We are now twenty-seven days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the advance seems to have ground to a halt. Contact lines around Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv remain much the same as they were after the first week of fighting, with most of the action happening in the south east along the Black Sea coast. NATO military analysts have leapt on the Russian army’s lumbering progress, seeing in this evidence that Russia’s conventional military simply is not up to the task — and this assessment is not without merit. Russian military doctrine, unchanged to a large degree from the Second World War, depends heavily on artillery, and we have seen very little of this combined arms approach in this operation. The result of this is clear; the Russians have not made the territorial gains most western military analysts expected to see.
Much of the credit for this tempering of the Russian advance has to go to the Ukrainian army, which has outperformed expectations. The organisation and rapid mobilisation of the Ukrainian forces from the start of the invasion played a significant role in slowing the Russians; especially the Russian armour columns approaching from the north and west of the capital. It is impossible to say how useful the arming of civilians has been. The international mercenary force has been a complete failure, with a lower-than-expected response and a breakneck desertion rate. It can only be imagined, then, that the national levée en masse has performed only marginally better.
How might we explain this outstanding performance of the Ukrainian forces? Well, these are motivated soldiers — they are fighting for their homeland, and this will always give a defending force an edge on invading foreign conscripts. What else has to be factored in is the top grade weaponry and training this army has received from NATO over the past eight years. Some 1,300 NATO troops were sent to Ukraine in 2014 to share their expertise, giving the Kyiv regime an added bonus in its war against the ethnic Russian population of Luhansk and Donetsk. From 2008 the United States has been giving intensive training to ultra-nationalist battalions in intelligence gathering and guerrilla warfare, equipping them to wage an effective insurgency against a Russian occupation.
Foreign military aid has contributed in no small part to the performance of the Ukrainian forces, with the Biden administration coughing up $2 billion; providing Stinger anti-aircraft systems, Javelin missiles, anti-armour weapons, AT-4 anti-armor systems, Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems, and grenade launchers. Add to this the assistance other NATO members have given, and you have all the tools a well-trained military force needs to get to work. Without this training and assistance it is likely this war would be going rather differently. These are certainly factors in why the Russian advance has been slower than expected, but there are other factors.
The two most important factors in the slow pace of this invasion are Russian caution and the simple fact that this is not a territorial invasion. The western media has put great emphasis on the apparent atrocities being committed by the Russian army; spinning a fictional narrative of Russian forces deliberately targeting civilians and the civilian infrastructure like hospitals and schools. But this is just part of the western propaganda campaign. Civilians are killed in every conflict, and to suggest Russian soldiers are any more likely to target non-combatants than any other soldiers is absurd. In modern conflict, the ratio of civilian to military casualties is about 1:1, and in this conflict that ratio is far lower (Col. Douglas Macgregor) — sitting at about 1:3. This would suggest that Russian forces, rather than targeting civilians, are holding back their military capabilities in order to reduce civilian casualties. Sometimes the data is more truthful than the ‘facts.’
Most western analysts have made the mistake of assuming this invasion is like the typical US and US-led invasion — swift territorial advances and military domination, but this is not a Russian tactic. As happened in Chechnya and Georgia, the Russian forces in Ukraine have advanced directly to their key objectives; encircling hostile forces, and, rather than storming the cities, laying siege to them. What we are now seeing at Kyiv, Kharkiv, and — more dramatically — at Mariupol is a replay of the tactics used during the siege of Grozny (December 1999 — February 2000). We have not witnessed a hard push into the interior or to the west of Ukraine because the Russians are not interested in the interior or west of Ukraine. Strategically speaking, even a cursory glance at the map shows the Russian army either has or is within striking distance of everything of any value. This is Russian military doctrine — an economic war rather than ‘Shock and Awe.’
Actually, anyone familiar with Soviet military doctrine will see immediately what is happening — and it is a winning formula. The bull-horn encirclements of enemy forces and cities is what the Russians call the котёл, the ‘cauldron’ or ‘kettle’ in which the enemy is boiled. This has followed the same pattern since about 1942. Ground units and artillery hem the enemy into a stronghold or open territory, they employ a largely defensive strategy at the cordon, and let their opponents sweat it out for a few days or weeks and run out of ammunition, food, and water. Once the aerial bombardment has softened the defence and when the enemy is sufficiently demoralised, the Russians simply level their artillery pieces and pulverise everything in the barrel.
So yes, going by US military doctrine, the Russians have had a disastrous invasion. But this is not a US invasion. Going by Russian military doctrine — and this is a Russian invasion, this has been a slower than expected invasion. The Ukrainians have put up fierce resistance, but that is running out of steam. The largest parts of the Ukrainian forces have been kettled in cauldrons. Precision strikes with hypersonic weapons are severely limiting the amount of material coming over the western border and the ports on the Black Sea are under blockade. The kettled Ukrainians are getting no more weapons and they are fast running out of ammunition. A little slower than expected perhaps, but this is the invasion the Russians had planned — and it is going to plan.
Mariupole will be a bloodbath, and there is simply no way to sugar-coat this. Russian forces have clearly prioritised the port city for a couple of reasons; it is a port — one — and the Russian forces from Donbas have some serious beef with the Nazi Azov Battalion that has been murdering ethnic Russians in Donetsk and Luhansk since 2014 — two. Last night and this morning the Russians pushed into this cauldron from the east and west to narrow it, likely in preparation for a rush on the city centre — another feature of this doctrine, dividing it and splitting the defenders in the north from those in the south. Given that the Nazi fighters are determined to fight to the last civilian, the pulverisation of the city is the only way this is going to end. Elsewhere the hope is that the message of Mariupol will sink in and the other trapped forces will lay down their weapons. Analysing this conflict with any awareness of how the Russian army does things tells us that this war is already over.
Jason Michael McCann, M.Phil. (TCD) Conflict Studies The author holds a postgraduate degree in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict from the University of Dublin, Trinity College, and an academic fellowship in the study of conflict from the University of West Flanders. He has published on the history of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and the murder of the Hungarian Jews in 1944.
BBC News. “US and Nato Troops Begin Ukraine Military Exercise.” BBC News, September 15, 2014. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-29204505.
Brown, Tom. “US Experts: Militarily, the Russian Invasion Is ‘a Disaster, through and Through.’” Daily Mail, March 3, 2022. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10572395/US-experts-militarily-Russian-invasion-disaster-far.html.
Clark, Mason, George Barros, and Kateryna Stepanenko. “Institute for the Study of War.” Institute for the Study of War, March 22, 2022. https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-22.
Edgar, Daniel. “Ukraine: The Information War, Conflict Scenarios, And ‘Post-Conflict Ukraine.’” SouthFront (blog), March 22, 2022. https://southfront.org/ukraine-the-information-war-conflict-scenarios-and-post-conflict-ukraine/.
The White House. “Fact Sheet on U.S. Security Assistance for Ukraine,” March 16, 2022. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/03/16/fact-sheet-on-u-s-security-assistance-for-ukraine/.
France 24. “US Experts: Militarily, the Russian Invasion Is a Disaster so Far.” France 24, March 3, 2022. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220303-us-experts-militarily-the-russian-invasion-is-a-disaster-so-far.
NATO. “NATO Allies Boost Support to Ukraine.” NATO, February 27, 2022. https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_192476.htm.
The Grayzone. “Former Top Pentagon Advisor Col. Doug Macgregor on Russia-Ukraine War.” Video. YouTube, March 15, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NFngc_8RiVc.
———. “US Fighting Russia ‘to the Last Ukrainian’: Veteran US Diplomat.” Video. YouTube, March 22, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0vxufUeqnuc&t=717s.
Thomas, Timothy L. “The Battle of Grozny: Deadly Classroom for Urban Combat.” Parameters (US Army War College Quarterly) 29, no. 2 (May 25, 1999). https://doi.org/10.55540/0031-1723.1935.York, Geoffrey. “Putin’s Siege of Grozny in 2000 Gives Ukraine a Dark Foreshadowing of Kyiv’s Future.” The Globe and Mail, March 8, 2022. https://www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-putins-siege-of-grozny-in-2000-gives-ukraine-a-dark-foreshadowing-of/.