By Amit Gupta
Three days after the first Gulf War broke out in 1991, an American newspaper ran the headline “Gulf War Drags On”. The expectation was that a superpower like the United States should have swept aside the forces of a small nation like Iraq, within hours.
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This led Colin Powell, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to deliver a press conference detailing the course of the war and why the United States was moving both slowly and methodically.
The Ukraine War is being touted as one where, after 10 days, the Russians are failing in meeting their objectives. The fact is that Russia is taking slow and methodical steps and has its own timeline which it has not revealed to the world.
Further, the Ukrainian government, the country’s social media, and the global press are reporting the war from the Ukrainian perspective and have thus handed the information war to Kyiv.
Ukraine’s Information War
Thus we are led to believe there is the ‘Ghost of Kiev’, a fighter pilot who has shot down six to nine fighter jets. This is probably exaggerated because if the Russians feel confident enough to line up a 64-mile convoy, it means that they have air superiority.
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In fact, all the footage we have seen on the war is from the Ukrainian side suggesting that the Russians are taking heavy casualties.
This is largely the fault of the Russians who are unable to operate outside their mindset of excessive secrecy and have not allowed independent journalists to observe the prosecution of their military campaign. If we peel aside this layer of the conflict what is actually going on?
First, Russia’s initial steps were to solely target Ukrainian military targets in the hope of not antagonizing Ukrainian public opinion. This resulted in the use of a significant number of precision-guided munitions although it is not clear how much damage was done by such attacks and the extent to which the Ukrainian warfighting capability was degraded.
Secondly, in the two Gulf Wars against Iraq, the US Air Force was used for weeks to soften up the Iraqi military and population before a ground invasion was launched by American ground forces. So effective were the airstrikes that it allowed American ground forces to enter Baghdad in 36 hours. That leads to the third point which is the willingness of the local population to fight.
Civilians Put Up A Strong Defense
In the second Gulf War, the Iraqi army ran away from combat leaving an easy path forward for US troops. Similarly, in Afghanistan, despite the billions of dollars spent on training the Afghan military forces, they lacked the will to fight and left the battlefield to the Taliban. The difference in Ukraine is that the local population is fighting back and that always makes it difficult for an invading force.
The problem for the Ukrainians is that the West never delivered large enough supplies of advanced weapons to make the fight even more costly for the Russians and now it is not clear if the Ukrainians will have to pay for what has been given to them to fight what is in part the West’s war against Russia.
The US Senate, for example, has talked of lend-lease of weapons to Ukraine in the way that Britain got weapons from the United States in World War II. For the record, it took Britain till 2006 to pay back that debt.
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Another important point to remember is that cities are not that easy to capture as it is relatively easier to use snipers, IEDs, and other booby traps to halt the path of the invader.
Stalingrad, despite the best efforts of the Germans, was never surrendered to the Wehrmacht and, in subsequent assaults on Germany, the Soviets found out that such attacks led to high casualties against them, leading to a dislike for fighting such kinds of wars.
Why Putin Is Going Slow
Additionally, Putin knows that while the West will supply Ukraine with weapons to raise the cost of a Russian invasion it will not provide weaponry like fighter aircraft, tanks, and submarines that could inflict significant casualties on the invading force.
NATO has also made it clear that it will not intervene militarily and this has given Putin the luxury of running the campaign at his own pace and choosing to attack the low-hanging fruit.
The Ukrainians, for nationalistic reasons, are putting their greatest efforts into defending their major cities for these have the greatest symbolic and nationalistic value to the Ukrainian people.
As a consequence, the Russians are going after the low-hanging fruit which in this case is the southern part of the country. That section may be more strategically significant because it allows Crimea to be connected by land to the Russian mainland.
Further, if the Russians can grab the port of Odessa, then that takes away a major maritime access for Ukraine.
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It is too early to assess the course of the Ukrainian war but it should be pointed out that the Russians did not invade without a strategy.
NATO has given them the green light to prosecute the campaign without interference and this will allow Moscow, despite the formidable economic sanctions imposed by the West, some leeway in the tactics they use and the time they have to carry out their invasion effectively.
- Amit Gupta is a strategic affairs analyst based in the United States
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