Six months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, here’s what everyone got wrong

Six months, in peacetime, is simply half a year. In war, it can be an eternity.

Observing the Ukraine conflict six months after the start of the Russian invasion — a conflict that military observers say is now locked in a stalemate — some seemingly stark and unchangeable realities of Feb. 24, 2022, have simply changed.

This happens in war.

When hundreds of thousands of soldiers, tanks, cannons, missiles and shells are deployed on a country’s sovereign soil, the terrain shifts and transforms under the weight.

A weakness becomes a strength, certainties turn to risk, grips tighten, assumptions fail and can come back to haunt.

With that in mind, the Star examines the oversights and blind spots that have emerged after a half-year of war in Ukraine.

Russia expected a sweep, but it got a slog

The Russian army spent months massing soldiers and equipment on Ukraine’s border while the former country’s politicians and diplomats denied any plans to invade. But when Moscow’s intent became clear, most military experts agreed that the invasion would be quick, brutal and successful.

“It may only take a couple of days for that horde of men, women and heavy equipment to sweep across the plains of Ukraine and theoretically conquer the country,” Canadian Lt.-Gen. (retired) Andrew Leslie told the Star in late January.

To the surprise of all — including, perhaps, Ukrainian officials themselves — the defending army repelled the initial multi-pronged Russian invasion.

The key to this initial victory was timely intelligence from the Americans. But the Ukrainians claimed several strategic wins that boosted their own confidence and frustrated the Russians.

The sinking of a Russian warship, the Moskva, in April was one such moment. Another was the lengthy defense of Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant against Russian bombardment, draining the invading force of weapons and personnel.

Ukrainian service members look for and collect unexploded shells after a fight with a Russian raiding group in Kyiv on February 26, 2022. The Russians' bid for a quick win by taking Kyiv?  a bid widely expected to succeed?  was instead repulsed.

The Russians regrouped and redeployed a more concentrated force in the east and south of Ukraine where some small gains have been made this summer, but a larger advance has been held in check thanks to heavy weapons sent by Ukraine’s western allies.

Armed now with longer-range American missile systems, Ukraine is striking deeper into Russian-occupied territory, including Crimea, which was annexed in 2014.

Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine’s National Security Council, said last week that the country intends to retake all of the territory that has been seized by Russia.

“Any territorial compromise with the Kremlin is a war postponed for the future,” Danilov said.

Instead of an anti-Putin uprising, popular Russian support for the war

In the days after the invasion, the Russian city of St. Petersburg was awash in anti-war graffiti. The daughter of President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson opposed the war on her Instagram account. Thousands of Russians with the means fled the country, anticipating economic ruin and political chaos.

Putin’s regime then came down hard on any show of anti-war dissent. According to the human rights group OVD-Info, more than 16,000 people have been arrested for anti-war activities since the February invasion.

In March, US President Joe Biden mused: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” And Ukraine’s intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Kyrylo Budanov claimed in May that plans for a coup to depose Putin were underway.

No such uprising has occurred — not from the general population, not from the oligarchs and not from the Russian security establishment.

“It turned out that the war was fairly popular with Russians,” said Maria Popova, an associate professor of political science at Montreal’s McGill University.

According to a survey in July by Russian pollster Levada Center, 76 percent of respondents support the war.

“It comes from the fact that when the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, all the former republics like Ukraine perceived it as a civilized divorce,” Popova said. “The Russians saw (it) as a rewriting of the vows. This particular way we did marriage didn’t work, but we’re going to figure out how to do it better — together.”

Ukraine’s leader turned out to be a better president than an actor

The key professional experience on Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s CV when he ran to become president in 2019 was that he had already occupied the role — on television.

Zelenskyy the candidate was beloved, at least in part, because his character — he played a schoolteacher who was elected after an angry political rant is filmed by students goes viral — was beloved by viewing audiences.

But in the lead-up to the war, he struggled with two challenges: how to keep his audience of Ukrainian citizens content after two years in office; and how to be taken seriously by the United States and European leaders who saw in the Russian menace a threat intended for them, the NATO military alliance and the west in general.

Zelenskyy, who initially accused the Americans of overstating the risk of a Russian invasion, stepped into the spotlight when Russian troops stepped across Ukraine’s borders, resulting in one of the first what have become nightly speeches.

He delivered it not in Ukrainian but in Russian — his native language — and addressed himself to the Russian people.

“We don’t need war,” he said. “But if we are attacked, if someone attempts to take away our land, our freedom, our lives, the lives of our children, we will defend ourselves.”

A few days later, when it was clear that Russia was aiming for a lightning-quick takeover of Kyiv, the capital, and Zelenskyy was reportedly presented with an evacuation plan, he is said to have responded: “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”

His legend has only grown from there as he marshals the world’s attention, to draw badly needed money, weapons, volunteers and donations for his nation’s defense.

The threat is not from Russian nukes, but a Ukrainian nuclear plant

When the war became imminent, western nations — including Canada — ordered military advisors and diplomats they had stationed in Ukraine to retreat to safety in Poland.

The reasoning was clear: the world could not risk the prospect of the war going nuclear if American forces were drawn into a fight with their Russian adversaries.

“Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War Three,” Biden said in March, “something we must strive to prevent.”

The situation back then looked dire, and still is — but in a different way.

Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022.

Putin in February ordered Russia’s nuclear-deterrent forces to increase their level of preparedness — apparently in reaction to the worry expressed by British Foreign Minister Liz Truss about the risk of war spreading beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Moscow’s nuclear doctrine lays out several scenarios for using nuclear weapons. One of those is a situation in which Russia faces an “existential threat.”

Popova said Putin’s nuclear posturing was “more credible” at the beginning of the war than it is now.

“Over the last six months we’ve seen that Russia has behaved rationally in the face of military defeat. They were defeated around Kyiv and they withdrew. They couldn’t take Kharkiv and they withdrew… They withdrew from Snake Island,” she said, referring to a small island in the Black Sea. “Now Crimea has been bombed and they haven’t really done anything about that.”

The biggest threat is what is happening at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in southeastern Ukraine.

Russian forces — guns blazing — took control of Europe’s largest nuclear plant early in the war. They have moved in troops and military equipment and have reportedly started firing on Ukrainian positions. The Russians accuse the Ukrainians of firing on their positions at the nuclear facility using drones.

With both sides accusing the other of nuclear negligence, the world waits for the arrival of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which says it is in negotiations to send an inspection team to Zaporizhzhia “within the next few days.”

The whole world feels the effects of anti-Russian economic sanctions

The corporate race from Russia was among the most stunning and immediate effects of the Ukraine war. Fearful of breaching western sanctions, companies froze operations, shuttered their stores and fled the country.

The US promised that the economic penalties would bring Russia to its knees, ostensibly with the goal of having Russian citizens rise up in anger against their president. When the ruble started to crash, credit cards started being rejected and banks started selling gold bars to panicked customers, this certainly seemed like a possibility.

But on the surface, at least, Russia has managed to stop — or at least hide — some of the financial bleeding.

Employees work at the newly opened Stars Coffee cafe in Moscow, on August 19, 2022. Stars Coffee, a Russian chain that came to replace the American Starbucks in Russia after its departure due to the Ukrainian conflict, opened its first restaurant in Moscow for the general public under the slogan 'Bucks are gone, the stars have stayed.'

Western corporations, led perhaps by McDonald’s, sold their operations and factories to Russian operators who came up with a catchy Russian name and have reopened for business.

The country’s lawmakers have passed laws letting companies sell imported goods purchased in a third country, legalizing the sales of iPhones, Nike running shoes, Fords and the like that are purchased through intermediaries in China or Kazakhstan or Dubai.

At a deeper level, though, some argue that the sanctions are chipping away at the Russian economy — even if it is difficult to get a clear picture.

A former Russian deputy energy minister and opposition politician, Vladimir Milov, wrote in July that statistics on industrial output showed a plunge in the numbers of things like fiber-optic cables, minibuses, locomotives and refrigerators produced in May 2022, compared to May 2021. This demonstrates, he said, that “some vital industries are effectively brought to a halt by sanctions.”

That corresponds to a US congressional report which noted the difficulties obtaining foreign parts, supplies and technologies have forced some companies to suspend production, putting Russian jobs at risk.

Russia is clearly suffering to some extent, but the whole world is also paying a price — in terms of disrupted global supply chains, higher prices for grains and cooking oils, and a global economic slowdown.

Putin’s regime is trying to increase that price by restricting or cutting off gas exports to Europe — one of the few economic weapons in its arsenal — making it almost certain to be a cold and costly winter on the continent.

Russians take an otherworldly pride in their own ability to endure hardships, but if Ukraine’s western allies can find a way to outlast Putin, Popova says Russia risks losing its great-power status.

“It’s clearly not a great power economically — that’s very clear,” she said. “But if now the military might turn out not to be so great, then what is the basis for us to continue considering Russia to be a great power? We really probably have to rethink that.”

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