All Sides Of The Ukrainian Conflict Underestimated Each Other

OneWorld is publishing the full-length English version of the interview that Andrew Korybko gave to Oxu.Az’s Sayad Hasanli about the Ukrainian Conflict, which was subsequently shortened and then released under the title “Rusiya-Ukrayna müharibəsinin görünməyən tərəfləri – Amerikalı ekspertin Oxu.Az-a MÜSAHİBƏSİ”.

1. The Russian-Ukrainian war has been going on for five months. Your stance towards the conflict is regarded as Russian-friendly, but how do you see the end of the war when you look objectively as an expert?

The two direct participants are pursuing radically different objectives: Russia regards its actions as a special military operation aimed at upholding the integrity of its national security red lines while Ukraine considers its goal to be the removal of all Russian forces from its pre-2014 territory (Crimea, Donbass, and the regions that the Russian Armed Forces have subsequently entered since 24 February). It’s important to clarify their goals before answering the question any further.

Moscow requested that Kiev implement the UNSC-endorsed Minsk Accords for granting autonomy to Donbass in order to end what it considers to be the Ukrainian Civil War and declare neutrality. It also asked the US and NATO to remove all strike weapons that were deployed near its borders and to revert to the military-strategic status quo enshrined in the now-defunct 1997 Russian-NATO Founding Act. From Russia’s perspective, the last two aspects influence the balance of power between it and the West.

As for Kiev, it doesn’t regard the conflict as a civil war but as a Russian invasion. Concerning the Minsk Accords, despite having previously agreed to them, it later claimed that they were imposed under duress by its Western partners in collusion with Russia. Kiev previously threatened to use military force to reassert its writ over Crimea and Donbass, the second of which it was allegedly plotting to attack just before Moscow commenced what it calls the special operation that it says was to stop a genocide there.

Whether the status quo prior to that operation was regarded as a Ukrainian Civil War or a Russian invasion, the context within which it was being waged directly affected the balance of power between Russia and the West. That’s why the onset of its latest phase after 24 February involved NATO and has thus morphed into a proxy war between that bloc and Russia. The first wants to cripple Russia’s military capabilities while the second wants to defend what it considers its national security red lines.

About those red lines, President Putin claimed on that fateful day that NATO had clandestinely established military infrastructure in Ukraine that it was planning to use to further erode Russia’s national security red lines. The intent, he said, was to place it in a position where his country could be blackmailed through military means – both conventional and unconventional – into unilaterally conceding on issues of national interest, thus turning Russia into a Western vassal state.

President Putin then listed the goals that Russia is pursuing in Ukraine: stop what it considers to be the genocide in Donbass by removing all Ukrainian forces from that region; demilitarize and denazify that former Soviet Republic; and ensure its constitutional neutrality so that it doesn’t ever join NATO nor hosts any such infrastructure again that could eventually threaten his country. The first phase is partially completed after the Battle of Lisichansk while the others remain to be fulfilled.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said in late May that achieving the first objective is an “unconditional priority” for his country, which suggests that others might be advanced through diplomatic means if all conflicting parties – both direct like Kiev and indirect like its NATO partners – have the political will. They, however, remain committed to their maximalist goal of removing all Russian forces from Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory, which might result in the conflict continuing to drag on.

Realistically speaking, the first objective of removing Ukrainian forces from Donbass might be achieved by the end of the summer or early fall if the current on-the-ground military trend continues. Regarding demilitarization, Ukrainian presidential advisor Arestovich said in late March that Russia had already destroyed almost all of his country’s military-industrial complex by that time so Moscow could potentially present that as a victory, though the presence of foreign weapons challenges that.

On the topic of denazification, the destruction of the Azov Battalion in its hometown of Mariupol can also be presented as a victory though the group still has franchises across the country, which is also a challenge too. Finally, the Ukrainian Constitution was amended to make joining NATO an official goal of the country and thus can’t be changed without the Rada, which won’t realistically remove that unless their NATO allies absolutely demand it of them as part of a larger compromise for ending the conflict.

Kiev’s maximalist goal of removing all Russian forces from Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory is unrealistic, though, especially since Russia considers Crimea to be an integral part of its country. Moreover, while opinions differ about the northern front of the conflict – some Russian-friendly analysts consider it to have been a feint all along while Ukrainian-friendly ones regard it as a major Russian defeat – Moscow remains entrenched along the entire eastern and southern front.

As it presently stands at the time of writing, barring any unforeseen developments that change the on-the-ground military trend against Russia, it’s possible that Kiev’s NATO partners might consider reviving the peace process that they allegedly pressured Zelensky to pull out of upon Moscow removing all Ukrainian forces from Donbass (which might happen by late summer or early fall). That said, some NATO countries like the Baltic States, Poland, and the UK want to continue the conflict indefinitely.

This means that the US’ position towards it by that time in this scenario will be pivotal for determining whether it’s perpetuated after that possible development or if the peace process will be revived. It’s also important to remember that the US’ midterm elections will be held in early November and the ruling Democrats are expected to do very poorly. They might either try to run on a so-called “patriotic anti-Russian platform” by continuing the proxy war or a “pragmatic pro-peace” one by reviving talks.

To summarize, since both direct participants continue to pursue maximalist ends, the primary variables for determining the outcome are whether: the on-the-ground military trend turns against Russia; Russia completes its first objective regarding Donbass; the aforementioned occurs with enough time before the US midterms for the Democrats to consider reviving talks in order to run on a “pragmatic pro-peace” platform; and if those said talks result in any meaningful progress.

2. What made the war last so long?

Both direct participants underestimated each other to varying extents. Moscow didn’t expect Kiev to militarize residential areas, let alone at the scale that it did, which compelled President Putin (who wrote extensively about his kindred feelings for Ukrainians in his July 2021 article titled “On The Historical Unity Of Russians And Ukrainians”) to prioritize street-by-street fighting to remove the Ukrainian forces from those areas instead of just carpet-bombing them and not caring about casualties.

From Kiev and its NATO partners’ perspective, they hadn’t expected the Russian economy – both the actual and military-related ones – to show the resilience that it did in the face of the unprecedented US-led Western sanctions. All prior reports about Russia “running out of ammo and manpower” have been discredited by its continual slow but steady advance over the past five months. They also didn’t take Russia’s national security casus belli seriously enough, which is why it’s so committed to the conflict.

Both direct participants also underestimated NATO’s involvement in the conflict, albeit in opposite ways. Russia doesn’t seem to have expected that they’d escalate their arms shipments to the point of creating a literal long-lasting proxy war while Kiev didn’t anticipate how long it would take for the heavy weapons that it’s been requesting for months already to have arrived. As for NATO, it seems to have overestimated its unity towards Ukraine since serious splits are emerging within the bloc.

These three underestimations – Russia not expecting Kiev to militarize residential areas (let alone at the scale that it did); Kiev and its NATO partners being wrong about Russia’s economic weakness and lack of commitment to its stated national security goals; and everyone’s surprise at NATO’s support for Ukraine (Russia didn’t realize it would be so enduring while Kiev expected much more aid to arrive more quickly than it did) despite its simultaneous lack of unity – contributed to prolonging the conflict.

3. When the war began, Russia created the image that the war would end in its favor within a month at the latest. However, it still cannot defeat Ukraine. Can we say that the Russian army is not as powerful as before?

No Russian decisionmaker like President Putin, Defense Minister Shoigu, or Foreign Minister Lavrov ever set any firm deadlines for what their country considers to be its special military operation in Ukraine, though the information products created by some Russian-friendly analysts, casual commentators, and media influencers did indeed result in that impression. This observation suggests a disconnect between the state and those who support it, which adds credence to claims of little coordination between them.

Rather, what seems to have happened is that the onset of the conflict triggered the second category of folks to publicly express wishful thinking scenarios just like it did on the other side as well, though of course from the opposite perspective. The overarching trend is that most folks in both Russia and the West didn’t seriously think that President Putin would authorize what he did on 24 February, which deserves to be elaborated upon a bit more.

Despite US intelligence warning about the scenario, few took its claims seriously after the major fiasco less than a year ago concerning their prediction that the American-backed authorities in Kabul would remain in power following the West’s withdrawal from that war-torn country. In reality, they were deposed even before foreign forces fully left Afghanistan, which became yet another of the many stains on the reputation of American intelligence.

Furthermore, the US has been “crying wolf” for years alleging that Russia is doing all sorts of things that it either couldn’t compellingly prove such as the Russiagate conspiracy theory that former US President Trump was actually his Russian counterpart’s puppet, or which were later revealed to have never happened like the Bountygate conspiracy theory alleging that Russia was paying the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan.

It was thus with good reason that few took US intelligence warnings about that scenario seriously. Plus, the two months prior to President Putin’s decision were marked by Russian diplomats trying to convince Ukraine, the US, and NATO to accept its security guarantee requests for Kiev to implement the UNSC-endorsed Minsk Accords and declare neutrality while the other two were to have removed strike weapons from Russia’s borders and revived the now-defunct 1997 Russian-NATO Founding Act.

President Putin himself can be constructively critiqued for placing too much faith in diplomacy by waiting until what he claims was the very last minute prior to Kiev’s allegedly planned final offensive on Donbass to commence his country’s special operation there. In fact, inside Russia, quite a few were clamoring for him to have done this years ago and were disappointed that he hadn’t. His rationale, which contradicts popular perceptions about his strategic calculations, will now be explained.

President Putin envisioned the Minsk Accords functioning as the first step towards reviving the European security architecture that had objectively begun to gradually erode Russia’s national security interests with respect to the simultaneous expansion of NATO and deployment of strike weapons closer to his country’s borders. The so-called “missile defense shield” is also threatening because it could in undercut Russia’s nuclear second-strike capabilities with time.

That second-mentioned development is what actually led to Russia’s research and ultimate production of hypersonic vehicles in order to neutralize that scenario and thus maintain nuclear-strategic parity with the US, without which Russia would be coerced into unilaterally conceding on its objective national interests due to the US’ inevitable nuclear blackmail in that context. President Putin thought that reaching and implementing a deal in Ukraine would lead to deals over much grander issues with time.

The reason why be believed this was possible is because he felt that the US’ unipolar hegemony after the end of the Old Cold War was much more threatened by China than by his own country, the first of which is a global economic superpower while the second isn’t anywhere close to that nor ever will be anymore. This wasn’t a delusion either since consecutive US administrations from Obama to Trump both talked about the so-called “threat” that China poses to their self-professed “global leadership”.

He therefore concluded that the US would cut a deal with Russia in order to reorient its grand strategic priorities away from Europe and towards the Indo-Pacific along the lines of the model that it earlier applied towards Iran vis a vis West Asia. There were two flaws, however. First, President Putin regarded the US as a so-called “rational actor”, which it isn’t since it’s actually ideologically driven. And second, he didn’t expect the US to consider Russia’s “containment” as a step towards “containing” China.

That’s not to say that he was wrong for prioritizing diplomacy in the eight years since the Ukrainian Crisis started following the literal coup in the legal sense against hitherto universally recognized President Yanukovich, but just that these well-intended efforts for upholding his country’s national security red lines through political means in hindsight didn’t achieve anything other than give NATO the time to build up Ukraine’s military capabilities for resisting any potential Russian military campaign there.

All of this was crucial to clarify because it’s not openly acknowledged by many – if any – Russian-friendly analysts/commentators/media influencers nor their Western-friendly counterparts. Ukraine was armed to the teeth and its forces trained better than expected for nearly a decade. That country’s patrons didn’t seem to seriously think that Russia would resort to military means for defending its national security red lines but would shy away and unilaterally concede on these same interests under pressure.

Nevertheless, they also had backup plans in place for all contingencies as has since been made clear by the proxy war that they’re now waging against Russia through Ukraine. That said, it’s not so much the scale of their support to Kiev that’s the reason why Russia is only making slow and steady progress there, but Kiev’s militarization of residential areas and the scale at which it’s doing so. President Putin prefers for the operation to limit civilian casualties, hence why he’s not carpet-bombing those cities.

Instead, he’s ordered his troops to engage in street-by-street combat to clear those militarized residential areas of Ukrainian forces, which of course takes a lot of time to complete if their targets have the ideological-political will to hold out as long as possible like at Mariupol’s Azovstal. Importantly, however, he recently reminded everyone that Russia hasn’t even truly begun its special operation, which hints that his patience might soon be wearing thin and a more serious phase could begin.

It therefore isn’t accurate to conclude that Russia’s military capabilities aren’t as strong as supportive forces overeagerly portrayed them at the beginning of the special operation nor are as weak as its opponents have claimed since the so-called “Battle of Kiev” (which some Russian-friendly forces consider to have been a clever feint this entire time). As of now, despite restraining itself in the face of major NATO support for Kiev, Russia is still making slow and steady progress, which says a lot.

4. What do you think about the army and military equipment of Ukraine? European Union countries support Ukraine with weapons. Sufficient military aid has been provided to Ukraine. What is behind its failure to win? Do you think that the Ukrainian army has difficulty in using modern equipment?

Ukrainian presidential advisor Arestovich claimed in late March that Russia had already destroyed almost all of his country’s military-industrial complex by that time, and he’d have no reason to lie in such a dramatic way that makes his opponents look more powerful than they might actually be according to many of his side’s supporters. It should therefore be taken for granted that this statement was truthful even if many of his other ones about the conflict are questionable at best, to put it mildly.

This means that Ukrainian forces have pretty much mostly been surviving purely because of foreign military aid from then up until now, though the amount that they’re receiving still isn’t sufficient for meeting their maximalist objectives despite being unprecedented in size, scale, scope, and the short period of time within which everything has thus far been provided. By contrast, it took years to ramp up the proxy war on the USSR through Afghanistan, and it never approached the level of the Ukrainian one.

It also deserves to be mentioned that Kiev is displeased with some countries like Germany for allegedly dragging their heels on providing their supposedly promised military aid so describing that which has thus far been sent as sufficient isn’t actually that side’s official position. Nevertheless, it’s still been significant, at least insofar as preventing the Ukrainian forces from collapsing in the face of Russia’s offensive, though they’ve continued to slowly lose ground over the past few months in Donbass.

One of the greatest misperceptions about the conflict thus far is that one or another type of Western weapon will prove to be a game-changer. This narrative is being pushed by wishful thinkers to boost their side’s morale as well as members of the Western military-industrial complex and their lobbyists. All that it’ll do, however, is result in Russia responding in its own way like President Putin warned when declaring last week that his side hasn’t even really begun fighting in earnest yet.

The predictable outcome is that the conflict will further escalate, which will in turn lead to more destruction and possibly also civilian casualties, though it’s unclear whether this “balance of forces” will change the on-the-ground military trend or not (which is presently in Russia’s favor). Another point to make is that heavy weaponry requires proper training, but Ukrainian forces are reportedly being rushed through this process and therefore can’t be expected to operate that complex equipment all that well.

For that reason and due to credible concerns that important foreign military equipment might be captured by Russian forces, these same items are reportedly being stripped of some of the technology that they’re most commonly associated with, which thus degrades their capabilities. Be that as it is, even if they were at the same technological level as they’d be if operated by Western forces, their deployment would only result in Russia reciprocally escalating and so on and so forth as explained.

The other challenge for Kiev is that Russian morale isn’t low like their supporters have claimed. While the average member of Moscow’s forces might not have fully understood the grand strategic goals being advanced by their side during the onset of their special operation, they’ve since come to realize that this is indisputably a Russian-NATO proxy war and that President Putin had no choice but to resort to military means for defending their country’s national security red lines as many Russians now see it.

With this in mind, Russia won’t consider unilaterally conceding on these issues that it regards as being of existential importance to its survival as a sovereign state. That doesn’t mean that they’ll indefinitely be advanced by military means though since political ones might eventually become more pragmatic as was explained in an earlier answer depending on how the conflict evolves, but just that Russia will reciprocally escalate as needed to defend those of its gains thus far that it considers to be crucial.

Therein lies the controversy of the so-called “Battle of Kiev”, however, since some Russian-friendly voices consider it to have been a feint all along while their opponents see it as a major Russian defeat. In hindsight, the first explanation makes the most sense since the number of forces that were moving on Kiev would have been insignificant to take such a heavily fortified city absent the carpet-bombing that President Putin has thus far eschewed for the reasons that were earlier mentioned.

Had capturing Kiev been considered crucial for defending Russia’s national security red lines, then they’d have at the very least simply just dug in if they met major resistance exactly as they’ve been doing along other fronts. Extrapolating upon this observation, the northern front does indeed seem to have been meant to divide Kiev’s forces from the eastern and southern ones where their Russian counterpart’s advances are considered meaningful for achieving national security objectives.

It should also be said that since President Putin believes that resolving the Ukrainian Conflict is the first step towards reforming the European security architecture (previously by purely political means but now via hybrid political-military ones), he’d want the ultimate outcome to be officially acknowledged by the West. This couldn’t have happened had Russian forces captured Kiev, deposed/killed Zelensky (or forced him to flee), and an internationally unrecognized leader agreed to Moscow’s relevant demands.

Of course, considering the so-called “fog of war” during the conflict’s first week and the possibility of a Ukrainian political collapse, Russia also wanted to account for that possibility and could have thus had those of its troops that were advancing on Kiev respond to this scenario if necessary. That didn’t happen as everyone knows, yet the feint (which simultaneously functioned as contingency planning for that aforementioned scenario) did indeed succeed in dividing Ukraine’s forces from the east and south.

It’s therefore not without reason that Russian forces swept through southern Ukraine during the first week or two while they might not have made the comparatively lesser progress that they did in Lugansk early on had the Ukrainian forces there been better fortified by those troops that had to remain in the north to fight the so-called “Battle of Kiev”. Russia lost nothing by tactically withdrawing from the northern front while Ukraine lost large swathes of the south and parts of the east for defending Kiev.

The military-strategic dynamics elaborated upon in this answer and the interview more broadly are important to consider if one wants to obtain a better understanding of the present state of the conflict as well as its future trajectory. Some of the insight that was shared might not be popular among both Russian-friendly and Ukrainian-friendly voices, but it should hopefully leave a lasting impression upon the reader. Which might get them to reconsider some things that they previously took for granted.

The interview was originally published at Oxu.Az in a shortened form under the title
Rusiya-Ukrayna müharibəsinin görünməyən tərəfləri – Amerikalı ekspertin Oxu.Az-a MÜSAHİBƏSİ”.

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