Yesterday afternoon, I called up Oleksiy Goncharenko, an exceedingly colorful and charismatic member of the Ukrainian Parliament with whom I have been friendly over the years. I required good intelligence. My concern was with the Russian army’s impending assault on my—and Goncharenko’s—beloved Odessa, from which my stubborn relatives have refused to evacuate despite all entreaties to the demands of logic and self-preservation. I needed to figure out if I should brave the train ride to Odessa from western Ukraine before the Russian forces cut off all access to the region. Or perhaps it would be better to take a car through the Romanian and Moldovan borders. Making the decision required knowledge of how the Ukrainian armed forces were faring in their defense of the ship-building town of Mykolayiv.
The Ukrainian navy had just scuttled its flagship frigate, the Hetman Sahaidachny, berthed in the Mykolayiv port ahead of the Russian advance. The Russian army needs to take the town in order to flank Odessa from the east, while a small fleet of Russian frigates and destroyers packed with missiles, tanks, and marines targets its cruise missiles on the gorgeous Russophone city founded by Catherine the Great. “Our guys are fighting really well on that front,” Goncharenko replied to me affably, “but the Russians keep swamping the sector with huge numbers.” My attempt to follow up with queries about the possible timing of the Russian assault on the mined beaches elicited a typical Odessan wisecrack from the parliamentarian: “What am I, a member of the Russian general staff? Go ask those guys. How the hell am I supposed to know when they’re going to invade our city? At this moment, I’m just an ordinary member of the Kyiv territorial defense militia.” He proceeded to wish me a happy birthday and sent me a big hug, put down the phone, and returned to patrolling the streets of Kyiv with an American-made machine gun strapped to his back.
The Ukrainian army continues to hold its own with remarkable discipline and sangfroid despite the numerical and technological superiority of the forces arrayed against it. It has also managed to inflict huge losses on the Russian army—though the actual casualty numbers it claims are disputed—whose advances have mostly halted outside of the south of Ukraine. Two weeks into a war that American intelligence had confidently predicted would conclude with the sacking of the capital in three days, the Russians have been unable to break the defenses of either Kyiv or Kharkiv. In fact, the Ukrainian army claims to have gone on a counterattack against Russian units outside of Kharkiv over the weekend. Though the Russian offensive has been unable to capture Kyiv, it is quietly making serious headway in its occupation of the city’s surrounding commuter satellite towns that it needs to hold in order to lay siege to the city.
The Russian and Ukrainian diplomatic delegations came to no agreement as Foreign Ministers Sergei Lavrov and Dmytro Kuleba negotiated directly in the Turkish city of Antalya on Thursday. On the one hand, the Russians continue to play for time; on the other, they are negotiating directly, which might indicate that they are interested in an eventual drawdown from a fundamentally unwinnable war. But the Russian negotiating position in Turkey was essentially an inflexible demand for total Ukrainian capitulation.
The supplies of American- and European-made antitank and antiaircraft missiles—which are reported to have totaled up to 17,000 over the past few days—have done their work against Russian wings and armor. Ukrainian social media and Telegram channels have filled up with videos of charred columns of Russian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, as well as the burned-out husks of buses that had been filled with Russian anti-riot police who were supposed to pacify the populations of Ukrainian towns and cities after they had been captured. The bodies of those young men—who, according to Russian law, should have never been deployed outside of the country—lay contorted and half-submerged in the snow. The Ukrainian army has also taken to posting videos of interrogations of captured Russian POWs; it has become quite obvious that most of them had never been told where they were going or what their objectives would be. The lack of psychological preparation among the rank and file for the invasion mirrors the more general hubris that the Russian military had shown in not having provided its troops with enough rations, fuel, or supplies for a prolonged military engagement.
Still, the rage of the Ukrainian population continues to build as the Russians have made only limited progress in their mechanized and infantry assaults. Multiple Russian attacks on Kyiv, including by elite detachments of the Russian MVD forces, have been repelled. That the Russians have had to resort to bombing a populated maternity hospital, which they did in Mariupol on Wednesday, seems to convey a certain level of desperation.
The Russian army is also clearly strapped for reserves—we hear rumors of young Russian men being press-ganged in the streets of provincial Russian cities. The Wall Street Journal has reported that the Russians may have to resort to importing Syrian mercenaries as well, who have the experience of urban warfare needed to subjugate Kyiv. The worse that the Russian army performs on the ground, the more it will resort to classic Russian military doctrine: massive, indiscriminate bombing of civilian populations and infrastructure from the air. (Incidentally, with the exception of the more nuanced case of Kyiv, most of the Russian aggression so far has been concentrated on Russian-speaking cities in eastern Ukraine.)
The Ukrainian news has long been referring to the “Russian occupation forces,” the “aggressor state,” and the “terrorist nation.” Yet over the last few days, evening newscasters on the television marathon that all Ukrainians continue to watch together (the major stations have melded their coverage into a single, jointly produced feed) have rather brazenly begun referring to the Russians as “Orcs,” “barbarians,” and the “horde.” The fury of the Ukrainians has also hardened as it becomes clear that the West has categorically ruled out the no-fly zone for which President Volodymyr Zelensky has been pleading. The West has decided that the escalatory danger of direct confrontations between Russian and NATO planes in Ukrainian skies is simply too great. A deal to swap old Polish MiG-29s (which Ukrainian pilots have been trained to fly) for a fresh American donation of F-16s has been scuppered by Washington.
As for Zelensky, his rhetoric has become noticeably more intense and much more bitter over the last week. In the opening days of the war, he had taken pains to appear positive and was very careful to speak of “the enemy” without personally attacking the Russians. He is now no longer pulling his punches or employing euphemisms. Zelensky has already twice accused the West of abandonment in the most furious register possible: “If you will not give us the aircraft that we need to be able to protect ourselves, there can be only one conclusion: You want us to be slowly killed. That is also the responsibility of the world’s politicians, and of Western leaders. Today and forever.” The humble, generous, and unifying tenor that had marked his speeches during the opening hours and days of the war have fallen away after two weeks of sleep deprivation, mass murder of civilians, destruction of cities, and reports of assassination attempts against him. “We will not forgive, we will not forget, we will punish everyone who committed atrocities in this war on our land,” Zelensky added. “We will find every bastard who shot at our cities, our people, who bombed our land, who launched rockets. There will be no quiet place on this earth for you. Except for the grave.”
Whether the Russian occupation forces will indeed have “no quiet place on this earth” is a question I put to Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, and one of the very few analysts who accurately predicted the Russian invasion. Kofman was one of the few who pointed out the inevitability of the invasion and its scale based on the amount of military resources that were being assembled on the Ukrainian border starting in December, at a time when almost all other Western observers believed that Vladimir Putin was only making empty threats.
But why were Russian assumptions about the war, and about how quickly the Ukrainians would surrender and disperse, so delusional? “The entire war is premised on nonsensical views of [Ukraine] as well as flawed assumptions about what force could achieve,” Kofman explained. “Nothing was organized, and [the Russians] lied to their troops about what they were going to be doing when they pushed them into the country and sent them down hostile roads, driving as if they were still in their own country.” The resulting lack of morale on the Russian side led to a shocking number of Russian POWs and demoralized troops who abandoned lots of significant equipment to the Ukrainian army.
“The initial operation was a failure, and Putin indeed got the worse of everything,” Kofman went on. “They do seem to have a way forward to achieve military victories but will not be able to achieve their core political objectives. The Russians will likely trickle in more and more resources to achieve whatever sort of victory.” Kofman impishly speculated that “the opening of the initial Russian campaign looked as it it was planned by the ghost of Pavel Grachev [Boris Yeltsin’s defense minister], who oversaw the disastrous Russian attempt to take Grozny in 1994 and once infamously boasted to Yeltsin that a single regiment of Russian paratroopers could take Grozny in two hours.”
While Ukrainian air defenses have held up so far—mostly a testament to Russian military incompetence—the Russians have been able to dominate the air, and the Ukrainians have ceased flying what is left of their air force because those planes have often been knocked out of the sky.
Moscow now needs to take the Black Sea coastline in order to push the Ukrainian economy underwater, as well as the major roads and power stations that will leave Ukraine with no practical means of importing weapons or ammunition from the Europeans and Americans, and no light or heat in the middle of winter. Kyiv, meanwhile, is trying to hold on to two major urban population centers in the hope that the Russians would never be so desperate or suicidal as to engage in urban warfare.
Kyiv is now in the midst of trading territory for time in order to exhaust the logistics of its overstretched and demoralized opponent, even as the Russians continue to maintain numerical and qualitative superiority. In the long term, Russia does not have the forces inside Ukraine to occupy large parts of the country while huge swaths of the population continue to resist. Any siege of Kyiv—which now has at least 100,000 armed Ukrainian men and women patrolling its streets—would be incredibly costly to the Russian army.
There is, however, nothing left to deter Putin from trying his luck at this point. He has already decided to swallow the financial costs of his war via ruinous Western sanctions and boycotts. He also understands that the West wants him in The Hague, or in prison, or exiled, or killed. The only option left is to go all in, even if it means carpet bombing Russian-speaking cities into ruin in order to save the Russian-speaking world from the specter of fascism.
Because the Ukrainians have already won the information war, with Twitter full of Russian defeat porn and very little of its opposite, we don’t have a very clear understanding of the actual state of the Ukrainian army, or the state of its reserves or their battle readiness, despite popular and charming videos of Ukrainian farmers stealing Russian T-72 battle tanks using their tractors. As Kofman explains, the Russians will likely reorganize and rearm before attempting to envelop the major Ukrainian cities and using their superior firepower to pound them into submission. More maternity wards are likely to be decimated from the sky.
“War is very contingent and it is hard,” said Kofman. “The Russians will find themselves combat ineffective in the course of a few weeks, so we are likely to see a pause as both sides become combat ineffective. The Russian political leadership had unrealistic expectations, but they are doing all right in the south. The war is starting to get ugly. It’s giving off bad Grozny vibes.”
Vladislav Davidzon is Tablet’s European culture correspondent and a Russian-American writer, translator, and critic. He is the Chief Editor of The Odessa Review and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He was born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and lives in Paris.