Last week, the UK’s defence ministry said Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine “has largely stalled on all fronts”, with President Vladimir Putin’s forces suffering losses and making minimal progress on land, sea or air.
That assessment was in line with other recent suggestions from Western capitals, that Moscow, after almost a month after launching an invasion on February 24, has missed its most essential war goals.
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Months before attacking Ukraine, Russia had massed more than 200,000 troops along the border.
The Kremlin anticipated the campaign would go swiftly, and some observers say Russia did not prepare for a prolonged military conflict in terms of logistics, supplies, the rotation of combat troops, and information technology.
“It does appear that the campaign is experiencing greater difficulty than expected in terms of advancement,” John R. Deni, research professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, told Al Jazeera.
“This is most likely the result of poor planning, poor morale, poor logistics, and the stiff resistance of Ukrainian forces.”
Indeed, Russia’s initial plans to wage a blitzkrieg have failed.
The current conflict more closely resembles the war between the Soviet Union and Finland in 1939-1940, when the advance of Soviet troops, having captured the insignificant border area, was quickly halted by the resistance of the defenders.
The UK’s defence ministry said “Ukrainian resistance remains staunch and well-coordinated,” while “the vast majority of Ukrainian territory, including all major cities, remains in Ukrainian hands.”
According to many Western analysts, Moscow underestimated Ukraine’s ability and readiness to fight.
Moreover, “in a personalist dictatorship such as Putin’s, no one has any incentive to contradict the leader because their own political and often personal survival depends on his whims”, said Alexander B. Downes, associate professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University.
He told Al Jazeera: “If it is known that the leader favours an attack, who wants to be the one who contradicts him? In this regard, the Russian regime is similar to Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq. Fed bad information by his underlings only increases the leader’s confidence that he will prevail, thus making it even more likely he will attack.”
This combination of underestimating Ukraine and overestimating one’s own capabilities may be behind some of Russia’s failures.
And some analysts fear Moscow has been adapting its planned operations to this reality – with severe consequences, particularly for civilians.
“The Russian offensive appears to be stalled. There are many reports of supply and morale problems in Russian units. Because they are largely unable to advance – with a few exceptions, mainly in the south – they have fallen back on siege warfare and indiscriminate attacks on civilians,” said Downes.
“Historically, it is common for attackers, when unable to win a quick and decisive victory on the battlefield, to become frustrated or desperate and turn their guns on civilians to weaken morale and compel their opponent to surrender through a punishment strategy. Punishing civilians, however, rarely succeeds.”
Nevertheless, Moscow has ample reserves to deploy, including mercenaries and other Russian forces.
“It seems to me that in military terms, they have achieved what is called ‘the culmination point’ where they have exhausted what momentum they had and can achieve no further objectives unless they reset and resupply, which is undoubtedly what they are doing now,” Frank Ledwidge, former military intelligence officer and senior lecturer in strategy at the University of Portsmouth, told Al Jazeera.
A reported loss of about 40 percent of combat power committed to Ukraine “represents an extremely high level of loss, and they have certainly sustained more killed and injured in three weeks than the US and its allies have in 20 years of their operations in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said Ledwidge.
“I suspect that they will pause and then attempt to advance again. This, of course, is subject to negotiations being unsuccessful. Indeed it seems logical that Russia will attempt to apply more pressure on the Ukrainians precisely to strengthen their position in those negotiations.”
However, in light of an apparent lack of progress, the West fears that Russia could resort to using chemical weapons.
“Given the desperate state of the Russian offensive, and Putin’s unwillingness to this point to reduce his war aims even in the face of massive losses, chemical weapons use is not out of the realm of possibility.
“It depends on how Putin weighs the short-term military advantage versus the possible Western response. I would put the likelihood of chemical weapons use at less than 50-50, but [that] increases if the stalemate continues,” said Downes.
Chemical weapons would mark the next level of escalation.
“There are many difficulties with using chemical weapons in combat. One’s own forces, for example, must don cumbersome chemical gear. It would also take time to get the weapons to the front. And the international reaction would be severe; unlike in Syria, I would expect further escalation from the US/NATO if Russia used chemicals,” Downes said.
“That said, chemical weapons could be highly effective until Ukrainian troops developed countermeasures, likely with NATO assistance. The advantage would thus be temporary.”
The main victims of chemical weapons, of course, would be the general population.
“Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about Ukrainian civilians. As we saw in [Syria’s] Ghouta in 2013, the effects of chemical weapons on civilians can be extremely deadly. If the Russians attacked Ukrainian cities with large quantities of chemical weapons, it could inflict mass casualties. However, given the pain these cities have endured, it is unclear whether it would drive them to capitulate,” said Downes.
Considering the first weeks of war and the Russian status quo in Ukraine, with all its failed objectives, Putin’s recent remark that all was “going to plan” is seen by many as pure Russian propaganda.
“I suspect Putin’s comments are meant entirely for domestic consumption, as part of a broader propaganda effort inside Russia,” Deni said.
In fact, Ledwidge concluded there was “no resemblance between what has occurred and the ‘plan’ the Russians had which was based on astonishingly misguided assumptions; not least that the combat portion of the operation would take two days, and that Ukrainian resistance would collapse quickly.”