Last week, I wrote that Ukrainian forces had the initiative and Vladimir Putin was losing his “war of choice.” Little did I know how true that was. When I wrote that column, attention was focused on Ukraine’s offensive in the south toward Kherson. That attack is making only incremental gains, but in the past week, Ukraine has launched a surprise offensive in Kharkiv province that has achieved lightning progress in the northeast.
The internet is full of images of jubilant Ukrainian civilians being freed from the yoke of Russian occupation. In all, Ukrainian forces claim to have liberated more than 1,000 square miles of territory (more than the land area of Los Angeles and New York combined), and the offensive is not over yet. Especially significant has been the liberation of key railway and logistics nodes such as the Ukrainian city of Izyum that were used to support Russian operations in the eastern Donbas region.
This is the biggest Ukrainian victory since the successful defense of Kyiv in the conflict’s early days. Putin’s plans for a three-day war have turned into a nearly seven-month slog. How is it that Ukraine been so successful at besting its larger neighbor? I see four factors at work.
First, Western aid has been vital. President Biden’s decision in June to supply Ukraine with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) was a turning point. The long-range rockets allowed the Ukrainians to target Russian ammunition depots and command posts. The more recent U.S. decision to send High-speed Anti-Radiation Missiles (HARM) allowed the Ukrainians to hit Russian air defense radars, giving Ukrainian drones and manned aircraft greater freedom to support a ground offensive. Meanwhile, antiaircraft guns such as Germany’s Gepard allowed Ukrainian forces to keep Russia aircraft at bay. Washington has also shared critical intelligence with the Ukrainians.
But remember: Afghan forces also received tons of Western military equipment, and it did not avert their collapse last summer. That’s in large part because they were fighting for an unpopular and corrupt regime.
A key difference in Ukraine — and the second factor explaining its extraordinary success — is the unity of the Ukrainian people behind Volodymyr Zelensky’s government. His decision to stay in Kyiv in the war’s early days, at considerable risk to his life, secured his place in the pantheon of great wartime leaders. But it’s more than Zelensky: Ukrainians are fighting to defend their democracy and their right to self-determination.
Putin, the Butcher of Bucha, has tried to break Ukraine’s will to fight with barbaric attacks on civilians, but, just as with Hitler’s bombing of London, his tactics have backfired by uniting his victims against him. If Ukrainians need any motive to keep fighting, it is supplied by the grisly atrocities that Russian forces commit wherever they go.
The third factor that explains Ukraine’s success is the ingenuity, skill and fighting spirit of its armed forces. They have been retooled since 2014 into a force that, like their Western counterparts, empowers lower-level commanders to make independent decisions in contrast to the centralization of authority in the Russian ranks. What the Ukrainians have done — transforming their military to incorporate vast quantities of unfamiliar foreign weapons while engaged in heavy combat operations — is akin to rebuilding an airplane while in flight. Their tactical skill has been on repeated display this past week. By advertising their Kherson offensive, they induced the Russians to move troops from the east to the south, thereby opening up the east for a surprise attack.
The fourth and final factor that explains the war’s unexpected course is the corruption and stupidity of the Putin regime. Russian commanders have squandered their material advantages through incompetent leadership aggravated by terrible intelligence. In their original attack on Kyiv, the Russians displayed an inability to conduct fast-moving offensive operations. The Ukrainians are now showing them how it’s done.
The only thing the Russians have been good at is massing artillery to pulverize everything in their path, but the HIMARS neutralized the Russian artillery advantage by interrupting the supply of shells. That brutally exposed all of the invaders’ deficiencies. Once again, last week the Russians were caught with their pants down: They did not anticipate the Kharkiv offensive. The Russians will be hard put to recover because their forces have been too small and too overstretched from the start, and they have suffered heavy losses over the past six-plus months.
Of course, we should not swing from one extreme to another. It was once widely assumed that the war would result in a rapid Russian victory and, when that didn’t happen, that it would devolve into a stalemate. But as I wrote on June 29, “while the war in the east appears deadlocked, a military stalemate can break with shocking rapidity.” That has now happened, and it is a joy to watch the Ukrainians advancing.
But we should not assume that Ukraine will now simply roll unopposed to victory. Russian forces could collapse, but Ukrainian forces could also become overstretched or Putin could finally order a total mobilization — or even use tactical nuclear weapons. War, for good and ill, is an inherently unpredictable business.