Even in recent history there have been many wars, yet the Ukraine war has been very different right from the start—or more precisely, within 24 hours of the start—when it became clear that Vladimir Putin’s straight-to-Kyiv airborne assault had failed, that his victory parade of thousands of tanks was fatally stuck, and that he had no Plan B.
“Prudent poker player Putin who four times rose from the table with imperial gains (Abkhazia, S Ossetia, Crimea & this month, Belarus), is suddenly gambling recklessly at the roulette table by invading Europe's largest country with an army much too small for the task,” I tweeted on February 25. “Finis Putin.”
Putin is not finished—not yet. But he has not overcome the obstacle that was blatantly obvious even before the first shot was fired: his lack of troops. Unfortunately, that little problem was not obvious to the always-wrong CIA, which predicted a fast Russian victory. Confident in its prediction, the CIA persuaded President Joe Biden to make Putin’s victory even faster by evacuating U.S. diplomats and starting a stampede of other diplomats out of Kyiv, and most famously, by offering to evacuate Volodymyr Zelensky, the ultimate move to break Ukraine’s morale. When Zelensky refused America’s kind offer, he became even more of a symbol of Ukraine’s determination to resist.
Putin’s problems started before the start, when he refused to declare war, and refused to mobilize the Russian army. He did not dare to confront Russia’s mothers by sending into action his army’s divisions and brigades, each of which contains its share of the 330,000 young conscripts who are now serving in uniform, some as young as 17 and most under 20.
Since February 25, when Russia’s sudden coup de main assault failed, and Putin learned that it would take many fighting soldiers to conquer Ukraine, Russia’s president has refused to change course by declaring war and sending in the Russian army with its young conscripts. He also ignored his other option: to call it off “to save the world.”
Yes, at the very moment when he needed a way out, Putin had one at his fingertips: When Russian troops, moving south from Belarus, penetrated the Chernobyl nuclear reactor fallout “death zone” (with no protective gear other than standard-issue gas masks). Affecting shocked surprise (it was a planned move), Putin could have withdrawn all the troops from the Kyiv approaches too, “to prevent a catastrophic nuclear disaster,” and then sat back in Moscow to see the brand-new G-7 sanctions lifted while preparing to receive congratulations from the Pope, Prince Harry, and others.
But no, instead of choosing between declaring war and declaring a nuclear withdrawal, Putin has tried everything else, starting with the professional “airborne assault” battalions and brigades, both willing and able to fight but of very little use in a European war, because they have neither artillery nor tanks. Next, he tried contract troops, recruited from former conscripts willing to return in uniform because they wanted the money.
But even though the pay was high to start with, and was soon increased, it turns out that the pre-war Russian economy was doing too well to attract more than a few volunteers, except in the poorest parts of the country—like chronically depressed Dagestan, the smaller Caucasian republics, and ultra-remote Buryatia, beyond Mongolia. Volunteers were also few in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, where Russians are outnumbered by Bashkirs, Tatars, and Chuvash—but which are also too prosperous to attract recruits to a war for money alone.
The exotic contract soldiers who did serve were at first very willing—before the coffins started returning—but they were not able in many cases, because they had not done their service years before as fighting men in combat units but as drivers, clerks, and military base janitors.
Against Ukrainians fighting for their country, they found themselves outmatched in motivation from the first, and soon enough in combat skills.
Finally, just the other day, came Putin’s mobilization of the reservists—not 17-, 18-, or 19-year-olds with mothers to protect them, but men who had served years before, a great many of them far from fit, judging from the pictures. Out of some 2 million reservists on the books, only 300,000 were recalled to serve, which makes it unlikely that more than 200,000 will show up (tens of thousands have already fled abroad, many thousands more are queuing in doctors’ offices for their medical exemptions).
Still, 200,000 extra boots on the ground would have made all the difference on Day 1… but they cannot do that now, or not at any rate until they can catch up with the Ukrainians, who have been studying war since February 24, acquiring that priceless asset: real combat experience, with all its hands-on skill sets.
Putin’s reservists should therefore expect very heavy casualties when they join the performance that started six months ago without them. Also, there are new weapons out there. To give just one example, post-launch self-guided missiles like the Javelin can defeat even solid cover by popping up before coming straight down.
So what remaining leverage does Putin have? When a very big country attacks a smaller one that fights too well to be overrun, it can just keep attacking. In the Dutch war of liberation against the immense Spanish empire, the inventive Dutch kept winning battles, but new Spanish troops kept arriving. That war lasted for 80 years, 1568-1648. Yes, Putin’s war is ruining Russia, but there is still plenty of ruination left in the world’s biggest country.
And what of nuclear weapons? Too powerful to be useful—left unused in the Indian, Pakistani, and Israeli arsenals even as all three fought bloody wars—nuclear weapons might be used to defend Moscow, but never to attack Kyiv.