The Fight for Ukraine

Lawrence Freedman
The Fight for Ukraine

In my previous post I explained why I thought that this war had begun badly for Russia and was likely to end badly. Even if the military campaign progressed with greater efficiency Putin was still likely to lose because he was following a delusional strategy – reflecting his belief that Ukraine was a non-state with no national identity, that Kyiv could be taken quickly, so that President Zelensky could be deposed, and that a compliant puppet regime could be installed in his stead. Nothing has yet happened to make me change that view. 

I also warned that the coming days would be rougher and tougher, and so sadly it is proving, although if anything I understated the faltering character of the first waves of the Russian offensive. A high human and strategic price is now being paid by Moscow for some haphazard and arrogant planning, and for failing to think through the worst case as well as the best.  

It might be thought that a few days of limited progress will soon become irrelevant once the raw power of the Russian armed forces are brought to bear, but this is wrong. The first days set the conditions for those to come. They affect the transition from the first stage of conventional warfare to the next stage of urban warfare and potentially the stage after that of resistance to an unwelcome occupation. 

What Was Expected

The first great surprise of this war, in addition to the recklessness of Vladimir Putin in setting it in motion, lies in the failure of the Russian higher command to take advantage of their protracted military build up to design and then implement an effective offensive. It was natural to assume that they had plans to cut through the Ukrainian defences and leave them helpless, and also that these would succeed. Ukraine’s forces would be at a crippling disadvantage from the start against a formidable, modern and professional Russian force that had benefitted from years of investment.  

The Russians were also credited with having developed a way of warfare that would add to their advantages; to the classic instruments of military power they would add special forces and capabilities for cyberattacks and information campaigns. In what has come to be described as ‘hybrid war’, these would be coordinated to form a synchronised onslaught that would leave their enemies battered, confused, and dislocated. Some even suggested that there was ‘grey zone’, where conflicts could be pursued short of actual war, in which there would be ways of disrupting national infrastructure and confusing the population with fake messages, so that it would not even be necessary to resort to armed force. While clearly the Russian had no intention of sticking to this zone, these methods would still be important in confusing and demoralising the Ukrainians so they might meekly accept the new order that was being prepared for them.

The Narrative Wars 

Yet when the moment came, after all these months of preparation, instead of some Russian equivalent of ‘shock and awe’, there was a curiously haphazard and incoherent offensive. There were some cyberattacks before the start of the invasion, but nothing unusual for the Ukrainians who have been subjected to them on a regular basis for eight years. The Ukrainian internet and telephone service continued to function. Meanwhile Russian government sites have been taken down courtesy, it would seem, of the independent hacking group, Anonymous.  

As for the information campaign, conducted using social as well as traditional media, here the Russians have been comprehensively defeated. The incredible and barely comprehensible narrative with which Putin began this war condemned spokespeople to absurdity with their claims that this ‘special operation’ was a humanitarian mission to protect the vulnerable people of the Donbas, who for some inexplicable reason the Ukrainians had chosen to attack in the full knowledge that there were 180,000 Russian troops on their border.  

The Ukrainians have dominated the information space. They have provided factual communiques which might play up the Russian losses but also talk about their own setbacks. More importantly, international networks report sympathetically from the besieged cities and the border posts crowded with distraught refugees. While Russia offers a President who increasingly presents as a cartoon villain, Ukraine’s bravely and eloquently leads his people at a time of grave danger.  

These narrative wars may seem irrelevant as Russian tanks roll forward and firepower is directed at cities and their defenders. What consolation can be found in having all the best media lines if your forces are constantly having to retreat? Yet they do matter because of the impact they have on the attitudes and behaviour of three key audiences – the people of both Ukraine and Russia, and the international community.

The most important feature of the Ukrainian narrative has been its realism. It lacks bombast and bluster. Significantly it has not claimed the imminent defeat of the Russian armed forces but has been able to demonstrate that they are not invincible while at the same time encouraging people to mobilise and prepare for the next stage of urban warfare. Sufficient national feeling and momentum has been generated to sustain the fight, even if this now has to be with small arms and Molotov cocktails. (As an historical footnote we can note that the term for these bottles with flammable liquids was coined by the Finns in their ‘winter war’ of 1939 against the Russians. Molotov was the Russian Foreign Minister of the time, blamed for creating the conditions for the war with his pact with the Nazis. Perhaps they now might be updated to ‘Lavrov Cocktails’). 

In terms of the international audience it has put enormous pressure on Western governments to up their game and even those friendlier to Moscow have kept their distance (notably China when it abstained in the key Security Council vote of condemnation – which Russia was able to veto). While it is now difficult for Western countries to send in more equipment and ammunition by air, convoys are still getting through on the ground and so long as this can be sustained these will enable Ukrainian forces to continue to fight. Russia may now need to divert some units to try to intercept equipment arriving from the West.  

Most importantly it has led to harsher sanctions, as ways are sought not only to back the Ukrainians but also to ensure that the Russians do not prevail. Now certain Russian banks will be excluded from the SWIFT payments system. The Russian economy (but also note the global economy) will be taking a battering so long as this war goes on. 

What then of the Russian audience, the one subject to the greatest censorship and exposure to the Kremlin’s official narrative. They are being told nothing about the casualties on their own side or the atrocities committed in their name. Yet the news is getting through and the evidence of unhappiness and dissent is palpable. The clamp down may become harsher but should the disaffection extend to ordinary people, fearful of their young men at the front, their families and friends in Ukraine, and the collapsing value of their currency, Putin’s domestic problems may grow. Another reason why he wants the war over quickly. 

The Course of the Fighting 

The hurry to get the war over with explains many of the mistakes made by Russian forces at the start of this war. The first mistake was not to make it a priority to take out the Ukrainian air force and air defences. These are still operating and the skies over Ukraine can be dangerous for Russian aircraft. A second was to dash to get into Kyiv using special forces and light units to remove Zelensky from office and install a puppet. This went awry early on. The unit charged with taking and holding the airport near Kyiv was eliminated before more troops could be flown in. Then bridges were destroyed, adding to the journey facing Russian forces moving into position.

This in turn has put pressure on supply lines. There is evidence, at least from social media, of Russian vehicles running out of fuel and even problems with keeping soldiers in forward positions fed. More demanding logistic chains add complexity to the operations but also high costs. There have also been significant losses of men and equipment. The Ukrainians have claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on the Russians – thousands of dead which would mean many more wounded. While Russians fail to talk about casualties, rumours will soon be spreading among other front-line units and this will be bad for morale. Again looking largely at social media, which are of course provide only partial insights, Russian morale seems poor and their attitude towards local people berating them appears bemused more than hostile. Even while still in their tanks they do not always appear to know what they should be doing or where they should be going.

Having tried to make their breakthroughs using only a portion of their available forces the Russians appear to have opted for a more ruthless strategy, relying more on artillery, which in turn will add to the terrible cost to civilian life and property. The attacks on the oil depot near Kyiv will cause lasting damage. The Ukrainian high command will have to face some hard decisions in the coming days about evacuations and tactical retreats. It is already the case, as again could be seen from the first day, that the position in the South is very difficult. The units in the east that have long been deployed close to the separatist territories, risk being cut off by Russian columns coming in from Crimea that have yet to face much resistance. For the moment the city of Mariupol, which has been on the front-line since 2014, is held. But already other towns in the area have fallen, and Ukrainian forces risk getting trapped.  

The main attention is now focused on the two key cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv, as we now enter the next stage of urban warfare. This again must be something Putin hoped to avoid, for few events are less likely to create a sullen and compliant population than days of poorly targeted and often pointless but cruel shelling. The Russian methodology for dealing with resistance in cities was set in the two Chechen wars of the mid-1990s and early 2000s, which led to the capital Grozny being reduced to rubble. More recently in Syria Russian aircraft pounded rebel enclaves, for example in Aleppo, including deliberate attacks on hospitals, to force residents to flee. In Mosul, from 2016 to 2017, US airpower worked with Iraqi forces to push out ISIS in a battle that lasted 9 months. The human cost was immense, although here the readiness of the Jihadists to use local civilians as shields and hostages had much to do with the carnage.  

Even if the Russians want to avoid more accusations of war crimes it is impossible to fight in cities without causing great death and destruction. But the main challenge for Russian forces is to take the streets and occupy the centre. The early reports of fighting in the streets of Kyiv and Kharkiv suggest only lightly armed vehicles have penetrated thus far, which would has proved to be hazardous as they are vulnerable to Ukrainian counterattacks. Far more substantial forces are now getting into position but there are limits to how much can be poured into a city at any time. The narrower the streets the harder urban warfare becomes as vehicles can soon get trapped. Taking these cities requires infantry – who offer targets for ambushes. This is when morale starts to be really critical.

How Does This End? 

Wars are rarely decided in days and this is unlikely to be an exception. Having thus far been thwarted the Russians will push harder, expecting to exhaust and overwhelm the defenders. Putin must be frustrated that he has not already ousted Zelensky but he is now too committed to even consider withdrawal. After telling the Ukrainian armed forces to lay down their arms and then to oust Zelensky he must now defeat them. Zelensky will continue to rally his people from inside the capital. Presumably he and his colleagues have a plan about how to cope should he be killed or captured. Even if he was tempted to capitulate, which he obviously is not, Ukrainians are too enraged now to give up without continued resistance . By contrast in the unlikely event of some sort of coup against Putin the war would end almost immediately.  

Neither Putin nor Zelensky have ruled out cease-fire talks. Putin offered Zelensky the opportunity to visit the Belarussian capital Minsk to negotiate surrender terms. That is where past negotiations took place, but Belarus is now a co-belligerent. Its territory has been used to launch some of the most deadly assaults against Ukraine. Zelensky has offered the names of numerous capitals as alternative venues for a Ukrainian delegation to meet a Russian. This may still be how this war concludes but the fighting may sadly have some way to go before that point is reached. Meanwhile the casualties will continue to mount. 

The problem with designing a peace deal is the same problem that has surrounded this conflict from the start, and it goes back to the narrative war. Putin has described the stakes for Russia in fantastical terms that have little relationship to the actual situation. He wants to de-Nazify a country with a Jewish president and Prime Minister and protect the people of the Donbas from a ‘genocide’ that was a complete fabrication. So Zelensky can promise without difficulty not to be a Nazi and not to conduct a genocide. What he cannot do is to deny Ukraine’s right to exist as an independent state following its own path. Putin’s people claim that is not in doubt. The problem, they claim, is that the wrong people are in charge. If so presumably they would have no difficulty with free elections under international supervision. Putin can be encouraged to put his theories about where the sympathies of the ordinary people of Ukraine lie to the test.


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