How Putin Bungled His Invasion of Ukraine

Faulty assumptions, terrible logistics, and a ferocious Ukrainian resistance have turned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian adventure to ashes—for now.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy.
German protesters hold signs in support of Ukraine.
German protesters hold signs in support of Ukraine.
Protesters hold a banner with the phrase “Stop Putin Stop War” as they gather at the Brandenburg Gate to show their support for Ukraine in Berlin on Feb. 19. Carsten Koall/Getty Images

Putin’s War

Three weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media around the world is replete with images of upturned Russian tanks, convoys stuck in the mud, and conscripted troops calling home to their families—who had no idea they were heading to war. Morgues in neighboring Belarus are reportedly overflowing with the dead. And on the front lines, inexperienced units, facing a stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance that has blown up bridges to halt invaders and attacked their supplies, are worried about how long they can hold out. 

“I’m fucking tired from bandaging everybody and loading their fucking limbs,” one Russian soldier fighting close to Mariupol, Ukraine, said in a message intercepted by Ukraine’s Security Service. “Never in my life have I seen so many limbs. No hand, no leg, no fucking head.”

This is not how U.S. and European officials, and particularly the Kremlin, expected the campaign to go. U.S. and Western defense officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin had planned on a lightning campaign to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a matter of days. Now, as his forces struggle to encircle the capital and are beset by a lack of basic supplies, the war’s outcome is becoming increasingly unclear. 

Three weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, social media around the world is replete with images of upturned Russian tanks, convoys stuck in the mud, and conscripted troops calling home to their families—who had no idea they were heading to war. Morgues in neighboring Belarus are reportedly overflowing with the dead. And on the front lines, inexperienced units, facing a stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance that has blown up bridges to halt invaders and attacked their supplies, are worried about how long they can hold out. 

“I’m fucking tired from bandaging everybody and loading their fucking limbs,” one Russian soldier fighting close to Mariupol, Ukraine, said in a message intercepted by Ukraine’s Security Service. “Never in my life have I seen so many limbs. No hand, no leg, no fucking head.”

This is not how U.S. and European officials, and particularly the Kremlin, expected the campaign to go. U.S. and Western defense officials believe Russian President Vladimir Putin had planned on a lightning campaign to seize Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and topple Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in a matter of days. Now, as his forces struggle to encircle the capital and are beset by a lack of basic supplies, the war’s outcome is becoming increasingly unclear. 

“None of this has gone to plan for Russia,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military with CNA, a think tank. “The plan was bewildering and based on assumptions that had no clear relationship to reality. The outcome now is indeterminate.”

Although Putin’s war has been an operational debacle, it has also proved to be a strategic catastrophe that has already seen many of the Russian president’s greatest fears become a reality. It has spurred NATO to bolster its presence in Eastern Europe and sparked the interest of previously neutral countries like Finland to join the alliance. Germany overcame its allergy to defense spending and is starting to rethink reliance on Russian energy. Western countries have poured vital military aid into Ukraine, which is closer to European Union membership than it’s been in years. Meanwhile, the Russian economy reels from unprecedented sanctions, with Western corporations, like Russia’s best and brightest, fleeing the country in a massive exodus.

The decision to invade and the kind of war meant to be fought appears to have been based on a series of bad assumptions fed by poor information. Russia made the wrong assumptions about its own military and about Ukraine’s. It also mistakenly thought that much of Ukraine would welcome Russian forces as liberators, as some parts did after the 2014 lightning annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Putin has been highly isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic, and his rule has become increasingly authoritarian, leading many longtime observers to question the quality and accuracy of information being passed up to the Russian leader by senior Russian officials. 

“If in the annals of history there is going to be a name for this war, it’s going to be called the war of underestimates,” said Lithuanian Deputy Foreign Minister Mantas Adomenas. 

Military blunders have been the most evident. Moscow’s strategy has followed three distinct phases in the opening weeks of the war, said Jack Watling, a research fellow on land warfare with the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank.

The opening attack in the early hours of Feb. 24 bore all the hallmarks of an attempted “coup de main,” a surprise attack, he said, with “the aim being to rapidly capture political centers and then control the country.” The initial attack was derailed by stiff Ukrainian resistance as well as confusion among the Russian soldiers surging across the border. Reports from captured Russian soldiers reveal they were given little advance notice that they were going to war, leaving them psychologically unprepared and short on basic supplies like food and fuel. 

The invading Russian forces then switched to a period of more conventional warfare, battering major Ukrainian cities, such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, with artillery shelling. Again, Russian forces were plagued by poorly combined arms proficiency—the use of air, land, and artillery power in coordination—leaving many Russian troops exposed to Ukrainian counterattacks. Western officials estimate that around 7,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far; Ukraine’s estimates of Russian losses are even higher, though calculating troop losses is difficult. 

In recent weeks, Russian forces appear to have shifted to an attempt to encircle key cities in a bid to starve them out while limiting Russian casualties. In Mariupol on Ukraine’s southeastern coast, which has borne the brunt of this approach, hundreds of thousands of people have been taken captive in their own city. Russian troops have choked off access to the outside world while food, water, and medical aid become scarce and the victims of Russian shelling pile up in mass graves—or lay prostrate in the streets. 

Three weeks into Putin’s war, Russia’s nearly 200,000-strong force—many of them conscripts—have failed to seize any major Ukrainian cities, leaving the war-torn country a mess of red splotches indicating land seized, if not yet controlled, in the eastern and southern parts of the country. A stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance has “largely stalled” Putin’s offensive, the British defense intelligence agency assessed on Thursday. “Russian forces have made minimal progress on land, sea, or air in recent days, and they continue to suffer heavy losses,” the agency said in a statement. 

Russian troops have also been much less mobile than Western observers expected at the outset of the war, largely sticking to roads while Ukrainian forces lie in wait. The British Ministry of Defence’s internal intelligence agency said on Wednesday that Ukrainian troops “have adeptly exploited Russia’s lack of [maneuver], frustrating the Russian advance and inflicting heavy losses on the invading forces.” A British intelligence assessment released Wednesday also indicated that Russia has been forced to divert troops to defend supply lines against Ukrainian attacks. 

Instead of taking the invading Russian forces on in large, open battles, the Ukrainian military has largely stuck to urban areas, where they know the terrain. “All of the battles are small, but they’re steadily attritioning the Russian military,” Kofman said.

Although the initial surge included the greater part of Russia’s allegedly combat-ready formations, Moscow is already mustering reinforcements, including from the far east of the country (as well as mulling the use of Syrian mercenaries). On Thursday, a senior U.S. defense official said Russia’s consideration of bringing in new troops and supplies to reinforce more than 100 battalion tactical groups already in the country indicated that the Kremlin “was beginning to get concerned about the longevity” of its forces in Ukraine. One European diplomat, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity to give a candid military assessment, said Russia has begun to lose enough troops in combat to have a real impact on its ability to carry out offensive operations, and Russian troops on the front lines are beginning to worry about how long they can hold out. 

“The Russian troops on the ground definitely think like that. The Russian generals probably think like that,” the European diplomat said. “But whether or not this is getting to Putin or whether he’s listening to this is another matter.”

Russia hasn’t fared a lot better in the skies. Originally expected to win air dominance over Ukraine’s tiny air force in a matter of days, the domain remains contested after three weeks. Although the Russian Air Force played a significant role in Syria, it largely flew unopposed in simple formations during daylight hours. “I think this highlights significant training and command and control deficiencies in the air force,” Watling said. 

Ukraine could soon be getting more reinforcements too, in spite of the U.S. Defense Department’s decision to nix a Polish plan to transfer dozens of Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets to a U.S. air base in Germany for Ukrainian pilots to pick up. At a press conference on Thursday alongside U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Slovakian Defense Minister Jaroslav Naj said his country was in talks with U.S. and Ukrainian officials to provide Russian-made S-300 air defense batteries to Ukraine, provided that NATO members could replace their own air defenses.

The Kremlin is also getting a different kind of combat from Ukraine than they anticipated. A senior Israeli official, speaking to reporters earlier this week, said Putin believed that Russian forces would be fighting a 20th-century-style force-on-force conflict against Ukrainian formations but have been hit instead with small-unit ambushes that have halted their advance using anti-tank weapons from the West, like the U.S. Javelin and British next-generation light anti-tank weapon rocket systems.

“Logistically, something doesn’t work,” the Israeli official said, citing Russia’s 40-mile convoy of military vehicles and supplies that stalled north of Kyiv before U.S. defense officials and satellite imagery detected groupings of vehicles seeking cover from Ukrainian hit-and-run attacks in tree lines and industrial zones. 

Even though military officials anticipated that Ukraine’s relatively flat terrain might be a boon to Russian invaders, intelligence analysts believe Ukraine’s much smaller military has found ways to use it to their advantage. Defenders destroyed a bridge in Irpin, outside of Kyiv, to halt the 40-mile-long convoy, for example; reservoirs were also opened, turning tank country into swampland.

Still significant danger remains in the east, with U.S. defense officials insistent that Russia is trying to encircle Ukrainian troops on the front lines in the Donbass from the north and the south and cut them off before they can defend Kyiv. Russia took the town of Izyum, southeast of Kharkiv, an indication that the military could seek to push farther south. Russian forces have pounded the southeast as well. 

As the Ukrainian military plays for time and holds off the Russian advance, Zelensky is skillfully lobbying Western countries for more military aid. In addresses to U.S. Congress as well as British and German parliaments, Zelensky has invoked memories of all three countries’ experiences with World War II in a bid to spur them to further action. “I address all of you who heard politicians say every year ‘never again,’ but I can see these words are worth nothing. Now, our whole nation is being exterminated in Europe. Why?” Zelensky asked the German Bundestag on Thursday. 

Having bungled its initial attack, the next phase of the war rests on whether Moscow can solve its logistics challenges and stabilize its troop losses while Ukraine is supplied with more and better arms from the West. 

“You can see them being bled out over a long period of time,” Watling said. “The second way that this could go is that the Russians unscramble their logistics over the next couple of weeks, start to prioritize their axis of advance, close off key cities, and suck up the punishment until they starve them out. In which case, you can see a scenario in which, in six months, they have functionally taken over eastern Ukraine.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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