Russia’s experience on Ukraine’s battlefields has been a bitter and bloody one.
More than 50 days into the conflict, U.S. defense officials believe that roughly one-fifth of the forces Russia brought to bear in Ukraine has been taken off the battlefield. Irreplaceable Russian assets, including a warship, have been rendered inoperable. The Russian assault on the city of Kyiv is lost, and Russia has withdrawn entirely from the northern front. Russian forces still haven’t managed to capture the strategic port city of Mariupol despite a brutal campaign of bombardment and ongoing efforts to clear the city of Ukrainian resistance street by street.
None of this was supposed to be. As the prospect of a Russian invasion loomed large last December, Radio Free Liberty’s Mike Eckel observed that “virtually no one expects Ukraine’s military to withstand a full Russian onslaught.” That conventional wisdom proved fatally flawed, but it was only the first of many widely shared assumptions that became casualties of this war.
Even as the region’s experts speculated that Ukraine would collapse soon after conventional hostilities with Russia commenced, many others dismissed the prospect of invasion altogether. Even in late February, almost on the eve of war, venerable institutions like Foreign Policy magazine, the Atlantic Council, and the BBC, along with lettered professors at Pacific Rim universities assured people that it wasn’t in Putin’s interest to invade Ukraine. His saber-rattling was just that. They weren’t wrong in their assessment of Russia’s interests, but they failed to properly ascertain Vladimir Putin’s disregard for material concerns.
When the Russian advance on Kyiv stalled, the conventional wisdom maintained that it was only a matter of time before Ukraine’s capital city fell to the invaders. Initially, the city was expected to fall within the first 96 hours of the war, but a lightning blitz on the city and an airborne assault on local airports failed. Ninety-six hours came and went, and American officials began predicting that the city would be sacked in days but only after a more conventional—and more terrible—bombing campaign targeting the city’s civilian and governmental infrastructure. That strategic bombing campaign never materialized. Even as Kyiv held on and asymmetrical attacks on Russian supply lines narrowed Moscow’s options, it was still assumed that the city would fall—eventually. With Kyiv surrounded on three sides and a sprawling resupply convoy streaming down from Belarus, one Sky News correspondent said, “the inevitable is going to come, and that is these cities will fall to Putin.”
The failures of imagination that contributed to these flawed assumptions are still apparent in many of the prevailing sentiments that continue to dominate the conventional wisdom around this conflict. Among them, the idea that Western material support for Ukraine’s struggle against Moscow must be circumspect lest the West provoke Russia to risk a direct engagement with NATO. To its credit, the Biden administration seems open to putting this popular consensus to the test.
Since Moscow withdrew its forces from Ukraine’s north with the expectation that the new strategy involved a concentrated assault on the nation’s east, Volodymyr Zelensky has lobbied the West for a new form of support. Ukraine’s foremost need now wasn’t defensive anti-tank weaponry designed to slow mechanized advances on its cities. What Ukraine needed now, he said, was heavy equipment: long-range artillery and rockets, anti-ship missiles, air-defense systems, helicopters, armored personnel carriers, tanks, and the like. These are not the tools of an insurgency conducting hit-and-run operations against an unquestionably superior foe. These are the weapons an army uses to fight conventional, set-piece battles against a peer force.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill pressured the White House to provide beleaguered Ukrainian forces with at least some of what Zelensky requested, even if those weapons systems required training and support from NATO personnel. That, the White House initially believed, was a step too far—a move that Putin might interpret as direct NATO involvement in the conflict and therefore a license to respond in kind. The White House has abandoned its prior commitment to that reasonably cautious approach.
This week, the administration announced that it would grant Zelensky’s request with the provision of 115-millimeter howitzers and 40,000 rounds, switchblade tactical drones, and even Mi-17 transport helicopters to Ukraine. This change of heart complements a tactical shift ongoing in NATO’s European capitals. Recently, the Czech Republic released heavy-armor and infantry-fighting vehicles to Ukrainian custody. The U.K. announced that it would transfer anti-aircraft missiles and precision loitering munitions to its partners in Kyiv. A fierce debate rages within the German government over whether it, too, will provide “more military material, especially heavy weapons” to the front.
All this suggests a pearl of new conventional wisdom is replacing the old—one that may be just as flawed as its predecessors but is justified in its audacity. That is the assumption that Ukraine could actually win.
Today, few could envision the circumstances that would produce such an outcome. Most observers of the conflict can’t foresee a successful Ukrainian mechanized assault on the positions Russia currently occupies. They can’t imagine how Kyiv recaptures the coastline along the Sea of Azov. They can’t conceive of a counteroffensive that relieves the pressure on Kharkiv and Mariupol, much less the liberation of long-occupied territories such as Crimea and the Donbas. There is no basis yet for such a pie-eyed view of this conflict’s trajectory.
But the war in Ukraine has surprised the experts. Few predicted that Russia would invade when it did, that it would fail as it has, and that Ukraine would endure as it has. None could have predicted the extent of Western support for Ukraine, and even fewer had such a low opinion of Russia’s strategic capabilities that they thought Moscow would fail to respond to Western provocations. The assumptions that underwrote the West’s circumspect approach to prosecuting a proxy war against Russia inside Ukraine were wrong. It is time they were replaced with new assumptions.