March 7, 2022
For all the breathless reports of Russia’s war on Ukraine, it is unclear who is gaining advantage. This is in part because both sides are fighting the war with propaganda as well as with missiles, and it is hard to sort out what is real and what is not. Indeed, image and reality may merge, since images often shape what later becomes real. So, for example, the many stories of Ukrainian resistance feed that resistance, while the stories of Russian failures hurt morale.
One thing that is absolutely clear is that Russia is firing on civilian areas indiscriminately, creating horrific damage and humanitarian crises in urban areas that two weeks ago were normal city blocks. More than 1.7 million Ukrainians have had to flee their homes.
But the war is not proceeding according to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s plans. To control Ukraine, Russia needed to take it quickly, and although its military is 8 times the size of Ukraine’s, it has not managed to do so. The Russian government has admitted the loss of 498 soldiers; U.S. officials say the number is conservatively more than 3000, and Ukrainian officials estimate the Russian troop deaths at over 10,000.
According to a briefing by a senior U.S. defense official reported by Washington Post military reporter Dan Lamothe, the U.S. assesses that the Russian combat power massed at the Ukrainian border before the war is now fully committed, and there is no evidence they are moving in more troops, although there are reports that Russia is trying to recruit soldiers accustomed to urban combat from Syria. Without the troop power it needs or an effective air assault, Russia is using long-range, inaccurate weapons that create widespread devastation.
In the short term, the Russian invasion is going far more slowly than expected and economic sanctions are biting the Russian economy hard. Officials warn that Russia will continue to grind Ukraine down, but how much Putin can afford to do over time as the sanctions hurt more and more is not clear.
Outside of the horror that is happening within Ukraine, Russia’s apparent weakness and Ukraine’s strength will almost certainly rework geopolitics.
At the very least, the underperformance of the Russian military will enable opponents to exploit the holes it now sees (today, for example, it appeared that Russia’s boasted encrypted battlefield communications system doesn’t actually work).
More, though, the missteps of the Russian army have significantly weakened the country. Estonia’s chief of defense, Lieutenant General Martin Herem, told reporters “Today what I have seen is that even this huge army or military is not so huge.” Brigadier General Rauno Sirk, commander of Estonia’s air force, said of the Russian air force: “If you look at what’s on the other side, you’ll see that there isn’t really an opponent anymore.”
Andrei Kozyrev, Russia’s foreign minister from 1990 to 1996, tweeted: “The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead. Potemkin military[.]”
Perhaps the actions of Hungarian president Viktor Orbán, who is facing an election on April 3, reveal how that weakness might change political alliances. Orbán had brought his country close to Russia but now opposes the invasion.
If Putin’s authoritarian government has turned out to be weaker militarily than was expected, democracies have proved stronger.
Max Bergman, a senior fellow for Europe and Russia at the Center for American Progress, noted that U.S. security assistance to Ukraine appears to have been unusually effective because it did not focus on high-tech gadgets and bells and whistles, but rather on reforming what was in 2014 a corrupt military and on helping the Ukrainian forces with basic systems, like secure cell phones, stockpiles, and resupply. It wasn’t flashy, but it appears to have been effective, helping the Ukrainians to hold their own against the Russians. If this observation holds up, it could lead to a reassessment of foreign military aid.
Logistics seem to have been key to addressing the humanitarian crisis outside Ukraine as well, as 1.7 million Ukrainians have fled their country. In two weeks, that astonishing number of refugees has been absorbed by Poland (1,028,000), Hungary (180,000), Moldova (83,000), Slovakia (128,000), Romania (79,000), Russia (53,000), and Belarus (406), and others, according to the United Nations. The communications and plans necessary simply to move that many people, let alone feed and shelter them, show an astonishing level of cooperation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday was in Moldova, the small former Soviet state that borders Ukraine, where he pledged America’s support.
The ability of European countries to come together to stand against Russia, as well as the global cooperation in cutting Russia off from the world economy, has offered an illustration of how countries can enforce a rules-based world and showed the strength of democracies.
The widespread crackdown on illicit Russian money will have an equally important long-term effect. A recent study revealed that Russian money has corrupted British politics; now we are beginning to learn just how much of it has done the same in the U.S. A piece today in the Washington Post by Peter Whoriskey explained that, according to the Anti-Corruption Data Collective, oligarchs associated with Putin have donated millions of dollars to U.S. philanthropies, museums, and universities since Putin rose to power, using their money to buy access to elite circles. Also today, a former campaign staffer for Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has been charged with funneling Russian money into the 2016 election.
Also clear over the past month is that the U.S. seems to have finally begun to take on Russian propaganda. The administration was ahead of every Russian false flag operation and warned the world what our intelligence community believed was going to happen. This took away the element of surprise that has worked so well for Putin in the past.
Even more, though, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration have replaced Putin’s popular vision of an invincible Russia with one in which the Russians seem weak and Ukraine strong, its success inevitable. They have turned Russian propaganda on its head.