The third - perhaps most critical - phase of war in Ukraine has just begun.
When the Russian tanks triumphantly rolled across the border back in Feburary, knocking down signposts on their way, the soldiers were told to be friendly to the locals and not expect opposition. This proved a spectacular misjudgement. Moscow had made two critical mistakes in those initial hours of the invasion which resulted in its hopes for a swift and decisive strike quickly falling apart.
One was tactical; a simple matter of timing that upset the plan to seize Kyiv's airport. The other, far more significant, was a completely unforeseeable intelligence blunder: the sudden transformation of Volodymyr Zelensky from a Russian-speaking television clown into the passionate leader of a nation at war.
Go to the timing first, because that provided the opportunity for Zelensky's metamorphosis, which not even his own generals had expected.
The west had been warning Kyiv of the coming invasion for months. Publicly, however, while Zelensky was dismissing these warnings his generals were taking them seriously. What's more, a stream of classified information and their own analysis had revealed exactly how the invasion would take place. Instead of moving slowly and deliberately, Vladimir Putin would attempt a rapid strike, thrusting deep at his enemy's capital.
The Russian plan was based on the assumption Ukraine's defences would fall apart because the hopelessness of opposing Moscow's juggernaut would be obvious. That's why sending small forces forward to decapitate Kyiv's leadership made sense. This war was meant to be over before it began.
Except it wasn't.
Putin appeared on early-morning television announcing the beginning of military operations. These were, he falsely claimed, to "protect the people of Donbas ... facing humiliation and genocide". Moments later a wave of missiles rained down across Ukraine. But this meant the dispatch of the first wave of heli-borne troops to seize airfields on the periphery of the capital was delayed, because missiles and helicopters can't share the same airspace. This gave the defenders just enough time to prepare for an assault. Instead of quickly occupying the bases and using them as a springboard for a drive on the capital, Moscow's forces found themselves fighting for their lives. Then a subsequent wave of cargo aircraft filled with armoured vehicles couldn't be flown in because the runways were still free-fire zones.
Groups of Chechen and Wagner mercenaries smuggled into the capital earlier had also failed to capture (or assassinate) Zelensky. And although the Russian armoured schwerpunkt rapidly broke through Ukrainian border-guard positions, as the vehicles proceeded down the wood-fringed highways they were targeted by small groups of carefully positioned stay-behind forces. These prepared ambushes, demolitions, destruction of fuel-replenishment convoys and, vitally, an inability to improvise resulted in a complete dislocation of the offensive plan within hours of it being unleashed.
Within hours it was obvious phase one, the capture of Kyiv and destruction of any resistance before it began, had failed. What Putin hadn't anticipated - nobody did - was that Zelensky would harness the media so effectively and become an inspiring beacon shining the way for widespread resistance.
With his initial plan in tatters Putin withdrew, regrouped and began phase two: a slow, grinding offensive that gradually, eventually, began to bear fruit. Ukrainian defensive positions were identified and blasted to smithereens. Then Russian forces would move carefully forward to occupy the ground. There was no finesse, but nor was there any decisiveness. Because the conflict's front-line was so long (an Australian equivalent would stretch, roughly, from Melbourne to beyond Brisbane) there was always the danger of rear echelon headquarters suddenly being destroyed by Ukrainian jets or artillery after being 'painted' by small units of special forces.
This has led to wild claims of losses on both sides but the truth is nobody knows how badly degraded either side's forces are. It's certain that massive numbers of Russians have been killed and wounded but estimates vary wildly. These range from 39,500 (Kyiv's claim) to 15,000 (Washington's total). While Ukrainian losses appear to have slowed from about 100 a week to around 30, stories of press-gangs checking credentials and effectively recruiting people off-the-street reveal even the defending forces are having difficulty filling the ranks with soldiers willing to risk their lives. This explains the increasing degeneration of this war into an artillery slogging-match. Neither side can afford to loose more troops and no soldier, on either side, wants to risk death in such a pointless conflict.
This is the vital question to be answered over the coming weeks as the conflict moves into its third stage. Are Moscow's soldiers prepared to continue dying, or will they surrender instead of defending their marginal gains against Kyiv's coming offensive? The assaulting forces themselves will, however, have problems of their own.
Instead of pressing attacks by throwing soldiers at entrenched defenders both sides have begun to rely on massive bombardments blasting their way through. This is a difficulty for the Ukrainians, who will not want to accidentally kill any civilians trapped in the buildings occupied by Russian forces.
This will make it virtually impossible for them to fight in built-up areas and require them to envelop the defenders and slowly starve them out. From a tactical point-of-view the side possessing the initiative will switch as the Russians should have the flexibility to decide if they will hold and fight or instead withdraw, wait for the Ukrainians to commit their forces, and then punch back.
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Soldiers on both sides have already been asked to do too much. If morale snaps in one unit it could spread rapidly, collapsing the will of either side to continue fighting. This is the desperate hope firing Zelensky as he prosecutes his coming offensive. He needs a quick win to inspire his forces, but even that will not guarantee victory.
Only one factor will decide if the war continues - Putin's determination.
No number of deaths on the battlefield are likely to shift this and nothing, it seems, can force him to accept defeat.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.
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