History shows that it is much easier to start a war than to end it.
This is what happened, for example, with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. This may be the case with Vladimir Putin’s current Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The old axiom says that military planning never survives first contact with the enemy. This appears to be the case for Russian forces.
Ed Arnold, European security expert at think tank The Royal United Services Institute (Russia) describes the initial Russian attack as “slower than expected”.
Military doctrine states that, during an invasion, it is best to “advance with overwhelming force.” Although Russia massed between 150,000 and 190,000 soldiers on the border, it has not yet used all of them.
One reason may be Russian calculations that they may need to use force in the later stages of the invasion. It is normal for the military to keep reserves while adjusting plans.
Western officials estimate that the initial offensive involved the deployment of half the forces. The operation encountered a greater degree of difficulty as it involved attacks in several directions.
Nor did Russia use its artillery and air strikes as extensively as expected.
“One of the main points is that they are facing very difficult Ukrainian resistance, which I don’t think they were expecting,” Arnold says.
However, he believes that Russian leaders will quickly adapt to the setbacks.
Along the same lines, General Richard Barrons, a former military commander in the British Army, says it still looks like the Russians will “secure their military objectives quickly”.
For the general, it is very clear that the primary goals of the Russian offensive are “the dismantling of the Ukrainian army, the removal of the central government and the annexation of a part of Ukraine, so that Russia can absorb it.”
The country appears to have made some progress towards these goals. It advanced, for example, in the south of the country – Russian troops managed to establish a land link to Ukraine from the Crimea, which they conquered and annexed in 2014.
Arnold describes this as a “modest goal.” However, from this position, soldiers can attempt to encircle the Ukrainian forces defending the East, an area where experienced Ukrainian soldiers have entrenched themselves and have been fighting Russian-backed separatists for eight years in the region known as Donbass.
So far, the information indicates that the soldiers are fighting valiantly against Russian attacks that are trying to break through the lines of Ukrainian defense in the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.
This defense would be even more difficult if Ukrainian soldiers found themselves trapped. Another relevant point is the fact that a significant part of the Ukrainian armed forces are already engaged in combat in this region and will have difficulty repositioning themselves.
Russia has also made great strides in Kiev. The capture of the capital is another central goal, as it is the seat of the government and leadership of the Ukrainian resistance.
Putin wants to replace the democratically elected President Volodymyr Zelensky with a name associated with his regime. Arnold, a Russian defense expert, points out that “anything less than the capture of Kiev will not achieve Russia’s goals.”
Now the question: How difficult is it? Russian forces appear to be attempting to encircle the city, but are likely to meet stiffer resistance as they advance into the capital.
In city wars, the party under attack usually has the upper hand. Invading forces have more difficulty navigating the streets, as buildings and installations become defensive positions. In this sense, civilians can also become part of the resistance and potential targets.
Urban warfare is the most difficult and bloodiest of any advanced army, and requires the most resources.
The Dnieper River forms a natural barrier between eastern and western Ukraine and could become an “exploration frontier” for Russian forces, as Arnold describes it.
If they managed to capture Kiev and the east of the country, in his opinion, it might not be worth advancing west. However, Putin can hope that if his forces capture the capital, the resistance will collapse.
But while 190,000 troops might be enough to launch an invasion, military experts doubt the force would be enough to occupy Europe’s second largest country, with a territorial reach smaller than Russia’s on the continent.
“If Putin’s intention is to occupy all of Ukraine with a force of about 150,000 soldiers, it will only work if he has the consent of the population,” says General Barrons, who was the military commander of the British Army in Iraq.
According to him, although part of the population feels close to Russia in the east, any government installed by the Putin regime in the country will find it difficult to rule with the consent of a population of about 44 million people.
He adds that while Russia has the strength to ultimately defeat the Ukrainian army, the army could be replaced by a “very resilient insurgency”. Any expectation on Putin’s part that he could control the entire country “could be a huge miscalculation.”
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