Interpreting Interpretations in Ukraine

“Twitter isn’t real war.” -Wait, am I really the first one to coin that phrase?

As I write this, we’re in the second week of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – and the fog of war has already found nutritional value in social media (note to commenters: if you were able to find someone who threw out the above quote before me, make a mention; I want to give credit where it’s due).

The best example of this came in the form of the “40-mile convoy” of Russian military vehicles north of Kyiv that enraged so many earlier this week. It was a doom-scroller’s dream … until it became clear that the convoy was a result of poor maintenance forcing the tanks and trucks to stay on asphalt while Ukrainian forces bottlenecked the whole thing out of action.

Then the floodgates were opened, literally.

Nor can any of those columns defend themselves because they’re too densely packed.  They’re just targets waiting for the Ukrainians to destroy them.

Only the Ukrainians had something better to do.  They opened the floodgates of reservoirs around those columns to flood them and turn the surrounding areas into impassable quagmires for months – probably until July or August.  (See photo below) Probably several thousand Russian vehicles in those columns will be irrecoverable losses.  Hundreds of Russian soldiers might have drowned.

This was not just a debacle, but an EPIC one. About 1/5th of the Russian force in Ukraine is now flooded or trapped, and are definitely out of the war for good.

So, whenever social media grabs a hold of news and interprets it; if you think it means you know something, remember the convoy.

That said, some broad contours are starting to appear.

Western Ukraine (defined as west of the Kyiv metropolitan area and north of the Odessa counterpart) remains largely untouched and thus still open for a potential no-fly zone in that part of the country – but only that part. Northern Ukraine continues to be the stuff of legend for Ukraine and her allies and horror for the invaders. Southern Ukraine, by contrast, has seen Russian progress, but even here it has also become a public relations and morale disaster for the Kremlin.

The fall of Kherson was the first sign that Ukraine was not repeating their northern successes in the war. As I write this Mariupol is still in Ukrainian hands, but it’s also cut off from the rest of the world. Odessa awaits a rumored amphibious assault. Yet even here, Russia’s success on the ground came with a major information war error: an attack on a nuclear power plant.

Up north, it’s all embarrassment and no victories. Josh Rogin interviewed the Mayor of Kharkiv, elected less than a year ago on a local branch of a Russia-sympathetic party – or at least it was until last week.

“There is no question over whether the city will give up,” Mayor Igor Terekhov said. “We will not give up.”

“They are destroying entire districts, where lots of people live. They just want to destroy and demolish the city,” he said. “This is a pure example of a genocide, the genocide of the Ukrainian nation.”

“The Ukrainian army will fight to the end. They are our heroes. They are fighting with their own weapons on their own land. They will not give up,” Terekhov told me.

Keep in mind, this guy was supposed to be one the officials friendlier to Russia than President Zelenskyy.

As if that wasn’t bad enough for the Russians, promises of arms to Ukraine from NATO nations last week have become actual deliveries this week.

Meanwhile, one of the great mysteries of the whole campaign- namely, Russia’s inability to take control of the skies – was examined by RUSI Airpower Research Fellow Justin Bronk.

While the early VKS (note: VKS = Russian Aerospace Forces) failure to establish air superiority could be explained by lack of early warning, coordination capacity and sufficient planning time, the continued pattern of activity suggests a more significant conclusion: that the VKS lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale.

If that’s the case, Russia may simply have exposed itself as far further behind NATO than was presumed.

For all of that – and while I do think Ukraine will eventually outlast this invasion – I’m not going to join much of pro-Ukraine Twitter in asserting the Russian invasion is about to collapse. They still could take Kyiv, but as Retired Australian Major General Mick Ryan put it:

… the Russians have committed most of the force assembled for Ukraine. Attacking Kyiv will absorb their last reserves. Having advanced (slowly) for 10 days, the Russian ground forces will also suffer increasing combat fatigue. They need to start rotating forces soon… A Russian attack on Kyiv will be a grim, drawn-out battle that will last weeks and possibly months.

So Russia will need to put basically everything into taking Kyiv – and even if they succeed, the force will be spent, dealing with occupying the capital – and completely unable to move on Lviv and the rest of western Ukraine, which I am increasingly certain will never be taken by Putin.

But remember, Twitter isn’t real war.

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