The counter offensives by Ukraine in the Kherson region in the South and now in the Kharkiv-Izyum area have been expected for some time. While the southern operation might reasonably be said to be a failure (at least at this point) the counter offensive in the North has been relatively successful. In my previous posts on Ukraine (here, here and here), I had refrained from attempting to make any assessment of the military situation and instead focused on the history, legality and geo-political aspects of the war. In this post however, I will attempt such an analysis as an exercise in marking the propaganda war to reality.
Having explained my views on the history, legality and geo-political aspects of the war at some length in previous posts, I will only briefly summarize my views here. I reject the Russian position that the situation in Donbas and the expansion of NATO provided a legal basis for the “Special Military Operation”. Yet I also reject the argument offered by the US and its NATO allies that Russia’s invasion was unprovoked, that the events of 2013 and 2014 constituted a Democratic Revolution, that Ukraine did not have an institutionalized Neo-Nazi and Ultranationalist problem regardless of the low electoral appeal of the far right parties, and that ethnic Russian-Ukrainians should have no rights or standing as such in Ukraine. My goal herein is objective analysis-in so far as that is humanly possible.
In following reporting on the conflict in Ukraine, I will make a distinction in the first instance between those sources that are Ukrainian affiliated, such as Ukrainska Pravda, pro-Ukrainian/NATO but in principle independent such as the Institute for the Study of War, and the US-European mainstream press, especially The Financial Times. The US-European mainstream press has been unabashedly pro NATO-Ukraine as has what amounts for all practical purposes to the official publication of the US Foreign Policy establishment, Foreign Affairs. Ukrainska Pravda and other Ukrainian sources regularly appear in my Yahoo feed. The mainstream American-European Press is often indistinguishable in substance from Ukrainska Pravda though somewhat less strident in tone. Then there are the Russia affiliated media sources such as Rybar, leaning Russian but independent, Military Summary Channel (Dima), and South Front or generally critical of NATO such as Moon of Alabama. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the latter three, their maps are generally accurate.
The mainstream press has characterized the Russian “special military operation” as an abject failure since the Russian offensive failed to capture Kiev in the first two weeks. While Russia’s military has clearly fallen short of expectations, it should be noted that it has faced a well armed and trained highly motivated force with nearly inexhaustible supplies, extensive NATO aid and intelligence support and according to some reports, NATO affiliated military advisors in country and unofficial foreign fighters with extensive NATO-U.S. intelligence and military links. In contrast, US forces in recent conflicts have generally faced disorganized, poorly equipped forces lacking any external aid or supplies but have been unable to fully or at all enable local forces to “stand up” and take on independent combat missions. Hence the US faced actual defeat at the hands of the Taliban recently. Mainstream press reports have been at best often speculative, suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be shortly overthrown or that he was dying of cancer. There has been little room in the Western Press for critical or skeptical accounts of NATO’s official narrative. Western reporting has at times exhibited near gymnastic efforts such as the implied assertion that Russia was shelling its own positions in the Zaporizhie Nuclear Power Plant, when clearly, Ukraine was shelling Russian positions in the area. Similarly, Western reporting has failed to acknowledge Ukrainian shelling of civilian areas in Donetsk while reports critical of Ukraine in the Western Press, such as the MSNB report on the lack of oversight of Wesetern weapons shipments or the Amnesty International report that Ukrainian forces had sought cover amidst civilian targets have been suppressed. But more recently Ukrainska Pravda has reported on the widespread detention and investigiation by the Ukrainian SBU of Ukrainians in the newely regained territories facing mass detention by the SBU. Ukrainska Pravda’s recent reporting (linked above) that the Russians can be defeated by a few more “minor” victories is an exercise in wishful thinking.
Yet if Western reporting has been lacking, Russian and pro-Russian sources haven been clearly caught off guard by the recent success in the offensive. Pro-Russian sources have trumpeted the pending triumph of Russian allied forces in the Donbas region and complete collapse of the Ukrainian positions in the Bakhmat-Seversk area. The collapse of the Russian allied defenses in the Balaklaia-Izyum area has set off a round of recriminations on the Russian side.
While Western sources have been dismissive of the Russian use of the term “special military operation” this term was never intended to disguise the actual Russian presence in Ukraine. Rather, as best as I can judge, Russia has consistently attempted, as did the US in Iraq, to fight a war on “the cheap.” If Alexander Mercouris is to be believed (and in my opinion he makes consistent efforts to be accurate even if one might regard his reporting as sometimes falling prey to confirmation bias) Russia has attempted to “stand up” the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republic Militias, rather than taking on the actual task of directly fighting the war itself. If true, it explains much about the recent course of events.
This brings me to what I think has been a fundamental misconception in Russia’s “Special Military Operation.” It was not, in my estimation, admittedly amatuerish, intended to be a full fledged war. Rather, Russia, for reasons that are unclear to me, seemed to model its operation after the 1956 operation in Hungary or the US invasion of Iraq. The immediate goal was to surround the cities and force Ukraine into major concessions, perhaps replete with a regime change. In doing so, they ignored all the lessons of the US in Vietnam, or of the Soviet Union and the US in Afghanistan. There were multiple other options open to Russia short of its invasion of Ukraine. It could have taken the issue of the shelling of the Donetsk region to the UN. If it is true, as Russia alleges, that Ukraine was preparing a massive assault on the DPR and LPR, it could have made clear that such actions would be be met by a massive air assault of advancing forces. Instead, Russia opted for a maximalist and clearly poorly planned strategy which might have succeeded, but lacked any reasonable recourse to Plan B. Afer taking the Izyum area, it failed to plan for a Ukrainian counter offensive that was clearly in the works. Any person who followed the news could tell that the Russian Izyum flank was poorly guarded and vulnerable. Yet Russian and pro-Russian sources have spun the fantasy of an immanent break in Ukrainian positions in the Bakhmut-Seversk area and the coming advance of Russians into Slavayansk and Kramatorsk, followed by Russian tanks rolling across the steppes to Kiev and beyond.
It is still too early to tell if Ukraine’s offensive is in fact the beginning of the end, merely a short detour from eventual defeat resembling Germany’s last gasp offensive known as “The Battle of the Bulge” as Russia’s cheerleaders assert, or yet another half step in a long, grinding war of attrition. Regardless, Russia’s assertion that it never really wanted Izyum and that Izyum is strategically unimportant at best strains credulity. From a military strategic perspective, Russia has failed to commit adequate resources and planning to its operation. From a strategic perspective, it has brought about the very events it sought to prevent. From a legal perspective, it is wrong. From the perspective of international perception, it has damaged its credibility when diplomacy and patience would have actually strengthened its hand against NATO expansion. It is difficult to understand why Russian planners assumed that Ukraine would collapse with the crossing of Russian troops across the border, or at a minimum, failed to have a Plan B available. At present, Russia’s military and intelligence leadership appears to be simply incompetent. Only time will tell if my assessment is correct.
Yet for its part, NATO and the EU have failed to destroy Russia’s economy, are unlikely to succeed, and have in all likelihood hastened the introduction of a multi-polar world order and the collapse of dollar hegemony. Russia in turn may have fallen prey to a similar trap set by Bismarck in the Franco-Prussian War.