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The war in Ukraine isn’t working out the way Russia intended

Tactical blunders and fierce resistance from the Ukrainians risk ensnaring the Russians in a protracted conflict, military experts say

A Ukrainian fighter examines a destroyed Russian infantry mobility vehicle after fighting in Kharkiv on Feb. 27. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)
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The war in Ukraine isn’t going Russia’s way.

Videos posted on social media show whole columns of tanks and armored vehicles have been wiped out. Others have been stopped in their tracks by ordinary Ukrainians standing on the street to block their advance.

Lightly armed units propelled deep into the country without support have been surrounded and their soldiers captured or killed. Warplanes have been shot out of the skies and helicopters have been downed, according to Ukrainian and U.S. military officials.

Logistics supply chains have failed, leaving troops stranded on roadsides to be captured because their vehicles ran out of fuel.

Most critically, Russia has proved unable to secure air superiority over the tiny Ukrainian air force — despite having the second-largest air force in the world, Pentagon officials say. Its troops have yet to take control of any significant city or meaningful chunk of territory, a senior U.S. defense official said Sunday.

Live updates: Kharkiv is bombarded; high-stakes talks end with plans to continue

On Sunday, a Russian attempt to seize control of the city of Kharkiv, less than 30 miles from the Russian border, was repelled. A fresh push toward the capital, Kyiv, came to a smoking end in the suburb of Irpin, where videos posted on social media showed the charred remains of Russian tanks and armored vehicles strewn around the streets while Ukrainian soldiers removed weapons from the bodies of dead Russians.

These scenes of humiliation have played out widely on social media, where the Ukrainians have won a clear advantage. Multiple videos from around the country have portrayed scenes of burned Russian tanks, dead Russian soldiers and captured Russians, some barely out of their teens, making plaintive calls home to their parents.

The Russian military has meanwhile issued little in the way of reporting on the Ukraine war, in contrast to the prolific reporting that came out of its intervention in Syria. On Sunday, a spokesman acknowledged that there had been Russian casualties and losses, while saying they were “many times less” than those suffered by Ukraine.

“Russian servicemen are showing courage and heroism while fulfilling combat tasks in the special military operation. Unfortunately, there are killed and injured among our comrades,” the state news agency Tass quoted military spokesman Igor Konashenkov as saying. “The losses of the Russian Armed Forces are many times less than the number of servicemen of the Ukrainian armed forces.”

Russia continued its invasion in Ukraine on Feb. 27. Civilians sought shelter as Ukraine attempted to hold ground against Kremlin-led forces. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

U.S. officials and military experts caution that it is still too early to draw conclusions about the eventual trajectory of a war that is only days old.

“We are in Day 4. The Russians will learn and will adapt and will try to overcome these challenges. I think we need to be pragmatic about that,” said the senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to candidly discuss the situation.

What is clear, however, is that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gamble on a swift and decisive takeover of Ukraine has not paid off.

Mapping the Russian invasion of Ukraine

The relative limits on the resources thrown at the fight so far suggest the Russians were expecting little or no resistance, and the Russians appear to be stunned, the U.S. defense official said, by the ferocity of the fight put up by the Ukrainians and the defiance of ordinary civilians, who have been seen swearing contemptuously at Russian soldiers.

Military experts have been stunned, too, at the tactical blunders and military shortcomings that the feared Russian army has demonstrated so far.

“Russia is actually showing the world they are not as strong as we thought they were. This is bolstering NATO’s confidence,” said John Spencer, an Army veteran who chairs the Urban Warfare Studies department at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute.

“It’s not showing a superpower military, that’s for sure. It’s showing major weakness.”

How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is unfolding on the ground

Russia ultimately has a far bigger and better-armed military, and assuming it adapts and escalates, far worse could yet be in store for Ukraine, said Rob Lee, a former Marine infantry officer who is now a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

So far, at least, the Russians have acted with noticeable restraint compared with the past wars they have fought in Syria and Chechnya, he said. They have refrained from the intense bombing and missile strikes against civilian areas that destroyed and depopulated cities such as Aleppo in 2016 and Grozny in 1999, perhaps because they believed the local population would welcome them.

The concern now is that, having suffered early setbacks, Russia will unleash the massive firepower at its disposal, raining down bombs and missiles on towns and cities to cow them into submission, Western officials say. But it could already be too late to regain the momentum seized on the ground by the highly motivated Ukrainian forces, who have had time to erect defenses in urban areas, arm civilians and discern Russian weaknesses, Spencer said.

It was clear from the way the Russians set about the offensive that their goal was to make a lightning push into the heart of Kyiv, capture or kill President Volodymyr Zelensky, and install their own puppet government, he said, thereby bringing the country under Russian authority without needing to fight across the rest of Ukraine.

Instead, with the Kyiv offensive stalled outside the city, the Russians face the prospect of having to battle through densely populated urban streets defended by soldiers and civilians who know the terrain. A siege could go on for months with an increasingly angry and agitated world looking on, bringing more potential punishment and pain for Putin and the Russian state.

“The only way you take a city that way is by destroying it,” Lee said. In addition to inflicting massive civilian casualties, “it will be a nightmare for the Russians if people are fighting from all these buildings.”

Ukraine's government has urged citizens to take up arms to repel the Russian invasion. Across the country, people from all walks of life are answering the call. (Video: Whitney Shefte, Whitney Leaming, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine for The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

The Russians have made some progress elsewhere, notably in the south. But without Kyiv, those gains become meaningless and will put the Russians in the position of having to fight on scattered fronts while sustaining forces thinly strung out around the country, said Spencer.

“Kyiv is everything. This war is about Kyiv,” he said. “If they don’t take Kyiv, they lose. For the Ukrainians, not losing is winning.”

Russia’s tactical missteps and vulnerabilities were evident in the first hours of the war, said Anthony Colotti, a former U.S. Army Ranger who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He was struck by the flimsiness of the initial Russian attempt to seize Antonov Airport north of Kyiv, which was evidently intended to serve as a beachhead for the advance on the capital. Paratroopers parachuted into the facility and seized it, but then were let down by the failure to send in reinforcements. Ukrainian national guard troops quickly recaptured it, and although Russian troops have since regained control, the momentum was lost, Colotti said.

“That’s like basic airfield seizure,” he said. “You clear the airfield, and then as soon as you get guys in, you have to hurry to set up a perimeter so that you can bring follow-on forces in.”

Other missteps have baffled military experts, such as the way the Russian military has not provided helicopter or infantry support for tanks driving down open roads, where they are easy targets for the antitank missiles that the United States and other allies have been rushing to supply to the Ukrainian armed forces.

The husks of burned-out tanks and other vehicles seen in videos littering roads around Ukraine suggest Russian armor is of poorer quality than had been assumed, Colotti said.

And although the Russians are known to possess sophisticated night vision equipment, they have been fighting by day, ceding a potential advantage to the Ukrainians and making their slow-moving armored columns easy targets for the Ukrainians, Spencer said.

A traditional approach to the offensive would have relied heavily on ground fire and strikes ahead of any advances, said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at CNA, a Virginia-based think tank. Instead, the Russians moved directly to a ground offensive along roads. “They really got bogged down and left themselves open to counterattacks, to ambush and to overextended logistical supply lines,” he said.

The Ukrainians have performed well too, aided by the injections of weapons recently rushed into the country by America and its allies, including the lethally precise and portable U.S.-made Javelin antitank missile.

Ukraine’s Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2 armed drones helped tilt the outcomes of battles in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan, and the Ukrainian military claims they have been used in devastating strikes against Russian troops in Ukraine over the past two days.

Where once a swift Russian victory had been widely foretold, all outcomes are now in play, military experts say. Russia may feel under greater pressure to accept a cease-fire, or it may step up its efforts to assert its military superiority — with potentially devastating consequences for Ukraine.

“If you had asked me four days ago, I would have said this will be over very fast and will be very bad,” Spencer said. “But since the last 48 hours, I have hope the Ukrainians can slow this down enough that they will survive this Russian invasion.”

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