“War, as the American Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman observed, “is hell.” The one that Russia launched against Ukraine on February 24 certainly fits his description.
Cities have come under siege – consider the horrific plight of Mariupol – a hospital and a shopping mall have been struck, as have apartment buildings, in Kyiv as well as Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city. The number of refugees and internally displaced Ukrainians already exceeds 10 million, more than a fifth of the country’s population.
Yet there’s something about this war that has been distinctive: it has defied all expectations, above all of those who started it.
As the Russian military buildup around Ukraine’s perimeter accelerated at the end of last year, few experts believed that Vladimir Putin would order a full-blown invasion, let alone one aimed at toppling the Ukrainian government and installing a puppet leadership. The Biden administration kept warning that he was preparing to do precisely that, but most observers treated its predictions skeptically. The scenario seemed outlandish – and then there were those post-9/11 intelligence failures.
This time, however, the US government got it right.
But few observers, even seasoned military analysts, anticipated what happened once the war began. The Ukrainians mounted a surprisingly stiff resistance from the get-go, partly because they were defending their homeland, partly because they had been preparing for this eventuality and had created Territorial Defense Forces in preparation, and partly because of the weapons and training provided them since 2015 by the United States, Britain, and Canada.
Still, the balance of power overwhelmingly favored Russia, whether in the number of troops, the quantity of major armaments (such as tanks, armored personnel carriers, artillery, and warplanes), and their technological caliber. So lopsided was the advantage that it was hardly unreasonable to assume that the Russian juggernaut would roll over the Ukrainians’ valiant resistance and conquer their major cities.
Assaying the military balance between two putative adversaries involves, in part, bean counting – so many of this weapon, so many of that, and so on – but the exercise generally proves valid when the results massively favor one side. The exceptions are remembered because they are uncommon.
This war has been one of those atypical instances. Even if it ends with Ukraine’s defeat – something that remains possible – this surely is not the campaign Putin and his generals had in mind.
Nearly a month into it, Russia has sustained heavy losses: in soldiers and all categories of armaments. Moreover, logistical problems (in plain terms, supplying an army waging war) – such as insufficient food, water, and petrol – and breakdowns of equipment have been legion.
Leave aside the precise number of Russian losses. There has been, and will be, much disagreement about them. This much is clear: no one, least of Putin, expected a lackluster performance like this from a Russian army that, following the problems revealed during the 2008 Russia-Georgia war, had been revamped by big increases in investment as well as reforms and modernization.
Before this war began, then, there was good reason to expect a rapid Russian offensive: a combined-arms operation that opened with cyberattacks against Ukrainian command and control networks and swift control of Ukraine’s airspace by Russian warplanes, eventually paving the way for an armored assault protected by air cover.
In the event, there were poorly coordinated advances resembling probes. Ukraine’s main army formations, such as the one between the Dnieper River and eastern Ukraine, still have not been surrounded and decimated. Nor have any big cities been taken.
True, Russia has made significant territorial gains, especially along the Black Sea coast and in the east; and a land corridor has been created, albeit not consolidated (Mariupol hasn’t surrendered), connecting Russia to Crimea along the Sea of Azov littoral. What’s not clear, however, is whether, even on the Black Sea coast and points north of Crimea, the degree of control that Russian forces have is strong enough to allow many to be diverted from there to other battlegrounds, such as the one around Kyiv.
Given the number of Russian strikes on civilian targets, they can’t reasonably be attributed to error alone. Instead, they appear to stem from Russian commanders’ frustration and the Russian leadership’s decision to inflict so much pain on Ukraine’s people and such colossal damage on its economic assets that President Volodymyr Zelensky will be forced to accept a draconian peace.
So far, despite their enormous suffering, Ukrainians seem resilient, as witness the continuing resistance in Mariupol despite the humanitarian disaster there.
How can we account for what has transpired.
One book, based on a number of cases, provides some explanations: John Stoessinger’s Why Nations Go to War.
Stoessinger concludes that the initiators of wars, notably the top leaders, tend to make the same mistakes, repeatedly: so much for learning from history.
Contempt for their opponents convinces them that they lack the will to fight back. Those who start wars therefore expect a quick victory – Putin reportedly told the president of the European Commission in 2014 that he could take Kyiv in a fortnight if he wanted to – and don’t make plans for a prolonged campaign if that assumption proves erroneous. The leader at the pinnacle doesn’t take kindly to underlings who summon the courage to question the upbeat assumptions. And though Stoessinger doesn’t make this point, if the country is run by an all-powerful leader, such as Putin, subordinates are probably reluctant to convey bad news.
The outcome of the war between Russia and Ukraine remains uncertain. But were Stoessinger alive – he died in 2017 – he might be taking notes, thinking that it could well serve as a chapter in the book’s next edition.
- Rajan Menon is the director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, and Anne and Bernard Spitzer emeritus at Powell School, City College of New York
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