It was during the Winter War of 1939-40, when plucky little Finland stood up to the might of Soviet Russia, that the Finns prepared a nasty surprise for their attackers. They made millions of petrol bombs and named them after the Russian Foreign Minister, Mr Molotov. Today, it is Ukraine that has borrowed the Finnish recipe book to greet a new generation of Russian invaders with petrol and fire.
Expect railway sabotage with shades of Lawrence of Arabia
How has the current war against another Russian neighbour, Ukraine, progressed? After months of tensions and intense diplomacy, including assurances to the UK’s Defence Minister by his Russian counterpart that there were “no plans to invade”, Mr Putin’s forces crossed the threshold early on 24 February. This had been preceded by long-announced military “manoeuvres” in neighbouring Belarus, which saw the assembly of over 100,000 combat-ready troops with all their vehicles and equipment. We now know this was a long-planned distraction to cover the concentration and preparation of their forces for war.
They came from 4 directions: Belarus in the north, from out of the rebel-held Donbas in the east, from Crimea in the south, and via amphibious assaults around the port of Mariupol. This tactic was designed to distract and divide the defenders and cause them to dilute their numbers. However, defying a basic military principle of war, the plan also inflicted the same disadvantage on the Russians. None of the four attacking thrusts possessed sufficient force to defeat their opponents and knife their way through to their objectives.
A surprise attack that everyone expected
The first strikes in the early hours were a surprise only in their time and location, for Ukraine’s President Zelensky had long feared the worst, and other nations had quietly assessed an invasion was likely, rather than probable. Accompanied by the air raid sirens of Ukraine’s civil protection service, explosions from Russian cruise missile strikes were heard across the country. Some 600 have been fired since. Their airborne forces landed at civilian airports and military airbases. These elite paratroops were deployed to enable endless planeloads of follow-on forces to drive on the principal cities of Kyiv and Kharkiv before Ukraine woke up to what was happening.
The Russian tactical goal remains to control Ukraine by separating its pro-Western government from the population, hence the importance of the cities. President Zelensky declared martial law, ordered mobilization of all men between 18 and 60 and appealed to the wider world for help. Thousands started making Molotov cocktails, so deadly to attacking tanks more than 80 years ago. In some ways this war is anachronistic, with a Russian armoured train being filmed moving supplies forward. Expect railway sabotage with shades of Lawrence of Arabia. On 1 March, Belarus predictably entered the war on Russia’s side with such timing, that it is assumed President Lukashenko was merely following a script Vladimir Putin had written months earlier.
The Propaganda War
Meanwhile, at 4am, Moscow Time, on 24 February 2022, President Vladmir Putin had told his nation what had already been in progress for a couple of hours. “I have decided to conduct a special military operation,” he said. “Its goal is the protection of people, who during 8 years, have suffered abuse and genocide from the Kyiv regime.” Addressing Ukrainian soldiers, he urged them to “lay down your arms immediately and go home”. Speaking to the wider world, he warned, “Whoever tries to stop us and create further threats to our country and to our people should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and lead you to such consequences that you have never faced in your history.”
The Russian master plan had not accounted for the Ukrainian people
Putin’s words contained the untruth that his goal was not a “limited military operation” in a province, but actually the total subjugation of a neighbouring sovereign country. Since then it has become illegal in Russia to refer to the campaign as a war, or anything other than the president’s carefully chosen phraseology. Furthermore, Putin claimed Kyiv had been abusing ethnic Russians in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The reality is that there was no abuse, and past allegations of this nature were proven Russian ruses to facilitate an illegal military intervention onto Ukrainian territory, beginning in 2014. The same rationale had been used to justify the also-illegal seizure of the Crimea earlier the same year.
The UN was shocked by Putin’s claims of genocide, of which it can find no evidence whatsoever. The concept is defined as the ‘systematic and widespread extermination or attempted extermination of a national, racial, religious, or ethnic group.’ Rather, it is the breakaway Lugansk and Donetsk provinces, which comprise the Donbas region, that have been conducting their own intimidation of non-Russians.
The fabrications of 2014 continued when on 14 July, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over the Donbas, killing all 298 passengers and crew. According to a Dutch-led investigation, it was destroyed by an air-to-ground rocket fired by the Russian Army’s 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade that had moved into the rebel held area, then returned to Russia after the unintended mishap. Yet from Moscow there was no apology, only accusations that Kyiv was responsible for the outrage.
Putin’s address of 24 February this year also hinted at his belief that the ethnic Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine might welcome their invaders as liberators, or at the very least, lay down their arms and go home. He then removed his gloves, threatening the wider world with unspecified “consequences”, a bullish, unveiled threat of a nuclear response, in the event of outside interference.
All through the invasion, now approaching its third week, have come threats. We’ve had the heightened status of strategic missile forces and seizure of nuclear power stations, but thankfully not backed up by actions. The leader’s rhetoric is important, because it highlights Moscow’s propensity to lie, rather than tell the truth, to fabricate events as a pretext for illegal military action, to weaponize factors like energy and refugees as leverage, and to bully. As the time of writing, 1.5 million have fled abroad, the largest movement of people since the Second World War. The European Union have been told to prepare for 5 million.
Ukrainian resistance against the odds
The Russian master plan had not accounted for the Ukrainian people, including most ethnic Russians, being prepared to defend their democracy. Although part of the Ukrainian Air Force was destroyed on the ground, with some of its C2 (command and control) elements, enough survived to fight back. Russia has deployed relatively few of its combat aircraft, possibly connected with poor pilot training, but overall, President Putin and his generals miscalculated on a massive scale. The much-feared Russian cyber storm did not materialize, largely because Ukraine’s own hacker generation swung into action, as did the international “Anonymous” collective, who between them have sabotaged everything from Moscow’s Ministry of Defence website, to electric car charging stations throughout Russia. Putin is said to be “incandescent with rage”.
Told they were on a liberating mission to rescue Ukraine from a “Nazi coup” and expecting to be welcomed with open arms, Putin’s regular and conscript forces took with them little in the way of fuel, ammunition, food and water. The Ukrainian population, practicing what they knew from their school books of the Great Patriotic War (of 1941-5) enacted “scorched earth” and destroyed petrol stations, denying the invaders fuel. The February weather has kept Russian vehicular columns to the main roads and railway lines. Pictures of trucks and even tanks bogged down in Ukrainian mud have shown the inadvisability of leaving hard standing. Enterprising Ukrainian farmers have been towing away their Russian trophies by tractor. Additionally, it is apparent that many Russian trucks have been poorly maintained, with images of abandoned vehicles with shredded tyres, empty fuel tanks and seized engines widely circulated on social media.
In addition, 25 western nations were supporting Ukraine beforehand with tuition in anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, and supply of those weapons. The UK alone reported educating 22,000 of Zelensky’s lions in Operation Orbital, sending over 1,000 Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapons (NLAWs). Finland pledged 2,500 assault rifles, ammunition and 1,500 anti-tank weapons, while Sweden dispatched 5,000 anti-tank systems. Germany had to revise its policy of “peace through trade” with Russia and minimal defence spending. From 5,000 military helmets sent before the invasion, it has since upped its game and sent an initial 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles. These supplies still continue via preprepared “ratlines,” and explain Ukraine’s continued successes against Russian armoured columns.
An ever-more-angry Putin could lash out with vicious effect
Not only did President Putin underestimate his opponents’ will and determination to defend themselves, he equally misunderstood how the world would unite against him. We can follow the campaign through dashcam and social media footage. This is the first major war to have been fought with the world watching over everyone’s shoulder in this way. Russia’s act of aggression has been conducted under the gaze of the world’s media, which Putin’s minions have found difficult to jam or block.
Emboldened by general apathy to his annexation of the Crimea and Donbas, and war crimes committed in Syria, by contrast, Putin’s Russia has been confronted by a horrified UN, where 141 states (out of 193) condemned his aggression, with 35, including his ally China, choosing to abstain, rather than support Russia. The 30 members of NATO seem more unified than ever, with Sweden and Finland left wondering whether they, too, should join the North Atlantic alliance. The European Union, previously characterized as weak and divided over its foreign and defence policy, has demonstrated a will and resolve to support Ukraine, unthinkable only days earlier.
To be blunt, like the rest of the world, I did not hold out much hope for Ukraine’s survival. As we near a third week of fighting, the incredible seems to have happened. David has hit back at Goliath and the giant has a sore head, for a number of reasons. These include Ukraine’s will to resist; the Churchillian figure of Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv urging resistance; Russian over-confidence; the attackers’ poor training; their lamentable equipment maintenance; and “General Winter”, an important factor that any study of Napoleon or Hitler would have revealed. We are left with two salutary military lessons. It is often said that “amateurs talk tactics and professionals talk logistics”. Military commanders are constantly reminded that “No plan survives first contact with your enemy”. Both ring loud and clear from today’s war in Ukraine.
The conflict is far from over. At present Ukraine controls the broadcast and social media narrative, hence Russia targeting Kyiv’s TV tower. This may change. Seemingly deaf to any moderating force (the Israeli PM appears to have got nowhere), an ever-more-angry Putin could lash out with vicious effect. His forces could reorganise and deploy even more deadly force. They could cut the electricity, gas and water supplies into Zelensky’s cities, slowly starving them into submission. Innocent civilians in their tens of thousands will become the target of Russian victory at any cost. There are signs that Russian civilians are already paying the price, with unrest in the cities, interest rates hiked to 20%, empty ATMs, and credit cards that no longer work. Rumours abound that martial law in Russia is just around the corner.
While the bloody confrontation continues, I shall return to explore these many issues in greater depth and plot the successes and reverses of both sides, for I fear more grim statistics on the horizon.
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