THIS is the first of three articles looking at the war in Ukraine as it reaches the end of its first year. In this piece, I will attempt to give a view of the current situation and how it has developed. The succeeding two articles will look at what happens next and what winning and losing could look like, and then at what lessons can be identified and then learned.
PERHAPS the first thing to say is that few people in the West at the beginning of the year really expected that Putin would actually invade – I certainly did not, and I put my hand up to having totally ‘misappreciated’ the situation.
The Ukrainians, however, did expect it. They planned and acted for the worst case – a very sensible military precept. They quietly mobilised their reserves in the weeks leading up to the invasion and prepared defences. They also took on board substantial training and weapon supplies from the US and Britain. People out there are quite clear that had it not been for these preparations and this assistance, it would all have been over in three or four days. As it was, the Ukrainians outnumbered the invaders on ground and in weather suitable for the defence; and fought a classic asymmetric campaign – in the sense that all warfare is asymmetrical as each side seeks to pit its strengths against their opponents’ weaknesses.
Three or four days is clearly what the Russians thought it would take. But they were looking for a different target array than that which they actually encountered, and even seem to have believed that they would be welcomed everywhere, rather than just in those areas with substantial Russian populations.
So, what have the Russians been doing and why? I do not propose to rehearse Putin’s reasons for attacking Ukraine – I think we all know his reasoning and his grievances, whether real or imagined. What we have seen is a classic demonstration of Russian hybrid warfare, sometimes, wrongly, called ‘the Gerasimov Doctrine’. This form of warfare is in many ways not new, but rather a reshaping and repackaging of old techniques from the Soviet era, employing new technologies and opportunities.
Putin’s objectives for Russia over the past 15 years have been clear: To be once more a great power, if not a superpower, and an international actor with the ability to block any advances by the West through membership of the P5 (the United Nations Security Council); to project regional power in concert with allies and clients such as Iran and Syria; to maintain strong internal leadership, and to influence the ‘near abroad’ – the former Soviet republics of Eastern Europe and Asia.
Why? Because after the end of the Cold War, Russia went into a decline, got all the bad bits of capitalism and none of the good, received no help from the West and became a gangster state. For Putin, this was intolerable. He stands for Russia as a great power, for stability and order and a foundation of distinctively Russian cultural and religious ethics. His contempt for the failing, degenerate West is palpable, as he views it as in the hands of corrupt governments and destructive globalists. The West’s refusal to recognise the nasty side of Ukraine – the Azov Movement with its obvious Nazi tendencies, and the genuine oppression of the Russian minorities in the eastern provinces – first puzzled and then angered him.
Moreover, as long ago as the Munich Security Conference of 2007, Putin accused Western powers of violating a solemn pledge by enlarging Nato and bringing it to the borders of Russia. Nato sources will reply that no such pledge was ever made, then or at any other time. However, true or not, it is therefore Nato that is the real target in the medium term, and we will return to this idea in the last of the three articles.
In Ukraine, Russian methods have been shaped by a number of factors, threats and opportunities, which have included, first, the use of clients and proxies such as the irregular units recruited in the Donbass region as well as mercenaries from Chechnya and Lebanon. Next, the use of a regular/irregular force mix. Over the last five months, most of the fighting in the Donbass region has been done by Ministry of Interior troops along with local levies and mercenaries, with the regular army supplying massive artillery fires, air and aviation support. Then of course we have the use of non-military pressures, in particular oil and gas.
The Russians have also tried to influence public opinion at home and abroad through information warfare, psyops, Putin’s controlled media – and diplomacy among his clients and allies. Cyber opportunities have so far been limited; this form of warfare has so far promised more than it has delivered, which is often the way with innovations; however, its day will come. We must expect that new technologies like this will be allied with old Soviet techniques such as maskirovka – deception. Finally, of course, the Russians are well aware of the role of nuclear weapons as a deterrent and a threat.
In this mix of non-military and military means, the non-military led initially, up to the invasion itself, then acted in support of military force, then led again as winter approached and operations on the ground slowed. These non-military means include the leverage given by economic weapons such as energy. Here, many Nato countries have played directly into Putin’s hands by coming to rely on Russia as their main supplier through the Nord Stream pipeline network in spite of warnings to the contrary. Now that wet, muddy, early winter conditions are closing in and direct military action takes a back seat, we must expect to see this form of warfare stepped up. Will the governments of Germany, France and Italy, for example, continue to support Ukraine while their populations shiver in the dark and turn on them?
The situation has been complicated by the damage to the Nord Stream IIBaltic pipelines, although the leaks appear to have been stabilised. Who did this? It makes no sense for Russia to have done so, because the leverage lay in turning the supply on and off in support of policy objectives. So who? Well, who has underwater drone technology? And who would wish to force European Nato nations to stop dealing with Russia and look elsewhere for gas supplies, thus reducing Russian leverage and the danger of the loss of Nato cohesion? I make no accusations, but the list of possible suspects is a short one, made even perhaps shorter by Liz Truss’s alleged message to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken: ‘It’s done.’
The use of these non-military methods minimises the risk inherent in overt military action involving Nato – military risk here must always be minimised, because Russia knows that it cannot face the US, in the last resort, and win. After their exercises in the Black Sea in 2020 and 2021, the Russians became very aware of the effectiveness and timeliness of Nato command, control, communications and intelligence-gathering. But the alliance’s poor showing in Afghanistan, Syria, the latest scramble from Mali and episodes like the HMS Defender incident in the Black Sea may have emboldened them.
However, Putin has managed to encourage the thing he said he wanted to avoid – the enlargement of Nato. Ukrainian membership of the EU was a probability in his eyes and thereafter Nato membership would follow. The EU and US’s bad faith over the coup in 2014 which ousted Ukraine president Viktor Yanukovych, in direct contravention of agreements made with Russia, hardened the connection in his eyes. This undoubtedly prompted the invasion and annexation of the Crimea in 2014, since Putin knew that Nato would never tolerate a Russian naval base on its territory, so that the choice was to take control now, before Ukraine became a member, or face Nato in the future. He made the only possible decision. The lack of reaction then probably further emboldened him in his calculations over the current war.
Consulting no allies, calling no conferences and heeding no red cards, Putin’s tempo of decision-making and action is always faster than that of the Nato alliance, or even a coalition – but the same applies to the Ukrainians. This tempo is further enabled by information operations using disinformation, propaganda and deception to create a narrative in order to disrupt, isolate, blackmail and mislead foreign governments, and to slow or divert decision-making. Putin may have hoped that the G20 meeting would provide him with a platform from which to outline a possible end to the war; however, this was hijacked by the Polish missile crisis. To a degree, the Russians were able to turn this to advantage, with Nato partners in disarray amid hysterical claims of an attack which were quickly found to be nonsense.
But against this narrative of Russian advances and advantages, let us consider two things: first, invading other countries and prosecuting aggressive war is both wrong and illegal. Secondly, Russian performance on the battlefield has been in many areas, woeful. True, Putin has established control over the Crimean water supply, the Black Sea coastal corridor from Russia proper through the provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson to the Crimea and the two eastern, mainly Russian-speaking, provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. However, there have been a series of catastrophically bad battlefield performances – the failed river crossing over the Siversky Donets; the failed air assault on Antonov airport; the ambush and destruction of several columns of tanks and vehicles making administrative moves rather than tactical advances; the more recent reverses around Kharkov, and the retreat at Kherson. Russian morale on the ground appears extremely shaky, even when the bias of the Western media is taken into account.
Russian casualties are almost impossible to verify independently, but are probably around 15,000 killed and a much higher number of wounded; they include a surprisingly high number of senior officers, including so far 12 generals. In the Russian Army, as in the former Soviet Army, little is delegated to NCOs. It often takes a colonel to solve a problem that in the British Army would be handled by a corporal. It therefore seems that problems at the front, be they administrative or tactical, have required the direct intervention of a senior officer. Ukrainian snipers have then taken advantage of the opportunity (assuming that these officers have not been shot by their own troops). On top of this, there has been a string of high-profile sackings, either for failure to produce results or because of disputes over the direction of the war. Putin, like many dictators, appears increasingly interested in interfering with military affairs to a low level. At least ten senior generals have gone so far – Lieutenant-General Roman Berdnikov lasted just 16 days as commander of the Western Military District after Ukrainian advances around Kharkov in September. The most recent high-profile sacking has been Dmitry Bulgarov, commander of the Eastern Military District, deputy defence minister and a senior logistician.
Where the Russians have established primacy is in the use of another Soviet technique: massed artillery, drone and missile fires. Once the shortcomings of the Russian ground forces in manoeuvre became impossible to ignore, the difference has been made up by fires. The expenditure of ammunition must have been stupendous, but until the Ukrainian counter-attack around Kharkov, this was what was enabling the advances by non-regular ground troops.
Ukrainian casualties too have been huge. Estimates range from 75,000 to 85,000 killed – not counting wounded, missing, and civilian deaths – and this is unsustainable.
However, the Russians only ever committed about 190,000 troops in total, including militias and internal security troops – less than 10 per cent of their available, mobilised, combat power not counting reserves – so were always outnumbered and it is still cloaked in the name of a ‘Special Military Operation’ rather than a war or an invasion. Putin was no doubt haunted by the experience of Afghanistan and his objectives were the ‘liberation’ of the Donbass and the corridor to the Crimea as well as the ejection of an anti-Russian, pro-Western and, to the Russians, dangerously Nazi regime from its doorstep.
Having used only such relatively small numbers, it seems highly unlikely that a takeover of the entire country was ever contemplated. The operation should probably have occurred in 2016 but, uncharacteristically, Putin hesitated. And even this limited operation has been under-resourced. It was also delayed by operations around Kharkov, both Russian and Ukrainian, which have been a distraction. The Russians also quite clearly underestimated Ukrainian resolve and preparedness, believing, wrongly, that they would be welcomed.
The deployment of such limited numbers was probably the result of Russia’s two-tier military system: a professional core and a large pool of reservists generated from an annual call-up of conscripts, augmented by Chechens and militia as required. Until now, the pool has not been utilised and, in spite of what the Western media likes to portray, Putin has public opinion in Russia on his side. A recent interview with Vanessa Beeley, a journalist who has for some time been living in Russia, is most revealing and completely contrary to the Western media narrative, constructed from afar on predetermined lines. It has, of course, been denounced as mad, pro-Putin propaganda and certainly care is needed as one has to get past Beeley’s anti-Nato hysteria. But the demonisation of Russia by the West has helped Putin at home.
Now, having begun the war with a limited objective, achieved the acquisition of territory but faced with a Ukrainian military still in the field and backed by a hostile Nato, he must go further – and the mobilisation of public opinion will help because it is the consensus needed for a far more intense military mobilisation than has so far taken place, something that would not have been possible at the outset of the Special Military Operation. Then, most Russians would probably not have supported the destruction of Ukraine. In spite of the view peddled by our Defence Ministry and media, the vast majority of young Russian reservists have willingly answered the call. But now, at the end of the first year, the problem with Putin, from the perspective of many Russians, is that he has not gone far enough. (See the very revealing article by Big Serge.)
Ukraine’s offensive phase continues – and continues to make gains. Its troops are pushing into northern Lugansk and have followed up the retreat from Kherson; all territory west of the Dnieper and Zaporizhzhia are major targets. Western media confidently predicts the victory of Ukraine and characterises the Russian Army as depleted, defeated and painted into a corner (that would presumably be the tiny space between their western frontier and Vladivostok?) Putin and his incompetent generals, it is said, can do nothing but throw large numbers of half-trained conscripts into the meat grinder.
There is, however, an alternative possibility which has much deeper implications for Ukraine and for Nato, and I will outline this in the next article.
For now, it seems that the Russians are relying on firepower. Drones, missiles, artillery shells and rockets appear plentiful. Ukrainian infrastructure, especially the electricity grid, is approaching an irreparable state. Sixty-five per cent of the country is blacked out for hours at any one time and with no electricity to run the railways, the Ukrainian military is having trouble moving men and supplies, while the Russians mass for the next move.