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For most observers, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 came as a surprise, despite the warnings issued by western intelligence. The greater surprise, however, was that the Ukrainians not only withstood the supposedly second greatest army in the world but managed to do severe damage to the invaders, subsequently liberating a significant part of the occupied territories. As the war in Ukraine enters its second year, it is worth reflecting on how and why we got to where we are now and why Russia got it so wrong.
Foremost, it is crucial to understand that the assault on Ukraine was the first step in the Kremlin’s revanchist attempt to begin the restoration of the Soviet empire. For several years, Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have made clear their disappointment at the collapse of the Soviet Union and their intention to return Russia to its former greatness. In this grand plan, Ukraine was to play a major role with its solid industrial base, productive agriculture and forty million strong well-educated and skilled labour force.
However, Putin made a critical mistake as he believed that independent Ukraine was a historical whim, artificially created by the West to weaken and divide Russia. Ignoring reality, he denied Ukraine’s national identity, claiming that Ukrainians and Belarusians are part of a divided Russian people. Like any dictator in power for so long, Putin lives in an echo chamber where no one dares challenge his views. Putin’s misperceptions of reality made him believe that Ukrainians would not mount serious resistance to the invasion and would welcome Russian troops with open arms.
Russians also arrogantly believed that the Ukrainian army was weak and would fall or surrender within days – if not hours – and that the government would flee the country. Ukraine’s defence forces and ordinary citizens proved all that wrong. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians of all ages queued for hours at the military recruiting centres to join the army or joined the local territorial defence units in their cities and towns.
The Russians, who had brought their parade uniforms to use in a parade in Kyiv, were highly surprised to face such severe and heroic resistance from Ukrainians. They were also surprised by the high professionalism of Ukraine’s air defence forces, which prevented the enemy from dominating the country’s skies.
Instead of a victorious blitzkrieg, the Kremlin entered a war to which it was neither mentally nor militarily prepared. In the first six months of the war, Russia lost at least half of its professional army, its best-trained soldiers and officers, and its military hardware. Russia’s massive attacks on civilian infrastructure, which were intended to force Ukraine’s surrender by freezing its population and paralysing its economy, also failed to achieve their objectives. As did the waves of attacks by newly mobilised and poorly equipped Russian soldiers in Donbas.
A united West
Russia, which had grown complacent following years of hesitation from western powers, did not expect a united and decisive response from the West to its aggression. The weapon supplies given to Ukraine and the financial support for its economy, as well as the scale of the sanctions against Russia and the withdrawal of hundreds of western businesses also came as a surprise for Moscow.
Economic, political and diplomatic support from the West has been unprecedented. However, the most crucial aid to Ukraine has been the supply of modern weapons, munitions, and training for its soldiers. Importantly, Ukrainians are highly motivated as they have no choice but to fight until victory. They clearly understand that the Bucha massacre could await the whole country if Ukraine loses the war.
As we enter the second year of the war, those cautious western supporters of Ukraine should realise the Kremlin has no intentions of stopping. They should understand, as Britain, Poland, and the Baltic states undoubtedly do, that the only way to finish this war is to destroy Russia’s military capabilities to continue its offensive. Ukraine’s heroic year-long fight has demonstrated that Russia can be defeated. Greater supplies of necessary hardware and offensive weapons should now be a priority. This will allow the Ukrainian army to defeat Russia militarily and liberate all its legitimate, internationally recognised territories.
It is highly improbable that Russia will use its nuclear weapons even if its conventional military force is destroyed, as long as Ukraine does not occupy legitimate Russian territory, which is unlikely. Using nuclear weapons against Ukraine would not make any significant difference from a military perspective and would severely damage Russia’s reputation in the eyes of those countries that have remained neutral in this conflict. That would isolate Russia internationally.
Of course, it would be naive to think that by defeating Russian armed forces in Ukraine and liberating all its territories from Russian occupation, including Crimea, Ukraine would eliminate the threat entirely. Nevertheless, this might trigger internal processes in Russia, which could lead to regime change. Victory will buy Ukraine time to complete reforms, develop its military-industrial complex, and strengthen its armed forces. It will also allow Ukraine to join NATO, thus deterring Russia from any future aggression.
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