Putin’s attack on Ukraine isn’t going as planned. What will happen next?
With an unexpectedly strong Ukrainian resistance, harsh global sanctions and low morale among Russian troops, we face an unpredictable few months
Nine days into Russia’s assault on Ukraine and it is clear the Kremlin’s original plan has been derailed. The aim was to move rapidly on the capital, Kyiv, seizing the international airport to airlift troops in, then link with ground forces moving in from Belarus, occupy the city and take down the government in, at most, 72 hours.
From the start, Russia would make a concerted effort to take control of the Ukrainian air space, mainly with missile attacks on air bases, air defences and logistics support. This, combined with troops spread across the whole country, would induce a fear factor to help cower the people of Ukraine into submission, rather like the ‘shock and awe’ approach used by the US at the start of the Iraq War.
In addition, other ground and amphibious forces would move into the Donbas region from territory already in separatist hands, link with forces in Crimea and then move to take over the whole Black Sea Coast, including Ukraine’s third city and main seaport, Odessa.
The ultimate aim was to replace the current Ukraine government with a client regime, ensuring that the end result would be of Ukraine and Belarus under Kremlin control. That would include Russian bases in both territories, forward-based cruise and ballistic missiles and highly secure naval bases on the Black Sea. Whether that would be a prelude to a wider expansion, perhaps including Kosovo or Georgia is less certain, but if the main aims had been met it would comprehensively re-draw the security map of Europe.
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Rapid progress was confidently expected, so much so that the Kremlin did not order a general national mobilisation, which it would have done if sustained opposition was anticipated. What was assembled was a sufficient force to complete the planned task, provided it followed the timetable.
That did not happen, and the reasons why may not be fully clear for many months or even years. The best assumptions are that there were very early mistakes in the attempt to take Kyiv airport, that the Ukraine opposition was much heavier and had high morale than anticipated, and that key equipment did not work as expected. There may also have been an elementary matter of timing. Military historians of European wars are apt to argue that no belligerent force should ever attack an opponent in spring or autumn because of one simple factor – mud. It seems ridiculously simple yet appears already to be a factor in this bitter conflict.
Barely three days into the war, it was clear that elements of the assault were faltering. Kyiv was under attack but not yet threatened, the Russian air force had not got full control of the airspace, with the Ukraine air force still attacking Russian armour. Even progress in the eastern sector was not matched by a full breakout from Crimea. Meanwhile, the extent of EU and NATO unity was almost certainly far higher than the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and his inner power group had anticipated, leaving a very angry leader threatening nuclear escalation if NATO came anywhere near direct confrontation.
This last element reverberated around the world but should not come as a surprise to anyone with knowledge of nuclear theology. After all, NATO has maintained a first-use nuclear option (‘a flexible response’) since 1968 and the US and UK have both considered tactical nuclear use in otherwise conventional conflicts. What’s more, though the old Soviet Union claimed to have a no-first-use policy, no Western military leader or strategist has ever taken it seriously.
Perhaps the most important aspect to remember in all of this is that Putin’s entire career and legacy, and that of those around him, rests on success in this war. He may be prepared to go a very long way to ensure success and in the past five days, there have certainly been major changes in Russian tactics.
It seemed initially like Russia had initiated a pause but by mid-week, it was clear that it would make an early move to urban bombardment, one town or city at a time. At the time of writing, on the ninth day of the conflict, the port of Kherson is controlled by Russian forces, having sustained considerable damage, and the larger port of Mariupol is under intense attack. The worst damage so far has probably been sustained by Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, in the north, though it appears to be holding out, while a full assault on Kyiv has yet to start.
A detached observer might now assume that it is only a matter of time, perhaps as little as a week, before Kyiv is overrun and Ukraine capitulates, but there are many other factors to consider. First, the level of Ukrainian resistance has persistently exceeded expectations and will most likely continue to do so. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians may be leaving the country, but many are going the other way, returning to Ukraine either to join the resistance or support family.
Even now, after days of aerial bombardment, units of the Ukraine Air Force are still flying and attacking Russian armour, and Turkish-built armed drones are proving effective against Russian utility vehicles, armoured personnel carriers and even some main battle tanks. Even allowing for Ukrainian propaganda, there is now plenty of evidence that Russian morale is poor, especially among young conscripts.
A wide range of military equipment is now starting to arrive, principally across the Polish border and from many NATO states. At least a dozen countries are already involved – including Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Romania, Sweden and the United States.
Even if Russia replaces Ukraine’s government with a client regime, its problems hardly end there
Meanwhile, in Russia itself, Putin has had to confirm many casualties from what he said would be a military intervention well short of a war, stating that two thousand of his soldiers had been killed or injured. That loss, though much lower than the figure given by Ukraine sources, will have a cumulative impact on domestic Russian attitudes to the war.
In the face of this, there are strenuous efforts by the Kremlin to control the media, with independent radio and TV stations being shut down and laws against protest being strengthened. Control cannot be complete. Even if the mainstream and social media are fully suppressed, there are other routes. Around three million Ukrainians live in Russia, phone calls between households provide sources of information that are very difficult to stop. Public opposition to the war has continued, with 7,000 people arrested across Russian cities in the first seven days alone.
The impact of sanctions, especially at this intensity, are unpredictable, though they are already having a direct impact on Russians’ everyday life. The number of countries outside Europe taking part in the sanctioning is surprising. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy is heavily involved, South Korea has joined in and even Singapore, normally keen to stay out of trade politics, is taking some initial actions.
The imposition of harsh sanctions does have its dangers, not least its unpredictability, and should be seen as a form of structural violence. But while Russia has substantial financial reserves and plenty of oil and gas carbon to sell, both elements can be limited in their value to the Kremlin, aided by some of the recent global moves against the Russian Central Bank.
All this adds up to some very uncertain months to come, uncertain except in relation to much pain, suffering and death as a direct result of the actions of Putin and those around him. Yet even if Russia does succeed in replacing Ukraine’s elected government with a client regime, its problems hardly end there. A Kremlin-controlled regime in Kyiv would result in armed resistance across the country, with weapons and other materials pouring in from NATO countries. Furthermore, the constant TV and social media reporting of the damage being inflicted by the Kremlin upon people and cities will keep going around the world, with a cumulative impact on the standing of Russia.
Then, an occupied Ukraine makes a very likely environment for the rapid development of a vigorous environment of civilian resistance movements. Bear in mind that such movements had a major impact across Eastern Europe in the 1980s, stretching well beyond the Polish trade unionist movement, Solidarność (Solidarity).
Beyond all that, though, there are wider issues to contend with. We are already seeing a surge in military spending with much more to come. Attempts may be made to sanction and thereby damage Russia’s arms industries, but Western arms companies will do very well – the armourers really will thrive. In some countries, there will no doubt be calls to transfer resources from green development to the military, which is already the case in the UK.
There is also the easily forgotten matter of Ukraine’s important role as a global breadbasket, with many people across the Global South likely to suffer if grain prices rise because of interruption to supplies.
With all this to face, and for millions of people who are worried and concerned over what started barely a week ago, there is a natural feeling of helplessness. At such a time, there are two things to remember. First, this war is not a war by the whole of Russia. Seven thousand people across Russia have already been arrested knowing they may be treated very harshly. That takes courage. This is Putin’s war.
Second, thanks to Putin and his ilk, there is a huge humanitarian crisis unfolding and there are many ways in which ordinary people can help, not least with support for the million-plus people already seeking refuge in Central and Western Europe and North America, with many more to come.
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