Six months after President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, the war has upended basic assumptions about Russia’s military and economy.
When the US warned of an impending war earlier this year, officials and analysts in Washington and Europe alike assumed that Russia’s much larger and better-equipped military would quickly dominate Ukraine’s armed forces. They also believed that Putin would be constrained by a weak domestic economy.
US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley even warned Congress that Kyiv could fall within 72 hours of an invasion beginning. President Joe Biden said he will turn the ruble into ‘debris’. In contrast, in the Kremlin, Putin and his closest advisers saw Ukraine as a divided nation with incompetent leaders who lacked the will to fight.
But those expectations have turned out to be drastically wrong.
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What this will ultimately mean, as Ukraine marks half a year of war and continued independence, is just as uncertain as the outcome of the conflict. What is clear is that his decision to invade Ukraine rather than assert Moscow as a global military power, as Putin had hoped, has prompted a profound reconsideration of Russia’s conventional capabilities. It also led to further expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with hitherto neutral Finland and Sweden deciding to join the military alliance.
Russia “is not an equivalent military to the US” or even smaller NATO forces, said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The war has shown that it “is not capable of conducting complex operations in the way the British, French or Israelis can, so in that respect it is not even a second-order military power”.
Ukraine has suffered extensive damage to infrastructure, towns and cities and heavy military casualties, while the conflict has forced millions to flee the country. Its economy is struggling.
Nonetheless, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has emerged as a defiant war leader, able to rally his nation to inflict huge casualties on the Russian military, which has been forced to retreat from around the capital Kyiv and regroup in the east .
Ukraine continues to be supported by shipments of advanced US and European weapons, even as it has yet to show it can launch a successful large-scale counteroffensive and its allies face mounting economic pressures.
Asked by Swiss newspaper Blick this month if she fears Russia could next attack NATO member Estonia, Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said she sees no threat at her borders, although Putin said in a June speech in which he discussed this, the Estonian city of Narva checked by name, needing to regain lost Russian land.
“The right question would be: Is it NATO’s turn next?” Kallas told Blick. “Is Russia ready for this?”
Forecasts of Russia’s economic meltdown have also proved wrong, with gross domestic product falling at a dismal but less than catastrophic 4% rate in the second quarter as rising energy prices bolster fiscal revenues. As recently as May, Russia’s own Treasury Ministry forecast a 12% contraction this year for an economy hit by a blizzard of international sanctions.
While the US and its close allies have imposed sanctions, many countries – from China to India to the Middle East – have not imposed sanctions and have continued to trade with Moscow.
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Russia has cut back its natural gas supplies to Europe, giving it an unexpectedly powerful economic weapon of its own. Though preparations have been made to mitigate the impact of further Russian supply cuts, officials from Finland to Germany have been warning citizens in recent days to prepare for trouble.
The next “5 to 10 winters will be difficult,” Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said on Monday, as European natural gas prices rose to about 15 times their summer average.
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O’Brien was among the few Western defense analysts to predict a quagmire for Putin in Ukraine even before the war, and events since have only deepened his skepticism about the quality of Russian equipment, training and leadership.
Russia hasn’t found an answer to just 20 long-range HIMARS missile systems, a US technology dating back to the 1980s that Ukrainian troops are using to destroy ammunition dumps and logistics systems deep behind Russian lines, O’Brien said. “The US has 540 of them. Russia doesn’t even play in the same league.”
Before Putin launched his “special military operation” on February 24, some Russian policymakers and advisers inside and outside the government said they were well aware of the military’s weaknesses — and the challenges it would face in Ukraine. That’s why so many refused to believe until the very end that he would pull the trigger.
A person close to the Russian defense establishment said that any invasion would be like the Korean War in the 1950s, with the development of a positional front. But even they thought Russia could conquer more territory east of the central Dnipro River.
One reason Russia has underperformed is that it has only become clear since the war that its military counted too much to hide its underinvestment in personnel, according to Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a Washington think tank .
As Russia massed troops for the invasion of Ukraine, estimates of the force’s size were based on a count of what are known as Battalion Tactical Groups, or BTGs — maneuverable units with their own artillery, air defenses, logistics, and about 50 tanks and armored vehicles — assumed to be there that they each comprise 700-900 soldiers. That indicated an invasion force of about 150,000.
In reality, the average BTG had 600 personnel or fewer, and the total force may have included only 90,000 regular Russian troops, Kofman said in a recent podcast with West Point’s Modern War Institute. Since the bulk of the downsizing was in the infantry, “essentially they went to war and there was nobody in the vehicles.”
This had a tremendous impact on the war and, according to Kofman, explained Russia’s difficulties in getting off the streets, engaging effectively in house wars, and conquering territories. Still, he remains cautious about drawing conclusions, recalling the difficulties the US has encountered with vastly outnumbered militaries in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The underperformance of Russia’s air force and air defenses has also raised questions about the quality of the equipment itself, as well as the training of the Russian pilots and soldiers who operate them.
Russia’s ability to produce technologically advanced weapons is likely to be further undermined as sanctions hamper imports. A study of Russian equipment captured or destroyed on Ukraine’s battlefields found 450 foreign-made components in 27 critical Russian weapon systems, including drones, missiles and communications equipment.
The majority of these parts were made by US companies, with the rest coming mostly from Ukrainian backers. While smuggling and espionage can fill some of the gap, “Russia and its armed forces remain highly vulnerable to multilateral efforts to choke off these component flows and increase the cost of its aggression in Ukraine,” according to the May 8 Royal United report August Service institute in the UK.
At the same time, the Ukrainian armed forces’ motivation and ability to innovate, outperform Russian commanders in the field and use unfamiliar NATO standard weapons has surprised many, with some analysts – and according to an August opinion poll, 98% of Ukrainians – now believing they can win the war.
Russia may not even be able to maintain its nuclear arsenal long-term as long as it remains sanctioned, according to Pavel Luzin, a defense analyst at Riddle, a think tank dedicated to Russia and a former adviser to jailed Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
“The lack of industrial equipment, technology and human capital will make the current number of ICBMs, SLBMs and heavy bombers simply impossible,” Luzin said, referring to Russia’s land-, submarine- and air-launched nuclear missiles.
Despite all of this, Russia remains a nuclear superpower with a fearsome ability to escalate what could prove decisive. The Soviet Union managed to develop its arsenal without access to Western (or modern Chinese) technology and, if necessary, obtained it through spy networks.
“The West underestimates the degree of elasticity of the Russian system – because it’s poor and incompetent, but also quite explosive because it’s global,” said Gleb Pavlovsky, a Kremlin political adviser during Putin’s first decade in power.
“And eventually it will explode, but how it explodes is another question.”
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