By Nicolaus Schmandt
In the days leading up to the Russian attack on Ukraine, it seemed that the United States had gone crazy. They kept insisting that Russia was going to mount an attack on neighboring Ukraine, when nearly everyone knowledgeable about the geopolitics of the area dismissed this as a very unlikely outcome. Russia had built up troops of a similar size in the area every year for a long time now. It just didn’t make any sense given that the two nations were very close to each other in many ways, it would be intensely unpopular, and difficult to pull off. These assumptions were correct, but not the outcome. U.S. intelligence was not given enough credit.
It’s impossible to list everything that has changed in the world from the morning of February 24th, when Russian rockets struck targets across Ukraine, and the largest land invasion since World War II began. Right until it happened, it was unthinkable. Indeed, part of the reason it was so unexpected was that very few people knew it was coming. Russian soldiers captured after the war say they thought they were being called up for drills and weren’t informed what was happening even as they were ordered across the border. Only those at the very top knew what was to come.
Leading up to the Invasion
Everything began in 2014. Prior to that, Ukraine had been a Russian puppet state, completely allied to and dependent on Russia. Ukrainians had been pushing for closer ties with Europe and hoping for eventual EU membership, something Russia would never allow. The breaking point occurred when the government refused to sign a political association and free trade agreement with the European Union. Shortly after, a violent populist uprising (the Maidan revolution) occurred that the military was unable to suppress, Ukraine’s government was unseated. Elections were held and a new Ukrainian government was formed. There was some question as to whether the new government was really able to control the level of corruption in Ukraine any better than the previous government, but without a doubt the traditional power axes within Ukraine shifted dramatically. Russia was no longer in the place of power it used to be.
The Russian response to the uprising was to occupy Ukraine’s Crimea region and support insurrections against the new government in the easternmost regions of Ukraine. In the chaos of the regime change, there was no organized resistance to the Russian takeover of Crimea, the Russians simply showed up one day occupying critical infrastructure points and it was over. The global community protested, and some sanctions were introduced but overall, it was a big win for Putin and his military. He gained significant amounts of popularity from the takeover.
The insurrections in Ukraine’s east were messier but not to the point that they derailed the popularity of the moves. Officially, Russia maintained a neutral state in the revolutions, though this was ridiculed by western nations. Ukraine’s fight against the insurrectionists revealed a weak and struggling military. Many of the Ukrainian’s elite units defected, and though Ukraine was able to beat back the separatists, when Russia intervened they easily pushed back the Ukrainian army. The two agreed to a ceasefire, called the Minsk agreement that effectively left the border where it was without a satisfactory resolution to the conflict.
The border remained hot, with occasional shelling and gunfire, but any large movements had largely subsided. It remained this way for 8 years, with little change, until Russia recognized the separatist states as independent nations. Shortly thereafter, Russia invaded. Part of the reason it was so unexpected is because there wasn’t any clear reason why this happened now instead of any of the prior years.
The War so Far
In the early morning of February 24th, Russia launched strategic missiles at various Ukrainian airfields and military installations across the country, and troops began heading across the border in the north, east and south of the country. It was widely expected that Russia would crush its smaller neighbor easily and quickly. Though the nations have roughly equal numbers of standing troops, Russia has an overwhelming numerical superiority in tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and air power. However, it’s important to remember that the number of Russian vehicles does not necessarily mean that they are all in good working order. Many of them may simply be relics from WWII, or have not had the necessary maintenance to keep them functioning. It’s unclear exactly how many of Russia’s vehicles and aircraft will actually be serviceable to fight Ukraine, though there is no question that they have a massive advantage in military equipment.
In the years since Ukraine’s provinces began their insurrection, Ukraine has been receiving large supplies of western munitions, especially anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and the training to use them. This supply increased dramatically in the weeks preceding the Russian attack on Ukraine and helped mitigate the Russian military’s advantages. While these weapons are less useful in a counter-attack, they are very valuable for defensive operations.
Russian troops in the north, coming through the Belarusian border, made a quick push towards the capital, Kyiv, accompanied by paratroopers who landed and attempted to secure a nearby airfield. Both these attacks were repulsed by Ukrainian forces, and Russia is currently attempting to launch a renewed offensive against Kyiv. A massive military column, significantly larger than the first, is slowly making its way to Kyiv. However, this column has been stalled for several days now.
On the east, Russian forces attempted to quickly take over Kharkiv and then push south to surround the Ukrainian front that faces the independent republics. The attack on Kharkiv was not well planned and involved many troops with only light armor or simply patrolling the city by foot. Russians took heavy casualties and this first wave was easily repulsed, and currently the Russians are gearing up for another attack on the city, while hitting Ukrainian areas with shells and airstrikes. I suspect we’ll see more on this front soon, but it’s not clear to me why Russia hasn’t pushed harder, especially given the amount of armor they possess near the border with Kharkiv.
The south has been Russia’s most successful front. The troops here have been almost completely unopposed, and have not had the logistical issues that troops in other parts of Ukraine have faced. This is the region of Ukraine that is likely to be most favorable to the Russians, so they may be getting local support in this area. They have been able to take the smaller cities of Melitopol and Kherson with only limited fighting and have pushed east to encircle the coastal city of Mariupol. Their ultimate goal is likely to push north to meet with the eastern troops, encircling troops on the front line against the separatists, while also pushing west, towards Mykolaiv and Odessa.
Where is the War Going?
Time is definitely on Ukraine’s side. Russian troops were only prepared for a roughly 15 day operation, and the Russian military has a long history of terrible logistics. So far, this does not seem to be any exception. The West continues to send munitions to Ukraine through their western border, and troops from around the world are volunteering to serve on the Ukrainian side. In addition, Ukrainian troops get more experienced each passing day. Russians are racing against the clock until their advances stall.
Right now, both sides will likely focus heavily on the northern front, near the capital, Kyiv. Russia has committed a large number of troops to an attack on the capital in a nearly 30 kilometer long convoy. Because of the mud in Ukraine during this season (that will still be present for the next 3-4 weeks), Russian forces cannot drive off the roads for any extended period of time, meaning any vehicle breakdown or lack of fuel will have large effects on the ability of the convoy to move forward. It also means that the vehicles will have to stay close to each other on the road, maximizing the impact of any strikes. They are currently in the regions of Ukraine that are the most hostile to Russian occupation, and are extremely vulnerable to hit-and-run attacks along their flanks.
In short, the northern front is likely Ukraine’s best shot at inflicting a serious defeat on the Russian forces. Russia’s attack on the Chernihiv and Sumy areas failed to eliminate resistance, leaving supply lines to the Russian convoy vulnerable to ambushes. The combination of hostile territory, poorly planned logistics, and vulnerable supply lines puts these forces in an extremely bad position. Don’t expect them to go anywhere quickly, and expect Russia to take heavy losses.
In the east, Ukrainian defenses will need to invest as many resources as possible to hold Kharkiv, without compromising the more important northern front. The initial Russian attack here was crushed, and another push has begun to take the city, with heavier armor and a lot more collateral damage than the first attempt. As the second largest city, it would be demoralizing if it fell, and could be hard to retake later. Since they have destroyed the rail lines that connect the rail network to Russia’s, the strategic value of the city may have been greatly reduced, hence Russia’s progressively weaker attempts to take the city.
In addition, Russia appears to have committed forces heading west from the Kharkiv area to be able to attack Kyiv from the east. Reaching that point will be a logistical challenge for the Russians, and the Ukrainians will likely hold them off using hit-and-run and ambush tactics. Given the long distances Russian troops need to cover, this would likely cause serious problems for Russian troops. We will see if they are able to reach Kyiv and have a noticeable impact on the fighting there.
In the south, Ukraine is facing the largest territorial losses. Several cities have already fallen and another is surrounded. However, driving a Russian tank through a town without getting shot is not the same thing as occupying and controlling territory. While Russian armor has progressed an impressive amount, it is likely going to be very easy for guerrilla fighters to get behind them and ambush their supply lines, the same as they are doing in the north, especially since all supplies are bottlenecked from the Crimea area around Mariupol. Ukraine seems to have ceded the south to focus on the north for now.
The Ukrainian military is preventing these forces from moving West towards Mykolaiv and Odessa. This is an area that is far from Russian supply lines and far enough from Russian controlled territory where the Ukrainian air force is still flying the most aggressively. Pushing further west is going to get increasingly difficult for Russia. There is also the possibility of an amphibious landing near Odessa but that seems unlikely to succeed without a way to resupply them.
The Changing World Order
History is bound to repeat itself, and this military invasion is no exception. There seems to be a mix of components of the Russian 1939 invasion of Finland and the Nazi invasion of Poland. What is truly unique about this invasion is the lack of any pretext for the attack, and any justification for why it is necessary or reasonable. Indeed, both of the historical invasions were justified with “false flag” events, where actors were paid to attack their own troops to justify the invasion. Putin also used similar events to justify his attack on Chechnya. It may have been Russia’s intention to do this again, but American intelligence revealed it before it could happen. Furthermore, they seemed to hope for Ukrainian aggression against the separatist states at the time Russia acknowledged them, but Ukraine very visibly held back, leaving Putin with no choice but to simply attack. The only justification the Russians give for the war is to rid Ukraine of “Nazis”, which is completely ludicrous (they have a Jewish president).
While this may not have had a major impact on the military course of events, it had a dramatic impact on the global response. There has never been a more united response to Russia, and while Europe cannot afford to cut off Russian gas, pretty much every other imaginable sanction has been levied. The brazen attacks have also changed the views of Scandinavian countries towards NATO. These countries that were once neutral are now exploring the possibility of joining NATO, despite Russia’s threats. It may be the only way to keep Russia from attacking them.
Despite how insane this war seems to the West, over 70% of the Russian people support it. Putin has taken a page from Stalin’s playbook and made it a point to kill or jail anyone who could be a possible threat to him, so his position is safe. And while it may seem normal to assume that if his people suffer enough, they will get rid of him – that logic does not hold in Russia. This is a country where troops were given one rifle for two men, so when the first died the other could keep attacking. They were told to shoot retreating Russians before shooting the enemy. And they did it. Russians seem to almost take a weird sort of pride in how much self-harm they are willing to take for the whims of their leader. While there were a few protests at the start of the war, they are all now in jail or forced labor and the Russian people are following the propaganda lines. Even when their own children are experiencing something different from their state propaganda, they believe the state propaganda. This means Putin can get away with almost anything without any meaningful consequences. And as little as Putin cares for his own troops, he cares even less for the Ukrainian civilians. War crimes and devastation are likely to get worse.
While Russia will simply keep sending citizens, it might make more sense for the allies to focus on Belarus. As recently as 2020, Belarus had a near overthrow of their government following blatantly phony election results that required Russian intervention to put down. If that happens again, with the Russian army predisposed, Belarus might quickly overthrow its government and follow Ukraine towards the EU and NATO. Furthermore, while they are allowing Russians to use their territory to attack Ukraine, the Belarusian troops appear to have refused orders to attack Ukraine themselves. The possibility of an insurrection and regime change here is very real and could be a problem for Putin, since he does not have much resources to spare to put them down.
How can we Help?
Most importantly, write to your senators and representatives to tell them you care about this and expect action to support the Ukrainian resistance. You can look up your representatives here: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative
Secondly, NYU has a department, “Russian and Slavic studies.” I propose we start a petition to change the name of this department to “Slavic studies.”
And finally, be friendly to your Russian friends and recent immigrants. They are on our side, and they are the reason our Russian intelligence is so good.
How can I follow the situation?
All major news networks are covering the situation as it unfolds. In addition, these resources are informative: