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WASHINGTON — The offensive Russia launched last month was supposed to be a devastating show of force, a counterpunch against a resilient Ukraine that would consolidate Kremlin gains in the eastern Donbas region.
And then, on Victory Day — May 9 — Russian President Vladimir Putin would declare victory, at least in this second round of the war, as emboldened Russian forces perhaps prepared for a renewed attempt to take Kyiv.
So far, though, the Russian offensive appears to have fallen far short of what were understood to be Kremlin expectations, which had already been revised downward since February. If Russia once sought to capture the entire nation in the kind of quick assault it launched against Ukraine in 2014, Putin now faces the humiliating prospect of barely hanging on to the gains made eight years ago.
“The Ukrainians are going to drive them back to that 02/24 line, probably by the end of summer/September,” retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, now the policy director at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Yahoo News in an email, referencing the Russian occupation of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions made during the first invasion of Ukraine.
But the second invasion has been an exact opposite of the first, with each day seemingly exposing how little Russia had done to modernize its military, better prepare its troops and establish a Western command structure. Those faults were all present in 2014 but are much more obvious, and to many more observers, in 2022 than they were then.
The second offensive has been a symbol of those shortcomings, with Russian soldiers struggling to conquer soil they once wrested from Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler.
“They're certainly trying to get better,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said of Russia's military problems during a Monday briefing. “But there's — there’s not an indication here that they've solved all their problems.”
Those problems include an inability to integrate ground and air forces for a synchronized attack. “They're falling a lot back on their doctrine, which is to shell an area you want to get to, soak it with artillery to soften up the defense and then move your ground forces in only when they're able to do that,” a U.S. military official told reporters on Monday.
Ukrainian forces, on the other hand, are learning to use the 85 M777 howitzers sent by the Pentagon last month, allowing them to answer Russian shelling with their own. The shipment also included 110,000 rounds of ammunition.
Some of the new equipment, including the howitzers, has been used to repel a Russian attempt to take Kharkiv, a city in the north close to the border between the two nations. “It’s pretty clear Russia’s Kharkiv front is collapsing rather quickly now,” Russia expert Michael Weiss told Yahoo News.
Meanwhile, in the southern city of Mariupol, a Russian effort to take the Azovstal steel plant stalled, as the Ukrainian fighters inside the giant facility vowed to fight to their deaths.
Similar zeal has not been evident among the Russian forces in Ukraine, who continue to face heavy losses from the increasingly more powerful weapons supplied to Ukraine by the United States and other Western sources.
An assessment by the Institute for the Study of War said that Russian battalion tactical groups, or BTGs, fighting in Ukraine had been so “heavily degraded” that “counting BTGs,” an ordinary assessment of military strength, was no longer “a useful metric of Russian combat power.” (There are now 90 battalions in Ukraine.)
Morale among troops is low. Troops “frequently abuse alcohol, and shoot at their own vehicles in order to avoid going to the frontline,” the ISW assessment said. The senior military official who briefed reporters on Monday said the Pentagon was aware of anecdotal reports that Russian officers “have either refused to obey orders or [are] not obeying them with the same measure of alacrity that you would expect an officer to obey.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that Russia could fix few of the problems ingrained in its military and power structures in the mere days between the first offensive and the second. The second offensive was not launched after a broad reconsideration of Kremlin priorities or a frank look at force readiness. The same ill-prepared troops were fighting the same war, the reasons for which had not been adequately explained to them. And the West was still supplying the Ukrainians as avidly as ever.
Russian forces were making “like single-digit-kilometer kind of progress, ’cause the Ukrainians keep pushing them back, and keep fighting them back,” the Pentagon official said Monday. “So not a lot of progress at all.”
“I’m pretty pessimistic that we’re going to see much in the way of Russian progress anytime soon, and that’s why Putin couldn’t declare any sort of victory yesterday,” Samuel Ramani, an Oxford expert in Russian politics and history, told Yahoo News the day after Putin’s address on Victory Day, which neither claimed victory nor committed more forces to that goal.
Putin's counterpart in Kyiv, meanwhile, shot a dramatic Victory Day video that quickly went viral on the internet, as has often been the case with social media posts from former actor and current Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
This time he was walking along a barricaded Kyiv street, a stark contrast to Red Square in Moscow, where a predictable military display took place on Victory Day, which commemorates the defeat of Nazism.
“There is no occupier who can take root in our free land,” Zelensky said of the Russian invasion, which was launched under the guise of pan-Slavic kinship.
Now it is Russia that has been cast as the global foe, despite desperate attempts by the Kremlin to paint Zelensky — who is Jewish — as a Nazi sympathizer beholden to extremist forces.
The stalled Donbas offensive is only the latest example of the bad planning, confused leadership and unprepared military that have frustrated the Kremlin from the start. And the deft media and political strategy that Zelensky has been using since the war began has turned Ukraine’s freedom into a global cause.
Zelensky has been blunt about his needs and, as a consequence, has seen them largely satisfied by Western leaders eager to show that they stand against the kind of autocracy symbolized by Putin. The Western support of Ukraine’s self-defense has all but ensured that there will not be a broad collapse of the Ukrainian front that Putin and his generals envisioned.
On Monday, President Biden signed a Ukrainian lend-lease provision into law, making it easier for the United States to send weapons to Ukraine if the war with Russia continues, as many expect it to. In a White House ceremony, he renewed his commitment until the fighting ends.
“The cost of the fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is even more costly,” Biden said. “That’s why we’re staying in this.”