Special Operations: Tragicomedy Of Errors


March 10, 2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine that started on February 24th was meant to overwhelm Ukrainian forces quickly and capture the capital Kyiv as well as other key targets like ports. This did not go according to plan because Russia underestimated the Ukrainian preparations to deal with an invasion and overestimated the readiness of Russian troops to carry out the rapid conquest plan.

The reasons why the Russians underestimated the capabilities of the Ukrainian defenders have yet to be explained. The problems with the Russian military were known in the West but Russia has been imposing more secrecy about such matters for Russians over the last few years. Before the invasion it was a crime to report on these problems in the mass media or via the Internet. The bad news reached Russians anyway, usually via a foreign Russian-language Internet site with confidential informants inside Russia. It was Russian software developers that created the most effective encrypted messaging apps, and usually had to leave Russia and run their new business from outside the country.

Before 2014 Ukrainians did not see a need for local defense units or a large military to defend against a Russian attack. After all, the Russians had signed an agreement in 1994 in which Russia promised to never attack Ukraine. In return, Ukraine got rid of the nuclear weapons it had inherited when the Soviet Union dissolved. The United States and Britain were also parties to that agreement, mainly to pay for disposing of the nukes and as well as aiding Ukraine if Russia broke the agreement.

When Russia violated the agreement in 2014, Ukraine sought advice from East European states that, until 1990, were occupied by Russian troops and had governments that answered to Russia, not their own citizens. These former Russian dominated states, especially Poland and the three Baltic States, joined NATO and the EU (European Union) as soon as they could and developed tactics and techniques for dealing with future Russian aggression. Until 2014 the original NATO members were skeptical of the new East Europe members assertion that it was not a matter of if the Russians would misbehave but when and where. That turned out of to be Ukraine, which until 2014 was willing to keep Russia happy by staying out of NATO. Ukraine still wanted to join the EU, which Russia opposed along with any cooperation with NATO countries.

Until 1991, NATO members prepared for a Russian invasion and developed some practices that the new East Europe NATO members adopted. This involved organizing internal defense units composed of former soldiers and volunteers. This was a variation of the Swiss system introduced in the 19th century in which every physically fit adult male belonged to an armed reserve until they were too old for that duty. These part-time soldiers kept a rifle and ammunition at home, so local defenses could be activated within hours. This force, plus the rugged terrain of Switzerland and a growing network of fortifications kept potential invaders from even trying. During World War II the Germans studied the matter to see if it was practical to try and occupy Switzerland. It wasn’t and the Germans never tried. Israel and Sweden adopted a similar defense system. After 1991 Sweden began dismantling their mass mobilization system, including an end to conscription. After 2014 Sweden returned to conscription and mass mobilization.

After 2014 Ukraine increased the ground forces to 250,000, with 20 percent of them civilian support staff. The government also ordered the formation of territorial defense units in each of the 22 provinces. By the end of 2014 these amounted to 32 battalions and were part of the armed forces. While the military supplied weapons, the 10,000 volunteers for the 32 battalions depended on themselves or donations for other equipment. This was a mistake because other nations threatened by Russia spent money on organizing and equipping local defense units. The Ukrainian territorial defense battalions varied in terms of quality and leadership. By the time Russia invaded in 2022 many of the local defense units had already attracted more volunteers and when the fighting began on February 24th, the local defense battalions continued to be a rallying point for civilian volunteers.

In 2019 Volodymyr Zelenskyy became president and enacted many reforms in the government, especially efforts to curb the chronic corruption. These reforms did not include the local defense units or the military in general. That did not happen until 2022, a month before the Russians invaded.

The local defense battalions were considered adequate after 2014 and volunteers also played a crucial role in halting the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. Establishing a Swiss style force would cost more than Ukraine could afford and would have made a big difference deterring the Russians or containing Russian forces when the invasion did come.

The Russian invaders turned out to be much less effective than expected and that was an unexpected asset for the Ukrainians. Captured documents revealed that the Russians expected little resistance from the Ukrainian population and troops were under orders to avoid civilian casualties. The Russians expected to capture the capital Kyiv and find enough qualified Ukrainians to form a new, pro-Russian government. That was a major miscalculation because most Ukrainians opposed the Russians and many did it with weapons passed out by the Ukrainian government or captured from the Russian troops. Many of the Russian troops were conscripts who were told they were going on a training exercise, not invading Ukraine. For their families back in Russia, the international response to the invasion was quickly felt as an unprecedented number of economic sanctions were imposed on Russia which quickly reduced the standard of living for most Russians.

Initially the Russian invasion was described as using “shock and awe” to achieve a quick win. There was a lot of shock and awe, but most of it was felt by the invaders and Russians in general. President Putin of Russia was the main proponent of the invasion and he insists he will persist, no matter how much shock and awe hits him, his troops and the Russian economy. This will not end well but it is still unclear when and how it will end for Russia, Ukraine and Putin.


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