Why Putin’s war isn’t going as planned

Steve Nystrom, Journal guest columnist

Russian President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated, “the breakup of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th Century.” Putin’s worldview has three major goals: survival of his regime, the end of American hegemony, and reinstatement of Russia as a world power.

Putin views Ukrainian President Zelenskyy’s pro-western government as a direct threat to his authoritarian rule. After being appointed Russia’s President by Boris Yeltsin in late 1991, Putin used KGB tactics to tighten his domestic control by taking over the media, using Russia’s security services to arrest or eliminate political opponents, and by reigning in the wealthy Russian oligarchs.

To end America’s military dominance, Putin rebuilt the Russian military by deploying new weapons including the Zircron hyper-sonic missile, the S-400 Triumph surface-to-air missile system, and the Iskander shortrange ballistic missile.

Each of these weapons is specifically designed to defeat NATO’s modern air and ballistic missile defenses and make the West think long and hard before trying to stop Russian military interventions in the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Ukraine, or throughout the Middle East in places like Syria. Finally, Russian President Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping formed an alliance aimed at weakening America’s influence as a world power.

Instead, Putin and Xi want the world divided into “spheres of influence” with Russia dominating Eurasia, China dominating the Asia-Pacific region, and the U.S. presiding over the Americas.

Putin expected a rapid military victory to oust the government of President Zelenskyy and enable him to install a pro-Russian puppet government that would subjugate the Ukrainian people and ensure Ukraine would never become an EU or NATO member. After annexing Crimea, Putin used separatist forces, private military contractors (mercenaries), little green men (Spetsnaz commandos), and conventional military forces to gain control of the pro-Russian Donbas region along the Russian-Ukrainian Border. This enabled him to use “false flag” operations to invade Ukraine to protect the lives of Russian nationals and pro-Russian Ukrainians allegedly being persecuted.

The backbone of Putin’s Army attacking Ukraine consists of 120 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) which typically contain a company of 10 main battle tanks, a battalion of 40 infantry fighting vehicles, 36 squads of soldiers or 360 infantrymen, and supporting artillery and air defense assets to enable the BTGs to move quickly and achieve decisive battlefield victories. Putin and his military leaders were counting on pro-Russian separatists to provide battlefield intelligence (what’s over the next hill), flank and rear security to protect supply lines from Ukrainian attacks, and the logistics (fuel, food, and water) to keep his BTGs moving to topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government.

So, what happened? Well, there is an old saying in the Department of Defense, “the enemy has a vote.” When many Ukrainians fled the Donbas region to escape the violence that started in earnest in 2014, they relocated to larger cities, such as Kyiv and Dnipro and warned their compatriots of the horrors of living under Russian rule. Many Ukrainians suffered under Nazi occupation during WWII and later under Soviet domination and oppression during the Cold War. Hence, President Zelenskyy and his fellow Ukrainian citizens decided “they would rather die on their feet, than live on their knees.” Finally, relying on pro-Russian separatists for intelligence, security, and logistics worked well in the eastern Donbas region, but not in the vast majority of central and western Ukraine where the Russian’s are despised.

By supplying Ukrainians Javelin antitank missiles, approximately Russian 31 BTGs have been destroyed or are combat ineffective. The NATO supplied Stinger anti-aircraft missiles have limited the ability of Russia’s air force to provide close air support to BTGs battling Ukrainian forces, to move troops around the battlefield to critical locations when needed, and to resupply Putin’s war machine. As the attack stalled, Putin changed strategy and ordered Russian forces to encircle Ukrainian cities and conduct siege operations with aircraft and long-range artillery to kill and injure as many innocent civilians as possible, thereby, forcing President Zelenskyy to sue for peace. Remember, the longer this conflict drags on, the more trouble politically and militarily Putin will be in.

What NATO needs to do now is to provide Ukraine with larger, more powerful Russian made weapons from former Warsaw Pact Countries and current NATO members. Russian weapons are easier to use and maintain, and most importantly, the men and women who served in Ukraine’s armed forces were trained to use Russian weapons – meaning they could be of immediate use in stopping Putin’s army.

Larger Russian made weapons systems that the Ukrainian’s are asking for include the S-300 surface to air missile system, the Turkish made Bayraktar TB2 UAVs (some of which are already being used by the Ukrainians), long-range artillery, and possibly MIG-29 Fulcrum aircraft. These systems will be effective but will take longer to smuggle into country and take more time to be assimilated into Ukraine’s armed forces.

Next: What the long-term implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will be regarding NATO’s future, China’s military options regarding Taiwan, and efforts to curb nuclear proliferation worldwide.

Editor’s note: Steve Nystrom is a lifelong resident of Marquette. He enrolled in Northern Michigan University’s ROTC Program, received a Master of Arts Degree in Defense Administration and was commissioned as an Armor officer in 1986. He was later transferred to the Army’s Military Intelligence Branch. He left the Army and joined the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1992 and went to work for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 1996. His career included multiple deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired in 2017 as a senior analyst with NGA.


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