Six days into a multi-pronged attack on Ukraine, Russian forces have failed to claim any major cities and have reportedly suffered heavy casualties. Moscow has been diplomatically isolated while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wages a fierce, popular resistance. So what happened? Experts across the national security space point to five reasons the invasion isn’t going as well as the Kremlin apparently expected:
1. Putin told basically no one—not even his generals—his true intentions.
Hints that Russian leader Vladimir Putin kept his true plan for Ukraine mostly to himself have been trickling out on social media for days. Exhibit A: Putin’s announcement of the impending invasion lacked the usual luster of Kremlin propaganda events. In fact, all of Putin’s recent televised speeches have seen lower production quality, including odd camera angles, than Russia’s high-powered state propaganda studios normally produce, said Sam Charap, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation.
“It’s pretty clear the nature of this operation was kept secret from all but a close handful of people,” Charap said.
Putin’s circle of trust is shrinking rapidly, and that is likely limiting his ability to get good, impartial advice, Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Monday. “He’s more and more isolated. There’s less and less inputs. The inputs are mostly coming from sycophants who don’t want to get the boss mad,” Warner said.
Charap said Russia’s messaging around the Ukraine invasion has been “haphazard.”
“It really became clear that the people who do those things within the Russian system, even the ones who do TV production, had no idea what was going on until it already started happening,” he said.
Even the invading troops appear to have been kept in the dark. Captured Russian soldiers, often quite young, have been filmed calling their parents to tell them they were in Ukraine and, according to the Ukrainian ministry of defense, have reportedly told their families they thought they were on drills.
“The consequences of keeping the entire operation under such tight wraps that, you know, probably the people who could have planned this well, weren’t even in the loop, is my best assessment of how we got to where we are,” Charap said. “Because…the rest of the General Staff, based on how they train—and you know how they conducted the operation in Syria—they can be better than this. Let’s put it that way.”
Now, massive convoys have run out of fuel and Russian tanks and trucks have broken down along Ukrainian highways. “Not only are they running out of gas, they are running out of food,” a senior defense official told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday.
“A traffic jam is not a convoy,” said Eliot Cohen, former Pentagon policy staff director and State Department counselor during the Iraq War, now a professor and former dean at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and the Arleigh Burke chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, at a CSIS discussion on Ukraine on Tuesday.
Bottom line: the failure of messaging has given Ukraine an advantage. Michael Kofman, who directs Russia studies at CNA, wrote on Twitter: “In a desperate effort to keep the war hidden from the Russian public, framing this as a Donbas operation, Moscow has completely ceded the information environment to Ukraine, which has galvanized morale and support behind Kyiv. Another miscalculation.”
2. This is not the fight they planned for
Leading up to the invasion, analysts had painted a portrait of a modernized, well-trained Russian military. But that has not been on display in the war’s first days.
“Russia has badly mismanaged the planning for this operation,” a senior State Department official told Defense One on Friday. “Their logistics trains are poorly organized, morale is bad, and they are totally unprepared for urban warfare in Ukrainian cities. They have many advantages over Ukraine in terms of numbers of forces and equipment, but they’re playing their hand badly and have sustained high casualties. The Ukrainians are determined to defend their homeland.”
Kofman said, “Looking at the military effort, I think Russian forces are getting some basics really wrong. But we’re also learning things that are probably not true about the Russian military as well. They’re not really fighting the way they train and organize for a major conventional war.”
Charap agreed. “This is not how they train to fight. This is not a combined arms maneuver operation,” he said.
So far, Russia has made limited use of its cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. Warner said he was surprised the Russian government hadn’t yet taken steps to shut down internet connectivity in Ukraine. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far,” he said.
Dmitri Alperovitch, co-founder of the cybersecurity company Crowdstrike, told Defense One that he believes Russia has been reluctant to bring down the Ukrainian internet because Russian forces may be relying on local networks for their own communications.
Since the start of the invasion, Ukraine has worked to bolster internet resilience in the country.
The United States is in contact with the Zelenskyy government through secure satellite communications, CNN’s Kylie Atwood reported. And some Ukrainians are able to stay connected through SpaceX’s Starlink transceivers.
Russia has also restrained its use of communications jamming and electronic warfare equipment, U.S. officials believe. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, they jammed cell phones and maintained near-radio silence while also coordinating well.
“We have not seen what we believe the full scope of their electronic warfare capabilities brought to bear,” the senior defense official said. “I cannot give an assessment of why that would be. We do have indications that in some places they have used EW to their advantage, particularly in jamming at a local level.”
3. They got over-confident
“If you look at how they launched their attacks, they clearly expected that to happen through a quick and pretty bloodless campaign,” Cohen said on Tuesday.
History offers many examples of what happens when an isolated leader launches an invasion, said Rajan Menon, the director of the grand strategy program at Defense Priorities, and senior research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University.
“There’s a lot of evidence based on studies of war that initiators expect a very quick victory and have a rather low opinion of their adversary,” Menon said. “And that in a closed decision-making circle like Putin’s—some of you may have seen that bizarre meeting he had with the National Security Council where he was seated at a table and they were seated there, like schoolboys—they were all to the podium and made these rambling remarks, each trying to outbid they other, and Sergey Naryshkin, the FSB [Russian domestic security] boss was scolded, was trembling like a schoolboy—the whole thing was just bizarre.”
Michael Vickers, former U.S. defense undersecretary for intelligence, said at CSIS that he couldn’t think of “a bigger strategic blunder and modern military history…I mean, this is a colossal intelligence failure and vastly underestimating Ukrainian resistance, and military execution has been terrible.”
Kofman said Russia’s war plan appeared to be built around a largely unopposed run to the capital and a premise of quick surrender. “They’ve been skirting major cities, going for key road junctions/smaller towns,” he tweeted. “Why did Moscow choose this course of action? A few theories: they didn’t take Ukraine and its military seriously. They wanted to avoid attrition and devastation because of consequences for [political] goals in Ukraine, costs of casualties, and they want to hide the costs from the public.”
4. They have held back their airpower
Russia has not used the full extent of its airpower in Ukraine, and the Ukrainians are still able to conduct their own air operations and launch air defense capabilities, a senior defense official told Pentagon reporters Tuesday.
“There’s a certain risk-averse behavior, they are not necessarily willing to take high risks with their own aircraft and their own pilots,” the official said. “My assumption was that there was going to be a significant depression among enemy air defense or SEAD [suppression of enemy air defenses] operations, they call it in the very initial stages, and it was kind of half-hearted,” Charap said. “But that doesn’t mean that, you know, the Russians rolled down all these new capabilities, and they turned out not to work. It’s just they haven’t really done that.”
Kofman said, “Russia’s air force has largely been sitting on the sidelines, and beyond a few attack aircraft, there’s been little evidence of Russian fighters flying offensive counter air or combat air patrol missions. Similarly, there have been few sightings of tactical bombers employed, most starting five days into the campaign.”
5. Europe’s surprising response
Putin may have shored up Russian currency to withstand sanctions, but there’s no way he could have predicted Europe’s strong response, several analysts said. In a matter of days, German opposition to bulking up its defense spending melted away, and the country has pledged to quickly raise its military budget to 2 percent of GDP. Russian aircraft are banned from the European Union’s entire airspace.
Countries across the European continent sped hundreds of millions in lethal aid to Ukraine, including Stinger anti-aircraft and Javelin anti-tank missiles. In Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of citizens have taken up arms, including Molotov cocktails.
“I think the Europeans have surprised themselves, they’ve surprised the U.S., and I’m sure they surprised Russia,” Charap said.
For Putin, it’s a complete failure of political objectives, Cohen said.
He said the Russian leader has sought “to limit the spread of democratic contagion,” especially in Ukraine, and to chip away at NATO’s unity. “He has not only failed at each of those objectives thus far, I think he has set up the conditions for a permanent defeat on all of those in many respects,” he said.
Warner said the Russian president has even started to lose the public support of inner-circle oligarchs such as Mikhail Fridman and Oleg Deripaska. “When you start to see oligarchy, some of the people who Putin has enriched at outrageous rates, starting to question…whether this is the right approach, I think it’s got to take them back a bit,” the senator said.
Military officials and analysts emphasized that the war is still in its earliest phases, and they fully expect Russia to adapt its approach. Unfortunately, Alperovitch said, the fewer options Putin has to save face, the worse they get.
On Monday, he wrote, “Now that the Russians have switched tactics from pursuing a rapid victory on the cheap (failed miserably) and reverted to the mean of leveling Ukrainian cities to the ground like they did with Grozny and Aleppo, the goals of the operation are likely changing as well.”
Meanwhile, Putin will have to watch his back at home. “The longer it goes on, the more precarious Putin’s position will become domestically. A palace coup is going to become increasingly likely over time,” Alperovitch wrote.
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