Tue. May 17th, 2022
Putin thought Russia’s military could capture Kyiv in 2 days, but it still hasn’t in 20
  • Putin thought Russia’s military could capture Kyiv in 2 days, but it still hasn’t in 20.
  • Ukraine’s capital city has held strong, despite fighting in the outskirts and enduring shelling.
  • CIA Director Bill Burns said last week that Putin’s two-day plan to capture Kyiv seems to have failed.

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion on February 24, he expected a swift and decisive victory, seeming to believe his own propaganda about the strength of his armed forces and people’s willigness to fight for a country, Ukraine, that he has defined as an integral part of his own.

Within minutes of his televised war declaration, explosions were reported across Ukraine — including in the capital city, Kyiv, home to nearly 3 million people.

CIA Director Bill Burns told lawmakers last week that Putin’s strategy for the war was centered on “seizing Kyiv within the first two days of the campaign.” US intelligence likewise assessed that the city could fall soon after the invasion.

It has now been roughly three weeks. Instead of quickly conquering Ukraine, the Russian military made strategic mistakes — failing to take out the country’s air defenses; deploying tens of thousands of troops without adequate supply lines — and were met by a steadfast Ukrainian resistance that was underestimated by Washington and Moscow alike.

Frustrated, Russian forces have resorted to tactics seen in Syria and Chechnya before: all-out attacks on civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and apartment buildings, in an apparent effort to demoralize a population that has not greeted them as liberators or surrendered.

“It seems obvious Putin was sold a bill of goods by his intelligence services,” Michael Weiss, news director at New Lines magazine and director of special investigations at the Free Russia Foundation, told Insider. Lending credence to that theory is that, according to independent Russian news outlet Meduza, leaders of Russia’s foreign intelligence service have been placed under house arrest since the invasion.

But after more than two decades of consolidating power, it is also possible that Putin’s intelligence officials knew well enough that the fight for Ukraine would not be easy “but they didn’t want to tell him the truth,” Weiss said, “that Ukraine in 2022 is not Ukraine 2014 — and he [Putin] mobilized the entire country over the last eight years to resist Russia.”

When Russia seized Crimea in 2014 and deployed forces to wrestle eastern Ukraine from Kyiv’s control, it was exploiting the weakness of a country in turmoil, its pro-Russian president having just fled the country after a deadly crackdown failed to disperse a mass protest movement — one sparked by the country’s leadership backing out of a trade deal with the European Union and cozying up to Moscow instead. Since then, Ukraine’s military has been rebuilt, professionalized by training from NATO members like the US and hardened by battles with Russian-backed forces in the east.

Maria Snegovaya, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, told Insider that Putin was “clearly lacking good information on the ground.” But bad intelligence doesn’t necessarily explain the invasion or the failure to grapple with a Ukraine that has changed over the last eight years.

“It’s a personalistic system — ultimately what matters is what Putin thinks,” she said, “and there’s multiple indications that many members of the broader elite were not prepared for what was coming.”

“Putin, personally, is obsessed with Ukraine,” Snegovaya said. And instead of admitting setbacks or failed strategies, “Instead Putin doubles down, right? It’s clear that there’s issues with information, but also his ability to process this information, frankly, at this point.”

Ukrainian servicemen aim with their weapons at a moving car from underneath a destroyed bridge in the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 13, 2022.

Ukrainian servicemen aim with their weapons at a moving car from underneath a destroyed bridge in the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 13, 2022.

Aris Messinis/Getty Images

Corruption, hubris, and a stalled offensive

Military conflict with Russia was not just something Ukraine was preparing for but something it was already engaged in. Three weeks of direct conflict with the largest military in Europe has also exposed another thing working in Ukraine’s favor: corruption.

In a letter last week, Ukraine’s top anti-corruption official thanked the head of Russia’s military — only half-jokingly — for allowing his forces to be undermined by embezzlement. 

Massive Russian military convoys on their way to Kyiv have been held at bay by Ukrainian troops, and were even stalled in their tracks at one point.

Meanwhile, intense fighting has raged on the outskirts of Kyiv, and the Pentagon said some Russian jets are avoiding Ukrainian airspace out of fears that they will be shot down by Ukraine’s air defense systems. 

Russia as a result has ramped up its attacks on civilian targets, bombarding towns near Kyiv and launching airstrikes on residential buildings in the city itself. 

The relentless assault on Kyiv has not yet forced the departure of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has routinely posted videos of himself from the capital repeating his pledge to remain in the city.

US intelligence has even reversed its predictions for when the city could possibly fall, saying Kyiv could hold out for weeks.

Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at the research organization CNA, said Ukraine is taking advantage of urban environments to thwart Russian assaults. 

“Ukrainian forces are leveraging the urban terrain smartly, ambushing, and engaging in small unit tactics,” Kofman wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “They’re forcing Russian forces into a fight where mass or a larger cohesive force doesn’t convey advantage, trading space for time.”

He added that Russia’s military was “not built for this war,” and said “in terms of manpower, readiness, and logistics, it was not designed to sustain strategic ground offensives or hold large tracts of terrain, especially in a country the size of [Ukraine].”

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