Less than a week after the start of the war: expectations and surprises


After spending two years helping Ukraine reform its defense system, conducting field research in Georgia to study the 2008 Russo-Georgian war, and field research in the Baltic countries to study their efforts to deter Russian aggression, I had my own thoughts on how a Russian invasion might play out.

During the first week of the war, everything went according to plan, but there were also a few surprises.

justification for war

Russia has tried to justify its previous invasions of Georgia and Ukraine under the international Responsibility to Protect standard, calling the invasions a protection of South Ossetians, Crimeans and ethnic Russians from the Ukrainian genocide. (or Georgian).

Thus, Russia was expected to attempt to justify the invasion of Ukraine in the same way, regardless of the credibility of the claim.

It went as planned. The Biden administration has warned against false flag operations, taking this option off the table for Vladimir Poutine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Ramil Sitdikov/AFP/Getty Images

Then, based on ceasefire violations reported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, it appears that Russia ordered separatists from the self-declared republics to dramatically increase artillery, snipers elite and other attacks along the Line of Contact (the ceasefire line in the Donbass) to provoke a Ukrainian response.

When Ukraine did not take the bait, Putin simply recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions so he could justify the invasion as coming in defense of sovereign territories.

At the same time, Putin claimed that Ukraine was committing “genocide” against Russian speakers, despite the lack of evidence to support this claim.

Russian territorial gains

Ukraine had to defend against 190,000 Russian forces organized along the 1,898-mile land border it shares with Russia and Belarus (from which Russia also organized troops to launch its attack) without knowing when or where Russia would concentrate its attack.

This would be the equivalent of Canada defending against a US attack along the western border from Minnesota to Washington (1,874 miles).

It would be unrealistic to expect Ukraine to hold back Russian forces on the border and on the line of contact.

As in its previous invasions, Russia was to use cyber and electronic warfare before the invasion to cripple Ukraine’s command and control networks, then use air, missile, artillery and rocket attacks. to support his ground assault.

It went mostly as planned, but there were a few surprises.

Russia’s cyberwarfare and electronic warfare have been less effective than expected. And although Russia has made progress in Ukraine, it is not where I expected.

Ukrainian servicemen search and recover unexploded shells after a fight with a Russian raiding party in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv
Ukrainian servicemen search and recover unexploded shells after fighting with a Russian raiding party in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev on the morning of February 26, 2022. Photo: Segei Supinski/AFP

Not knowing Putin’s strategic goals, I thought that Russia might limit its invasion to the Donbass region with the aim of expanding the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic to include all of the Oblasts.

This would allow Putin to demonstrate Western weakness in preventing an invasion while provoking a much more muted Western response, since some nations, like Germany, which have generally avoided sanctioning Russia, would use the fact that the conflict was limited in the Donbass region to justify a lukewarm response.

It didn’t go as I expected, as Russia’s greatest advances were in the north and south, with little expansion in the east.

Rigorous Ukrainian resistance

In 2014, Ukraine was completely unprepared for its fight against Russian-led separatists in the Donbass. His army has been described as being in a “decrepit” state after being drained by decades of corruption. Yet the nation is showing an exceptional will to fight, even if its capacity is lacking.

Over the past eight years, Ukraine has made significant reforms to its defense system while acquiring critical weapon systems such as Javelin anti-tank missiles.

With reforms to how it organizes, trains, educates and equips its force, I expected Ukrainian forces to outmatch the Russians tactically, as the Georgians have often done in their warfare.

It appears to be going according to plan, with US officials believing that Russia is facing stronger resistance than expected.

The air campaign

I expected Russia’s air defenses to force Ukraine to immobilize its air forces. Yet surprisingly, the Ukrainian Air Force retained the ability, at least to some degree, to fly and engage Russian targets. And Ukrainian airspace is still flagged as contested despite Russia’s claims that it has claimed air superiority.

Likewise, I expected the Ukrainian air defences, aided by the recent transfer of Stinger missiles from Lithuania, to inflict enough casualties in the early days of the war to cause Russia to drastically reduce its number of sorties.

During the 2008 Five-Day War, Georgia shot down up to 22 Russian aircraft, causing Russia to reduce its number of sorties.

Thus, I expected Russia to fly its planes again until it suffered an unacceptable number of casualties, in which case it would drastically reduce its number of sorties and instead rely on rockets and missiles.

Ukraine claimed to have shot down 27 fighter jets and 26 helicopters, although precise information is difficult to obtain.

Either way, it looks like the airspace remains contested and casualties will continue to mount as long as sorties are flown.


The penalties following the 2014 invasion were relatively modest. The fact that Russia is due to hold world championships in volleyball, shooting and hockey in 2022, just six years after its illegal annexation of Crimea and its continued support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, testifies the relatively small price Russia paid for its previous invasion.

Similarly, despite its 2008 invasion of Georgia, the International Olympic Committee allowed Russia to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi which it awarded in 2007.

Before the war, President Biden threatened that Russia would “pay a heavy price” for any invasion, so sanctions were expected to be swift and severe.

Yet despite months of planning for sanctions after the invasion, the sanctions offered in the first two days were extremely weak and accurately described by one analyst as the equivalent of taking “a peashooter for a shootout.”

A Ukrainian soldier in the town of Schastia, near the eastern city of Lugansk
A Ukrainian soldier in the town of Schastia, near the eastern city of Lugansk, on February 22, 2022. Photo: Aris Messinis/AFP

However, the momentum has picked up recently, with the West agreeing to kick out some Russian banks for SWIFT payment systems. This resulted in a 30% fall in Russian rubble against the dollar and the Russian central bank more than doubled its key rate from 9.5 to 20%.

So in less than a week, while the war may not have gone as Putin had expected, much of it could have been anticipated by studying his previous invasions and Ukrainian military reforms over the past six last years.

While there have been a few surprises so far, there will no doubt be many more in the days, weeks, or months to come as this unfortunate war continues to unfold.

Portrait of Liam Collinsdr. Liam Collins (@LiamSCollins) is the executive director of the Viola Foundation, the executive director of the Madison Policy Forum, a senior fellow at New America, and a permanent member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

He is co-editor of the recently published publication Routledge Handbook of U.S. Counterterrorism and Irregular Warfare Operations and co-editor of the next Understanding Urban Warfare.

From 2016 to 2018, Liam served as Managing Director to General (Retired) John Abizaid on his appointment to the Secretary of Defense as Chief Defense Adviser in Ukraine.

In this post, he met with hundreds of Ukrainian officials, including their president, the minister of defense and the chief of staff of the armed forces.

In the United States, he met with many officials, including the National Security Advisor, Secretary of Defense, senior State Department officials and the House Armed Services Committee.

He has conducted field research in the Baltic countries and in Georgia and is the author of numerous articles and reports. More recently, he conducted interviews with BBC World News and Radio-Canada News to discuss the current situation.

Liam served in the US Army for 27 years. As a career Special Forces officer, he conducted multiple operational and combat deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia, South America and the Horn of Africa.

Liam retired from the military in 2019 as founding director of the Modern War Institute and director of the Department of Military Instruction at the United States Military Academy at West Point.

The author of dozens of articles and reports related to terrorism and conflict, Liam’s work has been cited by the President’s Assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, the White House Press Secretary, The New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, ABC News, Fox News, NPR, The Wall Street Journal and USA today.

He holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering (Aerospace) from the United States Military Academy, a Masters in Public Affairs and a Ph.D. from the School of Public and International Affairs at the University from Princeton.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflectand the editorial position of The Defense Post.

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