When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, few expected the smaller power to last for long. Its army was smaller, its defense arsenal far more limited, and its allies were refusing ground support.
However, as the war has waged on, it’s becoming clear that much of the world has misjudged Ukraine, including most of all Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he has already paid dearly for it.
Putin’s forces have yet to take a major city, and Ukraine’s capital Kyiv has emerged with its government firmly in place despite facing an onslaught of Russian troops. This time has allowed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to carry out his mission of rallying greater Western support around his country, trying to show NATO that his country’s fledgling democracy is worthy of protection.
In this first week after the initial invasion, America and its Western allies have grown increasingly aggressive in their approach, implementing historic sanctions that have plunged the value of Russia’s currency by 20% and sent its gas prices skyrocketing. With momentum building in Ukraine and public sentiment souring in Russia, it raises the question as to whether Putin’s bid for a political win could result in a political failure.
“(Putin’s) intent was to use shock and awe of these armored columns. What he had not accounted for was the will and the skill of the Ukrainians,” former Lieutenant General Russel Honoré, who served in the U.S. army for 37 years and oversaw the Department of Defense response to Hurricane Katrina, told Newsweek. “At this point in time, shock and awe hasn’t done it.”
Despite Ukraine spanning an area roughly the size of Texas and boasting a population of over 44 million, Putin sent in just half of his roughly 150,000 troops stationed at the border, meaning for every one Russian soldier there are 567 Ukrainians. A study by the Rand Corporation, a think tank known for defense policy, estimates that a successful occupation needs a ratio closer to one troop for every 50 citizens.
In the case of Ukraine, Honoré estimates that even more troops may be required. Russia’s success hangs on its ability to conquer the country’s cities. But in cities, troops face millions of hostile people occupying a consolidated space, making ground combat a challenge. In these situations, Honoré says an army like Putin’s would need six soldiers for every one defender. However, estimating the true number of troops needed is a challenge in this situation, because any civilian could turn into a defender.
“(The Ukrainian people) have stood their ground admirably,” Honoré told Newsweek. “I’m not sure if we have a good numeration of what that number is because nobody’s really successfully (conquered a metropolitan area), other than the Russians in Crimea and in Georgia, where they overwhelmed them with thousands and thousands of soldiers.”
However, Ukraine is roughly four times larger than Georgia and 22 times larger than the Crimean Peninsula. Had Putin’s sentiments of Russians and Ukrainians being one people divided by borders been true, maybe segments of Ukraine’s armed forces would have willingly laid down their guns upon Russian arrival, giving Putin’s army the swift victory he had imagined. But this has not been the case.
Mark Cancian, a former colonel with the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve and a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) International Security Program, told Newsweek that Russia’s failure to achieve a quick victory means that it now must invest far more resources into the operation. Yet, even with more troops, occupying the country may not be feasible, given its vast size.
To exert true control, Cancian said Putin may have to rely on a pro-Russia puppet regime.
“One presumes that they would install a favorable government and plan on having that government provide stability with only a small number of Russian forces,” Cancian told Newsweek. “The Russians don’t have enough forces on their own, so I think that they will be counting on some sort of collaborationist puppet government to provide stability.”
“But looking at where the Ukrainians are at now,” he added, “it’s hard to imagine such a government emerging.”
The invasion has seemed to produce the opposite of what Putin might have hoped for, Cancian said, as mass segments of the Ukrainian people have rallied around their government and are bearing arms to support it. A possible path to victory appears to be emerging for segments of the Ukrainian population. That means the threat of civilian forces may only become even greater, putting Putin in a position where victory may rely on neutralizing their ability to fight.
Photo by ROBERT SULLIVAN/AFP via Getty Images
Honoré said for Russia to limit the effectiveness of civilian forces, Putin may have to go after Ukraine’s power grid. Honoré notes that when America successfully invaded Iraq during the Gulf War of 1990 and 1991, the U.S. “took the lights out” by going after the grid, demoralizing the country’s people.
Were this to happen in Ukraine, Honoré said that parts of the country, particularly the major cities, would quickly become virtually uninhabitable, due to the cold weather and lack of food that would ensue.
Conquering urban areas would become easier under such circumstances, but Putin’s long term objectives could be severely compromised. A humanitarian crisis of that magnitude would only make Russia a more vile enemy in the eyes of the nation’s citizens, Honoré said, and any future chances of driving the country away from NATO and into a revitalized Soviet-style bloc would be severely compromised.
“Part of an occupation is to win the hearts and minds,” Honoré told Newsweek. “He’s not winning the hearts and minds. There’s no way he’s going to accomplish that objective.”
And he noted that taking out the power grid has major consequences.
“If you break it, you got to fix it.” Honoré said. “If he takes that power out and plans on standing that government up and people don’t have power, you know, it’s not like there are parts you got standing around for how you stand a grid back up.”
“It took us over two months to put the grid back up in New Orleans from a hurricane,” he added, “let alone when you put bombs on it.”
Tom Mockaitis, who researches military history at DePaul University, told Newsweek that this war is neither popular in Russia nor among members of the Russian military. So, not only will Putin’s forces face attrition as the fight rages, but they’ll also face mounting internal pressures.
He emphasized that as Zelenskyy and his forces increasingly become perceived as heroes, greater international military support is likely to follow, and nations that have not yet backed the Ukrainian forces or objected to Russia’s actions will face pressure to do so.
Now that Russia is suffering from increased sanctions, Congressman Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who sits on the House Armed Services Committee, said that America’s next steps must focus on garnering greater support for Ukraine and further opposition for Putin.
“Next, we must press China and India to condemn Putin’s illegal and unconscionable actions and to curb their purchases of arms from Russia,” Khanna told Newsweek. “Putin must be shunned by the world for invading Ukraine, while we use robust diplomacy to de-escalate Putin’s aggression.”
“I am ready to support efforts to provide Ukrainians with additional weapons,” he added. “The resolve of the Ukrainian people to protect their country has been incredibly moving. The least we can do is provide them with the weapons necessary to keep up this fight.”
Despite facing limited paths to success, it appears Putin has no plans of ceasing the attack anytime soon. Satellite images released in the early hours of Tuesday showed a miles-long convoy of Russian troops making their way toward Kyiv, and the fight remains ongoing in Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv.
So while Russia’s long-term fate as an occupying power may be uncertain, if Ukraine cannot maintain its territory and ward off enemy forces in an effective manner, hundreds of thousands of people, even millions, will suffer. Honoré said combatting this will require an effective strategy, one that he must take into account Ukraine’s size.
Transporting materials from, say, the border of Belarus to the city of Kyiv can require Russian forces to travel distances of more than 100 miles. Kyiv is more than 200 miles from Russia. Honoré said Russia must maintain a supply chain from its site of attack to its bases across the border to ensure a consistent supply of fuel, ammunition, medical supplies and other materials.
Were he leading Ukraine into battle, Honoré would target the supply chain.
“I would block the front and attack the rear, much like how Washington’s army took on the British, and then the patriots attacked from the rear and the flanks. Attack the trucks —without the trucks those formations can’t move,” he told Newsweek.
“And we need to get more drones into Ukraine,” he added.
“I would unleash the snipers from building tops,” Honoré said. “The idea is not to stand and fight. For every soldier you kill, that’s something, but every one you injure, that takes two soldiers to take care of him. “
As long as the war lasts and Russia can be held off, the greater an advantage Ukraine has, assuming that Russia maintains its commitment of not carry out heavy bombing, Honoré said.
There have been increasing calls for more support for Ukraine across party lines in the U.S. And in Europe, which was once hesitant to enrage its primary supplier of gas, there appears to be increasing willingness to take significant financial actions against Russia, short of turning off pipelines, if needed.
The White House has said Monday it would not implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine on the grounds that such an act would put American troops in direct conflict with Russians, creating the potential for war.
Cancian agreed with this assessment, saying he sees a “zero” chance of happening. However, Honoré suggested an alternate version of a no-fly zone, one that would be limited to segments of the Western border. Honoré said that people evacuating the country should be allowed to do so without fear of a Russian threat, and creating such a zone would allow for this, while also ensuring Ukrainians continued access to NATO supplies.
Disrupting the economics and industrial capacity of Russia are important, but Honoré said NATO must show its strength and establish firm limits for him.
“We got to stand up to this bully and say, ‘Okay, don’t cross this line,’ Honoré said. “I don’t know what that is, but they that’s what they get paid the big bucks for.”
“I’m sick and tired of hearing NATO say, ‘We’re not going to fight the Russians,’ he added. “Why do you think you exist? To be prepared to fight the Russians.”