Two weeks of war exposed flaws in Putin’s master plan for Ukraine

If, as Putin claimed, Ukraine was not a real country, it would surely have already collapsed. But even with 150,000 Russian troops inside its borders, by US estimates, they control at most about 10% of Ukraine.

Traveling around Ukraine in the three weeks leading up to the invasion, it seemed like many people were in denial. “We are certain that there will be no war”, was the refrain – in Mariupol, Zaporizhzia and Kiev. The Ukrainian government has also played down the build-up of Russian forces, anxious not to panic its citizens and the markets.

Then, on February 24, it was as if a switch had been flipped. Overnight, denial became defiance.

Now the refrain is, “I’m going to war. This is my land.”

Serious defenses and countless checkpoints have sprung up around Kiev. Ukrainian forces – to the surprise of many observers – were agile and effective against Russian armor which struggled to advance. Small mobile units familiar with the territory shot down the Russian convoys. Anti-tank weapons acquired primarily from the United States and the United Kingdom left smoldering carcasses on roads across the country. Turkish-made attack drones were deployed with precision.

In the few areas occupied by Russian forces – even those that are predominantly Russian-speaking – crowds of hundreds of people insulted bewildered Russian soldiers. They built mountains of tires to defend their cities and painted street signs.

Not that the Ukrainians have the upper hand. They cannot defeat a vastly superior Russian force, but the evidence so far suggests that – fortified with weapons and other aid crossing the border from Poland – they can still deny Putin a victory.

The longest fortnight

A British Prime Minister once remarked that a week is a long time in politics. The two weeks of this conflict seem like an eternity, in terms of how they changed the world.

In the early hours of February 24, four young Ukrainians watched in horror Putin’s speech announcing a “special military operation” broadcast on Russian television, imagining that the freedoms they had come to enjoy were about to be trampled on.

Minutes later, the sky lit up as ballistic missiles slammed into Boryspil airport outside Kiev. Russian forces crossed the border, from Crimea, Belarus and western Russia.

And then, not exactly nothing, but nothing overwhelming. The supposedly impressive 40-mile column of Russian troops arriving from Belarus stood still, going nowhere – more trucks than tanks. Ukraine’s venerable air defenses have done a better-than-expected job of taking out Russian cruise missiles and fighter jets.

Above all, Russian efforts to seize bridgeheads north and south of Kiev in the early days of the campaign failed.

Even in the south of the country, where Russian units have encountered less resistance, they have yet to take the port of Mariupol, a half-hour drive from the border.

In explaining the invasion, Putin argued that Ukraine would otherwise become a platform for the West to invade and destroy Russia. He may have miscalculated the likely response to his attempt to swallow a country that, in his dark rewriting of history, had no right to exist.

“In taking this extraordinary gamble, he seems to have failed to remember the events that triggered the end of the Russian Empire,” write Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage in Foreign Affairs.

“The last Russian Tsar, Nicholas II, lost a war against Japan in 1905. He later fell victim to the Bolshevik Revolution, losing not only his crown but his life. The lesson: autocratic rulers cannot lose wars and remain autocrats.”

Perhaps lulled by the West’s anemic response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Putin underestimated the galvanizing effect of his “war of choice”.

NATO itself has rarely seemed so focused, far from the criticisms that have characterized the alliance during Donald Trump’s presidency. Trucks full of anti-tank weapons raced to the Ukrainian border.

Prior to this invasion, as a series of international sanctions against Russia were being debated, even hawks could only dream of cutting off Russian institutions from the international banking system, hunting down the assets of Russian oligarchs, ending or reducing imports of Russian oil and gas and mothballing the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Everything has now happened.

Ukrainians demonstrate in Kherson on March 5 to protest the Russian occupation.
One company after another, from McDonalds to Zara to Apple, has severed ties with the country, depriving Russians of the consumer goods they have loved since the end of communism. The ruble is worth less than half of what it was worth in mid-February.

Maneuvered on the battlefield, the Kremlin has also taken a beating in the court of public opinion – not that that ever bothered Putin. Comedian-turned-president Zelensky rose to the challenge with a forceful challenge and outright demands for a no-fly zone.

As speculation swirled about how Zelensky might be evacuated from Ukraine, he said he needed ammunition – not a ride. He recorded an almost cheeky video message from the presidential palace, saying he would not hide.

Zelensky – and Ukraine’s resilience in the face of overwhelming odds – struck a chord around the world. Football stadiums across Europe were decked out in Ukrainian colours, the Eiffel Tower shone in blue and yellow. Zelensky’s seemingly endless stream of video messages drew crowds to the streets of Prague and Tbilisi and prompted standing ovations in the UK and EU parliaments.

By contrast, Putin appeared isolated, mocking his subordinates, recording rambling speeches or surrounding himself with Aeroflot flight attendants.

The big question now is whether a furious Russian leader, despite claiming the “operation” continues to unfold, is stepping up with the vast arsenal at his disposal: ballistic and cruise missiles, rocket systems devastating bombs and thermobaric bombs. Will he make Kiev another Grozny, the Chechen capital razed during his first year in power?

Defiance and disobedience flourish in Russian-ruled Ukraine

CIA Director William Burns said on Tuesday that Putin was “determined to dominate and control Ukraine” and predicted “ugly weeks ahead” with “little regard for civilian casualties” in the face of opposition of the Ukrainian people.

Thursday’s talks in Turkey between the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers may give us the first clue as to whether there is an alternative to these ugly weeks.

The Kremlin demanded that Ukraine recognize Russian sovereignty in Crimea, annexed in 2014, the independence of two puppet republics in eastern Ukraine and the neutrality of the country.

Ukraine said no, although Zelensky now seems to recognize that Ukraine’s dream of joining NATO, enshrined in its constitution, may be even more distant than it was before. For its part, Moscow appears to have abandoned its demand for what it called the denazification and demilitarization of Ukraine – its nonsensical phraseology for regime change.

In the meantime, the daily suffering of Ukrainian civilians continues. Some are killed in missile strikes that flatten apartment buildings, others are caught by these less precise artillery attacks. The number is already several hundred, but there is no official record.

A total of two million people have fled the country, mostly women and children. If and when they return, they will find cities like Kharkiv, Sumy, Mariupol and Chernihiv almost unrecognizable.

With no breakthrough in the days to come, a much longer list is inevitable.


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