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Why the first few days of war in Ukraine went badly for Russia

Russia banked on Kyiv falling quickly. Here’s why it hasn’t.

Ukrainian service members look for unexploded shells after fighting with Russian troops in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 26.
Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

On paper, a war between Russia and Ukraine is not a fair fight. On every quantifiable metric — troops, armed vehicles, aircraft, you name it — the Russians outnumber the Ukrainians by a significant margin. They have more advanced weapons, superior capacities in cyberspace, and a recent history of sophisticated deployments of military force.

Yet, so far at least, the war has not gone Russia’s way.

Russian troops have been kept outside Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital and the focal point of their initial advance. They have failed to win control over any other major Ukrainian population center. They have yet to establish air superiority. They are failing at even basic logistical tasks like ensuring their vehicles have enough fuel.

It’s less than a week into the invasion and it’s too early to make any definitive statements about how the Russian campaign will end. But the consensus among military experts is that the initial invasion was based on badly flawed strategic premises.

“It’s taken me a while to figure out what they’re trying to do because it looks so ridiculous and incompetent,” Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the CNA think tank, said on Twitter of the Russian advance. “The Russian operation is a bizarre scheme, based on terrible political assumptions, with poor relationship to their training & capabilities.”

Some analysts argue that the problem goes even deeper, that the Russian military is not merely tasked with executing a bad strategy but is itself an inept organization incapable of adequately performing basic battlefield functions. On this theory, even a better plan would have still yielded subpar battlefield results.

“The simplest explanation here is that the Russian military is bad! It was a paper tiger, and now the paper’s on fire,” writes Brett Friedman, a Marine Corps reserve officer and author of the book On Tactics.

In the long run, Friedman and other experts caution, Russia is still favored to win the war: It is simply too large and well-equipped. The Pentagon is warning that things will soon get worse: In a Monday briefing, a senior US defense official warned that Russia may lay siege to Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, a brutal tactic that intentionally cuts civilians off from basic necessities like food.

But in these first few days of the war, a rapid Ukrainian collapse is starting to look like an increasingly remote possibility — and if Russia does attain victory, it will do so at a significantly higher cost than President Vladimir Putin seems to have expected.

Putin’s war on Ukraine, explained

Russia’s invasion plan was really bad

With the benefit of hindsight, Russia’s strategy for the first days of the conflict has come into clearer view: take Kyiv as rapidly as possible and depose President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, ending the conflict before it really got underway.

Pre-war research conducted by Russia’s FSB intelligence agency, recently leaked to British experts, suggested that Ukrainians were in general unhappy with their leadership and pessimistic about their country’s direction. It appears that the Russian invasion plan may have banked on this assessment, presuming that Ukrainian resistance would be light and a rapid march on the capital would be feasible.

“[Russia] made large assumptions about their ability to reach Kyiv in 48 hours, and most of their decisions were shaped around this,” Henrik Paulsson, a professor in the department of war studies at the Swedish Defense University, tells me. “[It was] a strategic choice, shaped by bias and assumption, that tried for a mad dash that failed. I don’t think that’s really debatable.”

In a conflict like this, traditional military doctrine calls for the heavy use of what’s called “combined arms”: different elements of military power, like tanks and infantry and aircraft, deployed simultaneously and in complementary fashion.

But according to Paulsson, “we have not seen combined arms used” by Russian forces in any systematic way. Instead, they have seemingly opted to send isolated forces, like reconnaissance and paratroopers, ahead pell-mell without sufficient support or logistical planning. It’s a tactical choice that makes sense if you think you’ll encounter only token resistance — which has not been the case so far.

Cars are stopped at a roadblock set by Ukrainian civil defensemen at a road leading to central Kyiv on February 28.
Emilio Morenatti/AP

Similarly, the Russian military decided not to deploy some of their more devastating weapons and tactics — including mass bombardment of populated areas seen in places like Syria — in the early days of the conflict. This, too, appears to have been a political choice rooted in poor assumptions about Ukrainian will.

“It appears Putin has wildly miscalculated and had a, frankly, bad plan going into this of how quickly the Ukrainian military would collapse,” Mason Clark, the lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, tells my colleague Ellen Ioanes. “[He tried] to avoid using these very damaging weapons of concentrated missiles and airstrikes to destroy Ukrainian defensive positions to preserve his narrative of this not being a real war and not requiring that sort of use of firepower.”

The Ukrainians have done far more than simply fail to collapse.

Their ground forces have put up strong resistance, making the Russians pay severely for their haphazard and poorly resourced advances. Their air defenses survived the initial Russian bombardment and remain functional today, denying Russians clear air superiority so far — a crucial factor in impeding a swift march forward. And the Ukrainians have reportedly made smart use of Bayraktar TB2 drones against Russian ground forces, a weapons system whose effectiveness was demonstrated in last year’s war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The result is an initial Russian push that dramatically underperformed expectations. The Ukrainians have not only won a propaganda and morale victory, but also bought time for the external supporters in Europe and the United States to get aid to Ukraine and impose punishing sanctions on the Russian economy.

“The Ukrainians are now beginning to be resupplied in earnest both from the rest of the world and by virtue of what appear to be significant stocks of captured Russian equipment from routed and destroyed assault units,” the military analyst Patrick Fox argues on Twitter. “The longer this conflict continues the better Ukraine will be positioned to defend itself.”

Is Russia’s military not as mighty as the world believed?

Though the initial Russian advance has been stymied, it is much too early to declare the Ukrainians the conflict’s victor.

Militaries typically adapt during conflict; Russia’s has the ability to change gears and adopt a strategy more appropriately tailored to the fierce Ukrainian resistance. There are already signs that Russia is moving to employ some of the most vicious tactics at its disposal, including large-scale bombing and sieges of Ukrainian cities.

Some analysts, like Kofman, argue that Russia has yet to commit its most effective forces. Russian air power and artillery have been used sparingly, a decision that’s at odds with Russian military doctrine and will likely change as the conflict goes on. The invasion plan heavily employed weaker units, including conscripted soldiers, who can be blamed for some of the basic failures like vehicles running out of gas.

“Conscripts appear to be part of the problem,” says Naunihal Singh, a professor at the Naval War College. “They are providing logistics and appear to be doing so poorly.”

Others, like Friedman and Fox, see the problems running deeper than that. They argue that the failures of the Russian advance are so deep and comprehensive that they can’t merely be explained by a few bad soldiers; they reflect an entire military organization that has not been adequately prepared for this kind of conflict. In this analysis, successful limited missions in Syria and Crimea did not reflect the Russian military’s true abilities — which have now been exposed as underwhelming.

“The Russian military is committing some very basic mistakes from the strategic to tactical levels,” writes Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, on Twitter. “The Russian military has some very capable equipment, and they have some recent experience using them effectively. They are failing to properly employ those weapons and capabilities, which is more of a coordination, preparation, and leadership issue in my view.”

Ultimately, it will take a while to know which side of this analytic divide is right — whether Russia’s early failures are a result mostly of bad strategy or rotten military institutions. And even if the pessimists about Russia’s army are correct, it does not mean the Ukrainians will ultimately repulse the Russian invasion.

“Russian shortcomings are probably not going to matter in the long run. They have enough capacity to brute force this thing,” Friedman warns.

But the question of why Russia has failed so far does matter, in no small part because it determines just how painful the war will be for Putin.

Every day that the fighting drags on, Russia experiences more casualties, more economic pain, and more international pressure. A drawn-out conflict raises the risk that Putin’s regime will face growing domestic resistance — be it from mass anti-war protests or a crisis of confidence among the Russian political and military elite.

If Russia can adapt its strategy and bring its true might to bear, Ukraine’s army might be defeated in not-too-long a time frame. But if the Russian military is a fundamentally broken institution and severe failures continue to crop up throughout the operation, the invasion could prove far more costly to Russia than anyone anticipated.