The slow moving, chaotic Russian assault, plagued by poor equipment and poorly trained soldiers, offers opportunities for Ukraine itself, the United States, and our allies around the world if we are willing to get far more creative and dynamic in our strategy and tactics. Now is the time to come up with something other than ad hoc sanctions and tired platitudes.
Russia’s war in Ukraine isn’t going as planned. Before the invasion, conventional wisdom held that Russia’s superior army and firepower would easily topple a shaky Ukrainian government and quickly take operational control of the country. Instead, the war is now stretching into its third brutal week and strains in Russian military capabilities and capacity are starting to show. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this more than the 40-mile convoy of Russian tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and supplies that was stalled outside of Kiev for more than a week. No one knows precisely why this convoy was stuck dead in its tracks, but it was likely some combination of the poor condition of the roads, poorly maintained or damaged Russian military equipment, and a lack of supplies. Regardless, it is clearly a huge embarrassment that one of the most advanced militaries in the known universe could be so mired down they were unable to move a supply line for days on end. Last week, it appears they gave up on the effort entirely and opted to reposition functional vehicles. The UK’s Ministry of Defence claimed that Russia “is likely seeking to reset and re-posture its forces for renewed offensive activity in the coming days,” including “operations against the capital Kyiv.”
We cannot know for sure, but the stalled convoy is accompanied by other reports of equipment failures, young and inexperienced troops, and a general malaise across significant portions of the Russian army. According to the Financial Times, the Oryx blog recorded 1,034 Russian vehicles, artillery pieces and aircraft destroyed, damaged, abandoned or captured, including 173 tanks, 261 armored and infantry vehicles, and 28 surface-to-air missile systems (as of last week). Justin Bronk, a research fellow at the UK’s Royal United Services Institute, claimed the losses “are massively more than in any other recent conflict” going back to the 1980s. These losses include some 2,000 to 6,000 Russian soldiers killed in combat, and likely 3-4 times as many captured according to analysts projections. Russian challenges also include massive intelligence failures, resulting in a botched plan of attack where elite troops that were supposed to secure key initial targets were ultimately repelled by prepared and determined Ukrainian resistance. “The Ukrainian military as a whole have been expecting this kind of invasion to come since 2014,” explained the former head of UK’s Joint Forces Command, General Sir Richard Barrons. “And then they were handed the gift of these light forces coming in piecemeal, underestimating them, which they were able to pick off.”
In the short term, these challenges have prompted Russia to become more aggressive, switching from military targets to civilian ones. In the past week, we witnessed the bombing of a hospital in Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine, killing at least 3 and wounding well over a dozen. The images from the attack were heartbreaking, including a pregnant mother who lost her baby pleading “Kill me now” as medics tried to treat her wounds. She ultimately succumbed to her injuries. Another pregnant woman, Mariana Vishegirskaya, who is also a blogger, gave birth a day later. She described the scene, “It happened on 9 March in Hospital No 3 in Mariupol. We were lying in wards when glasses, frames, windows and walls flew apart. We don’t know how it happened. We were in our wards and some had time to cover themselves, some didn’t.” This atrocity comes amidst reports of attacks on other civilian targets including a United States journalist, and war crimes in general. Some 640 civilians have been killed including over 90 women and close to 50 children, almost 2,000 injured. There are rumors now that Russia might consider using chemical weapons, a report we should all hope is false, but is indicative of the increasing desperation to achieve their objectives.
Tragically, this is likely to get far worse in the coming days, but one thing is also becoming clear: The Russian military appears to be increasingly bogged down between failures in equipment and stiff resistance. While it is too soon to call it a quagmire, some are now claiming that the Russians can be defeated outright. Francis Fukayama, writing for American Purpose, believes that “Russia is heading for an outright defeat in Ukraine. Russian planning was incompetent, based on a flawed assumption that Ukrainians were favorable to Russia and that their military would collapse immediately following an invasion. Russian soldiers were evidently carrying dress uniforms for their victory parade in Kyiv rather than extra ammo and rations. Putin at this point has committed the bulk of his entire military to this operation—there are no vast reserves of forces he can call up to add to the battle. Russian troops are stuck outside various Ukrainian cities where they face huge supply problems and constant Ukrainian attacks.” This has led him to conclude, “The collapse of their position could be sudden and catastrophic, rather than happening slowly through a war of attrition. The army in the field will reach a point where it can neither be supplied nor withdrawn, and morale will vaporize.”
Last month, the head of Estonia’s foreign intelligence service, Mikk Marran, hinted at something similar, because Russia cannot “keep up an intensive war for more than two months” they will ultimately “not win this war.” Last week, an anonymous source, also in the Eastonian service, said something similar, “If Russia does not achieve a remarkable advance by the end of this week, it is difficult to see how [the advance] should come at all.” These speculations could of course prove to be wishful thinking, but underlying them is an undeniable truth: Russia is learning that it is far more difficult to take control over a country than simply to defeat it militarily, and their options are becoming increasingly limited. They will ramp up civilian attacks and attempt to break the will of the Ukrainian people, but there is no guarantee of success if the Ukrainians can hold out for an extended period. The longer this goes on, the less favorable the conditions for the Russian military as firepower alone is not enough to assure victory. Even if they were to devastate an entire city or huge swaths of the country, they would not necessarily obtain operational control of the country and, assuming they did, they would need to occupy large areas to maintain it.
In my opinion, this represents an opportunity for Ukraine itself, the United States, and our allies around the world if we are willing to get far more creative and dynamic in our strategy and tactics. To date, our response has included a combination of sanctions, some more effective than others, a ban on oil imports, a proposal to revoke favored nation status, and arming the Ukrainian people to a limited extent. We have not, however, identified what we consider an acceptable endgame. Are we willing to give up the western provinces if Putin walks away or do we seek Russia’s total expulsion from the country? Are we going to demand restitution and reparations for the damage he’s done? Are we going to charge him with war crimes and sentence him in the Hague, knowing he will never serve time, but effectively banishing him from the accepted international sphere? Some insist we need to go even further and pursue regime change. Clarity on these details certainly matters at this point because we cannot implement a comprehensive, actionable strategy without a clearly defined goal and we need to avoid unnecessary controversies associated with our current ad hoc tactics. Just last week, for example, there was embarrassing confusion over whether we would support Poland supplying combat aircraft to Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken first claimed we would. The Pentagon ultimately said we wouldn’t, for fear of escalating the conflict. These fears are understandable given Russia has a large nuclear stockpile and could start World War III, but the confusion is not.
In my opinion, our goal should be the total expulsion of Russia from Ukraine, handing President Putin an unequivocal defeat on the world stage. This goal need not be absolute forever; if the Ukrainian people believe they can achieve success by giving up the western provinces, we should consider supporting them in that regard, but we should make clear in the meantime that we want Russia out of Ukraine entirely. To achieve that, we can consider more creative strategies that take advantage of the Russian’s military’s failure to achieve their objectives quickly and effectively. One of these strategies should be an attempt to force the army’s dissolution within Ukraine. What if we could make the Russian army, or at least a portion of it simply disappear? If reporting is accurate, Russia lacks a sufficient reserve force to flood the country, meaning they are limited to fighting with the army they have. This army is currently bogged down and filled with largely untrained, inexperienced conscripts with low morale. We should assume a significant percentage has no desire to be there and no will to complete the mission. Therefore, they might well be willing to desert. We can easily incentivize that by offering safe passage to Poland or other neighboring countries, immunity from any prosecution or detainment for their participation, temporary shelter, medical treatments and other accommodations, and a reward for laying down arms and pledging not to return to the fray. While it is unclear how many would immediately accept such an offer, especially as many likely have families in Russia that would be punished, there will undoubtedly be some and even a small percentage of an army disappearing overnight would devastate Russian operations.
Further, it would send a clear message, one that will have more impact overtime, that our dispute is not with the Russian soldiers or the Russian people, but entirely with their leadership. This will serve to help further lower morale in the army and encourage more protests against Putin in Russia itself. Even if we cannot force the army to cease operations entirely, we can slow them down and further isolate the Russian President and his chief advisors. No one can remain in power long with an army losing men and incapable of executing commands, mired in a war no one wants. These and similar opportunities exist to be exploited without further military involvement on our part. We need only get more creative and concise, focused rather than scattershot and committed to a clear, publicly stated final objective.