With the ubiquity of smartphones, the on-the-ground details of Russia's war against Ukraine have been more closely documented than any war. The footage is omnipresent, even allowing independent observers to make detailed catalogs of destroyed equipment. The movement of Russian troops is being tracked by satellite, as well as by pinging electronic devices they have stolen and taken with them. We can hear individual conversations between Russian soldiers and their families. We have a great deal of information.
But we still don't have the slightest soggy clue as to what the Russian "strategy" actually is. Even after weeks of war, the military experts who interpret these things can't wrap their heads around just what we've been seeing. It’s not only in the fine details, either. For example, it's not even clear as of today whether the predicted and planned "major Russian offensive" in eastern Ukraine is happening now. We don’t know if these new Russian attacks are simply prelude to a "real" Russian attack that will come later or if this is the actual planned offensive because the current attacks are so seemingly uncoordinated and poorly followed-up that experts can't agree on what they're seeing.
The Pentagon has been especially grave in its warnings of what Russia is capable of, and its newest reports again speculate that Russia's actual "major offensive" is not yet underway; what we are instead seeing now is an initial softening-up of Ukrainian lines that will be followed by competent Russian advances in force after Russia has impotently tossed currently fighting battalions into the woodchipper, the Pentagon insists. These warnings need to be taken seriously, and nobody should imagine that Ukrainian defenders currently under heavy artillery fire are thinking that Russia is for now only going easy on them.
But we have also seen that U.S. intelligence has consistently had deep insight into how top Russian officials think the war will go, even as they appear to have been caught unprepared by the realities of the Russian assault. That might still be instructive here; there seems little question that in offices surrounding Vladimir Putin, every official insists that the Great Russian Victory is coming just around the next corner. U.S. intelligence seems to have unfettered access to those particular fantasies.
When it comes to the utter incompetence and corruption that has hollowed out the Russian military, though? Nobody in either the Pentagon or elsewhere in the U.S. government appears to have had the slightest clue as to how severe those problems would turn out to be. What we have here might be dueling truths. Top Russian military officials have every balcony-avoiding reason to insist to Putin that the "real" attacks have been very competently planned, prepared for, and are coming any minute now.
But on the ground, what Putin's fellow kleptocrats can actually manage may look like what we see now: An increase in the tempo of the fighting, important-sounding reports bragging that now Russian artillery has been firing off even more than they previously have, but without any greater plan than the hope that sheer Russian numbers will eventually kill off Ukraine's defenses somewhere along the front, upon which Russia Will Win.
It's not an entirely implausible plan, especially given Russia's history of accomplishing few plans more advanced than that one. It means, however, that we're still in this nebulous space in which Ukraine must prepare for the possibility of sudden Russian genius, even as every last battle suggests that their invaders are more focused on stealing home appliances than they are on keeping their troops fed.
If you're confused, it means you're paying attention; military analysts with decades of experience watching Russia and writing up documents on what the Russian military can and can't do are even more confused than you are.
The reason Ukraine is now getting heavy weapons that NATO had been so reluctant to give them before, however, is a direct result of Ukraine being able to hold off Russia for this long, this well. Few in NATO still believe Russia has the military force of a superpower.
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