The Russian forces were initially reported to have been tasked with the outright decapitation of the Ukrainian State. If that was so, then indeed the objective was not met, and poor preparation and underestimated Ukrainian resistance seem to be the main factors, with major losses endured. Additionally, not only was the Hostomel Airport not captured, but also high-grade units were lost in the attempt. Large logistical jams occurred for weeks north of Kiev, which gave the Ukrainians respite and time to organise. The opportunity was not lost for the highly effective and aggressive Ukrainian units who outmaneuvered their sluggish and feckless Russian counterparts.
While all this may be true, this view usually fails to note the operational advantage Russian forces have established by pinning down Ukrainian forces around Kiev, thus remaining free to operate in the crucial Donbass region, and strengthen their foothold in the regions unprotected by the 2014 fortifications – a classic deceptive tactic. Thus, Ukrainian forces were induced to turn to a defensive stance, under pressure, in stark contrast with the image of ready-to-attack Ukrainian forces threatening the entire Donbass region, which the Russians depicted and used as justification for the pre-emptive attack.
If the Russian army were indeed on the back foot, this would not explain how little of their forces they had allocated to the offensive. Tactical guidebooks recommend a ratio of at least 3 to 1 for attack in an open terrain and up to 10 to 1 in urban operations, so as to guarantee outcome and compensate for negative factors. The Russians initially sent volumes between 1/1 and 1.5/1, while leaving many units in their barracks in the homeland. This suggests they might not be as much in the ropes as Western media may claim.
Russian Public Relations: Half-truths and True Lies
The initial official motive made this adamantly clear: the risk of Ukraine morphing into a ‘Neo-Nazi State’ was of questionable authenticity, but the memories of the Great Patriotic War is still sufficiently anchored in the Russian spirit for this to be effective in terms of propaganda. The carefully crafted vocabulary, such as “special military operation” and careful mentioning of nuclear potential also points to military propaganda, seeking troop motivation, internal political support for the operation, international justification and deterring effects on countries tempted to support Ukraine. But propaganda does not exclude truthfulness.
The low tactical ratio, and the few far-reaching strikes up to the summer of 2022 did tend to indicate that this military operation was really not a major war for the Russians, up until last summer. These two indicators do tend to justify the term “special military operation”, rather than outright “war”. But things have changed since, with Russian commanders taking stock of the magnitude of the situation they are now in, and the military and political ramifications. Since the fall, the operational phase seems to have evolved, with strikes further into Ukrainian territory and unified strategic command. This may cause major disruptions both to Ukrainian mobility and the Western ability to provide logistical and military support.
Western Media: Single-faceted and Conformational Bias
Within Western media, and with a majority of the experts they call upon, tactical information is almost systematically sourced from the West, or Western allies, or even Ukrainian command staff with little scrutiny. Most of the information reported by Western media originates from the US, the UK, Ukraine or any of the neighbouring countries, which have clearly adopted anti-Russian stance and have every reason to over-represent the Russian threat, such as the Baltic States or Poland. Russian tactics and Russian losses tend to be over reported, which is common in information warfare – the Russians logically did the opposite.
Many news outlets portrayed a civilisational enemy as irrational and evil – another hint of propaganda – and therefore essentially incapable of winning the war. Discrete events were associated to form narratives, such as old equipment being used as proof of Russia’s low military potential. Clues pointing to the counter-narrative, such as the sheer volume of cruise missiles shot in the end of 2022 were disregarded, despite their contradicting the claim that Russian forces were in disarray from Western sanctions and their inability to source electronic chips.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian weaknesses were under-reported. The Maidan-originating and anti-Russian movements which were used as proof of Ukraine being on the verge of becoming a full-fledged Nazi State do exist (just not to the point of being a State-level threat), and are systematically under-reported. Western governments would indeed find themselves in awkward spots if the limelight were to shine on their support to a country, which tolerates such political options (both Poland and Israel publicly voiced their outrage at Bandera celebrations).
Corruption is equally widespread on both sides of the frontline, with military equipment “disappearing” on a regular basis, but seldom picked up by the Press, when occurring on the Ukrainian side. Pre-war corruption assessments and rankings showed widespread graft in Ukraine, supported by military expert opinions. Although such news outlets have disappeared since the beginning of the war, Ukraine was regularly highlighted as the most corrupt country in Europe.
Finally, the Western media tends to quickly dub the countries, which actively support Ukraine “the international community”. This is a major oversight, as many countries, such as China, India, Argentina, South Africa and many others have chosen different positions regarding the conflict. The West is not the World, nor does it command it.
Reality is More Complex
Ukraine has its weaknesses, both structural and conjectural, and has endured massive losses, both in troops and equipment, under Russian attack, which the Ukrainians themselves timidly and sporadically acknowledge. International military aid is slowing down, as supporting countries have not experienced high-intensity warfare in decades and are finding it hard to keep up with the cadenza.
Civilian casualties would appear to be over-represented, so as to paint the worst possible image of the Russian opponent. For similar reasons, troop casualties would appear to be under-reported, so as not to deplete troop morale. EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen briefly approached the subject before quickly backpedaling amidst doubts upon the genuine nature of the numbers advanced.
While Western economic sanctions have indeed impacted Russia’s economy, people and industrial capacity, it has failed both to break the Russian resolve and to unify the actual international community. Many major countries have not adopted the sanctions, to the point that one of the side-effects of the embargo is to strengthen ties between Russia and those countries, namely China, India, Iran, and to induce for instance a major supposed Western Ally, Saudi Arabia to consider further cooperation with the leading BRICS countries.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin is still supported by a large share of the population, currently estimated around 80%. Russia’s military industrial apparatus seems to be showing resilience, as the recent delivery of 200 T-90 tanks illustrates, or the volume and sophistication of long-range missile launches. This does not indicate that the industrial military apparatus in Russia is flawless: Russia has indeed been relying, discreetly but also on a large scale, on Iranian and North Korean partners to fill the industrial capacity to produce drones or artillery shells. The Russian economy is therefore absorbing the impact of sanctions relatively well and domestic exchanges, as hampered as they may be, have not screeched to a stop.
Tactical operations seem satisfactory on the Russian side, as command is taking the time to reorganise, and mobilise without rushing into action. None of the current Russian movements appear hectic or panic-driven, as the bloodless retreat from Kherson seems to suggest. They are also succeeding in achieving an objective which Western experts don’t seem to be understanding or acknowledging: the attrition of military potential, rather than territorial conquest – with the exception of the illegally annexed regions. Russians are using the Russian advantage of military mass.
There is no debating the fact that Russia was the aggressor in 2022. The moral responsibility must however not lead us to misread the conflict, draw irrelevant conclusions or misjudge the capacities of the opponents. It is still very early to cut through the fog of war and propaganda, and critical distance is an absolute precondition to analysis, if commentators are to be taken seriously. Experts called by them tend to fail to differentiate between “international policing operations” and “high-intensity warfare”, which have been commented upon for decades by experts, who tend to over-report short-term military gains, painting a picture that may prove inaccurate.
–The writer is a defence and security industry consultant having varied experience working with medium and large companies majorly in European market. The views expressed are of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda