OPINION - How Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has gone so badly wrong

·9-min read
OPINION - How Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has gone so badly wrong

The war in Ukraine is passing into its 13th week and with even less clear end in sight that a few weeks ago. The conflict is likely to last months, and possibly years. With all the modern means of information technology, it is proving very difficult to interpret the battle space – what are the facts on the ground, and what is really happening.

It is only now appreciated that the war in Ukraine is becoming like a fire accelerator to a global crisis involving food and famine, fuel supply, global warming and its impact on human privation and migration. What appeared as a very nasty regional war on the marches of Europe and Asia, is part of a powder trail to potential global cataclysm.

Currently the bulk of the Russian invasion army of February 24th is concentrating on battering through to seize the two districts of the Donbas – Donetsk and Luhansk. Progress is slow. “We don’t really know exactly what is going on – the Russians are gaining very little ground each day,” according to a Nato officer. The Russian forces are now resorting to battering their way by continuous rocket, artillery and close air bombardment. The Russians have about 60,000 ground troops in the area – and the Ukrainians about half the number.

Meanwhile the Russians now claim what must be the greatest Pyrrhic victory in modern times. They have seized the port of Mariupol after trashing it completely. This is now a pattern. Their troops are grinding through Donbas, some of the most productive soil on the planet for cereal production, by making the fields lethal deserts of bombs and shells and broken ordnance.

The Russians attack cities and fail to occupy them – so much for the boast that they are ‘liberating’ and oppressed people.

In many respects it is hard to discern what the precise aim is of the offensive launched by Vladimir Putin in February – certainly many troops following his orders don’t know what they are meant to achieve. What is too obvious is the poor performance of the armed forces which have benefited from the third highest national defence budget in the world for more than a decade.

It is the opposite with the case of Ukraine. With the charismatic Volodymyr Zelensky leading from the front, for the Ukrainians this is a war of national survival. The paradox is that there is very little clue about how the Ukrainian professional, reserve and homeland defence forces have managed to succeed against such steep odds. “There is an awful lot that they aren’t telling us,” a senior British official told me “from their casualty figures, which must be heavy, to how they carry out their command in the field. We have a lot to learn from them.”

Robert Fox (Evening Standard)
Robert Fox (Evening Standard)

It appears to be an extreme example of what is known as ‘mission command,’ practiced by the British Army and with great success by the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. This allows an officer or NCO to act on his or her initiative at the critical moment without referring to a senior command or formation. The Russian forces have shown themselves hidebound by doctrine and to be rigidly hierarchical. The Russian army still lacks a powerful self-respecting NCO cadre – which are vital to the discipline and motivation of any army in war and peace.

The weaknesses in the Russian command and doctrine were quickly exposed. On February 24th Russia began an advance into Ukraine with some 90,000 troops, and half as many again in reserve. They moved on five different lines of attack – with little coordination between them. They banked on being able to seize rapidly the capital Kyiv and bring in a new puppet regime, grab the two regions of Donbas, the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk – the reason Moscow said it was fighting in the first place – and take over the port city Mariupol. It was to take four days, or less.

The Ukrainian command had been preparing for the Russians for two years and mobilized and dispersed their forces, calling in anyone who could and would bear arms as territorial defence backup. Columns of Russian tanks, artillery and support trucks were caught on narrow single track roads and taken out by ‘shoot and scoot’ ambush squads and the medium range Bayraktar Tb2 attack drone supplied by Turkey. The new communications system introduced to the Russian forces in 2019 broke down. Commanders used mobile phones – jammed and overheard by the Ukrainian forces.

Russian lightly armed infantry and ‘Spetsnaz’ special forces fared particularly badly – being caught in the open and ambushed. Locals were suspected of calling in strikes by app on mobile phones. Panicked, disorientated and drunken Russian soldiers went on the rampage, looting and murdering in towns and villages on the outskirts of Kyiv – most notably Bucha.

After a month, by mid-March, Moscow announced that its troops were pulling back from Kyiv to concentrate on the industrial and mining Donbas region. Putin had launched the operation to protect and liberate the so-called ‘independent republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk. The main aim now appears to be to destroy as much as possible with continuous artillery, rocket and air attack before sending in the tanks and the infantry. The tactic is self-defeating – because it has forced even the pro-Russian population to flee.

It is now a numbers game. Russia has lost over a third of the combat power of the forces it sent into Ukraine in February in under three months.

As many as 40,000 soldiers have been killed, wounded, captured or gone missing, around three thousand combat support vehicles lost and up to 700 tanks destroyed. Only one major objective has been seized – Mariupol – and it now a ghost city. Kharkiv close to the border has been taken back by the Ukrainians.

The numbers game is very difficult for Zelensky’s forces, too. The Russians can replace their force in Ukraine several times over – though each army raised by Putin will be less trained, less equipped and even less motivated. Ukraine has no replacement army. It now has to keep sufficient forces in the field to block the Russians – that is why the Kyiv can afford to commit only a certain proportion of the professional Army to the Donbas salient. More must be trained – Zelensky says he wants a million volunteers to be armed. Some now must be trained in using increasingly sophisticated weapons coming from America and its allies, Britain included. The light anti-tank and aircraft weapons like the NLAW and Javelin were easy to move and easy to train on. Bigger artillery systems, electronic warfare kit and medium range missiles like the Harpoon anti-ship missile may require weeks of training.

Interestingly, the British have been told by the Ukrainian military that their most valuable help would be their training and approach to logistics, training in command and special operations, and training in cyber and electronic warfare.

Nato defence officials have taken to saying cautiously ‘’everything is finely balanced” – meaning they haven’t a clue who is likely to win the present round in Donbas. Ukraine under Zelensky and the commanders doing their own thing out in the field are fighting a brilliant campaign of national survival insurgency.

The Russians are too stuck in their ways with an army saddled by an old Soviet-hangover doctrine and system of command, some bad as well as good equipment, and corrosive corruption. An important difference between the two sides was shown in exchange on prime time state television in Russia last week. A retired colonel, Mikhail Khodoarenok warned “Russia is total isolation – the situation for us will only get worse. This is not a normal situation.” Two days later he recanted and said “the Ukrainians are about to get a big shock from the Russian command’s new plans.” But in the initial exchange the presenter Olga Skabeyeva, a Putin favourite, said “By military professionalism – for the colonel had praised the Ukrainians, do we mean the decision to die for your country?”

Inadvertently she had stressed what the key moral component – that the Ukrainians are prepared to fight and die for their country and cause, whereas many Russians aren’t.

From the present position on day 90 and looking to day 100 and beyond, it is possible to pick out three or four key pointers in the growing crisis.

For Ukraine it is a war of survival for a generation. Some eleven million have now fled – one quarter of the population. Casualties have been severe – by a conservative estimate some 25,000 combatants and civilians have been killed.

The battle of bombardment now raging in Donbas is important, but the war will go on whoever wins there.

More vital perhaps is the battle of the Black Sea coast, for Odesa and to break the Russian blockade so Ukraine can get its agricultural produce out to the world. Some challenge to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet must be made soon – with shore to ship missiles like Harpoon.

Russia and Ukraine are responsible for some 15 per cent of global cereal exports, such as wheat, barley and maize, as well as sunflower and rapeseed oil. They are vital suppliers to the World Food Programme’s Global Aid programme – which supplies Yemen, Ethiopia and Lebanon. Egypt and Tunisia are already suffering. Political instability is in the wind and a new Arab Spring seems on the way.

Russia is withdrawing forces from Syria, making it more unpredictably unstable. Assad’s Damascus will depend more heavily on Iran. With a renewal of the nuclear agreement, the JCPOA of 2016, now unlikely, Iran will soon go nuclear.

The lack of food supplies threatens starvation – which will be exacerbated by the pressures in vital areas from the Gulf to India and sub Saharan Africa from climate change.

China is sitting on the fence – trade and supply chains hampered by the crisis, compounded by the Covid debacle at home. Beijing is reluctant to bail out Moscow – save buying a little more oil and gas at bargain basement prices.

It fears a potential collapse of Ukraine – which affects the Belt and Road project – as well as Russia. China knows it will have to pick up the pieces, before America intervenes and takes advantage. This means a military operation to grab Taiwan is off for the time being.

The biggest immediate strategic concern is the almost total isolation of Russia. It has only one ally – in theory – Lukashenko’s Belarus. Yet Belarus soldiers have been sabotaging convoys and equipment headed for Ukraine. Two years ago Putin is understood to have told his allies in the six-power Collective Security Treaty Organisation – CSTO – of plans to invade Ukraine. None said they would support him, save Belarus. By the way, why did western intelligence not pick this up?

An isolated Russia could be more unpredictable than it already is. More defeat or hollow victories could lead to desperate measures. The fear is that a cornered Putin could go for chemical or even nuclear arms. It is feared by Western military analysts that resorting to chemical weapons is more likely, given Russia’s extremely equivocal record on their use in Syria. The use of nuclear weapons is suicide – as Putin, as well as Russia’s military command must realise.

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