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Opinion Stop overestimating the Russian military and underestimating Ukrainians

Ukrainian servicemen walk past the wreck of a Russian tank in the village of Lukyanivka outside Kyiv on March 27. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)
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The United States had excellent intelligence about the Russian plan to invade Ukraine but terrible intelligence about how the invasion would fare. At the start of the war, officials expected that Kyiv would fall within two days. That was more than 30 days ago. This wildly off-target assessment is the mirror image of the U.S. mistake in Afghanistan, where the intelligence community was surprised by the speed of the government’s collapse.

Spectacular Russian setbacks are changing that view, but there still appears to be a residual assumption that sooner or later Moscow will get its act together and crush Ukrainian resistance. While the Russians have shown an appalling willingness to commit war crimes, there is no indication that they are breaking Ukraine’s will to fight. More than a month into the war, the invaders are losing — and there is no reason to expect a sudden reversal of fortune.

The Ukrainians have shown themselves to be skilled and courageous defenders who are taking full advantage of Western-supplied weapons. They retreated into the cities — where the power of Russian armor and air power is dissipated — and set about wearing down the invaders by targeting their supply lines and commanders.

One vignette from the fighting near Kyiv illustrates the Ukrainian advantage. “The Ukrainians have put up a drone video armed with thermal imaging,” writes a British war correspondent in New Lines Magazine. “It’s so chilly out there that the Russian tank crews sit with their engines running through the night. As the Ukrainian drone hovers over the woods in the blackness, it picks out the Russian tanks hiding in the cold. Each Russian exhaust spills its presence, white on black. Then Ukrainian artillery, pinpointed by the drone, moves in for the kill and takes out each white dot, one by one.”

The International Criminal Court said on Feb. 28 it is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. Experts tell The Post how the legal process works. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)

The Russians, with their overly centralized command system and lack of experienced noncommissioned officers, have been slow to respond to Ukrainian tactics. “The Russians have no imagination,” an American who said he was fighting with the Ukrainians told the Atlantic. “They would shell our positions, attack in large formations, and when their assaults failed, do it all over again.”

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The Russians apparently don’t even have a single commander in charge of the war, thereby violating the cardinal military principle of “unity of command.” Their units are spread too thin over a country larger than France and often operating at cross-purposes.

Having worn down the invaders, the Ukrainians have now gone on the offensive. Counterattacks around Kyiv have just liberated the suburb of Irpin and driven the Russians back at least 20 miles. The invaders are not in artillery range of the city center and Ukrainian air defenses preclude heavy bombing, enabling the return of some ordinary life in the capital. Ukrainian forces have retaken Trostianets and reopened the road to Sumy, a regional capital in the east. The Ukrainians are also advancing to relieve the pressure on the country’s second city, Kharkiv. While the Russians may have taken the ruins of Mariupol in the south, the Pentagon reports that they are no longer in full control of Kherson, the only regional capital captured in their initial offensive.

While failing to achieve their objectives, the Russians are suffering horrendous losses. They appear to have lost at least 300 tanks — more than Germany’s entire tank inventory. Last week, the Russian navy lost a large landing ship to a Ukrainian missile strike.

NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers had been killed and as many as 30,000 had been wounded or taken prisoner. That’s already approaching Soviet losses in 10 years of war in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The fallen include seven generals and many other officers. Roughly 20 percent of Russia’s battalion tactical groups are believed to be “combat ineffective.”

Russia is struggling to make up the losses of men and materiel but is hard-pressed to do so. The Ukrainian general staff claims that a lot of the military equipment in Russian supply depots is in such a poor state of repair that it is unusable, with engines stripped out of many vehicles. A tank regiment commander in Russia reportedly died by suicide after discovering that most of his reserve tanks were out of service. Meanwhile, morale is so low among Russian forces in Ukraine that a brigade commander was reportedly run over and killed by his own men in a tank after their unit suffered heavy losses.

This is not the portrait of an army that is about to get its act together and defeat Ukraine. Instead, the Russians might be downsizing their ambitions. A Russian defense ministry spokesman claimed Friday that taking the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has been the “main goal” all along and the attack on Kyiv was only meant to stop reinforcements from going east.

As a description of the actual Russian plan, this is nonsensical; military analysts judge that the capture of Kyiv was the main Russian effort. But focusing on Donbas could provide Russian tyrant Vladimir Putin a face-saving way out of this quagmire.

The entire Russian campaign has been a shambles built on lies and illusions, sabotaged by incompetence and corruption. Don’t expect that to change. Stop overestimating the Russians and underestimating the Ukrainians.