While the Russian military strategy is not a categorical failure in Ukraine as some are portraying, Moscow may have underestimated the resistance.
Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers met each other today in Türkiye’s Antalya for the first time since Moscow’s assault on Kiev began on February 24. It was a positive sign that the Russians and Ukrainians could finally talk about their differences at a high level despite the negotiations ending without concrete results.
On the ground, the fighting continues as the Russian army attacks various Ukrainian cities in a slow-motion offensive, which might be part of Moscow's military strategy to tire Kiev’s forces to force them to surrender one by one, according to experts.
Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired Professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University, is not necessarily a fan of the Western media’s coverage of the ongoing Russian offensive “sympathetic to the defenders”.
“Frankly, I just do not believe that the Russians are doing as badly as the western media is reporting,” Erickson told TRT World in a previous interview. But he also thinks that fighting is not going on course as the Russians had predicted prior to the assault.
“There is no question that the Russians thought that they would make rapid progress and, perhaps, reach an end state quickly,” the American military analyst says, referring to Ukrainian resistance across the country.
“The Russians surely underestimated Ukraine's will to fight and underestimated Zelenskyy's commitment as a genuine war leader of his people,” the well-known American military academic tells TRT World. Not many, including Western media initially expected that the Ukrainians would fight so fiercely against the Russian onslaught.
Also a lot of people questionedwhether a former comedian, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, will have the will to face a Russian offensive and a leader like Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent and a man who knows how to use sheer power in military conflicts.
While the Russians have made substantial gains across southern Ukraine, claiming some crucial port cities across the Black Sea coast, slowly moving to encircle the country’s two biggest cities, Kiev and Kharkiv, they have not been able to implement a full-scale assault after two weeks of brutal fighting.
“Prior to the ongoing attack, Russians had an expectation that they would not face a resistance against their army in eastern Ukraine. But it did not happen as the Russians expected,” says Esref Yalinkilcli, a Moscow-based Eurasia political analyst.
Kharkiv, an eastern Ukrainian city with a large Russian population, is not far away from the Russian border, only at a distance of 40 kilometers - but the Russians still did not just walk in and claim it.
“No one in Kharkiv, Kherson, Sumy and Mariupol greeted the Russians with flowers,” Yalinkilicli tells TRT World, referring to eastern Ukrainian cities with substantial Russian populations. Except for Kherson, none of these cities have not fallen to Russian hands yet.
There is also fierce fighting in Mariupol, a Black Sea city crucial to Russia’s aim to connect the separatist-held Donbass region with the Russian annexed Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine.
Also Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, is not too far from Belarus, a pro-Russian state, which allowed Moscow to deploy troops into its territory. The distance between Kiev and the Belarus border is about 150 kilometres. In Kiev, which was the capital of the first Russian state in the 9th century, Russians are also facing fierce resistance preventing them from claiming it.
Despite not meeting their initial expectations, Russia, the world’s second biggest army, still has a lot of military power to overcome Ukraine. But using more forces might also indicate a weakness.
“Regarding Russian physical capacity, they have the ability to mobilise substantial reserves and to bring in forces from elsewhere. They can use these to backfill occupied territory while the ‘tip of the spear’ combat forces push forward,” Erickson says, meaning Moscow can make up its losses with fresh forces from home while maintaining its main operations.
But the Russian military's need for greater forces to push its army further across Ukraine might indicate that its initial planning miscalculated troop levels.
“At the operational level, the Russians chose to fight a war giving the Ukrainians the advantage of ‘interior lines of communications’ while Russia is disadvantaged with ‘exterior lines of communications’. This is strong evidence that Putin thought this war would be easier and more rapid," Erickson says, pointing out another sign of Russian expectations.
Interior lines and exterior lines are referring to two critical strategies in the war doctrine. “Interior lines are those of an army centrally situated acting against divided hostile forces; exterior lines those adopted by divided armies acting against a centrally placed opponent,” according J. C. Dundas, a prominent British expert.
Despite Russia’s strategic disadvantage, Putin might be willing to use more force, according to Erickson.
“We do not know what additional forces and resources that Putin will bring to bear. There is certainly additional Russian capacity available in the form of reserve forces and forces in the Baltic/Saint Petersburg area (as well as west of the Urals) which can be redeployed to reinforce the Russian army fighting in Ukraine,” the analyst says.
But Putin has recently denied that Russia is using any conscripted soldiers and will not use them in “combat operations”. The Russian president also pointed out that “Nor will there be any additional mobilisation of reserves” against Ukrainian forces.
But why did the Russians expect a short military engagement?
It might be related to Putin’s historical and political understanding of the Ukraine issue.Putin, a Russian nationalist, believes that Ukrainians and Russians are part of the same nation. “When I was asked about Russian-Ukrainian relations, I said that Russians and Ukrainians were one people—a single whole,” Putin wrote in a long article last year.
Believing that Ukrainians feel the same way some Russians may feel about their national identity might have misled Putin and his circle to expect a short military conflict and little Ukrainian resistance, according to Yalinkilicli. Other experts also thought that Putin believed “the inhabitants of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv (sic) yearn for Moscow’s rule.”
Like the old Tsars of Russia, Putin believes that Ukraine is just “Little Russia” (Malorussia), being part of “the greater Russian nation which united” Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians.
As a result, at a crucial moment in history, Putin believed that Ukrainians would side with Moscow rather than Western nations, according to Yalinkilicli.
There could also be a Russian underestimation and lack of respect in regard to Ukrainian military capabilities. The Kremlin might think that Ukraine, which is not qualified to be a sovereign nation if it’s not allied with Russia according to Putin, cannot give a serious fight to Moscow no matter how much it is armed and backed by the US-led Western bloc.
Ioannis Koskinas, a senior fellow at the international security program of New America, an American think-tank, believes that the real issue is not whether Russia underestimated the Ukrainian resistance or overestimated their own capability.
“The real questions are how much damage is Russia willing to inflict on Ukraine (civilian and military) and how much is it willing to accept (militarily, economically, and in terms of domestic politics). To answer these questions we must go beyond the mirror image of what we would find acceptable,” Koskinas, a former US military officer, tells TRT World.
“Many policy miscalculations occur due to mirror imaging.”