Reportaje The Economist, 23.12.2022
How the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion led Russia into a bloody morass
When the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt ended in November 1942, Winston Churchill reflected on the British victory. « This is not the end. It’s not even the beginning of the end », he warned memorably. « But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning ». As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches its 11th month, it is reaching the same tipping point. It was a story of Russian hubris, human suffering and, above all, Ukrainian defiance.
In April 2021, Russia began massing an unusual number of forces on the border with Ukraine. In retrospect, this was a dry run for what was to come. In July of that year, Russian President Vladimir Putin published a curious essay questioning Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state. After Russia completed its massive Zapad military exercise in western Russia and Belarus in September, it left much of the kit behind in another warning sign.
By October, US intelligence had obtained Russian war plans. Next month Bill Burns, a C.I.A director, was sent to Moscow to warn Mr. Putin. But the build-up continued, tracked in unprecedented detail by open-source intelligence such as commercial satellite imagery.
In January, as Russia held fake talks with America and NATO while he denied planning an invasion, The Economist warned that war was coming. For Mr. Putin, the gamble may be worth it, we wrote. Better to start a war now, despite the attendant costs, than to risk a Ukraine ablaze with foreign troops in a decade. The invasion finally came in the early hours of February 24, about a week behind schedule due to unrest in Moscow over the weather and other issues. Russian armies poured into Ukraine from the north, east and south, starting the biggest war in Europe since 1945.
Most officials, including the Ukrainians, expected Russia to quickly crush its smaller neighbor. That didn’t happen. Although Russia’s war plans were revealed on February 17, the British Defense Ministry published a precise map of possible invasion axes, military units did not receive orders until 24 hours before the war, according to a recent study by RUSSIAN, a think tank. The troops lacked ammunition, food, fuel and maps. Many wandered into Ukrainian cities without their weapons loaded. When they asked the Ukrainian citizens where they were, their positions were immediately reported.
This was, in part, a failure of intelligence. The famous Russian spies made a series of blunders. Many spoke only to those Ukrainians who agreed that the country was ripe for conquest and would fall without serious fighting. Conflicting intelligence and a lot of it didn’t go down the chain. Intelligence agencies in authoritarian countries often tell their bosses what they want to hear.
The invasion also revealed a deeper rot in Russia’s armed forces, including endemic corruption and a lack of training. When Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the general staff, met his British counterpart in February, he claimed that Russia had reached conventional military parity with America’s armed forces. This claim has been exposed as hollow. The Russian air force struggled against Ukraine’s aging but flexible air defenses and its tanks were used unfairly. Cyber forces were unprepared for a long campaign.
However, the initial stage of the war was a closer thing than many assumed at the time. Doubting that Russia would invade, Ukraine’s political leaders were not fully prepared, despite extensive warnings from America and Britain. The majority of Ukraine’s regular forces were entrenched in the eastern Donbass region after predicting that any attack would likely only take place there. Russian jets and tanks were superior to Ukrainian ones. Russia’s performance in the south was better. Its forces there formed effective armored and infantry storm teams, supported by Chechen fighters, notes RUSSIAN. But even then Mariupol, a port city, fell only in May, after months of brutal aerial bombardment.
In reality, the Russian units proved unable to adapt or recover from their heavy initial losses. On March 2 they captured Kherson, the capital of the province of the same name, but found themselves blocked in the suburbs of Kiev, pushed back from Kharkiv in the east, and halted en route to Odessa at the southern city of Mykolayiv. In late March, the Kremlin thus faced reality and announced that it would drastically curtail operations in the north to focus on the Donbass.
By the first week of April Russia’s ignominious retreat from the capital was largely complete. Ukraine had won the Battle of Kiev, despite a twelve to one troop disadvantage at the outset. As Russian troops withdrew, they left in their wake evidence of mass killings and other war crimes in cities like Bukha, effectively ending any prospect of successful peace talks.
The second phase of the war had some successes for Russia. It used its advantage in artillery ammunition to overrun Ukraine in the east, slowly capturing the entire Luhansk province. Russian artillery in Donbas was firing about 20,000 shells a day, RUSI notes, with a peak rate of 32,000 rounds on some days three to five times the Ukrainian rate. We are inferior in terms of equipment and therefore unable to advance, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lamented in early June.
But his forces found creative ways to fight back. In April Ukraine carried out daring cross-border helicopter raids on the Russian city of Belgorod and then sank the Moscow, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet among the worst naval losses for any country since the Falklands War of 1982. Ukraine also dominated the information war in the West. Back in August we covered the antics of the North Atlantic Fellas Organization (NAFO), a virtual pro-Ukraine army whose members disguise themselves as shiba inu dogs and fight Russian propagandists with memes.
The third phase of the war began in the summer, as Ukraine went on the offensive. In June he received the first HIMARS missile launchers from America, longer range and more accurate than anything else in the Russian arsenal. He began so-called deep strikes on ammunition depots, command posts and barracks far behind the front lines. It also targeted bridges over the Dnieper River, cutting off Russian forces in the city of Kherson. A formal offensive there in August made slow progress. But a surprise attack on Kharkiv the following month turned into a disaster, liberating vast tracts of territory.
As the Ukrainian attacks were successful, Russia tried to adapt. On September 21, Putin announced a partial mobilization of Russian men, a process that yielded over 100,000 in less than two months. In October Mr Putin appointed a new commander, General Sergei Surovykin, who launched a large-scale campaign of drone and missile strikes against Ukraine’s infrastructure. A month later he withdrew Russian troops from the right bank of the Kherson as part of a broader shift to the defensive.
Russia remains on the offensive in Bakhmut, a small town in Donetsk that has become a testbed for the Wagner Group, a Kremlin-backed mercenary group, and Ukraine continues to probe Russian lines in places. But the weather is already affecting the war. The muddy ground will soon freeze, allowing heavy vehicles to move again, but sub-zero temperatures will make it harder for soldiers to survive in the field. We’ve already seen a sort of deceleration of the conflict, noted Avril Haines, America’s director of national intelligence, on Dec. 3, and we expect that’s likely to be what we’ll see in the coming months. Both sides are now rearming for attacks, likely in 2023, with Ukraine building a new army and Russia using mobilized men to train new units.
The war has taught many important lessons. Despite the increasing importance of technology, mass still matters. Stockpiles of manpower, weapons and ammunition are vital as the war continues. Information is key: the decision to publicize Russia’s invasion plans undermined the Kremlin’s narrative and prevented it from using the planned pretext for war. The civil war has played out in places like Kyiv, Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Bakhmut.
Perhaps the biggest lesson of all is simply that war is back. Developed countries have managed to avoid major conflict with each other for 75 years, wrote John Mueller, a political scientist, in July 2021, the month Mr. Putin put his Ukraine tantrums on paper. It was perhaps the longest such break in history. The question is whether Mr. Putin’s delusions will shatter the long peace or serve as a warning to others.