As Russia’s Position Collapses: What Ukraine Got Right, What I Got Wrong

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“Russia,” one social media wit quipped recently, “Went from having the second-best army in the world to having the second-best army in Ukraine.”

That might be an exaggeration, but if it is, it doesn’t exaggerate by much.

My, how times have changed since February.

What I’m trying to say is, I have maybe never been so happy to have my expectations reset so broadly and in such short order.

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Caution: The rest of this column contains brief instances of somewhat salty language, because sometimes that’s all that will do.

I’ve argued for months on this page that there was one real test of whether this war would end closer to Moscow’s terms or Ukraine’s: Could Ukraine take back territory that Russia chose to defend?

Weeks and months went by without that happening.

My opinion of Ukraine’s ability to conduct offensive operations was badly colored by their inability to fully capitalize on Russia’s Kyiv debacle in the opening weeks of the war.

Fighting in the Donbas showed that the Ukraine Army (UA) could conduct a fighting retreat like badasses, inflicting maximum harm while giving up minimum territory. Ukraine showed that they had a difficult time on the attack.

Putin left his balls out on the table — that 20-mile-long stalled convoy outside of Kyiv — and Ukraine had plenty of hammers, yet failed to deliver the damage to Putin’s package.

Had UA turned that convoy into another Highway of Death, it very well might have ended the war by end of March, early April. So while I respected the UA on the defense, you can see why I had doubts about their ability to switch to the offense.

After Vlad Putin’s failed Kyiv blitz, he redirected forces to Donbas and began that months-long grind that culminated on July 3. It was a World War I-style offensive, with high body counts and marginal gains — but Russia still made gains.

When, where would Ukraine show that they could do more than just slow down the Russians, but that they could kick them out?

Attacking, moving forward, not getting ambushed or encircled…offense is just a metric crapton more complex, more difficult than defense.

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UA hadn’t shown they could do it, so I remained a pessimist.

My main takeaway from our Iraq folly was…pessimism is too strong a word. Let’s just say I learned not to get my hopes up until real results are seen.

Kharkiv was a real result. A really impressive result.

It’s one thing for Ukraine’s soldiers to march unopposed into towns around Kyiv, once abandoned by Russian troops. That’s basically what happened when Russia’s Kyiv blitz failed. There wasn’t some great Ukrainian victory of arms — there was an embarrassing self-own as Russia bugged out after learning they lacked the means to supply a proper spearhead.

It’s quite another thing to order your forces forward to attack an entrenched enemy and root him out. But that’s exactly what happened in the Kharkiv Oblast over the last few days, and what is going on right now in the Donbas.

Here we are just a few months later, and UA achieved operational surprise, retaking 3,000 square kilometers in a couple of days and routing Russian forces. This doesn’t look like the same UA that let Putin retreat from Kyiv with his nutsack intact.

What changed?

Western weapons helped, maybe decisively. UA never gained the upper hand in sheer numbers of guns, but smart munitions — particularly Excalibur shells and HIMARS missiles — gave Kyiv the ability to reach deep into Russia’s logistics and squeeze them where it hurts. In fact, looking back, I’d say the tide turned when UA hit Saki Air Base in Russian-occupied Crimea. It wasn’t the destruction of a few warplanes that hurt; it was seeing that Ukraine’s reach exceeded Russia’s grasp.

As Ukraine’s deep strikes took out ammunition dumps, fuel depots, and the trucks and men needed to move them into battle, Russia’s frontline became a brittle thing — shattered by the first blow struck last week.

Yeah, we spent a lot of money helping make that happen. Maybe too much. But if this stunning reversal means no more major land wars in Europe again for another decade or three, then we’ll have gotten a major return on our investment.

I have yet to see this item confirmed by Russian sources, but if true, it’s a very big deal — a tacit admission that Putin’s gambit has failed.

What I do know for sure is, if I were in charge, I’d be hesitant to send in more men.

As General George C. Patton noted, wars are fought with weapons but they’re fought by men. The men (and women) of Ukraine manned up.

So mad props are due to an army that transformed itself from an unfunny joke in 2014 to a real defensive force by 2021, and into a serious practitioner of the operational art of war in the Summer of ’22.

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