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Against all odds: How Russia is failing in Ukraine

Roman Goncharenko
December 27, 2022

Before the invasion, many experts expected a quick victory for Russia in its war on Ukraine. But over the last 10 months, in the air and at sea, Moscow has failed to prove its superiority.

A downed Russian plane smokes in a snowy field in Ukraine's Donetsk region in March 2022
Ukrainian sources have said Russia has lost hundreds of aircraft and helicopters since the war beganImage: REUTERS

When Russia began amassing its troops along the border with Ukraine about a year ago, many Western experts and politicians believed Kyiv would fall within a few days of an invasion. This also seemed to be Russia's assumption.

But when Russian troops advanced to the outskirts of the capital in the first days of the war, they were halted by the Ukrainian army and forced to withdraw. Those miscalculations continue to reverberate to this day. Though Russian President Vladimir Putin has not directly admitted to it, in early December he seemed to be preparing his country for a long war.

Russia's air sovereignty has been deflated

Several expectations did not materialize after the February invasion. It was thought that Russia would quickly gain air sovereignty by eliminating both the Ukrainian Air Force and air defenses, an assumption that may have been based on previous observations in eastern Ukraine.

When war broke out in the eastern Donbas region in 2014, with Russia denying any involvement, Ukraine took heavy losses of planes and helicopters in the first few months, and opted not to use those that remained. The Ukrainian Air Force was virtually eliminated.

Things have gone quite differently in recent months, however. The February 28 announcement by Russian Defense Ministry that the country had claimed sovereignty over Ukraine's entire airspace turned out to be false. While it remains true that the Russian Air Force is clearly superior in terms of size and technology, Ukraine still maintains intact aircraft and helicopters despite numerous missile attacks on military airports and combat operations on the front lines. Its air defenses are growing stronger, too.

Ukrainian sources have said Russia has lost hundreds of aircraft and helicopters since the war began. Though these claims cannot be independently confirmed, Western intelligence services also point to significant losses for the Russian Air Force, which is operating on a limited basis at the front lines and no longer venturing deep into Ukraine's interior. Instead, Russia is using an increasing number of drones and missiles that are also being intercepted more and more effectively by Ukrainian air defenses. Kyiv owes much of this to continued Western aid.

Faltering fleet on the Black Sea

Russia also clearly outmatches Ukraine at sea. In 2021, Moscow twice conducted training exercises in the annexed Crimea Peninsula, landing troops. The exercises raised fears that the Kremlin would launch an offensive in southern Ukraine and move toward Odesa, using warships to bring large troop formations and armored personnel carriers ashore. Not only has this not come to pass, experts are now skeptical that it will ever happen.

Russian troops come ashore on a Crimean beach in April 2021
Russia launched military exercises on the beaches of Crimea in April 2021Image: Vadim Savitsky/Russian Defense Ministry Press Service/AP/picture alliance

"Amphibious landings are very risky," said Marc DeVore, a senior lecturer on international defense policy at the University of St. Andrews, adding that it requires a significant overmatch in capabilities. Russia has apparently been looking for landing opportunities but hasn't found an "unprotected beach," he said.

While Russian troops managed to occupy the small and strategically important Snake Island southwest of Odesa after gathering warships offshore at the start of the invasion, Ukraine managed to drive them out with targeted artillery attacks in late June.

In fact, Russia's Black Sea fleet has so far proved to be one of the biggest losers in the war. The flagship cruiser Moskva was damaged by Ukrainian missiles in April and later sank. A month earlier, the landing ship Saratov also sank after it was hit by a Ukrainian missile in the port of Berdyansk in the Sea of Azov.

Black Sea Fleet warships have since maintained a greater distance from the coast, which remains controlled by Kyiv. They are also no longer safe at the Russian naval base in Sevastopol, where Ukraine has attacked both the headquarters and ships with drones. But the fleet is not completely out of commission — ships continue to attack Ukraine with cruise missiles from a safe distance.

A satellite image of the Moskva in the Sevastapol port in April 2022
Since the sinking of the Moskva in the port of Sevastapol port in April, Russian ships now keep their distanceImage: Maxar Technologies/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Russia officially abandoned its naval blockade of Ukrainian ports to make the grain deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations possible. After the attack on Russian warships in late October, Moscow backed out of the deal — and then returned after receiving "guarantees" from Kyiv that its Black Sea fleet would not be attacked from a specific "corridor," Moscow said.

Ukraine boosts cyber defenses, with Western help

Before the invasion there were also fears that Russia would cripple Ukraine with massive cyberattacks, given the fact that latter has been a hacking target for years. About a week before the start of the Russian invasion, on February 15, there was a massive cyberattack described by Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's vice prime minister and minister of digital transformation, as "the largest DDoS attack in the history of Ukraine." Several banks, the Defense Ministry and other entities were affected by these artificial requests on the internet that overload the target's web servers.

Additionally, there were cyberattacks on government structures and the parliament the day before the invasion, also attributed to Russia. But Kyiv seemed to be well prepared for this, and subsequent cyberattacks were less successful than those in previous years. While critical infrastructure elements such as the power grid have still been disrupted, this has been due to missile attacks rather than hackers.

As with military aid, years of Western help with cyber defenses has paid off in Ukraine. A few days before the invasion, for example, the European Union provided the country with its Cyber Rapid Response Team at its request. For now, it appears that Russia's digital warfare is faltering as badly as the country's troops on the battlefield. Nevertheless, Western experts expect cyberattacks to spike as winter wears on.

This article originally appeared in German.