On February 24, 2022, after a few months of preparations, the Russian army invaded Ukraine and at the time of this writing, in mid-March, the fighting is ongoing. This essay is an attempt to offer initial observations and lessons from what we know already—bearing in mind the difficulty of ascertaining facts on the ground amidst intensive disinformation campaigns on both sides.
The Quality of (Dis)Information
Many reports have been written about the progress—or lack thereof—of this offensive. However, we must regard all such assertions—including the points raised here—with reservation. This is because the quality of the sources upon which everyone is basing their analysis is extremely problematic.
Outside the supreme commands of the Russian and Ukrainian armies, as well as American intelligence, reliable factual information is scarce. These three are not freely releasing reliable information to the public domain. What they are providing is either propaganda or carefully crafted information to prevent providing the enemy with actionable intelligence. Analysts must suffice with scraps—mostly civilian satellite imagery and photographs and videos created by the Ukrainian population as the armies operate around them (hence the titles used on these pages, “the first TikTok war”). The information is therefore partial and not necessarily representative of the situation.
The privately created and published videos quickly also began to contain propaganda clips, including snippets taken from wars in other places. Civilians providing commentary do not necessarily understand what they are seeing; they usually already support a particular side in the conflict, and their explanations represent that side. They also choose what to show and what not, so the time, location, and content of the pictures themselves become more important than the accompanying explanations.
One difficult chore is discerning photos and videos taken from other wars or events and given a Ukrainian title. One example is the clip purporting to show a Ukrainian woman taking control of an abandoned Russian armored car as an example of the Russian losses. In fact, the woman is a Russian civilian mechanic who makes videos on vehicle maintenance and made this particular clip more than a year ago in tribute to the Russian army on the annual “Defenders of the Motherland” day.
What We Do Not Know
It is important to make clear what we do not know before attempting to assess the situation:
- We do not know the Russian political goals and military campaign plan. We have seen much of what they have done (not all of it), but we do not know what they are trying to do and the rationale behind it.
- We do not know the Ukrainian military campaign plan—how they deployed initially and how they fight.
- We do not know most of what is actually happening. It is a huge puzzle of thousands of pieces, and we have only a small portion of them—fragments from which we try to deduce a coherent overall picture.
These three lacunae must be understood and emphasized as a warning against placing too much trust in any analysis that is presented – including this one.
Why the Russian Offensive?
Understanding the military operations requires an understanding of the political goals of the belligerents.
Understanding the Ukrainian political goal was and is simple: to prevent the Russians from achieving theirs. Understanding the Russian goal is more complicated, especially since the information published about it by both sides is more propaganda than fact.
Russia is a diminishing power that is shrinking demographically, barely hanging on economically, and losing its influence internationally. In Russia’s view, NATO, the victor of the original Cold War with communist Russia, is exploiting that victory to further its interests at Russia’s expense and security. So does the EU, viewed in Moscow as predatory in nature. The Russian leadership feels insulted that its opinion is ignored; it feels that its economic well-being is threatened, and that NATO is actually gradually continuing the old Cold War to gradually destabilize Russia’s current political regime. It does not matter whether the Russian view is correct or not, as it is the basis for their actions; as viewed from Moscow, NATO’s actions and official statements during the events leading up to the war only exacerbated Russian fears.
Russia has repeatedly made clear over the past three decades that it will not accept a common border with NATO. When the Baltic states joined NATO, Russia was too weak to respond. In 2008, however, Russia invaded Georgia in response to a similar bid, and in 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, in response to Ukraine’s shift in that direction too. Russia now declares it is responding to a renewal of Ukraine’s bid to join NATO, and thus the main declared political goal of Russia is to prevent the inclusion of Ukraine in NATO by replacing the current government of Ukraine. Recent statements by President Zelenskyy indicate that he may be increasingly inclined to accept this demand.
However, observation of the Russian military operations suggests undeclared goals too—at the very least, to connect Crimea to Russia by land and not just by the Kerch Strait Bridge and to capture the lower Dnieper to reopen the flow of crucial freshwater to Crimea. This canal provided 80% of Crimea’s water requirement until it was blocked by Ukraine following Russia’s occupation of Crimea. This created a permanent, severely damaging shortage of water for Crimea’s population, agriculture, and industry, which the Russian government has been able to only partially alleviate from other sources.
The direction of operations of Russian forces after the first few days of the war may also suggest a decision to “liberate” other areas of Ukraine under Ukrainian control since the war in 2014—areas that had been populated by a Russian majority—and perhaps also to capture the Ukrainian Black Sea coast.
The offensive began with a mixed missile and air strike that drastically reduced—but did not destroy—Ukraine’s air force. Despite the partial success, this attempt to achieve total control of the air was discontinued, and no one knows why.
In most operations by Western armies over the past few decades, the ground forces were kept back until the air forces achieved aerial superiority and were free to provide support. In contrast, the Russian ground forces did not wait, and they attacked immediately on five separate fronts:
- The first front targets Kyiv from three different directions—the largest Russian force.
- The second front aims to conquer northeastern Ukraine, with the city of Kharkiv as its focus—the second largest Russian force.
- The third front seeks to conquer a land bridge between Russia, Donetsk, and Crimea.
- The fourth front targets north along the eastern bank of the Dnieper River.
- The fifth front aims westward through southern Ukraine along the Black Sea coast.
Ahead of their ground forces, the Russians conducted massed heliborne attacks deep in Ukrainian territory. We know of two such operations, but there may have been more:
- An attempt to capture Hostomel airfield near Kyiv, presumably to enable rapid reinforcement with larger aircraft. It failed as the Ukrainians counterattacked rapidly, causing the Russian force to scatter and fight for survival.
- One landed at Taviirisk and captured and exploded the dam built by Ukraine to prevent water flowing from the Dnieper River to Crimea.
For two to four days, depending on the front, Russian ground forces seemed to be stuck, unable to advance. Then they began to move deeper into Ukraine. Breakthrough battles are never easy or quick, and apparently these were no exception. The Russians provided no information on their movements, whereas Ukrainian reports mentioned only Ukrainian victories and massive Russian casualties. However, videos published by civilians made it possible to gradually map the Russian advance on each front as civilians further and further from the borders published short clips of Russian forces passing by them or of Russian bodies, prisoners, and destroyed or abandoned equipment.
As breakthroughs occurred on each front, the Russians increased their forces so that by the tenth day of the war, they had employed the entire ground force that they had prepared in advance and began looking for reinforcements beyond the Russian army. Chechen security forces joined the Russian forces, and some reports claim the Russians have been trying to enlist experienced Syrian troops whom they had assisted in Syria’s civil war (although this may also be part of the Russian campaign of intimidation).
Currently, the Russians have captured a continuous stretch of land connecting Crimea to Donetsk and Russia and are slowly advancing toward Odessa to cut Ukraine off from the Black Sea. They are also gradually increasing the size of the Luhansk and Donetsk territories. However, presumably Russia’s two main objectives (judging by the size of the forces assigned to these fronts)—namely capturing or at least surrounding Kyiv and Kharkiv—have not yet been achieved and seem out of reach for the time being.
Why so Slow?
The slowness of the Russian advance requires an explanation, especially since many thought the Russians would quickly capture Ukraine.
The public image of the blitzkrieg is greatly exaggerated. The German army in World War II took several weeks and heavy casualties to achieve its famous successes in Poland (1939), France (1940), and initial successes in Russia (1941). Similarly, the US army needed approximately a month to defeat the barely functioning Iraqi army in 2003—an army much weaker than that of Ukraine.
Also, the size of Ukraine and the winter weather, especially the deep soft mud that prevents free maneuver, are not conducive to short, fast military operations.
Furthermore, the modern Russian army does not do blitzkriegs—it conducts methodical attacks based on a repeated cycle of lengthy bombardments of the enemy, followed by short bounds to the next enemy location, renewing the bombardment and again by local advances. However, it seems the Russian army did not do what it has been trained to do. Therefore, military analysts can only suggest various factors that may have created this situation, some more likely and some less.
There is a story of a general who lost a battle and was asked by a reporter why. “I think,” responded the general sarcastically, “that the enemy had something to do with it.” The Ukrainian army notably is the most powerful rival the Russian army has fought since the end of World War II. This point is often glossed over. The Ukrainian army is bigger than any other army in Europe except the Russians. And most media descriptions of the Russian army exaggerate its size. Moreover, as if to assist the enemy in having “something to do with it,” the number of Russian ground forces actually deployed to attack Ukraine is considerably smaller than the Ukrainian ground forces they face. The only clear numerical advantage that the Russians have is in combat aircraft—but they do not seem to be exploiting it. Not having a massive preponderance in force is completely opposite the Russian military doctrine and past practice. However, it is not the only Russian behavior in this war that contravenes their doctrine.
A central pillar of Russian practice is combined arms operations, especially massive fire support for their mixed tank and infantry units; the Russian army employs more artillery support per maneuver battalion than any other army in the world. Yet, during the first days of the war, videos of Russian units showed single-arm units, either infantry or tanks, driving ahead without artillery support, scattered in small columns, each seemingly fending for itself. The Russian commanders did practice their doctrine in training exercises as well as during past actions in Ukraine and Georgia. In both cases, the military actions were conducted according to doctrine, with varying competence, but at least they were obeying doctrine.
The most likely cause for this utter disregard of their own doctrine seems to be that the Russian high command did not expect a war—perhaps a few battles while crossing the border (we have no video footage or reliable texts describing the battles there) and then “clear sailing” to their final objectives. This theory is strengthened by the number of police units among the combat units—the first Russian unit to attempt to enter Kharkiv was a riot-control police unit; it was met not by rioters but rather by Ukrainians carrying small arms and light anti-tank weapons.
The cost of ignoring their doctrine has led to heavy casualties: thousands of soldiers killed and wounded and hundreds of pieces of equipment abandoned—although the numbers provided by Ukraine are likely exaggerated.
Furthermore, the Russian forces seem to have received explicit instructions to minimize Ukrainian civilian casualties, although Ukrainian propaganda is to the contrary. The strength of Russian fire power when employed is miniscule compared to past practice and generally focused on specific targets, rather than the past “level everything” approach. Furthermore, video clips released by Ukrainian civilians, intent on showing their bravery in stopping Russian forces, actually show Russian forces halting rather than running over or shooting those civilians blocking their path. Of course, there are civilian casualties, but the true number is unknown and given the proven low reliability of Ukrainian reporting, the official number of casualties could be close to the truth or could be extremely exaggerated. As a result, the Russians have wasted much time by halting their advance and have endured heavier casualties by not obliterating enemy positions by fire before advancing with their tanks and infantry. The final cause is simple incompetence, reaching amazing levels in some cases, as in the battalion that drove in the most stupid manner possible into a Ukrainian village and was destroyed. It is difficult to gauge how widespread is this incompetence since the evidence is all Ukrainian propaganda showing Russian failures only; at the same time, we do not know whether the Ukrainians are any better.
Three issues puzzling analysts outside the war zone are the miniscule involvement of the Russian air force in the fighting, despite its complete numerical superiority, and the seeming absence of electronic warfare and cyber warfare—two fortes of the Russian military, as shown in past practice. No reliable explanation has been provided for these.
Information on the actions of the Ukrainian forces is even more scarce than that of the Russians. They are definitely fighting and contributing to the slowness of the Russian advance, but, despite the casualties they are inflicting and the comfortable ratio of forces, they have only halted the Russians in two areas:
- At Kyiv, the Russian attack from the northwest reached a village some 20 kilometers from the city on the third day of the war, but since then the Ukrainians have successfully blocked all attempts to complete the advance to Kyiv.
- At Kharkiv, Russian forces reached the northern edge of the city within a couple of days, but all their attempts to encircle the city have been successfully prevented.
In addition to the regular army and reserves, the Ukrainian government began forming armed volunteer militias. This will undoubtedly increase the inferiority of the Russian forces, but very few of these militias are capable of actual sustained combat. Some of them have, however, have been busy rooting out Russian spies, saboteurs, and local looters, who are often shot on the spot, tied to trees or telephone poles half-naked in the subzero temperature or tortured in various ways. Ukrainians have filmed their actions and have published them proudly on social media. Many, if not most, are innocent, as was an Israeli who was killed because he had a beard and therefore must be a Chechen saboteur.
However, if the spy/saboteur panic is based on a grain of truth, these actions reveal something about Russian operations: Russian special forces personnel are preceding their ground forces by dozens of kilometers to provide them with general information and targets. One Ukrainian video clip purported to show an infrared light beacon located near a potential target so it could be located in the dark by Russian pilots.
War no longer exists. Confrontation, conflict and combat undoubtedly exist all around the world . . . Nonetheless, war as cognitively known to most non-combatants, war as battle in the field between men and machinery, war as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs . . . such war no longer exists.
The above declaration was written in 2005 and represents not just the particular author but an entire school of thought that has been dominant in the West since the late 1990s. The current war in Ukraine is not the only example to disprove that thesis, but it is certainly the most powerful one.
The Ukraine war is not over; unless a political compromise between the rivals is reached, it is likely to continue for a long time. So far neither side has suffered enough casualties and equipment losses to physically prevent them from fighting on. Furthermore, neither side seems to be showing a crisis of fighting spirit—although these, when they do occur, are usually difficult to see beforehand.
Given the current size of the Russian forces; the size of the territory they attacked, which they have partially cleared of Ukrainian forces that harass their supply convoys; the overall ratio of forces between Russia and Ukraine; and the surprisingly low level of professional competence exhibited so far by the Russians, they might be nearing the end of their potential to maintain the strength of their attacks. A major factor we do not know is the Ukrainian army’s situation. It too has suffered severe casualties, and so far it has mostly defended itself with very few and small counterattacks. Whether this is a strategic decision or one compelled by a lack of capability we do not know.
 Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World, Allen Lane, 2005, p.1