A swift Russian military victory in Ukraine is not happening. Vladimir Putin cannot win this war, even if Russian forces keep destroying and flattening everything in Ukraine. Were Kyiv to be occupied and a pro-Russian puppet regime installed after even more deaths and destruction, such a regime won’t enjoy legitimacy and support from Ukrainians, and keeping Ukraine occupied will involve severe repression that will maintain sanctions against and further isolate Russia. If the aim of this war had been to subjugate Ukraine completely to Putin’s will, then it has thus far failed and extremely unlikely to succeed from now on. The question is how Putin attempts to extricate himself from this mess that he has created without giving up power.
I may be biased as I had studied history at university, but I don’t think historians make great analysts of the present or prescient predictors of the future, because historians are cursed with the knowledge of the past, therefore tempted to seek and draw parallels and analogies when there is none. My personal belief is that history does not repeat itself, and every situation is sui generis. The current war in Ukraine must thus be seen as something unique. At the same time however, I cannot help but look back to the forgotten wars in which Russia was involved when I was growing up, namely the wars in Chechnya.
In the 1990s and at the beginning of the 2000s, the West’s attention was primarily focused on the conflicts in the Balkans, and Chechnya was somewhere far away, where something bad was happening, but the coverage and knowledge were vague and sporadic. At least, that is my recollection. The current Russian invasion of Ukraine reminds me of the First Chechen War for some reason, despite many big differences. The sense of similarity or perhaps familiarity comes from the willingness of the Russian military to use whatever force it feels necessary to achieve its goals including targeting civilians in a ground war and accept casualties among its ranks. I am no military historian or expert, so this may be inaccurate, but I have always been struck by the willingness of the political leadership and military top brass to treat the rank and file as cannon fodder throughout Russian and Soviet history.
Russia lost the First Chechen War because of bad military planning and low morale among other reasons. Information during war is always piecemeal, confusing, and often contradictory, but reports thus far suggest that Russian forces have been badly preparped for the invasion despite a long build-up and the morale is not particularly high. While Russian professional elite units are highly-trained and ready for combat, the quality and morale of conscripted and contracted soldiers who may not be frontline combatants but perform important tasks in holding territories and maintaining the supply lines are questionable. In the face of determined and effective Ukrainian resistance, stretched logistics, attrition, as well as toughening sanctions on Russia, time is not on Putin’s side.