Ukraine Against The Storm
Day 1 of combat was not a Russian victory
The first 24 hours of Russian combat operations did not see uniform success along the extended front of advance. Ukrainian forces have achieved decisive local victories in defense of Russian objectives. Russian armor now occupies the Chernobyl exclusion zone after Ukrainian forces made no defense of it. Clearly, the plan in Kyiv seems to be that Russians will pay for every inch of Ukraine they invade except for the radioactive bits. Putin can have those.
After all, that place is just a natural graveyard for Russian imperial projects. Look, I am not a nuclear scientist, but if my tank was parked in the cracked, grassy lot outside of that reactor, I would stay buttoned up inside it, too. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t anyone? And so the “invasion route” for Putin becomes something of a quagmire, because he cannot possibly use it to stage any substantial force for any length of time. It is useless as a logistical base or a command post or a fuel point or an airfield.
Chernobyl is a symbol, and thus a symbolic victory. Symbolic of what? Who knows. I remain unconvinced that Putin has thought this thing all the way through. No plan survives first contact with the enemy, sure. But. Just…well.
Consider his stated rationale: Ukraine is a mortal danger to Russia, because reasons; his “special military occupation” will therefore destroy the Ukrainian military that is such a clear and present danger to Russia; airstrikes and missiles have targeted military bases. This is very mass-centric thinking. Carl von Clausewitz advised against attritional strategies like this, emphasizing maneuver to exploit weaknesses and reach useful objectives.
Symbolic victories amid burned-out battlefields are things to be avoided.
Time is not on Putin’s side. Resistance, in this context, is itself a victory. As long as there is fight in them, the Ukrainians win. This is most emphatically true in the air. Every day that Ukraine can answer Russian forces on the ground with close support strikes, and threaten Russian planes in the air, is another bad, expensive day for Vladimir Putin, no matter how outnumbered. (See: the Battle of Britain.)
Firepower has limited returns for breaking an enemy’s will. This lesson should have been driven home by Desert Storm and its sequel, as neither air campaign alone succeeded in totally defeating all resistance. I don’t see lessons learned, or a country’s will to fight being sapped. Quite the contrary:
"I think we must fight all those who invade our country so strongly," said one man stuck in traffic trying to leave Kyiv. "I would hang every single one of them from bridges."
Thus far, Putin’s ammunition expenditure has been small compared to the opening symphonies of American wars in Iraq, more bark than bite. One wonders how large his stocks of expensive ordnance really are. Any “shock and awe” effect Putin hoped to establish will have limited duration, anyway, because (as we spent the 20th Century establishing) air power alone cannot break an enemy’s will to fight.
Western intelligence is clearly playing a role in these opening defensive stands. Early warning would explain why Russian attacks on key communication centers, such as the assault on the port of Mariupol and the air assault on the airfield at Gostomel, have been met with immediate response from forces positioned nearby. Defeating an air insertion is quite a bit easier if you know the intended drop zone in advance: a few tanks, a few cannons, and the enemy’s elite airborne regiment becomes a memory, for they will lack those things.
For all his power as an autocrat, Putin senses his opportunity to reclaim Ukraine in the name of Russian nationalism slipping away. Perhaps he really has a wasting disease, as rumored. Or perhaps he really is messianic about his Orthodox zeal to reunite the Ukrainian church with the Russian one, a kind of holy divorce of churches that has gone under the radar of most western observers. Putin probably would love to be a hallowed saint and icon. His strategic vision has more in common with the Tsars than the Soviets, who stuffed their saints and put them on gruesome display. To be clear, I don’t think that Putin has quite become an irrational actor. His rationale is merely obscure to everyone not named Vladimir Putin; he keeps his own counsel.
Fortunately, would-be gods are made of flesh and blood like everyone else. Perhaps the people of Ukraine will succeed in reminding Putin that he is mortal. If Russian casualties mount, he will not be able to keep it secret, and those crowds of peaceful protesters might not be so peaceful anymore. Without the luxury of time, Putin has a relatively short window to succeed in destroying the resistance of a country that will only ever resist him harder and harder.
As I said — and as Clausewitz would say — someone really has not thought this plan all the way through. No matter how well someone plans their opening moves, the enemy always has a say. The odds remain overwhelming, yes. Still. The sight of an underdog making a bully pay for his aggression is always inspiring. On Day Two of Putin’s war of Ukrainian independence, the defense — so far — is inspiring. And every day that is the news, is very bad news for Vladimir Putin.