A Russian soldier in a file photo. Image: Russia Ministry of Defense

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As combat rages across Ukraine, Asia Times will be bringing you a series of Q&As with analysts, war watchers and experts. In the first of this series, Asia Times’ Northeast Asia editor Andrew Salmon, a published military historian, weighs in.

His assessment is that President Vladimir Putin’s stated operational aims are in fact contradicted by the operation itself. But with a lonely Ukraine lacking any visible strategy beyond holding out and inflicting maximum damage, the initiative lies in Moscow’s hands – and Kiev’s capacity for sustained, organized resistance is questionable.

This means Russia’s short-term goals may be achieved via a grinding, old-school campaign – with downsides being long-term damage to Russia’s economy, its image, its global standing and possibly a long-term insurgency in Ukraine.

What are your overall takeaways?

Strikingly, Putin’s operation appears to be invalidating its stated aims.

“Denazification” presumably means the removal of the Volodymyr Zelensky government – but, mid-invasion, he is now more popular than ever. Indeed, Putin has made Zelensky a hero.

“Demilitarization” presumably means the destruction or surrender of Ukrainian forces. As war rages, heavy kit is being destroyed – but weapons are being widely distributed and locals are flocking to the colors, swelling the numbers of anti-Russian forces.

This has two ramifications. The manpower matrix is shifting: The struggle is the Russian army versus the Ukrainian nation. And an armed, embittered citizenry is the foundation recipe for an insurgency.

More broadly, the Russian assault is obviously driving Ukrainian popular feeling westward, not eastward. This will have ramifications for Russo-Ukrainian relations for decades to come. Western soft power may not defeat Russian hard power in battle, but could win the long-term war for the hearts of men.

What are your impressions of Russia’s operation on the ground?

Politically, Russian intelligence – or Putin himself – woefully underestimated Ukraine’s will to resist.

Strategically, it looks like Russia failed to concentrate force or to deliver a decisive blow. Instead, it pursued multiple aims, leading to drawn-out operations and failure to take objectives.

Operationally, it has been an underwhelming performance by Russia’s “new” army, which had appeared effective in Crimea and Syria. Fast, light, coup de main operations at the outset failed for reasons related to tactics and an underestimation of the enemy.

Ukrainian defense forces brace for the Russian assault. Photo: Screengrab

Tactically, we have seen leadership and logistical blunders – dislocated units, lost units, columns running out of fuel, deployment of under-armed National Guards, strikes on non-military targets. Pre-deployment troop briefings look inadequate. Some units seem to be suffering shaky morale.

However, what is being widely overlooked by the media, focused on micro stories, is the macro view at the map table.

Russia has won widespread operational maneuverability albeit this will be impacted by the spring thaw. Russia also appears to have degraded Kiev’s command and control, and possibly dislocated its army, which looks to be fighting in reactive, ad hoc fashion across eastern Ukraine.

At the tactical level, Ukrainians are defending effectively, but at the operational level, are not counter-attacking. No Ukrainian strategy is visible – to me – beyond “hold out.”

What’s next?

Historian of Stalinism Mark Edele says the USSR’s Red Army was never efficient, but always effective: When finesse failed, deployment of mass, steamroller tactics, brute force and massive casualty tolerance won out.

This approach was passed down to the Red Army’s successor, the Russian Army. In Chechnya, Moscow proved it could endure heavy casualties and terrible optics in pursuit of eventual victory.

Following the failure to win a swift, low-cost victory in Ukraine, Phase 2 of Russia’s operation is the return to a more deliberate, old-school playbook. Plodding, artillery-heavy units are encircling and besieging cities, increasing bombardments and civilian suffering.

End games would be the surrender of under-supplied cities and their defenders – or assaults leading to hugely destructive, high-lethality urban combat.

Compared to campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, Russia’s rules of engagement in Ukraine appear relatively restrained thus far. This may not last, as pressure rises among hawks for a tougher approach.

“I don’t understand why we’re still using kid gloves,” complained Chechen strongman Ramzan Khadyrov on social media, who is fiercely loyal to Putin and has deployed contingents of his own to Ukraine.

In the face of this, how sustainable is Ukrainian resistance?

Ukraine’s capacity to resist has astonished much of the world. It is winning on the moral front globally, and on the morale front locally.

Defensive fightbacks on home turf look effective. NATO-supplied LAW and Javelin missiles are attriting Russian armor. Remarkably, Russia has not won full control of the skies: Ukraine’s Turkish drones have been effective, and Russian troop transport aircraft and helicopters have been shot down.

Moscow has admitted that it has lost 498 dead and 1,587 wounded so far. That is no small number. Ukraine’s estimates of enemy dead are, of course, far higher.

A Russian marine takes his position during the Union Courage-2022 Russia-Belarus military drills at the Obuz-Lesnovsky training ground in Belarus. Photo: Screengrab / Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

And this is a “people’s war.” Not only are volunteers from all walks of life signing up, a surprise dynamic is unarmed civ pop blocking Russian forces, banking on the goodwill of the latter not to respond with lethal force. Footage shows Russian troops looking nonplussed, though whether this restraint will last, I cannot say.

On the negative side, Phase 2 of this war is barely underway. How resistant will Ukrainians holed up in cities prove as Russia dials up the firepower and cuts off water, food, electricity and telecommunications?

The efficacy of NATO’s eastward arms pipeline, and the ability of Ukrainian authorities to distribute weaponry to units engaged in combat around the country is, as yet, unclear. I have no information on Ukraine’s munitions stockpiles, and related abilities to sustain combat.

Then there is the Zelensky government. If killed or captured, I wonder if he/it can be replaced, particularly given the decision to stand in Kiev. For this reason, I think Kiev is Russia’s key objective.

Win scenarios for Ukraine are scant. Playing defense, holding out for non-existent allies, is heroic behavior but poor strategy. So, the primitive question: How much pain can Ukraine inflict? 

An obvious historical parallel is 1939’s “Winter War.” Finland fought heroically and taught the Soviets stern lessons, but could not resist overwhelming force, so reached terms that, while not favorable, were not catastrophic.

In light of the above, there is a glimmer of hope. It is in both sides’ interest to de-escalate, and Russia has offered new talks, while Zelensky has raised the possibility of Ukraine’s neutrality – a key Russian demand – albeit with security guarantees.

I should add that all the above refers to the conventional campaign now underway. Capturing territory and holding it are different matters. Even if Russia prevails in its conventional campaign, Ukrainians could engage in a partisan struggle against their occupiers, or a proxy government installed by Moscow.

What is the possibility of NATO-Russian combat?

In fact, underreported prudence is in play on both sides.

Russia’s ground offensive, bar a westward thrust along the southern coast, has been limited to eastern Ukraine. That leaves western Ukraine as a massive, de-conflicting buffer with the NATO states on its border.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at the final press conference at a NATO summit in Brussels. Photo: AFP / Frederic Sierakowski / Isopix

NATO has repeatedly stated that it will not fight, and is supplying only defensive weapons, notably anti-tank and anti-aircraft. Early reports that jet fighters would be given by Poland have proven erroneous. It is highly unlikely that NATO will grant Zelensky’s agonized requests that it establish a no-fly zone over the battlespace.

But the situation remains a nuclear tinderbox. Putin is massively invested in this war – which could feasibly drive a new wave of popular patriotic support his way. Absent an outcome that permits him to credibly declare a win, he could push the risks further. The nightmare scenario is a clash – perhaps accidental – with NATO that spirals out of control.

Putin has repeatedly referred to his nuclear forces, and threatened unprecedented disasters for nations that dare to intervene. Where are the brakes?