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  1. International Politics
28 February 2022

The fight for Ukraine is only beginning

Wars are rarely decided in days, and this one is unlikely to be an exception.

By Lawrence Freedman

I previously wrote how I thought that this war had begun badly for Russia and was likely to end badly. Even if the military campaign in Ukraine progressed with greater efficiency, Vladimir Putin was still likely to lose because he was following a delusional strategy – reflecting his belief that Ukraine was a non-state with no national identity, that Kyiv could be taken quickly, that the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky could be deposed, and that a compliant puppet regime could be installed in his stead. Nothing has yet happened to make me change that view. 

I also warned that the coming days would be rougher and tougher – and so, sadly, it is proving. Although, if anything, I understated the faltering character of the first waves of the Russian offensive. A high human and strategic price is now being paid by Moscow for some haphazard and arrogant planning, and for failing to think through the worst case as well as the best.  

It might be thought that a few days of limited progress will soon become irrelevant once the raw power of the Russian armed forces are brought to bear, but this is wrong. The first days set the conditions for those to come. They affect the transition from the first stage of conventional warfare to the next stage of urban warfare and, potentially, the stage after that – of resistance to an unwelcome occupation.

[See also: Has Vladimir Putin launched an unwinnable war?]

The first great surprise of this war, in addition to the recklessness of Putin starting it, lies in the failure of the Russian higher command to take advantage of its protracted military build-up to design and then implement an effective offensive. It was natural to assume that it had plans to cut through the Ukrainian defences and leave them helpless, and that these plans would succeed. Ukraine’s forces would be at a crippling disadvantage from the start against a formidable, modern and professional Russian force that had benefited from years of investment.  

The Russians were also credited with having developed a way of warfare that would magnify their advantage; to the classic instruments of military power they would add special forces and capabilities for cyberattacks and information campaigns. In what has come to be described as “hybrid war”, these would be coordinated to form a synchronised onslaught that would leave their enemies battered, confused and dislocated. Some even suggested that there was a “grey zone” in which conflicts could be pursued short of actual war, in which there would be ways of disrupting national infrastructure and confusing the population with fake messages so that it would not even be necessary to resort to armed force. While clearly the Russians had no intention of sticking to this zone, these methods would still be important in confusing and demoralising the Ukrainians so they might meekly accept the new order that was being prepared for them.

Yet when the moment came, after all these months of preparation, instead of some Russian equivalent of “shock and awe”, there was a curiously haphazard and incoherent offensive. There were some cyberattacks before the start of the invasion, but nothing unusual for the Ukrainians, who have been regularly subjected to them for eight years. The Ukrainian internet and telephone service continued to function.

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As for the information campaign, conducted using social as well as traditional media, the Russians have been comprehensively defeated. The incredible and barely comprehensible narrative with which Putin began this war condemned spokespeople to absurdity with the claim that this “special operation” was a humanitarian mission to protect the vulnerable people of the Donbas, who for some inexplicable reason the Ukrainians had chosen to attack in the full knowledge that there were Russian troops on their border.  

The Ukrainians have dominated the information space. They have provided factual communiqués that might play up the Russian losses but also talk about their own setbacks. More importantly, international networks report sympathetically from the besieged cities and the border posts crowded with distraught refugees. While Russia offers a president who increasingly presents as a cartoon villain, Ukraine’s leader bravely and eloquently leads his people at a time of grave danger.  

These narrative wars may seem irrelevant as Russian tanks roll forward and firepower is directed at cities and their defenders. What consolation can be found in having all the best media lines if your forces are constantly having to retreat? Yet they do matter because of the impact they have on the attitudes and behaviour of three key audiences – the people of both Ukraine and Russia, and the international community.

The most important feature of the Ukrainian narrative has been its realism. It lacks bombast and bluster. Significantly, it has not claimed the imminent defeat of the Russian armed forces but has been able to demonstrate that they are not invincible, while at the same time encouraging people to mobilise and prepare for the next stage of urban warfare. Sufficient national feeling and momentum has been generated to sustain the fight, even if this now has to be with small arms and Molotov cocktails. (As a historical footnote, we can remark that the term for these bottles with flammable liquids was coined by the Finns in their “winter war” of 1939 against the Russians. Vyacheslav Molotov was the Russian foreign minister at the time, blamed for creating the conditions for the war with his pact with the Nazis. Perhaps they might now be updated to “Lavrov cocktails”.) 

In terms of the international audience, the war has put enormous pressure on Western governments to up their game, and even those friendlier to Moscow have kept their distance (notably China when it abstained in the key UN Security Council vote of condemnation – which Russia was able to veto). While it is now difficult for Western countries to send in more equipment and ammunition by air, convoys are still getting through on the ground; so long as this can be sustained, these will enable Ukrainian forces to continue to fight. Russia may now need to divert some units to try to intercept equipment arriving from the West.

Most importantly it has led to harsher sanctions, as ways are sought not only to back the Ukrainians but also to ensure that the Russians do not prevail. Now, certain Russian banks will be excluded from the Swift payments system. The Russian economy (but also, note, the global economy) will be taking a battering so long as this war goes on. 

What then of the Russian audience, the one subject to the greatest censorship and exposure to the Kremlin’s narrative? They are being told nothing about the casualties on their own side or the atrocities committed in their name. Yet the news is getting through and the evidence of dissent is palpable. The clampdown may become harsher but should the disaffection extend to ordinary people, fearful of their young men at the front, their families and friends in Ukraine, and the collapsing value of their currency, Putin’s domestic problems may grow. Another reason why he wants the war over quickly.

[See also: “Scared, hopeless and silent”: anti-war Russians are pessimistic about mass protests]

The hurry to get the war won explains many of the errors made by Russian forces at the start. The first mistake was not to make taking out the Ukrainian air force and air defences a priority. These are still operating, and the skies over Ukraine can be dangerous for Russian aircraft. A second was the dash to get into Kyiv, remove Zelensky from office and install a puppet leader using special forces and light units. This went awry early on. The unit charged with taking and holding the airport near Kyiv was eliminated before more troops could be flown in. Then bridges were destroyed, adding to the journey facing Russian forces moving into position.

This, in turn, has put pressure on supply lines. There is evidence, at least from social media, of Russian vehicles running out of fuel and even problems with keeping soldiers in forward positions fed. More demanding logistic chains add complexity to the operations but also high costs. There have also been significant losses of men and equipment. The Ukrainians claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on the Russians – thousands of dead, which would mean many more wounded. While Russians fail to talk about casualties, rumours will soon be spreading among other front-line units and this will be bad for morale. Again, looking largely at social media, which of course provides only partial insights, Russian morale seems poor and their attitude towards local people berating them appears bemused more than hostile. Even while still in their tanks they do not always appear to know what they should be doing or where they should be going.

Having tried to make their breakthroughs using only a portion of available forces, the Russians appear to have opted for a more ruthless strategy, relying more on artillery, which in turn will add to the terrible cost to civilian life and property. The attacks on the oil depot near Kyiv will cause lasting damage. The Ukrainian high command will have to face some hard decisions in the coming days about evacuations and tactical retreats. It is already the case, as could be seen from the first day, that the situation in the south is very difficult. The units in the east, which have long been deployed close to the separatist territories, risk being cut off by Russian columns coming in from Crimea that have yet to face much resistance. For the moment, the city of Mariupol, which has been on the front line since 2014, is held. But other towns in the area have already fallen and Ukrainian forces risk getting trapped.

The main attention is now focused on the two key cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, as we now enter the next stage of urban warfare. This must be something Putin hoped to avoid, for few events are less likely to create a sullen and compliant population than days of poorly targeted and often pointless, cruel shelling. The Russian methodology for dealing with resistance in cities was set in the two Chechen wars of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, which led to the capital Grozny being reduced to rubble. More recently in Syria, Russian aircraft pounded rebel enclaves, for example in Aleppo, including deliberate attacks on hospitals to force residents to flee. In Mosul, from 2016 to 2017, US airpower worked with Iraqi forces to push out Islamic State in a battle that lasted nine months. The human cost was immense, although in that instance the readiness of the jihadists to use local civilians as shields and hostages had much to do with the carnage.  

Even if Moscow wants to avoid more accusations of war crimes, it is impossible to fight in cities without causing great death and destruction. But the main challenge for Russian forces is to take the roads and occupy the centre. The early reports of fighting in the streets of Kyiv and Kharkiv suggest only lightly armed vehicles have penetrated thus far, which has proved to be hazardous as they are vulnerable to Ukrainian counter-attacks. Far more substantial forces are now getting into position, but there are limits to how much can be poured into a city at any time. The narrower the streets the harder urban warfare becomes as vehicles can soon get trapped. Taking these cities requires infantry – who offer targets for ambushes. This is when morale starts to be really critical.

[See also: The exemplary resilience of Volodymyr Zelensky]

Wars are rarely decided in days, and this one is unlikely to be an exception. Having thus far been thwarted, the Russians will push harder, expecting to exhaust and overwhelm the defenders. Putin must be frustrated that he has not already ousted Zelensky, but he is now too committed to even consider withdrawal. After telling the Ukrainian armed forces to lay down their arms and then to oust Zelensky he must now defeat them. Zelensky will continue to rally his people from inside the capital. Presumably he and his colleagues have a plan about how to cope should he be killed or captured. Even if he was tempted to capitulate, which he obviously is not, Ukrainians are too enraged now to give up without continued resistance. By contrast, in the unlikely event of some sort of coup against Putin the war would end almost immediately.  

Neither Putin nor Zelensky have ruled out ceasefire talks. Putin offered Zelensky the opportunity to visit the Belarusian capital Minsk to negotiate surrender terms. That is where past negotiations took place, but Belarus is now a co-belligerent. Its territory has been used to launch some of the most deadly assaults against Ukraine. Zelensky has offered the names of numerous capitals as alternative venues for a Ukrainian delegation to meet a Russian. This may still be how this war concludes but the fighting may sadly have some way to go before that point is reached. Meanwhile, the casualties will continue to mount.

The problem with designing a peace deal is the same problem that has surrounded this conflict from the start, and it goes back to the narrative war. Putin has described the stakes for Russia in fantastical terms that have little relationship to the actual situation. He wants to de-Nazify a country with a Jewish president, and protect the people of the Donbas from a “genocide” that was a complete fabrication. So Zelensky can promise without difficulty not to be a Nazi and not to conduct a genocide. What he cannot do is to deny Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state following its own path. Putin’s people claim that is not in doubt. The problem, they claim, is that the wrong people are in charge. If so, they presumably would have no difficulty with free elections under international supervision. Putin can be encouraged to put his theories about where the sympathies of the ordinary people of Ukraine lie to the test.

This article originally appeared on Lawrence Freedman’s Substack “Comment is Freed”.

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