Russia-Ukraine War: Putin’s Biggest Miscalculation Was Kyiv’s Response

While Russia aimed at a quick Ukrainian surrender, the people of Ukraine seemingly had different ideas.

5 min read
Hindi Female

It is easy to start a war, but not to end one or to forecast its outcome. There is a well-known saying attributed to Helmuth von Moltke: ”No battle plan survives the first contact with the enemy.”

While Russia aimed at a quick Ukrainian surrender, the people of Ukraine seemingly had different ideas. The final results could be quite different for both. Writing on the issue in 2014, Henry Kissinger noted that “the test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins”.

It is almost certain that the Russians had intended a coup de main to use Spetsnaz special forces and paratroopers to seize Ukraine’s capital city Kyiv, capture President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and decapitate the Ukrainian government. A quick capture of Kyiv, along with that of Zelenskyy, could have had the shock effect to obtain a Ukrainian surrender leading to the installation of a friendly government that would have taken care of the rest of their agenda – of demilitarising the country and purging it of nationalists.


Zelenskyy Has Emerged as a Hero

But that has not happened. Zelenskyy is fighting back and has emerged as a hero of sorts for his people; he has assumed the mantle of a war leader. Russia has come under a spate of sanctions and appears to be in the process of intensifying its military campaign. In the meantime, it has climbed up one more step in the nuclear escalation ladder by alerting its nuclear forces.

According to reports as of 28 February, most of their efforts to capture airports around the city – Hostomel, Antonov, Boryspil – were repelled. An attack on the Vasylkiv airport south of Kyiv is ongoing.

Satellite imagery indicates that the Russians are now reinforcing their forces on the Kyiv front and intend to push harder in the coming days. They may now be compelled to undertake frontal attacks with artillery, tanks and rockets, which could result in huge destruction. But they may still find the going difficult since the Ukrainians have destroyed a number of bridges and also had time to prepare better defences.


Things Could Get Worse for Putin

Russia began its war with less-than-great enthusiasm. Indeed, the world has been surprised by the demonstrations across the country protesting the war. Of all the countries in the world, Russia, having suffered incomparable losses in World War II, should know what war means.

The Russians need a clear-cut victory, the surrender of a major city or a chunk of the Ukrainian forces. The last thing they would want is to take a city by force, always a tough proposition for any army, as the Israelis realised in Lebanon.

Given the military balance, the Ukrainians have little chance in direct combat with Russian firepower. But if this war devolves to an insurgency, the Russians will be in trouble because they don’t have the numbers and will have to begin using reluctant conscripts. Even now, the war is not exactly popular in Russia, and a few months of fighting could make things worse for Vladimir Putin.

Ukraine is not a small country. It is nearly the size of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan combined, with a population of 44 million. A Russian force of just 200,000 will not be sufficient to deal with a guerilla campaign.

The Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, for example, is around 42,000 sq km in size, and India has a little more than 2.5 lakh police and army personnel involved in counter-insurgency there. Ukraine is nearly 15 times larger.

Countries like India, which are sympathetic to Russia, have called for a halt to hostilities and diplomatic dialogue. This may sound reasonable but does not quite synchronise with what the Russians are demanding – a total capitulation by Ukraine prior to the talks.


Where the Larger Plan is Coming Apart

The biggest Russian miscalculation may be political. The Russian aim of demilitarising and denazifying Ukraine suggests that they do not consider it a real nation but a territory of theirs that has gotten out of hand. In line with this, they may have expected Ukraine to collapse immediately as the military operations began. That has not happened. And that could be where their larger plan is coming apart.

Ukraine has been an independent nation for just about 30 years, having been ruled since medieval times by Poland-Lithuania, Russia, and the Soviet Union. But it is never clear as to just when and how the notion of nationhood settles among a people. Our own South Asian experience shows us how within a matter of 20 years, Pakistan emerged as a strong nation-state, one that has survived till now despite many vicissitudes, though many of them self-inflicted.

It is also a fact that Ukraine is a country with deep divisions – predominantly Roman Catholic in the west where Ukrainian is spoken, and Russian Orthodox in the east where Russian speakers are a majority.

In that sense, the Minsk II agreement, worked out by the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Russia and Ukraine and mediated by France and Germany, offered a means for resolving the tensions between the different parts of the country, especially since two sub-regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, had broken away in 2014.

They would have seen constitutional reform in Ukraine with self-government to the breakaway regions. But the provisions of the agreement were never implemented.

On 21 February, as a prelude to the war, the Russians recognised Luhansk and Donetsk as independent republics and declared that the Minsk agreements were no longer operational.


The Straightforward Option

It is difficult not to sympathise with the Russian predicament. Every century since the 18th has seen an invasion of the country from the West. And let’s be clear, what is NATO? It may be a collective security organisation, but its sole target is Russia. Even so, Putin’s invocation of the self-defence provision of Article 51 of the UN Charter is based on fiction, since the article can hardly justify the pre-emptive self-defence he has undertaken. Going by the UN Charter, he should have taken the matter to the UN Security Council and then conducted his so-called “special military operation” with its consent.

The best option now is fairly straightforward: a ceasefire, followed by a withdrawal of Russian forces. Thereafter, either through direct talks or those mediated by parties, a deal can be arrived at. On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered Israel as a mediator. The Israelis have good relations with both countries, and in October last year, Bennett had proposed to Putin to hold a Russia-Ukraine summit to work out their problem. But Putin had rejected the proposal. There is slight glimmer of hope from the current talks underway between Russia and Ukraine at the Belarus border, but it is only a glimmer. As of now the combat continues.

A solution to the Ukraine issue is staring at everyone in the face. As far back as 2009, a leading Chinese scholar, Shiping Tang, had proposed that given Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic divisions, the way out was that Ukraine becomes a member of the European Union (EU) but voluntarily abjures the membership of NATO.

This would come with a package where NATO and Russia guarantee to uphold Ukraine’s neutrality and territorial integrity. This, in his view, would have served the interests of Ukraine, as well as Russia and the Europeans.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Russia   Ukraine   Vladimir Putin 

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