How Russia is failing in Ukraine – DW – 12/27/2022
When Russia began amassing its troops along the Ukrainian border about a year ago, many Western pundits and politicians believed that Kyiv would fall within days of an invasion. This also seemed to be Russia’s assumption.
But when Russian troops advanced towards the outskirts of the capital in the first days of the war, the Ukrainian army stopped them and forced them to retreat. Those miscalculations continue to reverberate to this day. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin has not directly admitted it, in early December he appeared to be preparing his country for a long war.
Russia’s air sovereignty has been deflated
Several expectations did not materialize after the February invasion. It was thought that Russia would quickly gain air sovereignty by eliminating both the Ukrainian Air Force and air defenses, an assumption that may have been based on earlier observations in eastern Ukraine.
When war broke out in the eastern Donbas region in 2014, with Russia denying any involvement, Ukraine suffered heavy losses of planes and helicopters in the first few months and chose not to use its remaining ones. The Ukrainian Air Force was virtually eliminated.
However, things have gone quite differently in recent months. The February 28 announcement by the Russian Defense Ministry that the country had claimed sovereignty over all of Ukraine’s airspace turned out to be false. While it remains true that the Russian Air Force is clearly superior in terms of size and technology, Ukraine still maintains intact planes and helicopters despite numerous missile attacks on military airports and combat operations on the front lines. Its air defenses are also being strengthened.
Ukrainian sources have said that Russia has lost hundreds of planes and helicopters since the war began. Although these claims cannot be independently confirmed, Western intelligence services also point to significant losses for the Russian Air Force, which operates on a limited basis on the front lines and no longer ventures deep into the Ukrainian interior. Instead, Russia is using increasing numbers of drones and missiles that are also being increasingly effectively intercepted by Ukrainian air defenses. Kyiv owes much of this to continued Western aid.
Faltering fleet in the Black Sea
Russia also clearly outperforms Ukraine at sea. In 2021, Moscow twice conducted training exercises in the annexed Crimean peninsula, landing troops. The exercises raised fears that the Kremlin would launch an offensive in southern Ukraine and advance on Odessa, using warships to land large formations of troops and armored personnel carriers. This has not only not happened, but experts are now skeptical that it will ever happen.
“Amphibious landings are very risky,” said Marc DeVore, senior professor of international defense policy at the University of St. Andrews, adding that it requires significant outreach. Russia has apparently been looking for landing opportunities, but has not found an “unprotected beach,” he said.
While Russian troops managed to occupy the small and strategically important Snake Island southwest of Odessa after mustering warships offshore at the start of the invasion, Ukraine managed to drive them out with targeted artillery strikes in late June.
In fact, the Russian Black Sea Fleet has so far proven to be one of the biggest losers of the war. The flagship cruiser Moskva was damaged by Ukrainian missiles in April and then sank. A month earlier, the landing ship Saratov also sank after being hit by a Ukrainian missile in the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk.
Since then, the warships of the Black Sea Fleet have kept a greater distance from the coast, which is still controlled by Kyiv. They are also not safe at the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, where Ukraine has attacked both the headquarters and the ships with drones. But the fleet is not completely out of commission – the ships continue to attack Ukraine with cruise missiles from a safe distance.
Russia has officially abandoned its naval blockade of Ukrainian ports to make possible the grain deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations. After the attack on Russian warships in late October, Moscow backed out of the deal, then returned after receiving “assurances” from Kyiv that its Black Sea fleet would not be attacked from a specific “corridor”, Moscow said.
Ukraine beefs up cyber defenses, with Western help
Before the invasion, there were also fears that Russia would cripple Ukraine with massive cyberattacks, as the latter has been a hacking target for years. About a week before the start of the Russian invasion, on February 15, there was a massive cyberattack described by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Digital Transformation, as “the biggest DDoS attack in Ukraine’s history.” Several banks, the Ministry of Defense and other entities were affected by these artificial Internet requests that overload the target’s web servers.
In addition, there were cyberattacks on government structures and parliament the day before the invasion, also attributed to Russia. But Kyiv seemed well prepared for this, and subsequent cyberattacks were less successful than those of previous years. While critical elements of infrastructure such as the power grid have still been disrupted, this has been due to missile attacks rather than hackers.
As with military aid, years of Western help with cyber defenses have paid off in Ukraine. A few days before the invasion, for example, the European Union provided the country with its Cyber Rapid Response Team at its request. For now, it seems Russia’s digital warfare is failing as much as the country’s troops on the battlefield. However, Western experts expect cyber attacks to increase as winter progresses.
This article originally appeared in German.