Jack Watling

Why didn’t Ukraine fall?

The lessons we can learn from Russia’s failed war

(Photo: Getty)

A week before Russia invaded Ukraine, expectations varied considerably. The US government was certain the Russians would strike at Kyiv and seize the Ukrainian capital in 72 hours. The Russian presidential administration concurred. In Paris and Berlin, officials were briefing that Anglo-American hysteria was leading the world to another Iraq WMD moment and that the Russians were just posturing.

Views varied in Kyiv, but the government’s assessment was that a period of political destabilisation would be followed by a limited Russian offensive against the Donbas. I thought Russia would invade only to find itself in a gruelling unconventional battle in Ukraine’s cities; the roads west of Kyiv would be severed, cutting off the city from European allies; Ukrainian troops in the Donbas would withdraw owing to shortages of ammunition after about ten days of fighting. All of the above assessments as it turned out were – to varying degrees – wrong.

Ukraine now has a viable path towards bringing about the Russia’s defeat within the next year. It is important to reflect upon why pre-war assessments were incorrect and how these errors can be avoided in the future. I, along with my colleague Nick Reynolds, have worked in Ukraine both before and during the conflict, interviewing senior Ukrainian security and military officials, observing operations, and examining captured Russian equipment. More recently, I’ve been reviewing the operational data gathered by the Ukrainian military. For much of that period, it has not been appropriate to publish detailed information about Ukrainian operations. RUSI, the defence thinktank I work for, has therefore focussed on assessing the enemy’s most likely and most dangerous courses of action, and primary vulnerabilities. Now that the threat of further Russian offensives has abated, however, it is becoming possible to discuss some aspects of the Ukrainian side of the equation.

The data demonstrates that the realities of the war diverged considerably from the public narrative.

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