Just recently, the world marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. When Russian troops rolled across the Ukrainian state border on February 24, 2022, few experts predicted that the conflict would carry on for over a year. Even the most ardent supporters of Ukraine believed that Russia’s superior military forces would swiftly overcome Ukrainian resistance and rapidly take control of the country. However, over one year later, Ukraine and its foreign backers are no longer just concerned with surviving the Russian invasion but are now also determined to fully defeat Russian forces and regain all Ukrainian territory lost in the past year. Russia, a nation previously believed to have one of the most powerful militaries on earth, has suffered a year of miscalculations, embarrassments, and failures. Ukraine has gone toe to toe with the larger Russian force and in doing so, proved the world’s expectations wrong. So the question is, how has Russia failed so spectacularly to live up to expectations? And more importantly, why?
First off, what exactly has happened in the past year of conflict in Ukraine? As the full invasion of Ukraine began in early 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated his goal was to “demilitarize and denazify” Ukraine.1Paul Kirby, “Has Putin’s war failed and what does Russia want from Ukraine?,” BBC News, last modified February 24, 2023, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-56720589. The idea of denazifying Ukraine has remained a staple of Russian propaganda. Practically speaking, Putin wanted to take control of Ukraine and install a puppet government loyal to Russia.
As the invasion of Ukraine began, Putin planned for “a largely unopposed run to the capital and […] quick surrender.”2Tara Copp and Patrick Tucker, “Five Reasons Why Russian Forces Are Struggling in Ukraine,” Defense One, last modified March 1, 2022, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.defenseone.com/threats/2022/03/five-reasons-why-russia-struggling-ukraine/362636/. However, he vastly underestimated Ukraine’s military capabilities. Putin has tried to maintain that his invasion is not a war but a “special military operation.” In an attempt to validate this lie, Putin attacked with far fewer troops than necessary. Since he naively believed the war would end in weeks, he neglected the importance of occupying major cities, other than the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. Putin falsely believed that his army could quickly take Kyiv and that his seizure of this singular objective would force Ukraine to capitulate.
However, a month after the invasion began, Russian forces were forced to retreat from Kyiv, and its surrounding region, while Putin narrowed his aims to just the “liberation of the Donbas,” an area only encompassing Ukraine’s two major industrial regions in the East.3Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News. Soon after, Putin annexed the regions of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia without fully controlling any of these regions. This move had few benefits, as the rest of the world still recognized these regions as Ukrainian. The annexation could actually burden Putin in the future since pulling out of these regions could now be viewed as a sign of weakness. In the current stage, Putin’s invasion has settled into a war of attrition, and Putin has ordered a partial mobilization of 300,000 reserve troops, finally realizing that his small invasion force was insufficient.4Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News.
Since the pace of the war has slowed, Russia has suffered failure after failure, only still being able to compete with Ukraine due to its much larger military. Russian convoys frequently turn into traffic jams, as armored vehicles break down and technical flaws become apparent. Ukraine has conducted numerous successful bombing campaigns, most notably destroying Russia’s flagship battle cruiser, the Moskva. United Kingdom defense intelligence has estimated around 175,000-200,000 Russian casualties, including 40,000-60,000 deaths.5Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News. In comparison, Ukraine revealed that only 10,000-13,000 of their soldiers had died by the end of 2022, a number that aligns with American estimates.6Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News. Russia’s military, previously seen as one of the world’s most powerful, has proven inadequate at best. More accurately, it is a loose collection of deficient components entirely dependent on its ability to continuously replenish its manpower and supplies that it wastes without reward.
Now, the world is quickly reassessing its perception of Russia’s military capabilities and questioning what is responsible for Russia’s failures. Aside from the initial underestimation of Ukraine, Russia’s military is also plagued by a dysfunctional chain of command and Putin’s inability to trust all but his closest advisors. In contrast to Russia, America’s armed forces have a clear chain of command that promotes efficiency, coordination, and compliance while also granting officers some freedom to assess and respond to the dynamic nature of warfare. Russian officers are far more tied to their superiors’ orders and less able to respond to changing situations. This becomes most apparent at the highest level of leadership. Putin’s trust in his advisors started low and has only fallen since the beginning of the invasion. Now, only a select few advisors hold any sway over him, and these advisors are more concerned with pleasing him than giving him accurate information to wage a war. As a result, Putin barely understands what is happening on the front lines, leaving a large disconnect between him and lower-level officials. However, his distrustful nature leads him to try to micromanage the war. He doesn’t allow his commanders to make real-time decisions, hindering their ability to make meaningful gains on the battlefield.
Furthermore, Putin does not always tell Russian commanders and soldiers exactly what their mission is. Putin’s lie that the war is a “special military operation” hinders his ability to outline his true ambitions.7Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News. He needs to maintain the facade that his nation is not in a full-fledged war. As a result, soldiers often enter the battlefield without knowing their specific aims, with reports even surfacing that some captured Russian soldiers believed they were engaged in a training operation.8Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News. This self-caused naivete, from the highest levels of Russia’s military apparatus, further prevents soldiers from acting according to the situation on the ground. Without this ability, Russia’s army must stop at every unexpected turn to receive new orders from their commanders, who are often similarly underprepared and underinformed.
Additionally, Putin did not comprehend the extent of global support that would rally around Ukraine. Since the invasion began, Ukraine’s military has quickly become one of the most technically advanced, not on account of Ukraine’s own innovations, but because of the vast ammunition, weaponry, intelligence capabilities, and military vehicles supplied by Western democracies. Even private companies have rallied to Ukraine’s aid, including SpaceX, which has supplied Starlink satellites to Ukraine’s military and civilians.9Madhur Sharma, “Explained: How Russian Goals Failed In Ukraine War, What Is It Planning Now, All The Latest Updates,” Outlook, last modified January 24, 2023, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.outlookindia.com/international/explained-how-russia-failed-in-ukraine-war-what-is-it-planning-now-all-the-latest-updates-news-256348. Putin likely expected a repeat of his annexation of Crimea in 2014. Crimea was a Ukrainian territory, but Russia claimed historical rights to it, similar to its belief that Ukraine’s sovereignty is invalid. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and easily took control of it. In this case, the West largely sat on the sidelines. Sanctions were put on Russia, and the annexation was denounced, but Russia faced little real backlash. However, the West drew a line when Russia tried taking Ukraine, investing tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine. Western weaponry has drastically changed the power dynamic of the war, especially Javelin anti-tank missiles, which according to Ukraine, destroyed 800 Russian tanks and 2,000 other vehicles in just the first two months of fighting.10Bernd Debusmann, Jr, “What weapons has the US given Ukraine – and how much do they help?,” BBC News, last modified April 21, 2022, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-60774098. Additionally, Ukraine has trained specifically for fighting Russia since Russia encroached on Ukrainian sovereignty in 2014 by occupying Crimea and supporting pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas. Russia did not expect the fierce resistance they met from Ukraine, a forceful defense that was bolstered by Western support and a strong determination by Ukrainians to defend their homeland. Instead of a top-tier Russian military decimating a weak and corrupt Ukrainian military, a disorganized and deeply flawed Russian army is failing to overcome Ukraine’s well-prepared and technologically-advanced forces.
Lastly, Russia has failed in a very specific domain they should be dominating: aerial combat. Military analysts expected Russia to decimate Ukrainian air force bases and system radars in the opening salvos of the conflict. Without radars, Ukraine would be left without the infrastructure to aim and launch many of its missiles for both air-defense and offensive strikes. Although Russia began the invasion with a concerted barrage of air strikes, the presumed Russian air superiority has been nonexistent. Russia’s air force has proven incapable of coordinating large-scale aerial campaigns. Similar aerial campaigns have become the norm in Western air forces, but Russia lacks the level of organization and expertise required to utilize these often complicated and intense strategies. These strategies call for a scenario in which every pilot and support crew member is competently trained and briefed on the mission. According to airpower analyst and author Justin Bronk, “Every element in a strike package from escort fighters, fighters tasked with destroying enemy air defenses, bombers, electronic warfare escorts and combat search and rescue teams must know exactly what they and all the other force elements are expected to do in any given situation.”11Justin Bronk, “Why Russia failed to dominate the skies over Ukraine,” The Spectator, last modified September 18, 2022, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/why-russia-failed-to-dominate-the-skies-over-ukraine/#:~:text=The%20primary%20reason%20for%20this,munitions%20in%20realistic%20training%20scenarios. However, Russia’s air force cannot operate at this level. Russian pilots typically train in groups of two, leaving them unable to conduct large-scale operations. In comparison to NATO pilots, Russian pilots are also shockingly undertrained. Lastly, most Russian aerial operations don’t involve support from tankers on the ground, which are nearly essential in the large operations Russia should be conducting. Overall, the Russian air force was completely unprepared to fight a war of this scale, and this deficiency has cost Russia dearly. As the war progressed, Russia’s air force slowly gained some air superiority in the Donbas region, but its poor organization, pilots, and limited number of technologically advanced aircraft prevented it from having a major impact on the war.
Although Ukraine has found unexpected success so far, the war is far from over. Ukraine and Russia now find themselves in a war of attrition, with both sides trying to gradually wear out the other without any major movements in battle lines. Russia still has the benefit of 1.3 million troops in its military compared to Ukraine’s 500,000.12“Comparison of the military capabilities of Russia and Ukraine as of 2023,” Statista, last modified February 8, 2023, accessed March 24, 2023, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1296573/russia-ukraine-military-comparison/. This disparity allows Russia to continue replenishing its forces even with its exceedingly high casualty count. These new troops are often young and inexperienced, hindering Russia’s military effectiveness, but the sheer number gives them some advantage over Ukraine. Furthermore, Russia has so far restrained itself from using some of its most deadly weapons because it does not want to completely ruin the places it hopes to take control of in the future. However, this could quickly change if Putin becomes desperate, as he has even threatened to use nuclear weapons if he deems it necessary, declaring, “This is not a bluff.”13Kirby, “Has Putin’s,” BBC News.
Perhaps the most pressing concern for Ukraine is a fall in Western, especially American, support. The West has been instrumental in supplying Ukraine with the supplies necessary to combat Russia. However, this support is quite expensive. If these nations begin questioning the high costs of the war and reduce their support, the results could be catastrophic. The United States has given $46.6 billion to Ukraine in military support along with another $30.2 billion in financial and humanitarian aid, far more than any other nation.14Jonathon Masters and Will Merrow, “How Much Aid Has the U.S. Sent Ukraine? Here Are Six Charts.,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified February 22, 2023, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.cfr.org/article/how-much-aid-has-us-sent-ukraine-here-are-six-charts. However, some Americans, including members of Congress, have expressed growing discontent with the extent of US aid to Ukraine. As of now, President Joe Biden has promised that the US will help Ukraine “as long as it takes.”15“Biden: US Will Support Ukraine ‘As Long as It Takes,'” Voice of America, last modified February 8, 2023, accessed March 9, 2023, https://www.voanews.com/a/biden-us-will-support-ukraine-as-long-as-it-takes-/6953138.html. Hopefully, this attitude remains, but there is some danger that as the war drags on, public pressure could mount against Western aid to Ukraine and force a reduction in aid. Alone, Ukraine does not have the infrastructure or ability to wage war nearly as effectively as it has been, and Russia will likely make substantial gains if Ukraine loses American assistance.
It is still difficult to imagine how this war will end. Russia seems too far entrenched to pull out without major public humiliation and dissent from its people, especially given that it falsely claims NATO and Ukraine are the aggressors. Additionally, its nearly endless supply of soldiers along with China’s support will allow them to continue waging war for quite some time. However, Ukraine’s current position looks strong, too. If global support for Ukraine continues, it seems unlikely that Russia will manage to improve its military capabilities enough to break through the fierce Ukrainian resistance. Any form of peace treaty also looks unlikely at this time, as Russia still wants to conquer more land and Ukraine has become increasingly determined to drive Russia out of its country. China has offered to help negotiate a peace treaty, but its ties to Russia make this option unlikely. Turkey has also offered, but little has been done that would suggest a peace treaty is anywhere near the horizon. It is impossible to predict when or how this war will end, but one thing is certain, Ukraine has overcome expectations and fought a much larger, yet dysfunctional, Russian army to a standstill.