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How Ukraine Underestimated Russia's Capabilities And Paid A Heavy Price

Even a highly motivated and well equipped army will find itself in a state of bewilderment if they underestimate their enemies. The story of Ukraine’s push to recapture the lost territory paints a similar picture. At the start of the war, the entire world witnessed Ukrainians’ resolve to fight the invading Russian Army in Kyiv. Some anticipated the collapse of Kyiv in a matter of few days but the Ukrainians proved them wrong. Similarly, many analysts and war pundits viewed the Russian Army being comprised of soldiers who lacked necessary will to fight the war. However, this time the Russians have proven them wrong. The Ukrainians too have failed to read Russians’ resolve to win the war and it is reflecting in the ongoing counter offensive. In both cases, each underestimated other’s capabilities and have been led to pay a heavy price.

It’s been almost three months since the start of Ukraine’s highly anticipated counter-offensive but there has hardly been any significant territorial changes. With an arsenal of recently acquired western weapons, the Ukrainians were hopeful of turning the tide of the war and achieve success as they did during their Kharkiv and Kherson offensive. However, the Russians have managed to hold their ground and inflict heavy casualties on the Ukrainians. At the same time, the relentless Ukrainian onslaught means that Russians too have suffered a lot for holding their defensive lines. The emerging scenes from the battlefield is only getting gorier and with time an imminent and swift Ukrainian victory is looking more elusive.

The development has surprised many western observers who were expecting a quick and swift Ukrainian victory during the counter offensive. However, Cordesman highlighted problem with US strategy for Ukraine’s counter offensive. His assessment was that “… the United States may now be calling for far quicker and more decisive action from Ukraine than Ukrainian forces can actually execute”. After almost three months into the counter-offensive, Cordesman assessment stands true. The expectation that Ukraine will quickly run over “demoralized, ill-equipped and incompetent” Russian forces has become a distant possibility. In Julian Borger’s words, “the first casualty of the Ukrainian counteroffensive was wishful thinking”. He adds that “any hope that Russian troops would abandon their trenches and flee has now been left far behind on the battlefield.

The New York Times reported that Ukraine lost up to 20% of its weapons and armour in the first two weeks of the counter offensive.  The prevalent discourse on most of the media outlets has revolved around justifying the extremely slow progress of Ukrainian counter offensive. However, as we are getting further into the counter offensive, more eye opening analyses and reports have emerged. The Russians have built up formidable defences and they are not abandoning their position without a fight. The minefields have wreaked havoc upon the Ukrainian Forces and without a proper cover from Russian air strikes, the advance has become stagnant.  

In the ongoing war, two factors played major role in building up an overly optimistic psyche within the Ukrainian and Western leadership. First, the Russian blunder during the initial phases of the war which led to heavy Russian casualties. Second, the retreat of Russians during Ukraine’s push to take back Kharkiv and Kherson.  The Ukrainians were emboldened and in high spirits by the development.  However, in a twist of tale, this time, it was Ukrainians who underestimated the Russians’ capabilities.  

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Russian losses mounted up quickly. The observers and commentators hastily concluded that the Russian Army was incompetent. Later that year when the Ukrainians launched offensive in a bid to retake Kharkiv and Kherson, the Russians were unable to hold the ground. The Russians had to make a haste retreat in Kharkiv whereas in Kherson the retreat was completed in an orderly fashion. After the success in Kharkiv, the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Dymtro Kuleba aired his confidence about beating the Russians in the ongoing war if only they had more weapons delivered to them quickly. He remarked “…The more weapons we receive, the faster we will win, and the faster this war will end.” The Ukrainians strongly believed in what they were saying. For Ukrainians, to dislodge the “mighty” Russian army from Kharkiv and Kherson was no small feat. However, the Ukrainians saw Russia’s strategic retreat as a sign of their weakness and lack of motivation among the soldiers to fight the war.

For those who believed in initial assessments about Russian army’s said incompetence, the Kharkiv and Kherson’s episode helped further strengthen their conviction on the matter. However, the conclusions drawn were not entirely rooted in facts. Watling and Reynolds rightly points out the fallacy of analyses which label entire Russian military as “tactically inept, technically deficient and morally broken” (Watling and Reynolds, 2023:29). It is true for most of the recent western discourse on Russian military.  Ian Stubbs, senior military advisor at the UK delegation to the OSCE, made similar remarks on the state of Russian military leadership. A New York Times commentary calls Russian military operation as “both incompetent and ill equipped” with troops running low on morale. An opinion piece from the Washington Post at the beginning of the war sees Russians showing “ineptitude and lack of professionalism” with no cohesion among the forces.

Though there is an element of truth, it doesn’t apply to entire Russian military. These analyses “…tend to extrapolate from the performance of certain Russian units to the whole force” (Watling and Reynolds, 2023:29). The Russian military has improved and has been adopting to the challenges thrown by Ukrainians. Chels Mitcha, a military intelligence officer serving in the US army asks to take caution citing Russian military adaptation and improvement. Similarly, Watt and Reynolds warn that “…as the Russian military adapts, there can be no room for complacency” (Watt and Reynolds, 2023:30).

As the battle rages on, it seems the Ukrainians’ momentum has been blunted. However, the Ukrainians have been relentless in the pursuit of their objective. They seem determined and highly motivated but “determination and motivation” alone cannot decide the course of a war.  In-spite of the fact that the Ukrainians are well equipped with the western weapons, they lack many more resources which are vital for a successful operation of the given magnitude. Though there have been reports of some tactical gain, it is early to say if that will lead to anything that might turn the tide of the war. Russians will look to seize the initiative and launch their own counter-offensive. In fact, in Luhansk Oblast the Russians have initiated their advance in the direction of Kupyansk and are trying root out the Ukrainian Forces stationed there. The evacuation order are in place in Kupyansk and it might soon witness a complete destruction of the city. Wars have brought destruction and it is no different here.

The Russians learned the hard way not to underestimate Ukrainians. In the course of war, the Russians managed to adapt to the new challenges thrown by their adversary. They managed to learn from their mistakes in the earlier stages of the war. The Ukrainians failed to correctly assess the improvisation undertaken by the Russians before the start of the counter-offensive. They did not realize that the Russians could be as motivated as the Ukrainians to fight this war.  Now, it is the Ukrainians who are learning the hard way not to underestimate their enemies.

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