? Of course not—nobody’s fooled. It’s been a disaster from the start for the Kremlin.
In many ways, Putin has been hoisted by his own petard. It’s now abundantly clear from intelligence reports that the current fiasco is entirely due to the Kremlin’s political interference. Surrounded by a small clique of former KGB “yes-men”, such as the hawkish Secretary of Russia’s Security Council Nikolai Patrushev, Vladimir Putin became convinced that a rapid invasion on multiple fronts and a mad dash to Kyiv would achieve his aims. The problem was that the plan went against all military doctrine. Had the Kremlin KGB mafia listened to military planners, they would have authorised four to six weeks of air and missile attacks against Ukraine’s military and critical infrastructure and only then ordered ground troops to secure objectives. Instead, the Kremlin committed its ground forces on day one, rather than waiting until it had managed to clear roads and suppress Ukrainian units.
The result was catastrophic. Russian forces, rushing to meet what they believed were orders to arrive in certain areas at set times, overran their logistics and found themselves hemmed in to specific routes by Ukrainian units. They were then relentlessly bombarded by artillery and ant-armour weapons. Everyone remembers the long line of tanks stuck on the road to Kiev gradually picked-off one-by-one by Ukrainian forces. Western experts were also puzzled by the Kremlin’s decision to commit nearly all their professional ground and airborne forces in the first echelon in the attempt to seize several parts of Ukraine simultaneously. This was also contrary to military doctrine, which sets out the rationale for keeping strong strategic reserve forces.
So why did the Kremlin make so many decisions that made little military sense?
One reason was that those making all key decisions were former KGB officers who lacked any experience in military strategy. When faced with ignorant masters of the dark arts, the experienced generals had little choice than to obey. The most likely reason, however, was that Putin and his small team of advisors really believed their own propaganda that the Ukrainians would not resist and that the Ukrainian army would simply fade away. Assuming that they would need to administer Ukraine from day one, they needed to keep the leadership facilities intact and therefore any attack on critical infrastructure should be avoided at all costs.
A further irony was that even senior members of the Russian General Staff were kept in the dark about the invasion plans until shortly before it started, even though they were known by the West. US intelligence agencies uncovered detailed and accurate outlines of the Kremlin’s plans weeks before the invasion and even shared them with the media. When CIA Director Bill Burns met his Russian counterpart Sergei Naryshkin in Ankara last November, he told him “we know your plans, don’t do it”. But this plea fell on deaf ears. The result was a series of repeated denials from ministers such as Sergey Lavrov, who insisted time and time again that Russia had no intention of attacking its neighbour. Lavrov was either unaware of the plans to invade Ukraine or he was being “economical with the truth”.
As the world knows, Kyiv didn’t fall in a matter of days. With so many Kremlin misjudgements and errors, Putin’s forces were even pushed back over the summer, and by November Ukrainian forces had reclaimed more than half the territory the Russians captured in the first few weeks of the invasion. Russia has now been forced into a costly and protracted conventional war, one that’s sparked rare dissent within the country’s political-military elite and led Kremlin infighting to spill into the open. Even pro-Kremlin bloggers, such as former paramilitary commander Igor Girkin, sentenced to life in prison in absentia for the downing of MH17 passenger flight in 2014, and who played a key role in the annexation of Crimea and later in the Donbas, are calling Russian generals “complete morons, who don’t learn from their mistakes”.
Other critics point to the level of corruption and false reporting on the battlefield. Numerous reports reveal that Russian officers are selling their weapons and fuel on the black market. They have also taken massive risks with the lives of their soldiers, with conscripts arriving at the front as cannon fodder, having been lied to and manipulated rather than properly trained. To avoid upsetting their superiors, military leaders have supplied overly rosy assessments of their ability to conquer Ukraine, leading to one pro-Kremlin blogger calling self-deception “the herpes of the Russian army”.
For a real reversal of Russia’s fortunes, Putin will be banking in the coming weeks on his forces, replenished by mobilised reservists and conscripts, pulling off a major new offensive. OleksiiReznikov, the Ukrainian defence minister, warned in a press conference last week that Russia may well have as many as 500,000 troops massed in occupied Ukraine and along the border in reserve ready for attack. President Zelenskyy warned Ukrainians last weekend that the country is entering a “time when the occupier throws more and more of its forces to break our defences”.
Breakthroughs, however, will likely elude the Russians if they can’t correct two major failings that have dogged their military operations so far: poor logistics and a failure to coordinate infantry, armour and air support to achieve mutually complementary effects, otherwise known as combined arms warfare. This is probably why Putin last month replaced General Sergei Surovikin, who had garnered a reputation for unsentimental brutality, with the chief of the defence staff, General Valery Gerasimov. According to Russia’s defence ministry, Gerasimov, who is the fourth commander of Russian troops in Ukraine since Putin launched the invasion on 24 February, will “organise closer interaction between the types and arm of the troops”. In other words, will improve combined arms warfare.
But many Russian pro-war bloggers are still clamouring for another mobilisation, something Putin is reluctant to do for fear of political unrest at home. The last mobilisation resulted in up to a million of much-needed skilled workers fleeing the country, terrified of being conscripted into the army and facing almost certain death. A second mobilisation would cause at least the same, possibly more. Nevertheless, blogger Igor Girkin has argued waves of call-ups will be needed to overcome Ukraine’s defence by sheer numbers. Western military analysts suspect that Ukraine and Russia are currently fielding about the same number of combat soldiers, which means that General Gerasimov will need many more if he’s to achieve the three-to-one ratio military doctrine suggests necessary for an attacking force to succeed.
Such a build-up is extremely unlikely as a never-ending mobilisation would be too risky for Vladimir Putin. As a recent analysis by The Institute for the Study of War suggests: “Putin’s hesitant wartime decision-making demonstrates his desire to avoid risky decisions that could threaten his rule or international escalation”. Russia’s war in Ukraine will therefore increasingly resemble trench warfare in WWI. One year gone—two more (at least) to go.