The next few days present an opening for the war's end. Article by Aris Roussinos for UnHerd - March 9, 2022
Nearly two weeks into the invasion of Ukraine, observing from a distance, it still feels as if there are two different wars, which barely overlap, taking place.
The first is the war on social media: in this war, a combination of genuine and impressive Ukrainian tactical successes and inspiring but self-evidently dubious propaganda stories meld into a narrative of a shambolic Russian army falling apart after failing to seize Kyiv on the first day of war and sinking into a quagmire it cannot win. Boosted by social media influencers, some online veterans of earlier narrative wars, this is clearly the dominant framework, a heroic David and Goliath story emotionally resonant to external well-wishers.
And then there’s the second war, the one on the ground. Every day, new maps are released by professional and amateur military analysts which make grim reading for Ukraine’s supporters. In the south and in the east, a great pincer is slowly grinding forward to surround the bulk of Ukraine’s troops deployed along the line of contact against separatist (that is, pro-Russian Ukrainian) forces. If these Ukrainian troops do not withdraw soon, and form a new defensive line further to the northwest, they will be encircled, starved of supplies and rendered ineffective. In smaller pockets, like the defenders of Mariupol, they will simply be destroyed by artillery.
In the northeast, Russian troops have bypassed the near-besieged city of Kharkiv, nearly encircled the strategic city of Chernihiv, and are moving in force on Kyiv’s eastern suburbs. Around a week ago, the first reconnaissance units were seen outside the satellite town of Brovary. Now they have been reinforced with armoured battalion tactical groups (BTGs) and artillery units, which have begun shelling the area around Kyiv’s Boryspil international airport, presumably to soften it up before continuing to tighten their noose around the city.
Both the optimistic and pessimistic interpretations — viewed from a Ukrainian standpoint — are correct, just as both reveal only partial truths. The brave and dogged Ukrainian resistance has definitely caused the Russians greater losses than they were expecting, at a scale unimaginable to far smaller Western European armies, and has surely slowed their advance. The Russians have pursued often mystifying courses of action, barely using their overwhelming air force, and indeed deploying assets they are known to possess like guided munitions and armed drones at a scale far below that seen in the distinctly less existential Syria conflict.
If the evidence of destroyed and abandoned tanks shown online is any guide, they have preferred to use their older armour rather than their first-line T-90 tanks as the bedrock of their attacking force, perhaps because they are reserving their most modern equipment for a potential military escalation with Nato. On a human level, Russian troops have displayed poor tactical awareness, allowing their convoys to be ambushed by highly-motivated Ukrainian regular and irregular forces, and poor morale, surrendering en masse or simply abandoning their vehicles to capture and destruction and themselves to international derision.
And yet, every evening the map updates are published, and the Russians are still moving forward and pressing dangerously closer to their objectives. It is undeniable that they are taking heavy punishment, and may not be able to sustain this tempo of movement or of losses for many weeks longer; but, then, it seems possible that this phase of the war will be over by then. We should also remember that a Ukrainian-dominated media campaign does not provide a clear sense of the condition of the Ukrainian army after two weeks of war: it too has been taking heavy losses, and its losses are significantly harder to replace. So while it is of course foolish to pronounce with any great certainty about the outcome of a war that is still less than two weeks old, there are perhaps tentative reasons to think that a negotiated settlement may be closer than it looks from outside.
If the interpretation is correct that Putin expected his Russian troops to be welcomed by Ukrainian civilians, or at least tacitly acquiesced to, then he has been dramatically shown otherwise. The scale of Ukrainian resistance has been revelatory, perhaps to Ukrainians as much as to Putin, uniting even previously opposed factions in what is little short of a Ukrainian war of independence. A new legend, one of the type essential in the formation and consolidation of any new nation state, has been born, and has won the Ukrainians the admiration of much of the world.
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Will he be putting his gun away soon? Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty