Fickle are the keyboards of most people writing in the 21st century and those struck by strategic analysts are fickler still. Three weeks ago the vast majority of experts in military matters were forecasting a quick Russian victory in Ukraine, even against significant Ukrainian resistance. Russian armor was supposed to reach and take Kyiv in days, supported by paratroopers securing strategic airfields. The planes bearing the red star on their tails were supposed to take out airfields, land-based air defense systems and enemy aircraft within hours. Mechanized infantry units departing base areas in Russia, Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimea were to secure the territories east of the Dniepro within a few days and then launch strikes against the Western half of the country, as well as taking Odessa with the support of naval infantry.
This was the narrative prevalent in the writings of Western military experts up until the 1st of March. In short, they were thinking that the Russian military forces of 23 February 2022, the day before the invasion, were far more capable than the US and allied forces that invaded Iraq in 2003. Those forces, advancing over a far easier terrain than Ukraine and against an adversary with no air force, no serious air defenses and no modern equipment to speak of, took far longer than just a few days to take key Iraqi cities. But the Russians were supposed to do that.
This, of course, did not happen. The Russian advance is much slower, the losses in military personnel and equipment are significant, though no near as high as claimed by a very shrewd and insidious Ukrainian war propaganda. Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol are still standing and Kherson is resisting the occupation. The Ukrainian military successfully harassed a number of Russian convoys, ambushed armored units and even mounted small-scale counter-offensives. Its air force and air defenses are still operational as we head into the fourth week of the war. Russian setbacks caused the political and military leadership to contemplate the use of Syrian mercenaries, a move seen as desperate by some analysts. There has been no stunning military victory and this has pushed a substantial number of analysts to embrace radically different positions on Russian prospects in Ukraine. Editorials and social media posts are now replete with forecasts of Russian military defeat or at the very least serious future military setbacks that, in conjunction with severe economic punishment inflicted by Western sanctions, will weaken Moscow’s position at the negotiation table.
There may be truth to that, but one wonders whether the mood swings are fully justified by the situation on the ground. It is hard to assess military conditions on the front. A vast number of sources are governmental nationalist Ukrainian social media posts, tending to vastly overestimate losses and defeats to the other side. For instance, officials from Kyiv claim that by 15 March no less than 81 enemy aircraft were destroyed, whereas Oryx, an open-source news blog of Turkish origins and otherwise a mouthpiece for the success of the Bayraktar attack drones, was able to photo-document only 28 destroyed or abandoned Russian planes and helicopters. Similar differences appear when analyzing differences between reported and documented losses in tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery systems and mobile air-defense systems. Russian reports and military bulletins are scant and suffer from similar problems. The Russian public was cut-off from Western media sources but also the Western public was cut-off from anything except official Russian sources. This all may point out that our knowledge of the real conditions of warfare is biased or at the very least warped, a stark reminder of how the fog of war pervades even 21st century hyper-connected societies.
However, a few things emerge as reasonably clear and a skeptical analyst may feel inclined to put a dent in the pervading optimism concerning the course of the war. Firstly, Russian forces have advanced considerably from their starting positions. They control to a very large extent the Black Sea and Azov Sea littorals with the exception of the area around Odessa. In the east, although Kharkiv is still standing, a vast area of the country has been overrun by the Russian military. In the north, while yet unable to encircle Kyiv, the Russians have pushed back the Ukrainian military to the south and into the city, with no serious counter-offensive able to threaten the double envelopment movement on either side of the Dnieper.
Secondly, one needs to make a thing clear: despite Ukrainian rhetoric adopted uncritically by some Western analysts, in terms of the use of sheer fire-power, the Russians have been rather restrained. As independent UN-sources cite and as cynical as this may sound, the number of civilian victims of the war is much less than what is possible after three weeks of kinetic warfare, some of the most intensive to take place in Europe after the Second World War. Indeed, during the 1990s Yugoslav Wars there were operations lasting a matter of days that caused far higher numbers of civilian casualties. While this might change, particularly in the context of current assaults on Mariupol, it is quite clear that for the first twenty days of the war Russian armed forces have not used the might of their artillery on Ukrainian targets, be they civilian or not.
Thirdly, so far Russia keeps a vast portion of its tactical air force out of the conflict. Russian commanders could decide to use against Ukraine a third of their tactical air assets (this being the percentage of the Russian air force deployed on airfields close to the theater of war) in a few days intensive campaign. While this would probably involve substantial losses of perhaps dozens of aircraft and pilots, a concentrated use of Russian air power combined with tactical missile strikes would severely degrade if not completely eliminate Ukrainian air defenses with the exception of man-portable air defense systems such as Stinger missiles. This would also make movement highly difficult for substantial Ukrainian military units. The ability of Russian forces to do that has not been degraded in any substantial way.
All of the above points could be countered with arguments about the substantial Russian weaknesses concerning planning, logistics, operational capacity, preparedness and fighting abilities that became apparent in the first weeks of the war. While all of these are more or less substantiated by what we know about the course of the conflict, they fail to account for two important factors: firstly, as mentioned before, Russian military advances are substantial and worrisome, while a vast part of their conventional fire-power, both land, sea and air-based has not yet been used to its fullest extent. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly: military forces adapt. So far most Western analysts have focused on the relatively successful Ukrainian military adaptation to the conflict (successful in the sense in which the Crimean debacle of 2014 did not repeat itself). Not much attention has been paid to the Russian ability to adapt by learning through the mistakes it made in the first weeks of the war. Historically, Russian forces performed abysmally in the first weeks or months of high kinetic warfare. In the first months of the First World War, during the early stages of the Winter War with Finland and in the first five or six weeks of the Operation Barbarossa, Russian armed forces performed abysmally. Yet in all three cases they adapted, learned from their mistakes, replaced poor commanders, changed operational and tactical approaches and put themselves on a path to victory or at the very least a stalemate.
Such a course is, evidently, not given. The immense economic pressure brought by Western sanctions may cripple the Russian economy and will to fight before this adaptation takes place. The will to fight of front-line troops and commanders may very well crumble, 1917 style, before they adapt to current conditions. But we cannot disregard the possibility that despite all these difficulties, the Russians hang on and continue the war for more than a few days or weeks. Should this happen, the military situation for Ukraine and the West will become seriously complicated.
Andrei Miroiu teaches International Relations at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, Romania. His latest book is Political Theory of Armed Groups. Armed Groups and Social Order, Cham: Springer, 2020.