April 29, 2022
How Not to Invade a Nation: Russia’s Attack on Ukraine Is a Case Study in Bad Strategy
At the outset of the invasion, the odds favored Russia to defeat the Ukrainian armed forces, seize Ukraine’s capital, and establish a pro-Russian government. The Russian military comfortably outnumbered Ukraine’s, and its military technology was more advanced. Russia’s GDP was nearly ten times the size of the Ukrainian economy, and its population about triple that of its neighbor’s. Many analysts expected that, after being largely conquered, Ukrainians would launch a protracted insurgency that might defeat the Russians over time. But few believed Ukraine could stop the invasion in a conventional war.
And yet Ukraine has held on. Russia’s assault on Kyiv stalled within a month and failed entirely shortly thereafter. Moscow did not topple the Ukrainian government, and its invasion was halted not just around Kyiv but also along the southwestern coast. Russia has withdrawn its battered forces from around the capital and from large swaths of northeastern Ukraine, covering its defeat with claims that it was simply refocusing its efforts to the Donbas. Russian troops have made more progress in this region but only slowly and at the cost of many casualties. The Russian invasion grinds on, but Kyiv and other swaths of Ukraine will be free when it finally ends.
Russia’s invasion has come up short for many reasons. Ukrainian heroism and remarkably intelligent and adaptive fighting techniques are major ones. Russia’s failure to prepare for serious Ukrainian resistance and, therefore, to develop supply systems that could support a prolonged assault on northern Ukraine is another. But none of these factors—alone or together—explain Russia’s stunning failure to achieve its initial objectives. Instead, analysts must consider a problem for Russia that is far more fundamental: its invasion plan itself was shockingly bad.
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