Published at 08:00 on 27 February 2022
Reports are starting to emerge that Russian troops have actually been pushed out of the city of Kharkiv. If proven accurate (warning: they might not be), this is truly remarkable and means the Ukrainian strategy is working beyond even the wildest expectations. Now this is a battle, and a battle is not a war, but nobody considered it a realistic goal for Ukraine to use military force to repel the Russians. The goal was to use persistent force to slow down the invaders then to eventually wear them out, as the Vietnamese and Afghans did when their countries were invaded. A significant ability to repel attacks and not merely bog them down would be, to reiterate, remarkable.
Based on my knowledge of the history of war, ever since the bullets started flying, Ukraine has done just about everything right. The rub is, Russia has done just about everything wrong. Therefore, Russia is partially responsible for Ukraine’s success. Such is always the case in warfare; the overall situation is always beyond the control of any one side. Anyone who thinks that war is a means of seizing control over a situation is seriously deluded. War is the ultimate loss of control.
Note I said ever since the bullets started flying above. Before active hostilities broke out, Ukraine’s government was seriously deluded. Up until the day of the invasion, state mouthpieces were insisting that an invasion was not imminent, despite virtually no major intelligence agency agreeing in this assessment. Ukraine only began organizing irregular troops on a significant level in the very final days of the lead-up to the invasion. They should have been doing this months ago (and they should have been loudly trumpeting it, advertising to Russia that any aggression on their part would have a high cost, in the hopes of prompting a recalculation on Putin’s part). This lost opportunity to organize and train the Territorial Defence Forces can only harm Ukraine.
But aside from that, Ukraine has done a great job so far. When all the dust settles, I would not be surprised to learn that there were Western military advisers quietly playing a role in all of this. Right now, there is a significant advantage to keeping any such role secret: it allows the Ukrainian government to put forth to the people the useful, morale-building myth that their successes have been theirs alone. Morale can be a huge force multiplier.
Russia’s choice to take the extremely dangerous measure of putting its nuclear forces on heightened alert is another indicator of how badly this is all going for Russia.
Finally, another warning: the tide can turn. Odds are, in fact, tilted towards things not always coming out as much in Ukraine’s favour as they have been so far. Remember the part above about Russia doing badly? No nation deliberately tries to do badly. The Russian forces are at this moment certainly trying to correct their mistakes. Not all of these measures will fail. Therefore, Russia is all but sure to, at least at times, start faring at least somewhat better than they have so far. Virtually every conflict has its advances and retreats; no side is immune to setbacks or missteps.
That would, of course, mean lost battles for Ukraine. But remember, battles are not wars. As things stand right now, it is increasingly looking like Russia is indeed going to get an Afghanistan 2.0 out of their military misadventure.