A month into the war, it’s worth asking – and not just out of curiosity. Eliot Cohen, the distinguished US military historian, insists Ukraine is winning and that western countries’ gloomy inability to admit it is blunting what should be a more decisive strategy to help Zelensky’s government seize the day and send the Russians home.
Here are some of Cohen’s reasons:
- Russia hasn’t taken any big cities.
- It doesn’t control much territory either: red blobs on maps “reflect not what the Russians control but the areas through which they have driven”.
- Ukrainian forces are retaking territory west of Kyiv.
- Ukrainian forces – and farmers – defeated an attack by seasoned Russian combat troops on Voznesensk in the south.
- US intelligence conservatively estimates Russia has lost 7,000 soldiers.
- That would suggest a total of 30,000 killed and wounded and therefore off the battlefield, or a fifth of its invasion force.
- Most Russian airborne assaults with paratroopers have failed.
- Russia has failed to destroy Ukraine’s much smaller air force.
- Ukraine has the benefit of “exquisite” US intelligence on Russian intentions and operations.
- At least six Russian generals and the deputy commander of the Black Sea fleet are reported killed.
- There have been no Russian cyber attacks of note…
- … and no Ukrainian capitulations.
A peculiar omission from Cohen’s list – because he is the author of a bestselling book on successful civilian war leaders (Lincoln, Clemenceau, Churchill and Ben-Gurion) – is Ukraine’s not-so-secret secret weapon, Volodymyr Zelensky. His refusal to leave Kyiv or contemplate surrender has inspired his people, and his T-shirted appeals to foreign parliaments have helped to ensure a steady supply of essential weapons.
- There are telling signs of dissent in Moscow. Yesterday Anatoly Chubais, the oligarch who privatised Russia and gave Putin his first job in Moscow, was seen taking cash out of an ATM in Istanbul. He has effectively defected. There are unconfirmed reports of plotting against Putin within the FSB that has served as his power base for 20 years, and a senior Russian separatist commander in Donetsk has called Putin’s assessment of Ukraine’s will to fight “catastrophically incorrect”.
- There are telling signs of life in Kyiv. The Economist reports today that traffic is returning to its streets and bread to its shops. Petrol is no longer rationed, queues at pharmacies are getting shorter and the hryvnia’s exchange rate (unlike the ruble’s) is close to where it was on 24 February.
Cohen’s argument is that defence specialists who have made a careful study of Russian military modernisation are – intellectually at least – reluctant to give up on it. Against this
- Russia’s army is an artillery army and despite its losses that artillery remains horrifyingly effective;
- Reports of Ukrainian fightbacks can turn out to be exaggerated (as in Makhariv, west of Kyiv, which the government claimed to have recaptured while fighting against dug-in Russian troops continued); and
- Putin is Putin.
Few people inside or outside Russia believed he would actually invade. Few now would bet against him escalating.
Continue reading in today’s Sensemaker.