Awhile back I posted A History on What Russia Expected How It's Backfired and What Putin Likely Missed - Daily Kos as an article on what I felt had been a big part of what had gone wrong for Russia at that point in the war. But, ultimately the bulk of that article ended up focusing more on how Putin’s war has backfired in the international community. Now, I stand by what I posted in that article as the world has continued to supply Ukraine with loans and weapons to this day. Note: Fact Sheet on U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine May 9, 2023 for American support going to Ukraine as of a few days ago. This shows that so far, American support for Ukraine is still there… and international support for Ukraine is not just limited to the US.
But the war is more than just a contest of the West versus Russia, regardless of what Putin has claimed in his VE Day speech. Most of what has gone on in this war is far more local than the rivalries between Moscow and Washington DC. Thus, it’s only fair to look more at the expectations and battlefield results in Ukraine itself, and it’s something that deserves some attention, and that is what I’d add now that we are well into the war’s second year.
Putin’s Ambitions in Ukraine
A lot of Putin’s ambitions in the region is steeped in a strange combination of things coming out of Russia’s past. With Ukraine, it’s started with the “Novorossiya” concept that started around 2014… or at least that’s when the world began to hear Putin make mentions of it. Note: Putin’s “Greater Novorossiya” – The Dismemberment of Ukraine - Foreign Policy Research Institute for the impressions that were made toward the start of what would develop into the present war in Ukraine. And note that the complaints are largely historical in nature and that Russia deserves to have Kharkiv, the Donbass, Crimea, and other chunks of Ukraine because of that history. Putin wants these regions because they were part of Russia until the 1920s when the Soviet government decided to move them from the Russian Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Socialist Republic within the Soviet Union. There are also complaints from the Russian side about the loss of direct influence over Ukraine that has come out of what were then recent revolutions in the country that tossed out the pro-Russian leader.
But things continued to progress between 2014 when the war was largely only a proxy war between Ukraine and Russian backed separatists and the full-on Russian invasion in 2022. The Ukrainian government never collapsed back into a “pro-Russia” camp, and while Trump proved to be a vital asset for Putin’s ambitions on the world stage, Trump also proved incapable of stopping US aid to Ukraine… and something that Trump even used to try and secure support from American voters on claiming that Obama had only sent blankets… something that was repeated by Trump multiple times and has drawn the attention of fact-checkers… See: Fact check: Trump’s misleading claims on Obama-Biden aid to Ukraine - CNN. Regardless of Trump’s misleading claims to portray Obama as weak and himself as strong, the fact that the West was loosely supporting Ukraine even then did not set well with Putin, and he likely suspected that the Ukrainians… or the West would learn from the mistakes that were being noted in the FPRI article. And once Trump lost in 2020, Putin’s long-term advantages could vanish and thus sparking the war in 2022.
This then in turn lead to a different set of objectives than just the Novorossiya claims. For when Putin started the war he spoke of “denazifying Ukraine” along with other elements that would make it clear that Putin is looking at Ukraine as a whole… not just some borderland regions. See: Ukraine war: what are Russia’s strategic aims and how effectively are they achieving them? - The Conversation and based on observations, it’s also likely that when the war began last year, that the Russians expected a quick victory as has been noted by others…
When Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he was expecting a quick and decisive victory that would cement his place in Russian history and reverse the verdict of 1991 by extinguishing Ukrainian independence once and for all. — 2022 REVIEW: Why has Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion gone so badly wrong? - Atlantic Council
Which meant, Putin entered the war with extremely ambitious expectations that would see Russia win rapidly or would at least see them win. Which then begs the questions as to why would he be so confident or ambitious?
What Putin felt would make his ideas work…
Putin had plenty of reasons… in his mind would enable his overly ambitious plan to work, that would relate to both outside of Russia and Ukraine and within the two countries. Since my previous article focused more on Putin’s perception of the West’s ability to respond, this one will look more at the immediate balance between the two countries.
1. History: Both Russia and Ukraine share a LOT of history, and this goes beyond just the time that the Russian Tsars ruled over Ukraine and the Soviets picked up the task later on. And to Russian historiography… those connections run deep and create the sort of implication that Russia and Ukraine are “essentially” the same in many ways. Which is obviously where Putin and other Russian nationalists can draw attention to the Keiven Rus. See: Keivan Rus - History. With this Medieval state holding the name “Rus” and not “Ukraine,” that would give many Russians later reason to feel that Russia got its start at what was then Kiev and expanded from there… Though it would be noted that the state ultimately fell to the Mongols when they invaded Europe and what emerged after the Mongols were forced out would be different…
And it is then Russian history then moves forward into the Tsarist and later Soviet eras that Putin has dwelled on more than anything else. That because Ukraine was a Russian and later Soviet province, that Putin would be welcomed or supported in his actions… and some of this would be related to the article on the response to Russia’s taking Crimea in 2014, see: How Russia took over Crimea and Crimea took over Putin - the Moscow Times. Putin had succeeded in gaining Crimea and saw or was at least able to engineer local support. And since things had worked out then in attaching lands that were historically “part” of Russia… it wasn’t like Putin could think he could lose…
2. Opposition to Nazism: To a degree, this could also go in the “history” category, given that many Ukrainians fought for the Red Army against Hitler’s Reich, but in many ways, the scourge of Nazism and Fascism has never truly died while simultaneously being something that nearly all sides everywhere claim to oppose. Those of us here often state opposition to Nazism and conservatives have often stated their opposition to Nazism...or at least they did in the past, and that’s just in the US. This opposition is something that is not limited to just the US. Germany has its present constitution including clauses that would allow any party that may mirror what the Nazis did or said to be outlawed.
So, it’s ultimately no surprise that Putin would want to shape things as a war against Nazism. The Nazis are an easy boogieman to throw attacks at, and it’s been shown through the course of the war in Ukraine that he’s used that opposition to further justify his war. See: Why France and 51 other countries voted against UN resolution condemning Nazism - Le Monde, and for this section, not the closing paragraphs. Putin’s put up all sorts of memorials to the Soviet victory in World War 2 and at the same time, the Russians have held great parades on May 9 to honor the victory in 1945. And generally, with global sentiment opposing Nazism, to Putin, why not frame Ukraine’s government as being led by Nazis in 2022. If the Ukrainian people buy into it, they’d surely overthrow their own government and welcome the Russians as liberators.
3. The rebuilt Russian Army: When Putin came to power, the Russian military really wasn’t something to write home about. As How Putin spent 20 years rebuilding Russia's military 'and then just simply destroyed it' in Ukraine, according to an expert who watched it happen - Business Insider makes the point, the Russian military in 1999 was not in great shape and this would take time to rebuild. From the way the article is written and what is reported, it would strike me that Russia in 1999 was facing a situation not too different from what the US confronted in the years after the Vietnam War, but by the 90s and into the early 00s, the US military became a highly skilled tactical force that would be willing to endure losses. Putin felt he needed to mirror that sort of thing, and that then consumed the early period of Putin’s reign.
And the article notes that this was ultimately slow going. The Russians had a lot of artillery and bombers, and Putin would use them in various places, like crushing the Chechnyan rebels, but at times, these fights also seemed to show signs of struggle. The shelling of civilian areas in Chechnya wasn’t humane or the most tactically sophisticated action, but it did show power, which Putin supports, and as his projects in reforming the Russian military progressed, by 2020 were starting to see all sorts of stories on how awesome the Russian army was and how the Armata would easily destroy the Abrams in all facets of armored warfare.
That was a massive amount of change and progression in the Russian military and had played out with some success in Syria. In contrast, Ukraine wasn’t in the same sort of perceived condition. See: Infographic: Military capabilities of Russia and Ukraine - Al Jazeera. Ukraine is a European country, but it wasn’t on par with Russia in a head-to-head comparison. The numbers were in
Russia’s favor with the Russians having massive advantages in the size of its military and in its expected capabilities. One may argue that Ukraine wasn’t completely incapable of defending itself, but it was still outnumbered… and is still outnumbered… and was facing a Russian military that had been rebuilt and revamped through years of reform and procurement that on the surface made the Russian military into a force comparable with the West and those that the Russians have long sought to keep pace with.
4. What Zelensky was known for prior to being Ukraine’s President: Prior to being President of Ukraine, Zelensky has come from a position that would leave many to consider him to be unqualified for the position. For most of what Zelensky was known for were as a television star playing the role of “president.” Note: An Unlikely Hero - The New York Times and where they discuss a lot of Zelensky’s past and how a lot of his show took inspiration from various comedic figures, including the likes of Monty Python. To an ex-KGB operative in Putin, regardless of whatever other education Zelensky has had, the image of Zelensky as a TV star would indicate someone who would be unskilled and incapable of standing up to a real challenge.
And given that Zelensky was elected in 2019, one could argue that up to that point, Putin had been a good judge of TV stars becoming president of countries potentially opposing Russia. As while Trump may not have colluded with Putin to become President, it is painfully clear that Putin wanted Trump… see: Kremlin papers appear to show Putin’s plot to put Trump in White House - The Guardian, and as I noted in my previous article on this war, Trump was more than willing to help Putin attain Putin’s goals. I’d also add now that Trump likely saw some personal advantage to himself in doing so and shows the problems that Trump was for the US and the world… and it should be noted that based on his recent town hall, Trump is STILL supporting Putin in this war.
So, with Zelensky not coming from a line of generals, intelligence agents, or career politicians and with Putin’s success in manipulating Trump… I would assume that the ex-KGB agent felt he could either outsmart or overpower the Ukrainian TV star.
But then the shells started flying…
And the invasion did come as a shock to the world… or at least a shock that a large-scale war would come to Europe. That it would include accusations of Nazism being the cause of the war and that
atrocities have been committed in Ukraine by the Russian army… or those affiliated with the Russian invasion. In many ways, it’s something that Putin has telegraphed in speeches and other related threats, and there has been evidence that a lot of it was leaked to Ukraine and the public in the hopes of deterring the Russians from invading.
It didn’t, and Putin’s war started… but from there, things began to go bad for the Russians. They advanced deeply and quickly in the early stages of the war but fell short of Kyiv and while cities like Kharkiv and Bakhmut have been hit with all sorts of Russian ordinance, the Ukrainians have held, and as shown in the shown maps have even pushed the Russians back in September and November 2022. Thus, Putin’s war has failed to achieve its stated objectives at the outset and the Ukrainians fight in places like Bakhmut and their expected counterattack comes ever closer… it’s becoming increasingly possible that even the more limited “Novorossiya” concept isn’t going to be probable, either. This indicates that Putin and his planners likely missed some things.
What Putin missed…
Putin and his planners missed a lot in their planning for this war and what they expected. Some of what they missed can be found in some of the same sources used to show where the Russians had seemed to reach points where they didn’t need to worry about defeat. In many ways this would that Putin and those around him were only selectively looking at things, accepting what fit a predetermined argument and ignoring anything in that source that would also counter the argument in question. And it’s this that will then be shown here… as they all contribute to why things have gone so bad for the Russians.
1. History: While it is true that the Keivan Rus is a starting point for Russia’s history, that does NOT mean that Russia and Ukraine are the same country or the same people. For we must note that like many Medieval states, the Keivan Rus was a feudal state that at the time of the Mongol invasion was beset by internal squabbles over who would rule and where they would rule. That sort of division that was already present was in part going to create potential for regions to split based on local customs and differences over time, particularly while also dealing with the presence of the Mongols that would bring about other changes as well.
Now, an independent country of Ukraine didn’t emerge after the Mongols were forced out and they didn’t gain status as an “independent” state until the rise of the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t mean that the notion or idea for Ukrainian national identity just started in 1917 with the Bolshevik Revolution or in the 1920s when the Bolsheviks won the Russian Civil War. The ideas and concepts for the existence of Ukraine are actually older. See: The history and evolution of Ukrainian national identity – podcast - The Conversation, or as I’d prefer… a pair of videos from Time Ghost - YouTube that cover some of the Ukrainian historical elements in some detail and undercut Putin’s claims…
Now, these videos are over ten minutes long, so if you don’t want to watch them in their entirety, I will give the summary that Putin claims that Ukraine and Crimea are made up and that Ukraine only existed because Lenin, for some reason, created Ukraine. These lines are false or taken out of context by Putin, as just about every country is “made up,” including Russia, and Ukraine has had a long history of establishing its own national identity that predates World War One and the Russian Civil War that came out of it. Essentially what the Conversation article on Ukrainian identity summarizes.
As such, Ukraine is a country with every right to exist, just as Russia does, and has its own history to back it up, and the fact that the Russians enjoyed political dominance over much of Ukraine when it expanded eastward against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth does not delegitimize Ukraine’s history or existence. And if Putin had read something beyond a history that was designed to feed Russian nationalist sentiment… maybe he would have recognized that and then expected the Ukrainians to fight far harder than he did.
2. Putin IS the Nazi in this saga: This may not be literal… but in the way his invasion has gone and the way the Russians have played to it… including the buildup to the war, there are an astonishingly high number of similarities between Putin’s stances on Ukraine and Hitler’s on Czechoslovakia in 1938… see: Hitler and Putin: 1938 and 2022 - Public Orthodoxy. Putin may not be a “Nazi” by name, but his actions and statements mirror the German dictator in a very eerie way. His regime’s paranoia and arresting of enemies while also trumpeting Russian glory also comes off as rather similar to Hitler’s rallies at Nuremburg and other places. Just because one spoke German and the later copycat speaks Russian doesn’t mean that they are entirely different.
And to a great degree, that’s also what is noted in the Le Monde article. Did France and others not vote to condemn Neo-Nazism? Yes, but the way it was presented, it was taken as a means to justify the present Russian war effort, since Putin had already declared that Ukraine was run by Nazis… despite the fact that Zelensky is Jewish and that his family survived the Holocaust in Ukraine. That UN vote was likely intended to then be used to fuel the Russian propaganda machine and undermine the efforts to beat Russia. For states that didn’t vote in favor would be accused of being Nazis, which Russia did do according the Le Monde article and those that did vote to oppose Neo Nazism would then be asked why they’re helping Ukraine… the whole vote in that situation was a gigantic “gotcha” attempt by Russia.
And it’s one that has largely failed, as support for Ukraine hasn’t dwindled, and as the various sites of atrocities committed BY the Russians have been found in Ukraine, the more likely that the accusations of Ukraine being run by Nazis is purely projection, which has also further fueled the Ukrainian will to fight the Russian invader. For we must also remember that Ukraine was a part of the “Great Patriotic War” too. It was not just the RUSSIANS that defeated Hitler’s Reich on the Eastern Front… see: 10 Facts about Ukraine in the Second World War - Guide Me. Thus, it’s quite probable that the Ukrainians also saw through Putin’s lies and saw him as the “Nazi” invading their country and fought back.
3. Logistics: This has been one of the biggest things that has hampered the Russians in the field. See: Logistic Lessons in the Russia-Ukraine War - The Cove. It’s in part what slowed them down before Kyiv at the start of the war, what ultimately lead to their withdrawal from Kherson, and is now prolonging the siege of Bakhmut beyond what many would have expected from the Russians. For, sure, they rebuilt their military from the Cold War malaise that it had been in when Putin took power. But having great tanks, planes, or tactics will matter little if one cannot supply the army in the field. And a lot of this can come from a couple of areas…
One is that the Russians expected the war to be a quick one. If your military planners expect the whole conflict to be over in a matter of days and you’ll get massive amounts of local support as you move in, you’re not going to take the added steps to make sure you have the supplies for a long campaign. It’s a cost cutting measure that many military commanders often go through, and thus they weren’t ready or prepared for the Ukrainians to fight back and as they then counterattacked and raided the Russian lines, the entire logistical system began to break down as the Russians ran into things they didn’t expect and thus didn’t plan for.
The other could be the result of corruption within the Russian government and system… See: World Peace Foundation - tufts.edu, and this is all going to be coming from BEFORE the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thus, to some degree, this should have been known by Putin before the invasion in that officials of his own government were not quite on the up and up, but because these men likely got to where they are by cozying up to Putin, they also were able to have some excuses ready and thus the Russians ignored the corruption issues and only used them as part of means to punish internal enemies. This issue also hampers the claims on Russia’s military being fully “rebuilt,” and falls in line with things to be expected from a dictatorship.
For while issues of corruption are not unique to Russia, they have been and are present in Ukraine as well, see: What to Know About the Corruption Scandals Sweeping Ukraine's Government - Time. However, what’s noted is that Zelensky has made attempts since coming into office to try and address Ukraine’s issues with corruption, many of which were things that came as holdovers from the Soviet era. Something that further shows that corruption is something more associated with authoritarian regimes rather than free societies. Dictatorships have that problem, because there is no check on power and authority, there is nothing to hold leaders back from giving bribes, taking bribes, making stuff up, and so on. And they’ve been things that Zelensky has been at least trying to handle.
The same cannot be said about Putin, and his army has been paying for it in blood. Particularly as Western sanctions on Russia have hurt their industrial capacity and where Western aid to Ukraine has helped the Ukrainians maintain their fight against the Russians. And in this, poor planning and corruption have hurt the Russian military’s logistics and has in turn hurt their army’s performance, slowing their advances to a crawl in places and has further forced them to expend ammunition to try and take small portions of ground they cannot easily replace. Which in part has helped create the circumstances noted in the Business Insider article linked earlier. Putin spent two decades building up his military… and has destroyed it in a year.
4.Underestimating Zelensky: It is true that Zelensky wasn’t known beyond being a television personality, but that in and of itself doesn’t necessarily mean that he was incapable of being a good leader for the Ukrainian people. That was more an assumption by Putin, and possibly one that forgot looking deeply into things… and I’m sure somewhere an aging KGB trainer is frustrated with Putin for that… For from: Biography Volodymyr Zelensky - Ukrainian Government - Presidential Website - Biography, while Zelensky had an acting career, he also has a LAW degree, something that can’t be easy to attain anywhere. And somehow, Putin either missed this or decided that the law degree Zelensky has wasn’t relevant.
And this brings things to the New York Times article on Zelensky and describes him as a hero and draws a comparison between Zelensky and Lincoln in the sense of the official qualifications for office. And in many ways, that comparison has some measure of validity, though Zelensky’s greatest threat is outside his country while Lincoln’s greatest threat was inside his country… but both men have risen to the challenge of their time. And for Zelensky, that’s included staying in Kyiv as it was bombarded and under threat of attack by the Russians. It’s brave and among 20th Century comparisons go could also draw some comparisons to Churchill in 1940 following the fall of France. It’s all shown a very remarkable man, who has done far more than even what his allies in the Western World expected and certainly more than what Putin expected… and that’s done a lot to shape Ukraine’s fight for its freedom.
5. Missing Ukrainian Military Reforms: While Russia has rebuilt its military following the Cold War decline prior to the present war, and had a numerical advantage going into the war, a lot of the Russian assessments would seem to miss that the Ukrainians were perfectly capable of reforming things as well. They’d been in a quasi-war with Russian backed separatists from 2014 to 2022 when the Russians invaded. Anyone with common sense would make note that the Ukrainians would likely have learned from the war with the separatists. And that’s something that can be noted in Is Ukraine’s reformed military ready to repel a new Russian invasion? - Atlantic Council. Now, they don’t say Ukraine could win in the article, but they do note that the Ukrainian army had reformed itself from the quasi war with the separatists and would mean that was in a better position than it was earlier…
Which is something also noted in the earlier linked Atlantic Council article with one interviewed expert’s opinion on what has hurt the Russians…
Solomiia Bobrovska, Ukrainian MP, Holos Party: The main reason Putin is failing is because he was too late. If he had struck in 2014 when the Ukrainian state was weak, the army was almost non-existent, institutions were unstable, and the opposition had much less influence on national affairs, his chances for success would have been much higher. However, Russia did not seize this opportunity and Ukraine was able to strengthen. The country’s strategic course toward the EU and NATO was enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution, while the Ukrainian army underwent vital reforms that resulted in significantly increased quality.
The second reason behind Putin’s difficulties is the fact that the Russians did not expect to encounter broad civilian resistance in Ukraine. This reflects deeply entrenched Russian misconceptions about the nature of Ukrainian society, and is also due to the Kremlin’s massive financial investment prior to the invasion to weaken and corrupt Ukraine from within. However, all regions of Ukraine united to resist Russia’s invasion.
A third key factor was the initial military assistance provided by partners such as the US, UK, Poland, and the Baltic states in the months immediately preceding the Russian invasion. These weapons deliveries helped Ukraine to keep fighting during the critical first weeks of the war and convinced the democratic world to begin sending more advanced and diverse arms supplies to the country. — 2022 REVIEW: Why has Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion gone so badly wrong? - Atlantic Council
For the Russians may have launched their reforms and made a better army than it was in 1999, and that army may well have had numerical advantages over the Ukrainians. But the Ukrainian army in 2022-23 was not the same army as it was in 2014. And by improving itself and getting support from Western allies for its equipment and logistics, the Ukrainians have been able to outperform the Russians… who with their unaddressed corruption, might well have had more bark than bite with their military while the Ukrainians have had more bite than bark.
6. Maintaining an offensive: This hits the Russians on multiple angles. One is that their logistical issues minimize the strengths of any force multipliers they may have. They can have great artillery, but if they have a limited number of shells, the number of guns are irrelevant. They can have great tanks, but without oil they’re targets for artillery and so on. That’s been a big part of what has hurt the Russians in the war, and in recent months has been part of various figures complaining of shell hunger before Bakhmut… but even with that issue, the fighting around Bakhmut presents the other part of that problem, and that being the fact that the Russians have largely been on the offensive throughout the war.
Now, being on the offensive is ultimately the way to win a war, as an army on the defensive is surrendering initiative to the enemy and can only win if the other side decides to give up… as the US did in the Vietnam War. But to have success in the offensive, it has been generally assumed that an attacking force would need to meet certain “force ratios” to be expected to carry the ground, as an attacking force will be coming out of cover and exposing itself to defending fire. The general rule of thumb for this has been an attacking force needing a 3:1 advantage in manpower… at least so far as what that mathematical calculation may provide.
Now, the unpredictability of human nature and response can mean that a lot of the “force ratios” argument can run into trouble, but at a base point of assuming that “all things are equal,” understanding that concept on “force ratios” is still a good point to understand. At least in recognizing that taking the offensive will incur the risk of taking losses, particularly when various militaries have relied on these sorts of calculations, including the US military. See: An Examination of Force Ratios A Monograph by MAJ Joshua T. Christian US Army and note the table on page 2 for that rule of thumb and where those ratios have often been set at. It’s also something that the author, Major Christian notes the Russian military was still operating under in 2019… even with the military reforms that Putin had made prior.
Which all presents a problem. For while Russia has more men than Ukraine, that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily going to be able to meet those calculated numerical advantages everywhere, and that these issues have likely been made worse by Russia’s logistical difficulties. Thus, while they have more men, they are likely lacking the force multipliers needed to truly take advantage of it, and thus continuing to attack in places like Bakhmut and Vuhledar, with low supplies, is only serving to bleed the Russians of their manpower, and in ways that may not be effective for the Russians to sustain. And as Russian Deaths Mount as Men, Money Become Scarce - US News & World Report notes, these losses are beginning to make the Russians nervous… and that’s even before the Ukrainian counter offensive has come.
In this, the Russians have bled themselves white attacking an army that has proven far better than they expected going into the conflict, and facing a point that while the war may continue, it is probable that any and all new units will not match the quality of what has already been destroyed, and that’s all before the Ukrainians try to free more of their country from Putin’s grip.
And that leaves us where we are now...
Waiting to see what will happen, and while the Ukrainians have put up a great fight and have vastly overperformed what would have been expected from them, they’ve had logistical concerns of their own and much of what has kept them above water has been Western aid. But that may be better saved for a later article...