Throughout Russian and Soviet history, autocratic incompetence has sabotaged invasions and subjected civilians to horrific war crimes. Jonathan Firbank recounts Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, then speaks with historian Simone Azzopardi about its place in Russia’s history of terror and incompetence.
Part 1: The Invasion of Ukraine
‘We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe and prosperous… Russia has never been and will never be “anti-Ukraine”.’
‘Sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.’
Underestimating Russia’s Intent
As the world still reeled from the pandemic in 2021, Russia began massing troops on Ukraine’s border under the guise of ‘military exercises’. American intelligence predicted an all-out invasion, but other persuasive theories circulated. Russia could have been securing its influence in Belarus; it had recently sent troops to Kazakhstan for similar reasons. Putin’s ally, Belarus’s dictator, Lukashenko, was brutally crushing a pro-democracy movement which threatened Russia’s regional control. Ukraine’s own pro-democracy revolution had severed ties with Moscow. Perhaps the troop buildup was brinkmanship to scare Ukraine, now a NATO aspirant, into neutrality. Many thought the ‘worst case scenario’ would be a repeat of Russia’s invasion of Georgia: Russia was going to annex the Donbas region, which it had been usurping since 2014. Already largely in Russian control, it would provide vast natural resources and productive bodies for Russia’s entropic demographics.
The latter seemed inevitable on 21 February, 2022 as Russia formally recognised the ‘independent’ separatists in Ukraine’s east and the troop build-up reached hundreds of thousands. Armies massed along Ukraine’s Belarusian border in the north, the contested territories in the east, and the Crimean peninsula towards the south. The Russian military presence in Transnistria to the west and their Black Sea Fleet completed the picture – Ukraine, one of the largest countries in Europe, was surrounded.
In 2021, Vladimir Putin wrote an essay titled ‘On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians’. University of Malta historian Simone Azzopardi aptly describes it as ‘a misconstrued version of the facts intentionally skewed to fit political machinations.’ Azzopardi provides a non-propagandist history in Part 2 of this article, exploring its startling parallels with what was about to unfold. Putin’s essay, on the other hand, presents a whitewashed, distorted history of a greater ‘Novorossiya’, a region that would incorporate Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine if consolidated today. The term originates from Imperial Russia and is a dog whistle for Imperialism in turn. Putin portrayed regional unity as a moral necessity, but his true motivation was almost certainly geopolitical: control of Novorossiya would stretch Russia to the Carpathian mountains, shrinking and fortifying Russia’s border with NATO. In addition to a third of the world’s grain production and immense oil reserves, control over Ukraine would make Russia’s Western border into a fortress, perfect for Russia’s paranoid, self-isolating autocracy.
On 22 February, 2022, Russia mounted a full-scale invasion. Airstrikes hit Ukrainian military infrastructure as the pincer of Russia’s military closed, its tips directed not towards the Donbas, but towards Kiev itself. The Kremlin used typically Orwellian doublespeak to justify this; the invasion was dubbed ‘a military operation to prevent war’ after an unusually rambling speech from Putin. Lukashenko unveiled an invasion map that indicated the invasion would even penetrate Moldova, confirming that Russia intended total conquest. Western powers imposed economic sanctions on the aggressors. The Western news audience watched forlornly for Ukraine’s fall.
Bittersweet stories emerged about Ukraine’s defiance. A tiny outpost on Snake Island cursed a Russian battleship before being bombarded. A Ukrainian soldier blew himself up to deny the invaders a bridge. President Zelenski and his government remained in Kiev instead of fleeing. Ukrainians lined up to volunteer their lives, to buy their families time to escape.
Overestimating Russia’s Capabilities
Mainstream press fulfilled their journalistic responsibility, cataloguing the horror of war. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine was viewed through a tinted lens, one carefully constructed for a century: Russia was assumed to be a military superpower. This assumption, born from the Cold War, is a vital tool for Russian brinkmen and propagandists and a vital justification for Western military spending. Russia was thought of as a near-peer adversary, a step behind the United States’ leviathan capabilities.
But cracks began to appear in the Russian army almost immediately. Ukraine’s air capabilities, Russia’s first and most important target, survived the initial onslaught. Russia’s VDV, famed paratroopers, were dropped without support into heavily defended positions. They were sacrificed so recklessly that some wondered if Putin was purging their ranks. By land, Russian invaders raced towards their objective. Instead of destroying resistance, they often bypassed it. This resulted in their logistical support (convoys transporting fuel, food, and ammunition) being ambushed. Russian tanks ground to a halt, now useless, and Russian soldiers began looting food as they faced starvation. Russia’s military was depending on unsecured radio frequencies. Ukrainian intelligence could listen to or jam these communications at will, and civilians began broadcasting taunts directly to Russian soldiers. The invasion date of 22/02/22 appeared to have been chosen because it was a memorable number rather than for a practical reason — Ukraine’s fields had recently turned from ice to mud, restricting vehicles to predictable road routes.
Western media, too used to depicting ‘Russia the superpower’, was enthralled by a 40km long Russian convoy North of Kiev. It was a suitable visual metaphor for Russia’s might. But savvier military analysts saw vulnerability instead of strength: one man’s static convoy is another man’s traffic jam. Russian vehicles were breaking down or running out of fuel, locking others into a single-file formation that was precariously exposed and recklessly compact. The Russian military’s rigid hierarchy and compromised communications forced generals to the front lines to try and rectify these problems. They were killed with eerie precision; the American intelligence that accurately predicted the war was now likely feeding data to Ukraine’s defence.
Teams of assassins sent for Zelenski met the same fate. In time, hundreds of military vehicles were lost to comparatively cheap shoulder-fired missiles. Over 10,000 Russian troops died. Russia’s original strategic goal, conquest or regime change in Ukraine, was now impossible. It was even discovered that Snake Island’s defenders had survived, while the battleship they had cursed was sunk by Ukrainian missiles. With more Orwellian doublespeak, Russia proclaimed the ‘first stage’ of the war a success and retreated from Kiev, refocusing on a far more manageable goal: the Donbas.
Terror and Incompetence
‘The ultimate war objective of forcing Ukraine into submission had so far failed. For Putin to be able to claim victory, his army would have to take over every major Ukrainian city — and specifically Kyiv’, states Azzopardi. Instead, any city that mounted resistance held the invasion at bay. ‘This was not the easy, low-cost invasion that Putin originally envisioned. Consider the number of Russian soldiers lost, the demotivation that followed, the flagellating sanctions from the West, and the universal humiliation, both personal and national, suffered through miscalculation and arrogance. This last point is key.’
An autocratic state functions like a psychopathic person. In its arrogance, it cannot bear to be seen losing, so it will move goalposts and change rules until a loss appears to be a victory. ‘Jingoist (extreme patriotism) politics of a megalomaniac ruler capitalise on patriotism to sustain support. No wonder the state machinery is skewing the facts to hide the devastating reality which currently plagues Putin!’ Psychopaths also punish defiance. If they lack the strength to punish the defiant, they punish others instead. Russia’s ‘special military operation’ was originally intended to be a near-bloodless coup, decapitating Ukraine’s elected government and assuming control over a relatively unharmed populace and infrastructure. This failed utterly, so the ‘rules of the game’ were reversed. Ukraine’s leadership was untouchable, so the Russian military began punishing civilians.
In the north, Russian forces held vital employees of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant hostage, one of two examples of Russia turning nuclear sites into warzones. In doing so, they held the world hostage as well. Soldiers were deployed to the notorious Red Forest, where radioactive trees are buried. The soldiers looted irradiated trinkets and dug trenches in the deadly soil before being sent back into Belarus with radiation sickness. As Ukraine’s air defence wasn’t neutralised, Russia could not safely use precision strikes. Instead of admitting failure, the military switched to ‘dumb’, unguided munitions. These explosives were fired into densely populated residential areas. Ukraine’s public did not fulfil the Kremlin’s fantasy of passively pro-Russian subjects, so they were butchered. Hospitals, including children’s hospitals and maternity wards, were bombed. Public buildings sheltering large numbers of civilians were targeted; a theatre clearly marked with the word ‘children’ was destroyed. Mariupol, a city close to Russia’s border, was turned into a 21st century Stalingrad. Photographs emerged of dead civilians dumped into piles. Russia established ‘safe corridors’ for refugees, then fired upon them. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians were kidnapped and forced into Russia so the Kremlin could have evidence of Russian ‘humanitarianism’ for state TV. As the comparatively elite Ukrainian forces fought the Mariupol siege to a standstill, Russia may have resorted to the ultimate moral outrage. Reports of chemical weapons, likely sarin gas, emerged from the city. Echoing a massacre in Syria, this could have been another example of Putin’s trademark poisoning.
Ukraine routed Russia’s northern army, so the Kremlin psychopathically redefined its victory conditions. The attempt to take Kiev was now only a ruse; the real target was the Eastern Donbas all along. As the Russians retreated, they left behind civilian bodies. Men with their hands tied behind their backs, executed in rows. Mass graves 45 metres long. Children who had been used as human shields and children who had been raped. As Russian soldiers handed out bread in one part of town for state TV cameras, other soldiers were looting, raping, torturing, and murdering with impunity, their boasts heard over unsecured comms. Azzopardi observes that ‘pitiless attacks on civilian populations are meant to intimidate the enemy into surrendering. It is generally an effective way of beating the opponent’s war effort and morale.’ As such, the Kremlin may have been mandating civilian atrocities to break Ukraine’s will. This theory is supported by Russia’s deployment of terror troops, Wagner mercenaries and Kadyrovites, both known for warcrimes. The horror in the north could also indicate that Russia’s army devolved into undisciplined criminals without functioning leadership.
Part two of this article, which deals with the historical context that led up to the Invasion of Ukraine, can be found here.
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