Why even if Russia wins the Ukraine war, it will never again be regarded with awe
It was generally assumed just a few weeks ago that the Russian invasion of Ukraine would settle into a stalemate. After being beaten at the Battle of Kiev, the Russian army had withdrawn from northwestern Ukraine; fighting remained intense in the southeast, as Moscow sought to bring all of Luhansk and Donetsk districts under its control, but over the remainder of the long front line the two armies were expected to entrench themselves. Some began to talk about “frozen conflicts”, such as between Armenia and Azerbaijan — where for years there is no movement on a frontline, normal business resumes behind the lines, occasional “hot” warfare breaks out, but there is no real solution, either military or political, on the horizon.
These assumptions now lie in tatters, after the Ukrainian army’s startling advance across most of Kharkiv province in the north and crucial parts of Kherson province in the south. Clearly Kiev at least never intended to allow this conflict to freeze.
The Russian military establishment has been thrice humiliated. Once in so thoroughly underestimating Ukraine prior to the war, and in its bungling of the initial invasion towards Kiev. Again, in its inability to prosecute the fighting efficiently after the opening shock of the invasion, culminating in its ignominious rout in the northwest. And finally through being forced to conduct a “partial mobilisation” even though it was clear the political leadership in the Kremlin wanted a quick victorious war that did not impact the broader Russian population.
Worst of all, the partial mobilisation of 300,000 additional men itself looks like it is being bungled. More Russian men of military age have left the country in response to the announcement than were supposed to be drafted. Many draftees are being sent to the frontline without the expected amount of training or retraining. The draft has been noticeably unfair, with some villages and factories losing all their young men — with, allegedly, ethnic minorities being targeted for conscription rather than the Great Russian majority. The conscripts are not only not being retrained in the usual manner, but they are not being assigned officers from the reserve, as the manuals say they should. Even uniforms are in short supply; one Russian politician tweeted his mystification that “1.5 million winter uniforms” appear to have disappeared from a warehouse. Of course, the chances are those uniforms existed only on paper, and the money vanished into some oligarch’s yacht. The prospect of Russian soldiers having to conduct a winter campaign without the right uniforms is ironic, given how many times we have heard that “General Winter” is always on Moscow’s side.
Russian weapons have not covered themselves in glory either. The air force is mysteriously absent, much to the infantry’s befuddlement. The biggest development of the war is that Russia has not achieved air supremacy against an opponent that, on paper, should not have been able to deny them the air. Russian tanks have under-performed — especially in the north, against Kiev. Finally, the country’s biggest claims to cutting-edge military technology — the fifth-generation Su-57, and the T-14 Armata tank — are clearly either too valuable, too buggy, too new, or too few to be risked in combat.
Not that Russian weapons are unusable by a motivated and intelligent fighting force. We know this because, as The Wall Street Journal solemnly reported this week, Russia is in fact Ukraine’s biggest weapons supplier. It has captured and repurposed 421 Russian tanks, as opposed to being provided 320 by the West; it has 192 armoured fighting vehicles that formerly had “Z” painted on them, and was only supplied 40 by its partners; and so on. These have formed the backbone of its army’s recent advances. The Ukrainian army also consists in large part of conscripts that have been retrained. Clearly, there are differences in organisation or motivation that are even more salient than any differences in equipment quality.
These facts are now plain, but they are very hard to digest. Most of us have lived our entire lives thinking of Russia as a superpower — if no longer economic or political, then definitely military. This informs our analysis and intuitions. We think immediately of how Russia can be provided with reasons to stop fighting, to be nudged towards the table, because the idea it could be defied militarily by a small country is simply too alien. Yet Ukraine is, in the end, a third the size of the Russian Federation; it provided more than its share of soldiers and officers to the old superpower’s Red Army.
And, finally, this is not our great-grandfather’s Russia. It is not a country with an inexhaustible reserve of young people fighting with its back to the wall — as it did in the past against the Swedes, the French, and the Germans. It could beat Napoleon by taking every punch and having enough men to fight back; it could beat the Nazis even after sending weaponless young men to charge Panzers arm in arm. This is an older country fighting a war of choice, with a military riddled with nepotism and weaponry rendered useless by corruption and neglect. Even if Russia wins this war, it will never again be regarded with awe.