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Moscow Misjudges Ukraine and the World
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Moscow Misjudges Ukraine and the World

The global power underestimated Ukrainian resistance and international resolve.

In remarks before the first emergency session of the U.N. General Assembly held since the Cold War-era on Monday, Ukraine’s permanent representative, Sergiy Kyslytsya, read aloud a text message he claimed contained final words of a slain Russian soldier to his mother.

“Mama, I’m in Ukraine. There is a real war raging here. I’m afraid. We are bombing all of the cities, even targeting civilians. We were told that they would welcome us, and they are falling under our armored vehicles, throwing themselves under the wheels and not allowing us to pass. They call us fascists. Mama, this is so hard.” 

Neither The Dispatch nor other news outlets could vouch for the veracity of the text exchange. But Ambassador Kyslytsya’s speech laid bare realities that analysts in the West agree on: Vladimir Putin badly miscalculated both the resolve and competence of Ukraine’s defenders in his initial assault. Taken together with a powerful global response, Moscow now faces highly motivated Ukrainian combatants armed with a steady flow of outside weaponry.

As new details of the unfolding invasion emerge, military analysts and Kremlin watchers alike are mystified by Putin’s poor tactical planning thus far. The initial phases of attack—which reportedly aimed to topple the government in Kyiv in short order—lacked some anticipated hallmarks, including major cyber attacks, the integration of artillery with infantry and armor, and the early establishment of air supremacy. The Russian defense ministry has since claimed to have achieved the latter but not before the Ukrainian Air Force took out several key military targets. 

“Their military strategy here is mind-blowingly bad,” said Dmitri Alperovitch, the Russian-born co-founder of Silverado Policy Accelerator and former CTO of CrowdStrike, a leading cybersecurity firm. “I think they expected the Ukrainians to surrender. They were very arrogant about this. And I think that they also wanted to wrap this up very quickly and it’s not working out well.”

According to retired U.S. Army General H.R. McMaster, former national security adviser to President Donald Trump, the Russian military’s current setbacks are as logistical as they are tactical. Recent reports of Russian tanks and armored vehicles stranded by the hundreds en route to Kyiv and other cities, for example, indicated Moscow’s lack of long-term planning. 

“There’s an old saying: ‘Amateurs do tactics and experts do logistics.’ Because logistics determines the outcome,” McMaster said during a Hudson Institute briefing in Washington, D.C., on Monday.  “You can be as brilliant as Erwin Rommel, but if you run out of gas, you’re out of gas.” 

And although the invading forces still have a significant upper hand in lethal force—much of which is currently concentrated in a 40-mile convoy north of the capital city—Kyiv remains in Ukrainian hands more than six days into the Russian advance. Morale and training disparities likely factor in here. The invading forces are largely comprised of one-year conscripts, many of whom were unaware of the true nature of the mission, according to reports that could not be independently corroborated by The Dispatch. “The moral and psychological state of the occupation troops is low,” Ukraine’s defense ministry said Sunday. 

Ukraine’s military leadership has tried to speed along Russian forces’ decaying morale by publicizing victories and information about captured and killed Russian soldiers. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov also offered a cash reward and amnesty to invading soldiers who surrender: “You were brought to our land to kill and die. Do not follow criminal orders. We guarantee you a full amnesty and 5 million rubles if you lay down your arms. For those who continue to behave like an occupier, there will be no mercy.”

The defense ministry claimed to have neutralized 29 planes, 29 helicopters, 191 tanks, 816 armored vehicles, five anti-aircraft systems, 60 fuel tanks, and 5,300 Russian troops as of Monday evening—though the estimates are likely exaggerated. 

“Putin fell into the trap that many people fall into, which is they look at numbers of tanks, they look at rocket launchers, they look at hardware,” McMaster said, “and they forget the qualitative aspects of a force, which have to do with effective leadership and building cohesive, confident teams that can overcome fear in combat, suppress their instinct for self-preservation, and fight effectively in close battle, which is what you’re seeing [from Ukrainian forces] now.”

In the eight years after Putin’s initial incursion into their country, Ukrainians have developed a hardened national identity with the tenet of territorial integrity at its core. In addition to Ukraine’s 200,000 active duty troops and 900,000 reservists, at least 130,000 civilians—including women and the elderly—have come forward to fight in territorial defense units. More still are informally training for a sustained guerrilla campaign. Official government websites have published instructions on the tactics of urban warfare, including a how-to on making and using Molotov cocktails.  

“[Putin] is in a very centralized, authoritarian government. Therefore, if you decapitate it, you have a change of government,” McMaster explained. “But he’s fighting the Ukrainian people, and that’s a much more diffuse problem.”

Popular support for Ukraine’s leadership, which remains in the country despite pressing security threats, also contributes to Kyiv’s resolve. According to a recent survey by Ukrainian pollster Rating, 70 percent of Ukrainians believe their country will defeat Russia. An overwhelming 91 percent support President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has been posting frequent video updates from within Ukraine, despite the U.S.’s offer of an evacuation and Russian rumors of his flight.

“Ukrainians have shown the world who we are. And Russia has shown what it has become,” Zelensky said in one such speech. “Every crime, every shelling that the invaders commit against us, unites us and our partners even more. Russia did not believe in such a solidarity and powerful reaction. But Ukrainians have changed that story.”

Experts agree with Zelensky: Russia’s invasion and false pretexts have spurred international outrage. In practical terms, the U.S., European Union (EU), and other global democracies can no longer credibly ignore Putin’s brazen aggression. “Russia is losing the information war. In fact, it’s already lost,” said Alperovitch. “If they want to take the cities, they’ll be able to take the cities. The question is how much opposition are they going to generate both within Ukraine, and frankly, internationally, because they’re completely losing the narrative worldwide.” 

On Sunday, the European Union announced it will buy and deliver $500 million in weaponry to Ukraine, marking the first time the bloc has provided military support to a country under attack. “This is a watershed moment,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said over the weekend. Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson also confirmed plans to send 5,000 helmets, 5,000 body shields, and 5,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine, along with 135,000 field rations—an unprecedented move by Stockholm, which has refrained from providing at-war countries with arms in the post-World War II period.

Germany also stepped up its defensive assistance after weeks of tepid support for Kyiv’s sovereignty, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz saying that the full-scale invasion “marks a turning point.” In addition to shipping 1,000 anti-tank missiles and 500 stingers to Ukraine, Berlin also greenlit Russia’s removal from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, or SWIFT, a messaging service connecting more than 11,000 banks worldwide. Scholz also expanded on plans to “eliminate” the country’s reliance on foreign energy suppliers—such as Russia—after pulling the plug on Nord Stream 2 last week, conceding that energy independence is “crucial for [Germany’s] security.” 

And Switzerland, in a break from its historic neutrality, joined the EU in barring Russian flights from its airspace and freezing the personal assets of President Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Zelensky capitalized on the momentum on Monday, formally applying for EU membership

But unified opposition to Moscow’s attack doesn’t make de-escalation certain or even likely. On the contrary, Putin might ramp up hostilities in an effort to force concessions from Ukraine and the West. And Ukrainian forces also risk coming against arms shortages, amid reports of dwindling ammunition stocks

As of Sunday, Ukraine’s health ministry reported more than 352 Ukrainian civilians—including 14 children—had been killed in Russia’s offensive. Experts say we can expect that number to increase significantly in the coming week, despite Russian claims that there are “no threats whatsoever to the civilian population.” 

“Every day it goes on, it’s getting worse for [the Russians.] It’s clear that they’re now changing their tactics to be much more brutal. They were pulling their punches in many ways, expecting that they’d be able to take the country without firing much of a shot,” Alperovitch said. “Since it’s not working, now they’re unleashing artillery on cities. They’re becoming more and more ruthless and care much less about civilian casualties.”

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.