Three months of war: Russia underachieves, Ukraine overachieves
Updated May 24, 2022 at 10:36 AM ET
KYIV, Ukraine — Ben Hodges is a retired U.S. lieutenant general who visited Ukraine just days before Russia's invasion in February, when many expected a swift Russian victory.
"We were like, 'Hey, how come you guys aren't scurrying around getting ready?'" Hodges says. "And they're like, 'Well, you know, it's because we've been at war.'"
Back in 2014, Ukraine's military was no match for Russia's army when it launched its first incursion. But Ukraine has improved dramatically since then, Hodges says.
He witnessed this as commander of the U.S. Army Europe from 2014-17. The Americans sent troops to help train Ukraine's military. Now, he believes Ukraine is gaining the upper hand in this war.
"War is a test of will and it's a test of logistics," says Hodges, who's now at the Center for European Policy Analysis. "Clearly, the Ukrainians have the stronger will. And my assessment is that the logistical situation for them gets a little bit better every day, while for the Russians, it gets a little bit worse every day."
Russia invaded Ukraine three months ago, on Feb. 24. On almost every front, Russia has underachieved, while Ukraine has overachieved.
Yet both sides are now digging in, and neither appears capable of delivering a decisive blow right now. While both sides can point to successes and setbacks, there are growing signs the war could become a protracted stalemate.
Ukraine pushes back the Russians
The Ukrainian forces have excelled at playing strong defense. They've forced Russian retreats from the outskirts of Kyiv, the capital and the largest city, and more recently, they pushed the Russians back from Kharkiv, the second-largest city.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has scaled back his biggest aim, at least for now, of ousting Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy and his government and effectively taking over the country.
The main Russian goal now is to seize additional territory in the east and south of Ukraine, beyond what they've controlled for the past eight years.
Even these reduced goals are straining Russia's military, says Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general who's closely monitoring the war.
"If the Russians bog down and they're not able to get some kind of breakthrough in the coming weeks, the best the Russians can hope for is a long, drawn-out defensive campaign," says Ryan, the author of War Transformed.
Despite Russia's much larger army, Ukraine has neutralized the Russians on almost every front.
"They've been nibbling away at the Russians. They've been corroding them from within rather than taking them head on," he adds. "I think the Ukrainians are going to keep doing this."
The Russians advance in the east and the south
So the prospect of a major Russian advance appears less and less likely. But the Russians have captured two important southern cities — Mariupol and Kherson. Their offensive in the east has gained ground, albeit at a high cost to both sides. Zelenskyy said recently that the heavy fighting is claiming the lives of 50 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers a day in the east.
The Russians now control an unbroken swathe of Ukrainian territory from the Donbas region in the east, to Crimea in the south.
Still, a major offensive to dislodge the Russians would be a tall order.
"They're pretty smart. They're pretty capable," he says of Ukraine's military. "But putting together a large operation, let's say, to send five brigades in an attempt to encircle and then capture the city of Kherson. On paper, maybe they're able to do it. My guess is probably. But it's a question mark."
The Ukrainians have answered many questions raised by skeptics with three months of fierce resistance.
Consider the air war. Russia has a much larger and more modern air force. Yet Ukraine says it has shot down 200 of those aircraft. Most Russian pilots now avoid Ukrainian air space and only fire their weapons long distance — from the skies over Russia or the Black Sea.
"In the last month, the occupiers have rarely flown over territory controlled by Ukraine. They're preserving their equipment," said Ukraine's Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Yuriy Ignat.
He says Ukraine still needs additional jet fighters from NATO countries to replace their small, aging Soviet-era planes. But NATO has declined to provide them.
The U.S. and its allies have sent Ukraine other key weapons, and Ukraine in many ways has more firepower today than when the war began. With President Biden authorizing a $40 billion U.S. aid package over the weekend, military and economic assistance will continue to flow.
Three months ago, Russia was widely assumed to have the resources to grind down Ukraine in an extended war. Now some think the opposite is true.
"I don't know that the Russians have enough of any of those essential ingredients to win a war of attrition," says Hodges, the former U.S. Army commander in Europe.
Still, Russia is trying to entrench itself in southern Ukraine. It is establishing new, pro-Russian governments. According to Russian media, Moscow is introducing the Russian ruble as the local currency and cutting Ukrainian television broadcasts in these areas.
Russia is also using its warship in the Black Sea to block Ukrainian exports — including wheat, corn and other agriculture products that are the foundation of Ukraine's economy.
Many of the predictions three months ago were way off the mark. Ryan, the retired Australian general, says that makes him hesitant to say what will come next.
"War is uncertain and you cannot predict the outcome," he says. "I can only go on past performance of the Ukrainians, and their past performance at the political and the military strategic level has been excellent."
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1 . Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
On February 24, Russia invaded Ukraine. That's three months ago today. When those initial troops stormed across the border, many expected a Russian sprint to a swift victory. But when you look at the battlefield now, both sides appear to be digging in, and there's no end in sight. NPR's Greg Myre is in Ukraine's capital, Kyiv, and joins us now to break down where the war stands. Good morning, Greg.
GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.
FADEL: Hi. So, Greg, give us a headline here. Ninety days into Russia's war on Ukraine, how would you summarize the last three months?
MYRE: Russia has underachieved. Ukraine has overachieved. That's been the case on almost every front. But right now, neither side appears capable of a major breakthrough, a knockout blow. And there are growing signs that this could be a long, drawn-out stalemate. For some perspective, I called retired U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges. He also visited Ukraine just a few days before Russia invaded in February, and he was a bit surprised by how casual the Ukrainians were acting. But it reflected, he says, the confidence they had in their military now. Here's how he sees it today.
BEN HODGES: War is a test of will, and it's a test of logistics. Clearly, the Ukrainians have the stronger will. The logistical situation for them gets a little bit better every day, while for the Russians, it gets a little bit worse every day.
FADEL: So he sees trend lines favoring Ukraine. What are Ukraine's most important achievements so far?
MYRE: Well, Ukraine has really been outstanding at playing defense. They forced Russian President Vladimir Putin to abandon, at least for now, his main objective, which was to oust President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and effectively take control of the country. Now, remember, the Russians reached the outskirts of Ukraine's two largest cities early in the war - Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv in the northeast. In both cases, Ukrainians stopped the Russians in their tracks and ultimately forced them to retreat.
Here in Kyiv, Leila, the war is still very much present. There are soldiers in the streets. Government buildings are sandbagged. Air raid sirens still cry out daily. But people are going about their daily life. We see families in the parks, young people buzzing around on scooters. Kids are hanging out at the mall. The city is rapidly returning to normal. There's not an imminent sense of danger here.
FADEL: Very different than a couple of months ago when I was there. For all their problems, the Russians, though, have gained ground since the war began. How significant are their advances?
MYRE: Yeah, absolutely. The Russians have captured two important southern cities - Mariupol and Kherson. They've made some incremental advances in the east where the heaviest fighting is taking place. President Zelenskyy says 50 to a hundred Ukrainian troops are being killed there daily. The Russians now have this unbroken swath of Ukrainian territory from the Donbas region in the east to Crimea in the south. So Ukraine would need to make a major push to dislodge the Russians. And as I mentioned, they've shown this ability to play very good defense and had some limited offensive, but they haven't shown the ability to carry out major offensives.
FADEL: So what are Russia's aims now?
MYRE: Well, the goals are much more limited. They're building on territory they've controlled in the east and the south, dating back to 2014. But even these scale-back goals are straining Russia's military. This is according to Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general who's closely monitoring the war.
MICK RYAN: You know, if the Russians bog down and they're not able to get some kind of breakthrough in the coming weeks, the best the Russians can hope for is a long, drawn-out defensive campaign.
MYRE: So the Russians still have some real military advantages and just raw firepower. But time and again, Ukraine keeps finding ways to blunt them. Just consider the air war. Ukraine, which has a small air force, says it shot down 200 Russian aircraft. Most Russian pilots now avoid Ukrainian airspace altogether. They're simply firing their weapons from long distance, from the skies over Russia or the Black Sea. I spoke with Ukraine's Air Force spokesman. He's Lieutenant Colonel Yuri Ignat.
YURI IGNAT: (Non-English language spoken).
MYRE: So he says the Ukrainians shut down most of those Russian aircraft at the beginning of the war. In the last month, the Russians have rarely flown over Ukrainian-controlled territory. They're really trying hard to avoid losing any more planes, he says.
FADEL: Now, to put it mildly, this has been an intense and deadly three months. Yet wars - they can go on for years. How are the sides preparing for that possibility?
MYRE: Yeah, we are seeing it on both sides. Russia is really trying to entrench itself in southern Ukraine. In some of these areas that they've seized, they're setting up pro-Russian governments. They're also blocking Ukrainian exports, including the critical agricultural products like wheat and corn. It's using its warships in the Black Sea. And this is likely to become a major story in the coming weeks. And on the Ukrainian side, U.S. and NATO weapons continue to flow into Ukraine in massive quantities. The latest U.S. aid package of 40 billion means the military and economic aid will keep coming. And finally, talks to end this war have been suspended - another sign it may have a long way to go.
FADEL: NPR's Greg Myre joining us from Kyiv in Ukraine. Thank you so much for your reporting.
MYRE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.