Putin's forces appear to have processed the hard lessons from the opening weeks in Ukraine and have now reset their war plans, writes Dr David Murphy, Department of History

In recent days we have seen some ominous pronouncements from Vladimir Putin's Russian government in connection with the continued supply of arms and munitions from NATO countries to Ukraine. It has been stated that military supplies from the West will be viewed as legitimate targets and will be attacked. The most recent statements implicitly suggest that such attacks might happen outside Ukraine's borders and will be part of a general package of retaliation against the West.

These statements need to be taken seriously considering the events of recent weeks and the general escalation of the conflict. By any estimation, the Russian "special military operation", as they still insist on calling it, has not gone according to plan and Russia now needs to push back on any efforts being made to level the playing field in Ukraine’s favour.

Millions of words have been written about this war already and it is difficult to summarise everything that has gone wrong with the Russian plan. One of the key aspects of Russian setbacks was an intelligence failure. Putin drove a plan that was based on flawed intelligence as various agencies, in a manner very reminiscent of the Soviet era, fed him the information that he wanted to hear. Hence the assumption that the Ukrainians would greet the liberating Russian columns "with flowers", which led to an operational plan for a decisive drive on Kyiv.

The crucial fight that the Russians lost in the opening phase was the battle for Hostomel airport near the capital, which was earmarked to be the airbridge for the move on Kyiv. Once that battle failed, the push westwards was thwarted and we saw stalled Russian columns pointing towards an operational objective that had not been taken.

This initial setback then resulted in a number of further consequences. Russian generals were urged to get the offensive rolling again and moved forward to direct the battle themselves. Still married to Soviet-era command and control practices, the command locations of these generals were subsequently identified by the Ukrainians and targeted. This has led to the high casualty rate among the Russian senior command.

The performance of Russian armour has also proved to be shockingly poor. Having been among the world leaders in armoured and mechanised warfare since the 1930s, the Russians seem to have forgotten basic points of armoured doctrine. In the initial phase, they have shown themselves to be unable to task organise and blend their armour and mechanised infantry to attack specific objectives. We have seen armour trying to operate without infantry support in areas well-populated with Ukrainian tank-killing teams.

At the same time, we have seen infantry attacking hard targets totally unsupported by armour. Factoring in these considerations have been very basic points of armoured doctrine since the Second World War. There are also numerous other factors, but the lack of a competent NGO cohort within the Russian army has made itself felt, as has the apparent reluctance of Russian pilots to engage in close air support operations.

On the other hand, the Ukrainians have shown themselves able to decentralise their command structure and to use modern technology particularly effectively. Apart from the use of drones, the Ukrainians have succeeded in negating the effectiveness of Russian electronic warfare platforms, allowing themselves more freedom to operate. In operational terms, we are seeing a clash between an army seemingly still enmeshed in Soviet-era doctrine and a smaller army that has embraced the flexibility of a modern, manoeuvrist approach to warfare.

In a way that is startlingly similar to the Finnish-Russian Winter War of 1939-40, the Russians have found themselves thwarted by a smaller but plucky opponent. Similar to 1939-40, they have also now engaged in a process to reset the operation and will be rapidly processing the hard lessons learned in the opening phase. The land operation has been refocused on the Eastern territories of Ukraine and this will likely be followed by a push on Odessa. Also, a new commander has been appointed in the person of General Aleksandr Dvornikov, nicknamed the "Butcher of Syria".

Recent Russian comments have referred to Transnistria and Russia may try to secure all of Ukraine's Black Sea coastline to create a land bridge to create a link up with that territory. Such a move would cut off Ukraine’s access to the sea totally and create a swathe of Russian-controlled territory stretching from Chernihiv to Odessa. This will have an immediate impact on Ukraine and Moldova and long-term ramifications for the rest of Europe.

In terms of how the war will unfold in the coming weeks, the Russians have abandoned the concept of an offensive on Kyiv, at least by land forces (they've now engaged in airstrikes on the city during a visit by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres). The focus has shifted to a more methodical approach in the Eastern territories and, if a battle for Odessa does develop, we can expect to see a high casualty operation, given the time the Ukrainians have had to prepare their defences.

The impact on Ukrainian civilians is difficult to imagine but we have seen no indications of any effort to control the impact of the war on them so far. In fact, the opposite has been the case. May 9th has been flagged as a desired end date for Putin, but it seems difficult to see this war neatly coming to an end to coincide with Victory Day commemorations, given the character of the operations to date.

This article first appeared in RTÉ Brainstorm
Photo courtesy of Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash