Making sense of Vladimir Putin’s war

How the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion led Russia into a bloody morass

Source: The Economist

TOPSHOT - Ukrainian soldiers adjust a national flag atop a personnel armoured carrier on a road near Lyman, Donetsk region on October 4, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. - Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky said on October 2, 2022 that Lyman, a key town located in one of four Ukrainian regions annexed by Russia, had been "cleared" of Moscow's troops. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov / AFP) (Photo by ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

Dec 23rd 2022Share

When the second battle for El Alamein in Egypt concluded in November 1942, Winston Churchill reflected on the British victory. “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end,” he warned, memorably. “But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.” As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches its 11th month, it is reaching the same inflection point. It has been a story of Russian hubris, human suffering and, above all, Ukrainian defiance.

In April 2021 Russia began massing an unusual number of forces on the border with Ukraine. In retrospect, that was a dry run for what would follow. In July that year Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, published a rambling essay which questioned Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state. After Russia concluded its massive Zapad military exercise in western Russia and Belarus in September, it left much of the kit behind—another warning sign.

By October, American intelligence had acquired Russia’s war plans. The next month Bill Burns, the cia director, was sent to Moscow to warn Mr Putin off. But the build-up continued, tracked in unprecedented detail by open-source intelligence such as commercial satellite imagery.

In January, as Russia held sham talks with America and nato while denying it was planning an invasion, The Economist warned that war was looming. “For Mr Putin, the gamble may be worth it,” we wrote. “Better to start a war now, despite the attendant costs, than risk a Ukraine bristling with foreign troops in a decade.” The invasion finally came at dawn on February 24th, delayed by a week or so from its planned date because of jitters in Moscow over weather and other matters. Russian armies poured into Ukraine from the north, east and south, initiating the biggest war in Europe since 1945.

Most officials, including Ukrainian ones, expected that Russia would quickly overwhelm its smaller neighbour. That did not happen. Though Russia’s war plans had been exposed—on February 17th British defence intelligence published an accurate map of the likely axes of invasion—its military units did not receive orders until 24 hours before the war, according to a recent study by rusi, a think-tank. Troops lacked ammunition, food, fuel and maps. Many wandered into Ukrainian towns without their weapons loaded. When they asked Ukrainian civilians where they were, their positions were promptly reported.

This was, in part, a failure of intelligence. Russia’s vaunted spies made a series of blunders. Many spoke only to those Ukrainians who agreed that the country was ripe for conquest and would fall without serious fighting. Contradictory intelligence—and there was much of it—was not passed up the chain. Spy agencies in authoritarian countries often tell their bosses what they want to hear.

The invasion also revealed a deeper rot in Russia’s armed forces, including endemic corruption and a lack of training. When Valery Gerasimov, the chief of general staff, met his British counterpart in February, he claimed that Russia had reached conventional military parity with America’s armed forces. That claim has been exposed as hollow. Russia’s air force struggled against Ukraine’s aged but agile air defences, and its tanks were used ineptly. Cyber forces were unprepared for a long campaign.

Nevertheless, the opening stage of the war was a closer-run thing than many assumed at the time. Doubting that Russia would invade, Ukraine’s civilian leaders were not fully prepared themselves, despite extensive warnings from America and Britain. The majority of Ukraine’s regular forces were pinned down in the eastern Donbas region, after anticipating that any attack would probably come only there. Russian jets and tanks were superior to Ukrainian ones. Russia’s performance in the south was better. Its forces there formed effective “storm groups” of armour and infantry, backed by Chechen fighters, notes rusi. But even then Mariupol, a port city, fell only in May, after months of brutal aerial bombardment.

In fact, Russian units proved unable to adapt or to recover from their heavy initial casualties. On March 2nd they took Kherson, capital of the province of the same name, but found themselves stymied in the suburbs of Kyiv, repelled from Kharkiv in the east and halted en route to Odessa at the southern city of Mykolaiv. In late March the Kremlin thus looked reality in the eye and announced that it would “drastically reduce” operations in the north to focus on Donbas.

By the first week of April Russia’s ignominious retreat from the capital was largely complete. Ukraine had won the battle of Kyiv, despite a twelve-to-one disadvantage in troop numbers at the outset. As Russian troops withdrew, they left in their wake evidence of mass killings and other war crimes in towns like Bucha, in effect ending any prospect for successful peace talks.

The second phase of the war had some successes for Russia. It used its advantage in artillery ammunition to outgun Ukraine in the east, slowly seizing the entirety of Luhansk province. Russian artillery in Donbas fired around 20,000 rounds per day, notes RUSI, with a peak rate of 32,000 rounds on some days—three to five times the Ukrainian rate. “We are inferior in terms of equipment and therefore we are not capable of advancing,” lamented Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, in early June.

But his forces found creative ways to hit back. In April Ukraine mounted daring cross-border helicopter raids on the Russian city of Belgorod and then sank the Moskva, the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet—one of the biggest naval losses for any country since the Falklands war of 1982. Ukraine also dominated the information war in the West. In August we described the antics of the North Atlantic Fellas Organisation (nafo), a virtual pro-Ukraine army whose members take the guise of shiba inu dogs and fight Russian propagandists with memes.

The third phase of the war began in the summer, as Ukraine switched to the offensive. In June it received the first himars rocket launchers from America, longer-range and more precise than anything in the Russian arsenal. It began so-called deep strikes on ammunition depots, command posts and barracks far behind the frontlines. It also targeted bridges over the Dnieper river, cutting off Russian forces in Kherson city. A formal offensive there in August made slow progress. But a surprise attack in Kharkiv the next month turned into a rout, liberating vast swathes of territory.

As Ukrainian offensives met with success, Russia scrambled to adjust. On September 21st Mr Putin announced a partial mobilisation of Russian men, a process that yielded over 100,000 in less than two months. In October Mr Putin appointed a new commander, General Sergei Surovikin, who began a campaign of large-scale drone and missile strikes against Ukraine’s infrastructure. A month later he withdrew Russian troops from the right bank of Kherson as part of a wider shift to the defensive.

Russia remains on the offensive in Bakhmut, a small town in Donetsk that has turned into a test for the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed mercenary outfit, and Ukraine continues to probe Russian lines in places. But the weather is already affecting the war. Muddy ground will soon freeze, allowing heavy vehicles to move around again, but the sub-zero temperatures will make it harder for soldiers to survive in the field. “We’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo already of the conflict,” noted Avril Haines, America’s director of national intelligence, on December 3rd, “and we expect that’s likely to be what we see in the coming months.” Both sides are now rearming for offensives, probably in 2023, with Ukraine raising a new army corps and Russia using mobilised men to train up fresh units.

The war has thrown up a number of important lessons. Despite the increasing importance of technology, mass still matters. Reserves of manpower, weaponry and ammunition are vital as a war drags on. Intelligence is key: the decision to publicise Russia’s invasion plans undercut the Kremlin’s narrative and prevented it from using its planned pretext for war. Urban warfare has figured prominently in places like Kyiv, Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Bakhmut.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is simply that war is back. “Developed countries have managed to avoid major conflicts with one another now for 75 years,” wrote John Mueller, a political scientist, in July 2021, the month that Mr Putin put his ravings about Ukraine to paper. It was “perhaps the longest such hiatus in history”. The question is whether Mr Putin’s delusions will shatter the long peace, or serve as a warning to others.