Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of staff for the Prussian army, once made the astute observation that no war plan survives “first contact” with a hostile force. If there was ever a war to validate that claim, it’s the one currently churning in Ukraine. As the conflict in Europe’s largest country marks its six-month anniversary on Wednesday, 24 August, the main protagonists have all experienced their fair share of jolted assumptions, operational mistakes, and misplaced beliefs about what is and isn’t possible. Inflated expectations have been punctured, hopes have been dashed, and strategies crafted to cause the enemy discomfort instead produced unintended consequences that are just as painful.
Take Russia as an example. Sensing Ukrainian forces would either flee or fold in matter of days, Vladimir Putin believed a military operation in Ukraine could easily dispense with the Volodymyr Zelenskiy administration with minimal resistance. Putin assumed that Russia’s security services, with assets burrowed within the Ukrainian political elite, had an accurate, sophisticated reading of Ukraine’s internal dynamics and were confident that the Ukrainian people would welcome a pro-Russian government in Kyiv.
Russia’s formidable security services, however, vastly underestimated the Ukrainian public’s will to resist and discounted the Ukrainian army as the paper tiger it once fought in 2014, when Ukrainian units were ill-trained, outgunned, understaffed and riddled with corruption. The Russian army, which hadn’t fought a large-scale land war outside of Russia proper since the Red Army’s campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, soon encountered the difficulties associated with urban combat. The Ukrainian military made excellent use of the javelin anti-tank missiles Washington provided and took advantage of Russia’s clumsy execution of combined arms warfare. Within weeks, Russian supply lines were shattered, tanks and armored personnel carriers sat on the outskirts of Kyiv with nowhere to go, and stationary Russian armor were perfect targets for Ukrainian ambushes.
It soon became abundantly clear that Russia didn’t have the ability to clear Ukraine’s major cities nor the logistical capacity to sustain such an operation. While Russia’s diversion of resources and redeployment toward eastern and southern Ukraine has managed to notch some territorial victories, the advances have been exceedingly slow and come at a high cost to its personnel and equipment. With the exception of constant Russian artillery barrages on Ukrainian positions, the lines in Donetsk have barely moved since Russian forces captured the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in June and July. While difficult to confirm, there may be as many as 80,000 Russian casualties over the war’s first six months, a number Putin himself would not have imagined when he began this so-called “special military operation”.
Ukraine has witnessed some unexpected setbacks as well. Buoyed by its initial success in Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv, as well as Russia’s self-inflicted humiliations in the field during the war’s opening months, the Ukrainian government began operating on a prevailing sense of optimism that the war could be won militarily. Fresh off their successes, Ukrainian political and military officials began to anticipate that pushing Russian forces completely out of the country was possible by the end of the year. The Ukrainians were hardly the only ones who dreamed big; retired general Ben Hodges, the former commander of the US army in Europe, argued the same thing in early June.
Those projections, however, have turned out to be much too optimistic. Successful Ukrainian strikes against Russian munitions depots, command-and-control facilities, logistics points, and even airfields in Russian-occupied Kherson and Crimea have had an appreciable impact on the Russian military’s capacity to sustain itself. But the Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson that has been telegraphed again and again for months is still in its infancy – and the odds of such a counteroffensive successfully forcing a Russian retreat from the area aren’t particularly good given Moscow’s continued weapons superiority. Russian artillery fire remains a source of pain for Ukrainian units trying to cut off Russian forces from resupply in Kherson. Zelenskiy’s confident boasts about liberating Crimea aside, such a feat is the definition of delusional.
The US and its European allies have had to tone down their expectations as well. In the west, there was a widespread belief that an unprecedented sanctions campaign against Russia would destroy the Russian economy and force Putin to negotiate a face-saving end to the war. Neither of these have occurred. While the Russian economy is projected to contract by 6% this year, and over 1,000 foreign businesses have left or reduced operations in the Russian market, Washington and Brussels underestimated Moscow’s ability to sustain itself financially. The ruble is stronger today than it was before the war. Russia continues to sell oil and natural gas at a steady pace, raking in more than $337bn in oil and gas revenue this year, a 38% increase from 2021.
The roughly $10bn in US military assistance to Ukraine has undoubtedly helped Kyiv maintain a costly stalemate in the face of Russian firepower and is complicating Russia’s offensive in the Donbas. But Putin is no less committed to his military objectives today than he was in February. US assumptions of a desperate Russia wall clamoring to escape a mess of its own making appears to be a figment of imagination. If Russia was indeed desperate, it would be searching for an exit ramp, not planning to annex occupied Ukrainian territory in a series of planned referendums.
Six months after the first Russian missile strikes, it’s impossible to envision how the war will end. But what can be said for certain is that everyone involved is learning yet again that there are no guarantees in war.
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