And behind it all is the threat of nuclear weapons.
Ukraine appears to be making progress in the war that has been going on since February, recently blowing up the only bridge that connects Russia to Crimea, and thus Ukraine. On paper, Russia is much stronger than Ukraine – so how on earth did Russian forces end up on the retreating front?
“There are clearly many reasons why the Russians are under pressure. But underestimating Ukraine’s fighting spirit and capacity, as well as the external support it receives, is fundamental,” says Jo Jakobsen, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science at NTNU.
At the same time, the Russians overestimated their own will and fighting ability. This happened both during their preparations and from the start of the fighting, ”explains the professor.
“From the start, the Russians aimed to strike and win quick victories on several fronts, including in the north around Kyiv, in the east, in the southeast and in the south. Some of the problems we are seeing now probably stem from this decision not to recognize what was just too much to bear,” says Jakobsen.
Armament rack designed for a long war
We must not forget that Russia still controls about 17-18% of Ukrainian territory and that Ukrainian progress does not necessarily last.
“Recent Ukrainian successes do not mean continued progress. Reclaimed territories must now be consolidated and defended. The available evidence indicates that this is a war that will continue – for a long time,” says Jakobsen.
External military support from the West is also designed to create a long-term war – at least if we simplify the picture a bit.
External military support is “in fact about making sure Ukraine doesn’t lose, because supporters know that an overt loss from Russia would also bring significant challenges,” says Jakobsen.
The best option for world peace is therefore not necessarily an overt loss of Russia.
Russia under pressure could escalate war in Ukraine
“This is a war Putin cannot afford to lose if he and his regime are to maintain their political position in Russia. Americans and many other countries fear that a pressured and desperate Russian regime may choose to escalate the war. Russia has the capability,” says Jakobsen.
Wars that include outside intervention in the form of weapons support often follow this pattern.
“Support increases when the supported country encounters problems, and the other party has the capacity to mobilize additional resources if necessary,” says Jakobsen.
He thinks the civil war in Syria is an example of a war lasting longer than it otherwise would have due to outside intervention.
The United States does not want to be seen as direct participants in the war
Ukraine obviously wants as many supporting weapons as possible, like more rocket launcher systems, called HIMARS, more long-range missiles and fighter jets. But the limit of support is dictated by the desire of the USA not to take too big a risk.
The main objective of the United States is to avoid being seen as a direct participant in the war, explains the professor.
Russia, in its way of preparing and calibrating its war, has parallel major capacity problems.
“Moscow sees this as a ‘limited military operation,’ which we can interpret to mean that Russia is fighting with half or even two-thirds of its military resources,” Jakobsen said.
Russian military forces need to make deep changes
Several sources cite mismanagement as the reason for Russia’s dire situation. The units do not communicate with each other. Soldiers are not encouraged to think for themselves, but must strictly obey orders even when they do not serve their purpose.
“The war demonstrated the need for deeper changes in the Russian armed forces. It seems quite clear that the regime has overestimated how far military defense has come in terms of modernization, despite the changes that have been made in recent years, and especially after the war against Georgia in 2008,” says Jakobsen.
He thinks the problems with military leaders are also evident. Generals are dismissed or killed on the battlefield. Combat morale suffers because war is so hard to justify.
The losses are important and many soldiers are not paid. Here, too, the leaders underestimated Ukraine and the arms supply of Western countries.
But the weaknesses are not solely the fault of the military. Far from there.
“Russia is an authoritarian state with a lot of nepotism and corruption. These factors contribute both to political interference in military strategic and tactical decisions and to declining military effectiveness,” Jakobsen said.
The Russian propaganda machine has its hands full right now explaining the setbacks of the past few days, and indeed the past few months, he says.
“If they don’t succeed, the press and criticism of the regime will grow. Putin and his people could then face an existential problem,” says Jakobsen.
Russia’s fluctuating war fight
Russia partially made up for the weak leadership of previous wars – such as the World Wars and in Finland – by increasing the number of troops.
However, Russia cannot do so as long as internal political considerations force the regime to insist that the war is only a limited military operation. Will Putin have to start calling the war by its real name and therefore mobilize?
“Russia has a long history of progress, followed by regression, followed again by progress, etc. They suffered dramatic losses, as in the war against Japan in 1904-1905 and in the First World War, followed by revolutions; they demonstrated a lack of combat power during the Winter War against Finland and the Nazi German invasion, followed by the mobilization of the country’s significant resources,” says Jakobsen.
The Russians expand and collapse, and have done so many times.
“The Russians show enormous heroism in war – before they prove otherwise. Their technological and military organization is both sophisticated and backward.
So what does all this mean for Ukraine? Essentially, that means we can’t predict what’s going to happen.
The result in Ukraine will also determine the future of Russia
“The war will define the future of Russia. The state and the regime could collapse, and then Russia will no longer be a superpower for the foreseeable future, until they eventually return to normal. Either the war is resolved in a way that is acceptable to Moscow, and Putin continues to cling to power, in dramatic opposition to the West,” Jakobsen says.
We can’t be sure, but Putin could face long-term setbacks by fully mobilizing. This would mean that the Russians would ultimately have to call the war a war.
“It would be an admission of failure, but it might be necessary in the end, because the lack of personnel is very serious,” says Jakobsen.
Could Russia play the atomic bomb card?
True, Russia still has several conventional resources that it has not used. The country also has unconventional resources – so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons – which Putin has threatened to use.
This is probably what scares people the most, according to Jakobsen.
“The atomic bomb card has proven to be very effective. The common knowledge that Russia is a nuclear power allowed the Russians to protect themselves to carry out their invasion,” explains the professor.
For this reason, the United States and other nations made it clear early on that under no circumstances would they support Ukraine directly on the battlefield with their own soldiers.
The underlying nuclear threat also means that the United States and others are capping their support for Ukraine. The Ukrainians do not have long-range missiles that could be used to strike deep inside Russia, or in Crimea. They also do not receive fighter jets or similar equipment.
“The big question is how Putin plans to go from threatening to use nuclear weapons to, in desperation, actually using them,” Jakobsen said.
Such a Russian strike could happen either on the battlefield or in some other way to demonstrate what they are capable of if they so choose.
“We don’t know Putin’s thinking well enough, and we especially don’t know what his thinking is as Russia faces the possibility of losing the entire war,” Jakobsen said.