AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
In a meeting of senior Russian commanders last Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that the Russian army had essentially achieved its main objectives for the first stage of their supposed “special military operation” in Ukraine. But the facts on the ground refute that assessment and reflect a much more dire situation than many in Russian leadership are letting on.
Instead, the steady stream of images, videos, news reports, and messages from the front lines of the Russia-Ukraine conflict suggests that the chaos on the ground will not lead to a favorable outcome for Russia.
Dr. Martin van Creveld, a professor emeritus at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is one of the world’s foremost experts on military history and strategy, and has been watching the conflict closely. He has been studying Russia and its interactions with the West since the Cold War and has intimate knowledge of the Russian military mindset.
Van Creveld believes that, from the very first hours of the Russian invasion, the lack of traditional military education and experience was visible on the Russian side.
Specifically, the Russian army failed to reach Lviv, the primary Ukrainian city in the West, by the time their offensive seemed to stall in the East. And as satellite photos showed smoke billowing from a Russian warship in the port of Berdyansk last week, it was a sign that things were only going from bad to worse for the Russians on the battlefield.
The renewed focus of the Russian army on artillery bombardments in the face of staunch Ukrainian resistance also suggested that things aren’t going to plan for Putin. As Dr. van, Creveld explains, “cannonry has been the Russian army’s specialty since the middle of the 17th century.” However, in this case, such bombardments have failed to bring to heel Ukraine’s largest cities, even if the strategy has worked more or less effectively in Kherson and Mariupol. As the cities are reduced to rubble, Russian forces have been drawn into brutal street-by-street fighting that requires huge amounts of manpower and resources to wage, slowly wearing down the Russian will to fight.
Some commentators have suggested that in light of Russian struggles, Putin may turn to nuclear weapons, but Professor van Creveld rejects this view.
As he explains, the use of nuclear weapons would do little in the way of helping Putin achieve his ultimate goal, which is to restore Russia as a great power on the world stage. After all, nuclear weapons did little to arrest Britain and France’s decline into second-tier powers, and North Korea’s continued nuclear provocations have only served to isolate the dictatorship even further from the global economy.
In his previous work, Dr. van Creveld has said that nuclear weapons cannot be “employed for waging war in any meaningful sense of that term.” In the case of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, he explains, Putin “knows that if even one nuclear weapon is used, then all are going to be used and he will not last for very long.” In other words – a revival of the Cold War “mutually assured destruction” deterrent.
However, even if nuclear weapons are off the table, Biden Secretary of State Antony Blinken has warned that the Russians may launch chemical weapons attacks. Again, though, van Creveld believes that these fears are overwrought. “They are not going to use them because these weapons are not very effective, and they are countermeasures” and not offensive weapons, he explains. “They were used in Syria but they did not end the war.”
Professor van Creveld believes that Putin has already reached the limits of what he could hope to gain from the war, and that committing more troops to Ukraine or escalating the conflict further would bog down Russia in a stalemate guerilla war reminiscent of Vietnam and Afghanistan for the United States.
Indeed, Dr. van Creveld, a student of history, believes that Putin has learned a great deal from the experiences of both the USSR and the United States in Afghanistan, as well as Western involvement in the Middle East generally since 9/11. It should be noted that van Creveld was a strident opponent of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq from the onset of the operation, going so far as to suggest that former President George W. Bush should be impeached and put on trial for the act.
“The goal of the conquerors is to create order and a condition [for the conquerors] to govern the country,” Dr. van Creveld explains. But, with any invasion, “instituting order is much more difficult than creating chaos.” This was the lesson American forces learned in Afghanistan: establishing a government and building a new society from scratch was a far more difficult task than the one the Taliban had, which was simply to wreak havoc and wait out the U.S.
The same situation is now setting in for Putin in Ukraine. “I do not see how the Russians are ever going to achieve the objective,” Dr. van Creveld says. “Sooner or later one side is going to give up, and I think it will be the Russians,” he says.
For the sake of the world, millions of Ukrainian citizens, and hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides forced into a war over one man’s ambitions, let us hope he is correct.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.