Vladimir Putin had expected to earn a quick victory when he commanded Russian forces to invade Ukraine last February. But thirteen months later, the conflict rages without a foreseeable near-term conclusion. Instead, a war of attrition has congealed in eastern Ukraine, where months and months of fighting has centered around strategically dubious cities like Bakhmut.
Obviously, “Putin’s war did not go according to plan,” as the University of Cambridge pointed out. “Putin hoped for a quick victory. But he’s made several strategic blunders. He underestimated Ukraine’s willingness and capacity to fight. He overestimated Russia’s military capabilities. And he misjudged the West’s ability and willingness to support Ukraine and to impose heavy costs on Russia.”
Ukraine fighting an existential battle
Ukraine is fighting for its very survival, which as Russia has found, inspires a different kind of commitment, a more intense kind of commitment. For Ukraine, there isn’t an alternative to victory; the alternative would be to cease to exist, which is of course, untenable. Regime preservation is the ultimate objective of every regime on Earth – and Ukraine is now fighting to preserve their routine.
The Russians should know better; they’ve been in the win-or-die seat, with their backs to Stalingrad and Leningrad, when the Third Reich invaded. And Russia has also inspired the win-or-die, existential reaction in the recent past; when they invaded Afghanistan – a blunder often cited as a primary culprit in the unraveling of the Soviet Union. So, that Putin’s Russia would underestimate Ukrainian resolve seems to be ignorant of Russia’s own military history.
Russia’s performance underwhelming
Russia overestimated their own ability to secure victory in Ukraine. Curiously, western nations have taken the Russian invasion as proof that Russia poses a drastic security threat to Europe. And while it’s fair to say Russia is clearly revisionist, and hopes to modify the European security architecture, Russia’s military performance thus far seems like proof that Russia poses less of a military threat than originally understood.
The Russians were unable to secure Ukraine’s air space; the Russians have been unable to maintain supply lines; the Russians have been unable to hold vital cities (i.e., Kyiv); the Russians have burnt through thousands of tanks and are now relying on Cold War platforms that have been dragged out of storage; the Russians have already suffered upwards of a quarter-million casualties.
The Russo-Ukraine War demonstrates that Russia is not a modern, sophisticated fighting force; they can’t even secure the Donbas region of Ukraine.
Russia underestimated Western allegiance to Ukraine
I have written critically about US willingness to fund Ukraine’s resistance indefinitely, in effect writing a blank check for the Ukrainians. But the wisdom of US funding aside, what seems clear is that US (and western) funding/supplying has enabled the Ukrainian resistance to stay afloat. Russia likely wasn’t counting on such steadfast western support for a non-NATO member facing a nuclear-armed belligerent.
Ukrainian soldiers, using western supplied drones and anti-tank guns and heavy trucks, have chipped away at invading Russian forces, enabling what we have now: a war of attrition.
No End in Sight
The understanding is the war will continue. Russia seems committed to the long-haul, to hundreds of thousands of casualties; while Ukraine doesn’t have a choice. The most significant European conflict since the conclusion of World War II should endure a while longer.
Harrison Kass is the Senior Editor at 19FortyFive. An attorney, pilot, guitarist, and minor pro hockey player, Harrison joined the US Air Force as a Pilot Trainee but was medically discharged. Harrison holds a BA from Lake Forest College, a JD from the University of Oregon, and an MA from New York University. Harrison listens to Dokken.