Even as the fighting continues in many parts of Ukraine, it is becoming clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin has underestimated the willingness of Ukraine to resist.  Sources in Moscow indicate that the Russian Army was confident of a quick victory – something that clearly has not been achieved in the face of stiff resistance and which shows no sign of ending.  There was even some speculation in Russia that Ukraine would not fight at all and would simply roll over as happened during the 2014 annexation of Crimea.

T-64 tank
A T-64 tank from 93rd Mechanized Brigade, Armed Forces Ukraine, participates in battalion-level training exercises at the Combat Training Center – Yavoriv, Ukraine.  (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

This sort of hubris on the part of the military is not confined to Russia, as the 2003 invasion of Iraq showed the west in general and the US in particular.  However, current Russian overconfidence seems to have been exaggerated by the practice in recent years for President Putin to surround himself with various flunkies and boot lickers who only tell him exactly what he has wanted to hear.  This is never a good formula for decision making.

Having apparently formed the view that Ukraine is not a separate country but deserves to be part of Russia, one assumes that Putin has only been receiving advice to bolster this view.  One school of thought in Russia is that the Ukrainians themselves will be attracted to the prospect of incorporation because it will lead to greater prosperity.  It is true that Ukraine has been bedevilled by corruption since gaining independence and overall living standards remain low, but the country has had a linguistic and cultural identity separate from Russia that stretches back for centuries.  If the thinking in Moscow is that the people of Ukraine will willingly trade their freedom, democracy and identity in exchange for higher pensions it would appear to be incorrect.

Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion
A Ukrainian Soldier assigned to 1st Battalion, 80th Airmobile Brigade pulls a lanyard to fire a 120mm round from a mortar system.  (Photo Credit: U.S. Army)

Many commentators have likened the current Russian invasion to that of Afghanistan carried out on Christmas Day 1979.  Despite many parallels, a probably better example is the First Chechen War of 1994.  This was a disaster for Russia – not to mention for the civilian Chechen population, who suffered terribly during the 18-month conflict with the capital city of Grozny almost being razed to the ground during weeks of intense and bitter combat.

On paper, the Russian Army had a huge advantage over a bunch of ragtag Chechen fighters and at the time sources in Moscow told the author at the start of hostilities that it would be all over in 24 hours.  Despite massive numbers of armoured vehicles, artillery and with total control of the air, the Chechens – always a tough bunch – fought the Russians to a standstill on numerous occasions.  Out of frustration, Moscow resorted to tactics such as carpet bombing and the indiscriminate use of massed artillery that caused the loss of an estimated 40,000 civilian lives.  Given that the total population of the country was around 1 million, the casualty figures were horrendous.

Chechnya is a small and remote area, and the conflict was under reported in the west, but even so, Russia’s international reputation was badly damaged – and it proved to be extremely unpopular at home with desertions, resignations and various forms of passive resistance. Figures are unreliable, with somewhere between 5,700 soldiers killed – the official total – up to an unofficial count of 14,000.  Probably twice as many Chechen combatants died.  Towns and villages were razed and about 500,000 people – half of the total population – were displaced.

Montana Army National Guard Soldier
Montana Army National Guard Soldier fires the M136E1 AT4-CS confined light anti-armor weapon while competing in the National Guard Best Warrior at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, May 15, 2018. (Photo credit: U.S. Army)

The violence led to Chechens retaliating via terrorism in events such as the Moscow theatre siege of 2002 with 170 innocent people killed and the even worse Beslan school massacre of 2004.  This led to the death of 333 people, including 186 children.

Compare Chechnya’s population of 1 million with the 44 million of Ukraine and the potential military problem for Russia starts to become apparent.  The Russian Army is in better shape than it was in 1994 in terms of training and equipment – but not necessarily morale.  Also, Ukraine is relatively well equipped and for as long as the long border with Poland remains open will continue to receive more weapons such as the 5,000 deadly AT-4 anti-tank missiles now on their way from Sweden.

Russian tanks are quite well protected by systems such as explosive reactive armour (ERA) but the effectiveness of that diminishes if they move into urban areas where they can be ambushed by small infantry teams launching simultaneous attacks from different directions.  Other weapons – such as those coming from the US, Britain and Germany – use a variety of methods for destroying heavy armour such as tandem warheads and top-down attacks. Even little Estonia is considering transferring some of their anti-tank missiles.

It also seems that for the moment Ukraine’s air defence system is holding up – something of a surprise – and this is making it difficult for Russia to achieve complete air dominance.  Early information indicates that several Russian helicopters and possibly transport aircraft have been shot down.

While the size of the Russian armed forces is such that they could eventually grind down resistance, there must already be serious questions about how long that might take and what will be the cost in lives and materiel.  If Ukraine can keep holding out and at the same time take a heavy toll on Russian soldiers and equipment, President Putin’s popularity might suddenly and irrevocably plummet.  If his inner circle also starts to waver when sanctions begin to really bite it will be time for a major rethink.

Already within the Kremlin wall there must be some misgivings that what was believed to be a quick and easy victory is proving not at all to be the case.  For people who were around in 1994 and watched the Chechnya campaign unravel this must be the stuff of nightmares.


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