Truth is always the biggest casualty of war. In the Ukrainian war both the Russian and the Ukrainian-Western narratives are a mixture of media, propaganda and psychological warfare. Psychological warfare could be seen as a legitimate part of an armed conflict. If we extract the facts from wartime disinformation, we will see that after two months of hostilities Russia’s inability to carry out its declared political and military goals is apparent.
The initial analysis and Western classification of the differences between the Russian and Ukrainian military capabilities concluded with an estimate of hostilities ending within a week. It was expected that during this brief period, Kyiv and other large cities would be conquered and that a government loyal to Moscow would be installed. It certainly seemed quite probable that Volodymyr Zelenskyy would wave a white flag and agree to Moscow’s demands, which in turn would mean Ukraine accepting its own neutrality as well as the disarming and dissolution, according to Russia, of nationalist (or neo-Nazi) Ukrainian organizations. Instead, on the 50th day of the war, we bore witness to the torpedoing of Moscow’s Black Sea flagship: the Moskva. This caused the rest of Russia’s ships to return to base. At the same time, the air battle failed to result in Russian control over Ukraine’s airspace. According to multiple authoritative sources a large number of Russian planes were shot down by Ukrainian defenders.
It is impossible to overstate the contributions of the Ukrainians to this Russian failure. It is true that a part of this success is due to modern and mobile Western arms. But it is the people who are using the weapons against the enemy, the people who are more important than the weapons. Even the most sophisticated arms would be useless in the hands of an uninspired army and a hesitant nation. Western support was not a secret — NATO shared the details of the weapons it delivered, with only the method of delivery unspecified.
It is also clear that Russia possesses a certain self-deceiving arrogance. Perhaps Vladimir Putin was deceived by the ease with which Crimea and the Donbass republic were occupied in 2014. But his hopes for a remake of this military triumph had to confront the ferocious Ukrainian resistance and an unprecedented Western unity in supporting Ukraine in an unequal war.
The Price of Russian Arrogance
Does the West have political aims beyond its declared solidarity with the victims of Russian aggression? Does it want to catch Russia in a Ukrainian trap, even at Ukraine’s expense? This is possible but would undervalue the bravery and honor of the Ukrainians who surprised the Russians; Moscow did not expect the enemy to protect its country, no matter the cost. Here, one could make a parallel with Afghanistan. It is widely known that the U.S. placed a giant army of 350,000 soldiers and spent $83 billion on weapons and another $18 billion on logistics in that country. Despite all this, only 10 days after the U.S. announced its official withdrawal, the Taliban took control of the entire country and captured leftover trophies: American weapons and military equipment.
Firearms are effective and deadly when soldiers are motivated and ready to fight to the death. The Ukrainian response was not anticipated by the Kremlin. Thus, the Russian generals did not prepare the logistics needed for a longer military campaign, nor was there an organized political (disinformation) strategy. Consequently Russia’s response was delayed and its propaganda became counterproductive. Within a week, the myth of the astonishingly powerful Russian army evaporated, and consequentially, Moscow began to lose its military initiative.
Modern invaders’ biggest problem is their conviction that military superiority guarantees victory. And so they are surprised by the resistance of their victims every time. At the same time, conquering countries experience political and social shock waves at home. This is true for both dictatorships and democracies.
Bush and Putin: Iraq, Afghanistan and Ukraine
It was expected that the military campaigns of George W. Bush against Iraq and Afghanistan, in 2001 and 2003, would conclude in easy and overwhelming victories, without significant resistance. Then, just as today in Ukraine, the warring sides were unequal in their might. Additionally, the U.S. was the king of the world: No one could object to or counteract Washington’s revenge after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Nevertheless, the U.S. had to fight a meaningless war for 20 years, only to leave empty-handed. The losses tallied about $1 trillion, plus 6,000 dead and 21,000 injured soldiers and mercenaries. Qatar’s mediation became a necessity without which Washington’s costs from a “forever war” would be even higher.
Iraq was a play with similar acts. Despite the earlier withdrawal after “only” eight years of occupation there were still 5,000 dead and 38,000 injured and maimed American soldiers, and a loss of over $1 trillion. Additionally, the U.S. lost a part of its spirit and prestige, a reputation that had been growing since the disgraceful loss in Vietnam decades ago.
Our contemporaries cannot seem to learn these lessons. Russia did not learn from the “forever wars” the U.S. fought in the Muslim world, nor did it learn from its own Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Putin did not consider the Soviet experience during World War II, when the aggressor was beaten due to the patriotism of the people of the Soviet Union, despite the cost of 26 million lives. The truth is that the victims of aggression always win after their initial defeat. This is even more the case in Ukraine today, for the Ukrainians are backed with NATO-supplied weapons, intelligence, financial support and the goodwill of the world media and the public.
The sinking of the Moskva battleship is indicative of the Ukrainians’ fierce resistance against a domineering and aggressive neighbor. Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba believes that the outcome of negotiations with Russia is directly related to the military situation on the ground. In other words, Kyiv can no longer accept what it could accept at the beginning of the war. Now Ukraine is no longer looking to avoid defeat. Instead, it is seeking victory.