By Jonathan Rogers, Chair of the History Department at Founders Classical Academy Lewisville
On Wednesday, February 24th (known as “Defender of the Fatherland” Day in Russia), Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a “Special Military Operation” against Ukraine. Citing the need to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine in order to protect both Russia and the breakaway regions of the “People’s Republics of the Donbass,” in Eastern Ukraine, Putin gave the go-ahead for elements of the nearly 200,000 Russian air, land, and naval forces staged around Ukraine to invade.
In the first few hours of the war, Russian conventional ballistic missiles and aircraft struck targets throughout Ukraine, and ground units crossed the Ukrainian border on three sides. In the East, Russian units entered the breakaway Donbass “People’s Republics” (DPR) to confront the bulk of the Ukrainian army. In the North, Russian units have attempted to encircle Kharkiv, site of several famous World War II battles. In the center of the country, Russian units advancing from Belarus have reached the outskirts of Kyiv, while also capturing Chernobyl along the way. The Ukrainian government is rallying its citizens to defend the city, led personally by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zalensky. The mayor of Kyiv, former professional heavyweight boxer Vitali Klitschko has also joined the local militia, as has former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.
The Russian southern offensive, however, may ultimately be a bigger threat to Ukrainian forces. Jumping off from the Crimean peninsula, Russian forces have passed Kherson and threaten the key port of Odessa, while also advancing Eastward, seeking to link up with DPR and Russian forces advancing West. The important Ukrainian coastal town of Mariupul, which seems to have already repulsed at least one Russian amphibious assault, has likely been encircled or bypassed. If Russian forces advancing North from Crimea can link up with forces coming South from Kharkiv, then the bulk of Ukrainian conventional forces may be isolated in a cauldron reminiscent of the giant mobile campaigns of the Eastern Front during World War II.
Russian hopes seem to have rested upon a lightning thrust to Kyiv and the rapid capitulation of the Ukrainian government. It is possible the Russians expected/hoped that Ukrainian forces would either break quickly, or only offer token resistance. But the Ukrainians have offered spirited resistance, and much of the story of the last few days has been of slowed Russian advances, and burned-out armored vehicles. Ukraine’s significantly overmatched air defenses and beleaguered Air Force have continued to deny air superiority to Russia. While probably mythical, a Ukrainian Mig-29 pilot has been dubbed the “Ghost of Kyiv” with at least 6 kills. The instantly-famous defenders of Snake Island, who were recorded delivering a defiant (and rude) message to a Russian warship, are now reported as having surrendered alive. What is true, however, is that Ukrainians are spray-painting “Welcome to Hell” on highway signs approaching Kyiv.
This points to the arena of the war the Ukrainians are winning decisively, in the moral and psychological arenas. Western outlets have shown great enthusiasm and admiration for Ukraine’s spirited defense, and President Zelensky has already received favorable comparisons with Winston Churchill. Zelensky, a former stand-up comedian and actor who became a politician after starring in a TV show about a high school teacher who was elected President of Ukraine (Zelensky also once competed in Ukraine’s version of Dancing with the Stars, and provided the vocal dubbing for the voice of Paddington Bear in Ukrainian, and yes, you read all that correctly), has vowed to stay in Kyiv and help lead the defense, even though his fate if captured would almost certainly be lethal. From Kyiv, Zelensky has posted raw and genuine selfie-videos of himself with his cabinet, and reportedly refused a western offer of evacuation by saying he needed “ammunition, not a ride.”
Internationally, the war has met with almost universal condemnation, with even China offering muddled diplomatic statements, as Russia’s stance on Ukraine conflicts with their stated policy on Taiwan, and customarily Russia-aligned India formally abstaining in a UN Security Council Vote (at a meeting which, in a rather farcical manner, was chaired by Permanent Security Council member Russia). In addition to new and significantly harsher sanctions on Russia, western nations have eagerly announced support and weapons shipments to Ukraine. Most notably, sanctions targeting Russia’s central bank may freeze a significant portion of Putin’s $630 billion rainy day fund which was supposed to help Russia weather sanctions in the first place.
Germany, with the largest economy in Europe, close economic ties to Russia, and massive amounts of historical and moral baggage when it comes to war, has been the weakest link in NATO of late, and at one point, during the run-up to the conflict, actually blocked a shipment of weapons from Estonia. Since then however, Germany has (first reluctantly, and now enthusiastically) come around to canceling the important Nordream 2 pipeline from Russia, agreed to offer military aid to Ukraine, and is on board with plans to remove Russia from the SWIFT financial payments system. On Sunday, Germany also committed to finally increasing defense spending above the 2% of GDP threshold required of NATO members.
Almost as shocking as Germany’s dramatic change of posture has been the collective actions of the European Union. For the first time in its history, the EU is purchasing and supplying weapons in an armed conflict, acquiring fighter jets from Eastern European member states which operate late-Soviet era models of the same type used by Ukraine. The ultimate implications of this newly galvanized Europe remains to be seen, and European ardor for supporting Ukraine may cool if Russia achieves a rapid victory, and sanctions cause economic blowback at home. Even so, a combination of Russian ineptitude, Ukrainian defiance, and the personal charisma of a former stand-up comic turned-politician, have likely permanently altered three decades of European geopolitics.
The United States has stated it won’t get involved militarily, and likely has no choice in the matter, as Putin’s speech announcing the invasion rather clearly threatened nuclear escalation if outside armies become involved in the war. Consequently, American domestic debates over military intervention are mostly just partisan talking points. Much American punditry over the war has not yet broken free from the common political malady of thinking everything (good and bad) revolves around one’s own country, as if Russia’s decision to invade or not solely hinged upon the actions of the American government. While it’s likely the case that America’s military drawdowns in Europe and attempts to focus on China, along with the uninspiring withdrawal from Afghanistan last year gave Putin added confidence in his present gamble, the tenor of his February 21st speech while recognizing the DPR statelets suggests that his main focus is on the history of Russia and Ukraine, and his belief that NATO expansion threatens Russian security.
Much of the above summary will likely be outpaced by events, which are unfolding hour by hour. Looking ahead, here are a few predictions and trends to keep an eye on:
1. Sieges, and the fall of Kyiv.
While the Ukrainian defense has been inspiring so far, the truth remains that Russia has likely only committed (at most) about two-thirds of its staged combat power, and that the Ukrainian army is outnumbered and overmatched in key areas, especially in the generally decisive areas of armor, artillery, and airpower. It is likely that Russian units will soon invest Kyiv, which has not been adequately prepared for any sort of sustained defense, and still has a huge number of civilians present. While the Ukrainians certainly appear to be showing a great deal of bravery, this conflict is only a few days old, and Russia has yet to really call upon the full weight of its terrifying heavy artillery (though Russian forces now seem to have begun bombarding residential areas in Karkhiv). Much of the world didn’t closely observe what Russian heavy firepower did to civilian populations in Syria, and the world should hope and pray that it doesn't get to find out what this might look like in cities such as Kyiv and Kharkiv
2. Can Ukraine pivot towards insurgency?
It is likely that Western military planners and the Ukrainians assumed all along that Russian conventional forces would eventually overrun most of Eastern Ukraine, and either capture or destroy most Ukrainian conventional units. Even before the invasion, western punditry talked about the possibility of Ukraine carrying on an insurgency in the countryside against Russian occupation forces, and the large number of handheld anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles supplied to the Ukrainians are clearly aimed at giving the Russian army some unpleasant flashbacks to their experience in Afghanistan during the 1980’s. Crucially, Russia does not have the forces to overrun the West of the country, and Ukraine shares a long land border with sympathetic European nations such as Poland and Romania. Assuming much of the Ukrainian command structure (and government) survives the possible fall of Kyiv, carrying on an asymmetrical campaign designed to bleed the Russians white may be possible. The consequences for civilian populations in such conflicts, however, are usually very grim.
3. Russian equipment, casualties, and Putin’s future.
Russia spent much of the last two decades attempting to rebuild something of its Soviet-era mystique as a great power, and flashy new heavy weapons systems have often dominated western media coverage of Russia’s modernization program. But, beneath the surface of Russian promotional videos, the fact remains that Russia has not had the money to significantly modernize more than a fraction of its military, and the vast majority of Russian equipment still dates from the 1980’s, or even earlier. Russia has less than five-hundred active duty T-90 tanks, which are themselves an evolutionary design of the T-72 (first produced in 1969), and the vast majority of Russian tank crews operate Cold War-era vehicles that have been only partially modernized. The difficulty of paying for such a large (on paper) army means that Russia also has problems staffing its army, forcing it to sometimes rely on conscript soldiers who only serve one-year terms. The morale and motivation of these soldiers, many of whom may not have even known they were being sent into a war to begin with, may prove quite suspect.
Russia’s personnel challenges actually reflect an even bigger problem. An under-appreciated motivation for absorbing Western Ukraine is Russia’s desire to bolster its sagging population numbers. Russia has been faced with an acute fertility crisis for decades, to the point where the Russian population itself is an important strategic asset. The days of the Red Army being able to drown opponents in the blood of its own casualties are long over. In previous conflicts in Georgia and Syria, Putin actually showed a remarkable aversion to taking heavy casualties, and often covered up news of fatalities when possible.
Taken together, it’s important to realize that Russia’s army is actually smaller than people think, and that it cannot afford to easily replace casualties and equipment losses. Even if Russia wins, the victory may easily prove to be Pyrrhic, especially if Russia ends up losing so much of its reputation as a great military power. The implications of all this for Vladimir Putin’s career, to say nothing of his legacy, are serious. The odds that Putin will no longer be in power six months from now (or even alive), are likely much higher than they were a week ago.