It has been the biggest surprise of the war, for the Kremlin, for the White House and for virtually every military prognosticator weighing the odds that Ukraine could hold out for long against a larger, better-armed and rebuilt Russian military machine.
Seven months of fighting for Russia have included a misbegotten invasion plan, the failure to capture and hold any major Ukrainian cities, breakdowns in logistics, morale and discipline, and a Ukrainian counterattack that has reclaimed land that Russia and its allies controlled before the war. Russia has been humiliated by a string of incidents, including the deaths of a slew of senior commanders and the sinking of its Black Sea flagship by two Ukrainian missiles.
The brazen attack partially destroying a crucial bridge linking Russia to occupied Crimea on Saturday is just the latest evidence that Vladimir Putin and his generals dramatically overestimated the capabilities of their armed forces.
Even U.S. government officials and intelligence agencies acknowledge that they thought Russia had such an advantage in manpower and weaponry that there was little Ukraine could do to defend itself after Mr. Putin ordered a full-scale invasion.
“Frankly, in February, there were a whole lot of people who thought the war would be over rapidly and Russia would be in a much better position than it is in today,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Wednesday.
A series of top-down tactical blunders, strategic misfires and pervasive corruption among Russian military leaders that left soldiers ill-equipped and undertrained all combined to flip the script. Mr. Putin’s plan to teach Ukraine a lesson and send a message to NATO and his Western critics has instead served only to expose the weaknesses of his own military force despite a vaunted campaign since the beginning of the century to rebuild and modernize the Russian armed forces.
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Even a barrage of cruise missile and drone attacks unleashed on Ukrainian cities — ordered by Mr. Putin in response to the bridge sabotage — is not changing expert opinion about the subpar showing of Russian forces.
“Russia’s forces are exhausted. The use of prisoners to reinforce, and now the mobilization of tens of thousands of inexperienced conscripts, speaks of a desperate situation,” Jeremy Fleming, head of the secretive GCHQ, Britain’s intelligence and security agency, said in a rare public address to a London think tank Tuesday.
“Far from the inevitable Russian military victory that their propaganda machine spouted, it’s clear that Ukraine’s courageous action on the battlefield and in cyberspace is turning the tide,” Mr. Fleming said.
That wasn’t the majority opinion seven months ago.
Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in March that he initially thought the Ukrainians were simply not ready for the Russian onslaught.
“I questioned their will to fight. That was a bad assessment on my part because they have fought bravely and honorably and are doing the right thing,” Gen. Berrier told lawmakers.
Russian officials characterized the incursion as a “special military operation” rather than a full-scale war and promised the public that seasoned professionals, not conscripts, would carry it out. That was shown to be an empty pledge after Mr. Putin’s recent military mobilization order sparked demonstrations throughout Russia.
Moscow aimed to capture Kyiv in a lightning blitz and decapitate the government, but the capital remains in Ukrainian hands and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy continues to host high-level foreign visitors and make virtual appearances at international forums such as the United Nations and NATO.
Armed with a growing arsenal of sophisticated firepower supplied by the U.S. and other Western powers, Ukraine is now counterattacking forcefully on a number of fronts and reclaiming land in the disputed Donbas region that was controlled by pro-Russian separatist forces before this year’s fighting began.
Analysts say there is no single answer to explain Russia’s failure to achieve its military objectives in Ukraine, but the blunders began at the very start.
Moscow’s plan was to capture Ukraine’s capital and oust Mr. Zelenskyy’s government in a three-day blitz, yet Russian officials have been forced to drastically pare down their goals for several months.
“I think [Russia] saw a window of opportunity and jumped into it, assuming that they were so superior that they didn’t have to do the detail work,” said Victoria Coates, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation. “Their assumptions were flawed going in, and I also think our assumptions were flawed: Get Zelenskyy out and form a government in exile in Poland. In hindsight, it was a horrible miscalculation.”
Bradley Bowman, senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said that, like other outside analysts, he compared how many troops and weapons Russia and Ukraine could send to the battlefield and concluded that Moscow would likely come out on top in any conflict through sheer force of numbers.
“When you compared the number of aircraft or tanks or armored personnel carriers or air defense systems, there was just no comparison,” Mr. Bowman said. “If I could go back in time, one of the things I would have paid more attention to is looking at training — specifically the degree to which training exercises [in Russia] were ‘dog-and-pony shows’ versus genuine combined arms training exercises.”
Most Russian soldiers have little field training, and the quality of personnel in military units varies widely. Mr. Bowman said inexperience was clear almost from the start with the infamous 40-mile-long Russian convoy that crossed into Ukraine from Belarus in the early days of the war but never got closer than 20 miles from Kyiv. The exposed, strung-out convoy remained on the road for weeks and was regularly targeted by Ukrainian partisans.
“You don’t just sit on a road. If you come to a tactical pause, you get off the road and into the trees,” Mr. Bowman said. “You look for cover, and you look for concealment. It’s kind of basic stuff.”
Russia’s brief border war with Georgia in 2008 lasted about a week, but its military took heavier losses than expected, including several combat aircraft. That appeared to be one of the factors that caused the Kremlin to opt for a substantial modernization of its military.
“They spent a lot of money over a decade doing that. But they wasted a lot of money on modernizing their nuclear forces — not as much value to their military needs,” said William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia now with the nonpartisan Rand Corp. think tank. “There was so much corruption in the Russian government and certainly in the military as well that weakened the modernization process.”
Russian soldiers are often given expired rations and forced to sleep in broken beds.
“A lot of the money was siphoned off by higher-ups that should have gone to improve the conditions of the soldiers,” Mr. Courtney said.
Compared with Ukrainian soldiers, Russian troop morale is abysmal. After overestimating his forces, Mr. Putin made a second massive mistake in underestimating the willingness of Ukrainians to fight for their country and the inspiration they inspired in the West as their resistance to Russian invading forces stiffened.
“Russian commanders have lied to them all along the way in many respects. Russian soldiers sent in were told they were going to exercises, not war,” Mr. Courtney said. “We’ve seen Russian military leaders unwilling to be honest about how many people have been killed.”
For all the progress claimed by Mr. Putin’s modernization drive, Russia’s military continues to operate with a rigid “top-down” command structure, one whose weaknesses have become evident in the fighting. Troops are discouraged from taking initiative on the battlefield, unlike armies in the West and, increasingly, Ukraine.
Mr. Putin has gone through several top generals looking for someone to oversee the mission in Ukraine, and Russia’s senior officer corps has suffered shockingly high casualty rates because they have had to be so close to the front lines to manage the fighting directly.
The U.S. and other NATO countries ramped up “train and equip” programs for Ukraine’s military since 2014 when Moscow annexed Crimea from Kyiv without a fight. The programs taught Ukrainian forces how to fight the way NATO does, which is in a more decentralized manner that allows commanders in the field to make more tactical decisions and better adjust to the circumstances.
“This has enabled them to be very effective,” Mr. Courtney said.
The Biden administration has provided almost $20 billion in security assistance packages to Kyiv since 2014. While the support has included a number of game-changing high-tech weapons systems such as the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), the West also is shipping basic items such as combat boots, rucksacks and night-vision goggles.
“Those are pretty basic things, but there have been Russian troops who were killed who had flip-flops on,” Mr. Courtney said. “Russians are being sent out there without Kevlar armor. That kind of stuff is demoralizing when you’re facing Ukrainians who are well-equipped.”
The U.S. also has sent Ukraine a number of counterbattery radar systems, allowing its soldiers to track and destroy Russian artillery. The NATO-standard 155 mm artillery they have been receiving can shoot farther than their old Soviet-style 152 mm howitzers.
“That has made it difficult for Russians to develop ammo dumps, fuel dumps, and command-and-control facilities, which is the most efficient way to provide logistics support,” Mr. Courtney said. “They don’t have the ammo for their artillery because they don’t have places to store them in the field efficiently.”
Wounded but still dangerous
For some, the greatest danger now facing Ukraine is overconfidence, outrunning supply lines and support in the counteroffensive in the east. Russia retains a numerical advantage, and Mr. Putin has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists in a bid to shore up defensive lines inside Ukrainian territory.
The global humiliation he has endured could make Mr. Putin even more dangerous and unpredictable. Russian forces on Monday launched the most extensive cruise missile salvo of the war in retaliation for the Ukrainian special operation Saturday that damaged the bridge spanning the Kerch Strait, hitting Kyiv and other major cities that had been largely quiet.
“To leave such acts without a response is simply impossible,” Mr. Putin fumed.
The Russian president “sees his forces getting shellacked in Ukraine and is probably paranoid and insecure enough to think, implausibly, that these forces might continue into Russia proper,” Mr. Bowman said. “I think the scenarios where you could have the employment of a tactical nuclear weapon are more likely when you have a Russian disaster rather than a Russian success in Ukraine.”
Whether Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is successful or not, it is important to remember that Russia remains a nuclear power with a submarine force capable of launching ballistic missiles.
“I think we’re in a particular moment of danger here,” Mr. Bowman said. “The nuclear saber-rattling has a lot of Americans paying attention who may not have been.”