The purpose of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was to overthrow the government in Kyiv, split NATO, and cement Moscow’s position as the formidable military machine of the 21st century and an irreplaceable energy giant that could use its oil and gas reserves to bully Europe.
Less than three months into the war, none of these goals were achieved. Instead, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tactics in Ukraine have backfired across the board, culminating in Thursday’s blockbuster announcement that Finland will abandon 75 years of neutrality and formally apply to join NATO.
Finnish leaders made no secret of explaining why their country shares an 833-mile border with Russia and why it is allied with Moscow’s top rival.
“You caused it. Look in the mirror,” Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said earlier this week in comments directed at the Kremlin.
Finland’s decision, and a similar statement from Sweden expected as soon as this week, is the exact opposite of what Putin had hoped for. By launching a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and threatening the West with nuclear war if they intervene, Russian leaders are pinning their hopes on a rupture within NATO. He seems to think that members of the coalition over how far they should provide military aid to Ukraine will paralyze the group and expose it as a paper tiger unable to act concretely when it matters most.
News out of Helsinki on Thursday proved Putin wrong. Not only will NATO usher in two new countries, but longtime NATO pillars like Germany have also announced significant increases in defense spending in response to Russian military action in Ukraine.
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Putin’s war has led directly to a massive increase in military spending in Berlin, accomplishing goals that have been unattainable by a bipartisan U.S. administration, including four years of aggressive public cajoling by former President Donald Trump. Indeed, Washington has for years urged Germany and other NATO members to increase defense spending to better prepare the continent for a potential showdown with Russia. Only when Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border did these European governments finally make a firm commitment.
Mr Putin may also believe that Europe will shy away from confronting Russia because of Russia’s reliance on Moscow for energy supplies. The Kremlin has a history of using energy as a weapon, and there is reason to believe Putin could cut off fuel supplies to countries that directly aid Ukraine.
Instead, the European Union unveiled an ambitious plan in March to wean itself off Russian oil and gas. Such a step would have seemed almost unthinkable just a few months ago, but it is yet another example of the unintended consequences of a Russian invasion.
“We must be independent of Russia’s oil, coal and gas. We simply cannot rely on suppliers who clearly threaten us,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in March.
But energy independence and NATO expansion do not necessarily mean a safer Europe, at least not in the short term.
Russia’s foreign ministry on Thursday warned of “retaliatory measures” for news of NATO’s growth. Other senior Russian officials have warned NATO and its soon-to-be members Sweden and Finland of increasing military aid to Ukraine.
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The officials even warned of a potential nuclear swap.
“There is always the risk of such a conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a situation that would be catastrophic for everyone,” said Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of the Russian Security Council.
The Russian military’s reputation is arguably the biggest toll from the Ukraine campaign. Its lightning offensive to capture Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in February failed within weeks. Russian troops withdrew from northern Ukraine and have since turned their attention to the disputed Donbass region in the east.
Russian troops have made modest progress in Donbass in recent weeks, capturing small villages and bombing major cities such as Mariupol, where an estimated 2,000 Ukrainian fighters remain hidden in the city’s sprawling steel mills. Their refusal to surrender keeps Moscow from taking full control of the city and building a land bridge to Crimea, which Russia forcibly annexed in 2014 and now uses it as a key staging ground.
Further north, Ukrainian forces launched a major counteroffensive this week, pushing Russian troops away from the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. Ukrainian military officials say the city is now beyond the range of Russian artillery.
More broadly, the war was a public test of Russia’s military, which was previously considered one of the most dangerous in the world. For years, Pentagon planning documents have listed Moscow as a major player in the 21st century’s “great power rivalry”, and the Ukraine conflict is Putin’s opportunity to show the world his state’s capabilities.
But the Russian military has failed in many areas. Perhaps most notably, the Russians have yet to gain air supremacy over Ukraine, a task most observers expect they can accomplish within days.
“We don’t assess that Russia has air superiority over Ukraine, we still assess that aerospace is controversial. One of the reasons it’s questioned is that the Ukrainians still have a viable air force,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said this week. , and they also possess very effective short-range and long-range air defense capabilities.
“And we know it’s having an impact on Russia because not only do they not have air superiority, but because of the kinds of flight profiles they fly,” he said. “Most of their dispatches never even left Russian airspace.”
The planes that ventured out of Russian airspace did not appear to be capable enough for the job.
“Their vehicles contain very little situational awareness and digital battle management,” British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace said in a speech this week. “Vehicles carrying paper maps of Ukraine from the 1980s are often found.”
“It was found that GPS receivers were affixed to the dashboards of downed Russian SU-34s, so the pilots knew where they were because their own systems were of poor quality,” he said.
Russian tanks didn’t fare much better. Social media was flooded with photos of blown up Russian vehicles, many of which were destroyed by American-made Javelin anti-tank missiles supplied to the Ukrainian military.
In the early days of the Kyiv campaign, Russian armored columns were idle for several days as they ran out of fuel. Western military observers were also surprised by the Russian military’s inability to properly camouflage its vehicles, making them easy targets for Ukrainian gunners.
All of these defeats make for a shocking scenario in which a Ukrainian victory once seen as a pipe dream now appears to be a reality. And the Russian military’s reputation may never be fully restored.
“This war is a disaster,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said earlier this week on “Fox News Sunday.” “You’ll see Russian troops handing their ass to them on the Ukrainian battlefield.”
– This article is partly based on Telegram service reports