The Russian army continues to advance on Ukrainian positions all over the map, though in his characteristic and eternal lack of comprehension of the Ukrainians, Vladimir Putin seems to have underestimated the capacity of the Ukrainian army and population to resist. We continue to wait for Russian special forces to encircle Kyiv and begin the siege, though the Russian recon units have already been spotted in the northern Obolon neighborhood of Kyiv. The precisely targeted bombing strikes have been horrific, but so far it has only been a taste of what the Russians are capable of delivering to the Ukrainian civilian population.
The Russian army possesses near, but not total, air superiority and a vastly better equipped, more advanced, well armed and more experienced fighting force—but one whose morale is much lower than that of the Ukrainians. (Already multiple Russian units are reported to have surrendered to Ukrainian troops, pleading that they had no idea that Putin had sent them to fight Ukrainians.) The Ukrainians also possess only limited capacity to fight back against the cruise missiles and Grad rockets that are now targeting their command and control infrastructure, and which just hit a military target a 15-minute walk from where I am sitting as I write this. But the Ukrainians have not yet lost, and have retained their capacity to fight. The Ukrainian armed forces have fought tenaciously and well and against long odds, and they have held their ground. Ukrainian units have not dispersed and fled or put down their arms.
Despite its ritualistic chants about respect for sovereignty, China continues to support the Russians. Washington has been unable to summon the will to force the Europeans or themselves to even kick them off of Swift. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is even reported to have negotiated an exemption for Italian luxury goods from the EU sanctions package. While the Russians have currently only deployed a fraction of the armed forces that they have deployed along the Ukrainian and Belarus borders, they are not yet seeing overwhelming and decisive victories.
The acts of Ukrainian heroism over the past two days have been remarkable and point to a bloody slog if the Kremlin is to achieve its maximalist war aims. A Ukrainian engineer who was unable to withdraw after having mined a bridge to stop a Russian tank advance detonated it while he was on it. The story of a small island full of 13 Ukrainian border guards being ordered to surrender by a Russian ship has already become legendary. “This is a Russian ship,” the invaders radioed, “put down your weapons and avoid unneeded bloodshed.” The Ukrainian border guards radioed back: “Russian ship … Go fuck yourself!” All 13 were given posthumous medals. This is heroism worthy of the worst days of the Second World War, and not the cakewalk invasion that Putin had signed up for.
The Russian army as it was deployed several nights ago is not large enough to function as an occupation force for vast swaths of the country, unless Putin decides to walk away after taking some more eastern territories. But in the analysis of Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, “We should avoid making assumptions on how this war will progress based on the opening two days of conflict. The Russian military clearly tried something, which I think yielded mixed results at best. They will adjust.”
Though no one has any idea what the eventual postwar settlement will look like, or whether Russia will be able to destroy the Ukrainian state through accession to the Russian Federation, we can begin to extrapolate the Kremlin’s endgame strategy based on its force deployments and strategic choices. No alternative Ukrainian political leadership has been presented, and it is hard to see how a puppet government would be able to rule the population without massive occupation troops even if Kyiv surrendered. So the capacity of the Russian army to terrorize and eventually overrun Kyiv after destroying military command and control functions is now entirely based on its capacity to carpet-bomb Ukrainian cities. While Syria proved that the Russian population does not particularly care when the Russian air force levels entire cities, that is not likely to be the case when it is Russian-speaking Orthodox Slavs being decimated on TV. Moscow has not yet deployed enough strength to force the Ukrainian military to surrender or to force Volodymyr Zelensky to bend the knee. He has in fact behaved with impeccable dignity and masculinity.
In his rage-filled and pathological relationship to Ukraine, Putin has blinded himself to the way that the previous eight years of the war and occupation have poisoned relations between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. Much of the Ukrainian population now hates the Putin regime so intensely it will fight, even hopelessly, to the bitter end. This is, by the way, the very first time I’ve used the word “regime” to describe the Russian state, as various Rubicons were crossed when Putin declared his intention to “denazify” Kyiv. Many people have pointed out the irony of intending to “denazify” a state whose president, chief of administration, and defense minister are all of Jewish descent. What Putin actually meant is that he intends to “cleanse” Kyiv. The giveaway was the lack of pretext for a casus belli that Moscow usually either creates or discovers for this type of crime. Instead, Putin simply convened a security council meeting, proceeded to rant about the Ukrainians on live television like a senile old man yelling at teenagers from his porch, and ordered helicopter gunships to begin strafing Kharkiv, Sumy, Kyiv, and Mariupol.
Observing the fecklessness of the Germans (Bruno Kahl, head of German intelligence, was unable to escape for Berlin and so had to be extracted by Ukrainians who surely had better things to do), the disarray of the Europeans, and the feeble lack of policy cohesion in Washington, D.C., Putin gambled that this was the moment to force through the collapse of the post-Cold War settlement. Over the past two years, he has successfully settled uprisings and wars in Kazakhstan, Belarus, Armenia, and Azerbaijan on his terms. He was clearly on a roll with a string of victories and successes, breeding both hubris and aggression. Why not take this moment to secure the completion of the return of Russia’s traditional sphere of influence?
Putin could very well have dominated the Ukrainians simply by using threats and coercion and guile. The same would have worked on the Europeans and Americans. That he chose to go all in on war can only be explained by a host of psychological needs. One of these was his cleareyed contempt for and desire to punish a weak and supine West that could summon neither the capacity nor the strategy to stop him. The utter rottenness of many Western political elites is obvious, and breeds both aggression and disdain. On the other hand, the Ukrainian political elite, for all of the infighting and corruption and fecklessness that has made it world famous, has so far been equal to their country’s hour of crisis. As of this dispatch, written at midnight in a small town outside Kyiv, they have put Western leaders to shame.
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.