The war in Ukraine is two months old. There were many who didn’t think it would last two weeks. The day after the Russian invasion, Grid wrote that “tectonic shifts” were likely. It wasn’t that bold a prediction; from the beginning, it was clear that NATO would be tested severely, a new refugee crisis was possible and geopolitical alliances might be scrambled as well.
In truth, none of us guessed the extent of it, nor in some cases did we imagine where those tectonic shifts would occur. At the two-month mark, Grid’s global team looked at the surprises and key takeaways from the war to date.
1. The Russian military: “Everything wrong”
That may seem like a harsh heading. But consider the evidence.
In the run-up to war, the analysis and news coverage were consistent: Russia’s military (more than 1 million active members) could quickly and easily overwhelm Ukraine’s (roughly 200,000 active personnel).
Two months later, perhaps no forecast has been punctured more forcefully than this one.
The number of Russian troops killed lies somewhere between the 1,351 claimed by Russia and the 20,000 toll given by Ukraine. NATO said several weeks ago that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops had been killed. Whatever the figure, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has acknowledged the toll as “a huge tragedy for us.”
And while Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance deserve credit and the country has received significant international support, the performance of the Russian military is perhaps the war’s great surprise to date.
“From what we understand or what we thought we understood about Russian doctrine, they’re doing everything wrong,” David Shlapak, a senior defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told Grid in March. “They came in without employing artillery and firepower the way we would have expected them to. They undertook some fairly risky operations. Their doctrine is actually pretty clear on how they intend to fight. And they just didn’t do that,” said Shlapak.
As Joshua Keating reported, early signs of trouble came on the war’s first day when Russian paratroopers attempted to seize Hostomel Airport northwest of Kyiv, which would have allowed them to airlift troops to take the capital. The paratroopers landed well ahead of the invading force with limited air cover and wound up in a violent struggle with the Ukrainian military that left the airport unusable. The Russians were forced to transport their troops over land.
It would prove a harbinger of other missteps. Russian units moved on their own with poor or nonexistent logistics support, air cover or communication. Multiple reports suggest the Ukrainians successfully intercepted Russian communications — a result of poorly encrypted devices and other security failings on the part of the Russians. There have been reports of Russian soldiers using mobile phones and analog radios — both easy to intercept and more likely to betray a unit’s location.
Meanwhile, roughly once a week, a Russian general had been killed in Ukraine. When Russia announced the death of Vladimir Frolov, deputy commander of Russia’s 8th Guards Combined Arms Army, on April 16, it brought the total to eight, according to Western and Ukrainian officials.
In two decades in Vietnam, the U.S. lost nine generals — most of whom were killed when their helicopters were shot down. During the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, one American general died; he was shot by an Afghan soldier. Not since World War II, when the Soviets lost roughly six or seven generals each month, has there been anything like this rate of loss.
“It is inconceivable to lose so many general officers,” David Petraeus, a four-star general and former CIA director, told Grid. “The loss in experience and expertise are enormous and the disruption has to be equally so.”
Petraeus and other former military leaders blamed both the communications issues and traditional Russian command and control structures. The latter leaves almost all decision-making power at the higher level, leaving no latitude for decision-making for lower-ranking officers. Hence, setbacks on the battlefield have forced Russian senior officers to the front lines.
“When your planning begins to fall apart because of the nature of war, fog and friction and uncertainty, and because of stronger than anticipated resistance, then you have to have a very senior person who comes forward,” Lt. Gen. Frederick “Ben” Hodges, a former U.S. commander in Europe, told Grid. “And so you’ve got a lot of senior officers out there exposed or having to move up close to what’s going on to try and unravel the various problems that normally should have been sorted out by a much more junior, lower-level commander.”
We may never know whether Russia’s poor performance has hurt morale or poor morale has led to poor performance; both may be true. As Keating reported, it was clear from the start that many Russian officers were unaware they were to be part of an invasion until just before it began. Rank-and-file troops may not have known their “training mission” was to involve something entirely different.
There have been desertions and unconfirmed reports of mass surrender, but the singular symbol of Russian woes involved the 37th Motor Rifle Brigade, which fought outside Kyiv in mid-March. Troops attacked and injured their commanding officer after the brigade suffered heavy losses, according to a Western official and Ukrainian journalists. Furious troops ran a tank into Col. Yuri Medvedev, injuring both his legs; Ukrainian correspondent Roman Tsymbaliuk reported that the colonel had been hospitalized, and a senior Western official said later that Medvedev had died of his wounds. The attack by his own forces was, the official said, “a consequence of the scale of the losses taken by his own brigade.”
2. NATO’s comeback
“NATO” is almost a dirty word (or acronym) for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In his worldview, the institution represents an encroachment of the West on the territory of the former Soviet bloc and a threat to Russian security and values.
If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was meant to push the alliance back, it has failed already.
“Putin will end up with the exact opposite of what he sought,” John McLaughlin, a former acting director of the CIA, told Grid. “Not a weaker, more fractured NATO, but an alliance that is better armed, more united and hugging more of Russia’s borders than before his attack on Ukraine.”
Two months into the war, the once unwieldy alliance has built a multibillion-dollar arms pipeline into Ukraine and prodded members to boost defense spending (more on the German “tectonic shift” below). Longtime holdouts Finland and Sweden are now interested in NATO membership, and recently added member states Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic — countries Putin prefers to imagine as in Moscow’s sphere of influence, as they were in the Soviet era — are now crucial players in the resistance against Russia.
This is particularly true in Poland, a nation for which Putin harbors a profound enmity. Poland has welcomed nearly 3 million refugees from Ukraine — far more than any other country — and sent tens of thousands of artillery shells, anti-aircraft weapons, mortars and other arms to Ukraine. Polish President Andrzej Duda tweeted that the “heroism of the Ukrainian nation … is becoming part of the history of the free world. It is the commitment of us, those already free, to make sure they win.”
In short, an alliance founded 73 years ago and until recently dismissed by many as outdated and adrift now appears more central and relevant to global affairs than it has in decades.
“I think you see an alliance that sort of woke up out of a slumber and decided that the mission for which it was created is back,” Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, told Grid. “It’s found a clear purpose.”
3. Germany — two steps forward, one step back
In the run-up to war, Germany was derided as the “weak link” in the Western alliance and mocked for sending Ukraine helmets while other countries were providing anti-tank missiles. On Feb. 16, the military historian Max Hastings wrote about Germany’s “muddled policy on Russia” under the heading “Ukraine Failures Show Germany Is Europe’s Weak Link.”
Then came the invasion and Germany’s “zeitenwende” — German for “turning point.”
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point,” Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said in late February. “It is our duty to do our best to support Ukraine in defending itself against Putin’s invading army.”
In short order, the government canceled the $11 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which would have doubled exports of Russian gas to Germany; boosted defense spending to 2 percent of GDP; and added 100 billion euros in new spending on military investments — more than double its entire defense budget for 2021. Then came the truest zeitenwende: Germany began supplying anti-tank and air defense missiles to Ukraine, overturning a longstanding policy of not sending weapons into conflict zones.
“It would have been hard to imagine Germany doing these things and saying these things even two months prior,” Steven Keil, a fellow for security and defense policy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Grid.
But Germany’s zeitenwende has its limits — one big one in particular: The government is still buying Russian oil and gas. Other nations are, too, but none relies so heavily on Moscow for its energy needs, and therefore none is pouring as much money into Kremlin coffers. For all its rhetorical outrage about the war, Germany is still sending $220 million a day to Moscow in the form of payments for Russian oil and gas. German Finance Minister Christian Lindner said the alternative would “inflict more damage on ourselves than on [Russia.]”
“Germany takes two steps forward and then at least one step back,” Liana Fix, program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung, a German think tank, told Grid.
The financial newspaper Handelsblatt — normally a friend to German business — put it more bluntly in an editorial: “The country that proudly proclaims that Europe will ‘never again’ see the likes of Auschwitz is pumping 200 million euros each day into Putin’s war chest.”
4. China’s gamble
The conventional wisdom was that if it came to war, China would walk a tightrope. As Grid’s Lili Pike reported when the war began, China was navigating a geopolitical balancing act when it came to Ukraine, thanks primarily to its recently burgeoning relationship with Russia.
Two months later, it looks less like a tightrope and more like strong support — at least in terms of rhetoric and propaganda — for Putin and his war.
China has refused to criticize Putin, amplified Russian falsehoods and placed blame for the war at the feet of the U.S. and its NATO allies. Chinese universities have gone so far as to organize seminars on a “correct interpretation” of what they call a “crisis,” not a war.
Diplomats and analysts have pondered exactly what was said when Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met on the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics — just three weeks before the invasion. Beyond the economic deals — including $117.5 billion for Russia in new energy contracts — and a Putin-Xi joint statement that included an agreement to “oppose further enlargement of NATO,” did Putin tell Xi what he had planned? And the extent of it? China scholars note that the violation of internationally accepted borders is a longstanding red line for China, and the barbarity of Putin’s war has likely surprised Beijing, much as it has surprised the rest of the world.
But to date, China’s propaganda and misinformation about the war have mirrored the Kremlin’s own mythmaking.
Analysts told Grid that China is gambling on the war winding down and a subsequent return to that “limitless friendship” with Russia, which the two leaders heralded in early February. Above all, as former Australian prime minister and Asia Society President Kevin Rudd told Grid, Beijing’s current stance is a reflection of its own core interests.
“They want a benign relationship with the Russians because of the length and history of the Russian-Chinese border,” Rudd explained. “They want to be able to dedicate all their strategic energies to their principal global and regional strategic adversary, the U.S., rather than having to divert some of those resources — military or otherwise — to handling the Russian question.”
5. Putin still has lots of friends — and money.
“We will make sure that Putin will be a pariah on the international stage.”
So said President Joe Biden in late February, as the Russians marched into Ukraine. It’s a message that has been echoed regularly by leaders across Western capitals and backed by unprecedented sanctions on the Russian economy, its central bank and Russian oligarchs.
In some ways, “pariah” sounds right — especially if one looks at the U.S. and Europe. Zoom out to the rest of the world, and you get a very different picture.
As Nikhil Kumar has reported, Russia still has plenty of friends around the world. Dozens of countries have rejected or abstained from U.N. votes criticizing the Kremlin. Beyond China’s support and Germany’s oil and gas payments, Putin can still count several nations willing to trade with Russia, or least keep quiet about his war.
To name just a powerful few:
India, the world’s largest democracy, has a strong relationship with the U.S. but has also had ties with Moscow for decades. Some 60 percent of India’s military hardware comes from Russia, and since the war began, Russia has reportedly been offering New Delhi oil at discounts of as much as 20 percent below global prices.
To date, there has been no strong condemnation of the invasion from Delhi. India was one of three countries — China and the United Arab Emirates were the others — to abstain from the U.N. Security Council resolution that condemned the Russian invasion.
“Like other countries, we have important interests of our own that we have to factor in to all our decisions,” a senior Indian diplomat told Grid, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Persian Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — two countries with historically close ties to Washington — have resisted calls to isolate Russia. They have also been reluctant to help reduce the world’s reliance on Russian oil by boosting their own production. Among the reasons is a rift over Washington’s pursuit of a new nuclear pact with Iran. “The Biden administration’s determination to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal … has convinced the Saudis that America is determined to dismantle the regional order that it created, no matter what demons it may unleash,” Mohammed Alyahya, the former editor of the English edition of Al Arabiya, wrote in a recent Jerusalem Post op-ed.
Even NATO ally Turkey — which has sent weapons to Ukraine — hasn’t sanctioned Russia or closed its airspace to Russian aircraft. For Turkey, tourism revenues, purchases of Russian weapons and a heavy reliance on Russian energy and grain supplies (in 2021, Russia accounted for 45 percent of Turkish gas purchases and 56 percent of its grain imports) have made it difficult to cut the cord with Moscow.
The reluctance to criticize Russia was on vivid display at the U.N. on April 7, in a vote to remove Russia from the U.N.’s top human rights body. The U.S. led the charge and succeeded, garnering 93 votes to suspend Russia. But nearly as many did not support the measure; 24 countries voted against — including China — and another 58 abstained — among them India, Brazil, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Money for Moscow
While sanctions have no doubt dealt a body blow to the Russian economy, a Bloomberg Economics report found that Russia could actually earn one-third more from energy sales this year than last — netting around $321 billion to help line its wartime coffers.
The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, put it starkly: “We’ve given Ukraine nearly 1 billion euros [around $1.1 billion],” he said. “That might seem like a lot, but 1 billion euros is what we are paying Putin every day for the energy he provides us with.”
The money matters — hugely. To put this in perspective: Russia spends around $62 billion a year on its armed forces, according to one recent estimate — meaning that, since the beginning of the war, Europe has already covered about two-thirds of Moscow’s annual military budget.
In early April, Lithuania became the first country to actually turn off the Russian spigots. “From this month on — no more Russian gas,” Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said. “If we can do it, the rest of Europe can do it too.”
They can. But to date, only Estonia and Latvia have followed suit.
Friends at home
Meanwhile, inside Russia, for every pocket of dissent, there are indications that Putin still has significant support.
Roughly 60 percent of Russians in recent surveys said they backed the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, according to a summary compiled by researchers at the London School of Economics. Some of those polls show support strengthening since the war began. The figures come with important caveats: As Grid has reported, Russia is in the grip of a brutal Kremlin crackdown on dissent that has squashed independent media and led to thousands of arrests.
But Putin is hardly a pariah inside his own country. In a March piece, the independent Russian journalist Farida Rustamova highlighted how, “over the past month, Putin’s dream of a consolidation among the Russian elite has come true.” She added that “these people understand that their lives are now tied only to Russia, and that that’s where they’ll need to build them.”
None of which is to suggest that Putin is in an enviable position at home or on the global stage. But given the money still pouring in, the countries lining up with the Kremlin — or at least refusing to join in the criticism — and internal polling numbers that would be the envy of leaders anywhere, the term “pariah” doesn’t apply to Putin. At least not yet.
6. No cyberwar (yet)
As Grid’s Benjamin Powers reported when the war began, “the crisis in Ukraine could mark a dubious global milestone: the first major military campaign bolstered by a large-scale cyber offensive.”
All indications were that Russia would use its cyberweapon. It had great and demonstrated skill in this area, and just before the war, Russia was blamed for what Ukrainian officials said was the largest cyberattack of its kind in the country’s history, a strike that took offline the websites of the country’s army, defense and foreign ministries, along with major banks. There were other precedents.
Dmitri Alperovitch, founder of the Alperovitch Institute for Cybersecurity Studies at Johns Hopkins University and chairman of the Silverado Policy Accelerator, a D.C. think tank, told Grid that a Russian cyberattack was almost inevitable, especially if Putin’s war didn’t go well in the conventional sphere.
Two months in, it hasn’t happened — or it hasn’t worked. Ukraine has assembled its own “IT Army” — a cyberdefense team, and the U.S., EU and other allies have said they are aiding Ukraine in hardening its cyberdefenses.
But the question remains: What happened? Why no major attack?
Alperovitch believes Putin may be holding this particular weapon at bay until he feels an absolute need to use it.
“He thinks a victory that he can pull out is still achievable and that he can make a deal with the Europeans at least, and possibly the Americans to take the sanctions off,” Alperovitch told 60 Minutes last week. “I think he’s mistaken on that, but I think at least until he tries that, he’s unlikely to launch a cyberattack.”
And if it becomes clear that he’s mistaken? “They’ll hit when they realize that,” he said.
7. Tale of two leaders
Lastly, when one surveys the landscape today, against how it looked two months ago, it’s worth noting a stunning turnaround in the fortunes and global image of two individuals.
Before the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a relatively new and unpopular leader. Three years ago, he was an actor and comedian. Most Americans would have heard of him only because his phone call with President Donald Trump had been a key piece of the prosecution to impeach the president.
Before the war, a conventional view of Putin was that he was a cunning strategist, a kind of grandmaster at the chess game of geopolitics. He was an autocrat and strongman, to be sure, but he was welcomed at the G-20 and various other gatherings of global leaders.
Today? Zelenskyy is among the most popular figures on the planet — an icon of democracy and courage.
Putin stands accused of war crimes, and in terms of strategy, he may have committed the sin that dooms any master at the chess board: He failed to see clearly the ramification of his moves.
A lot can happen in two months.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.