As Russia launches a new offensive, what did it learn from the first one?
Updated April 19, 2022 at 5:07 PM ET
When Russian leader Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, almost nothing went as planned. Ukrainian resistance was far tougher than expected. The ill-prepared Russian troops suffered heavy losses and ultimately had to retreat when it became clear they couldn't capture the capital, Kyiv.
The Russian performance was so poor, and so erratic, that even a long-time Russian specialist, former CIA officer Dan Hoffman, found himself baffled by this operation. And he was prepared for the unexpected.
"I had a lot of time in Russia, and I have never ceased to be surprised," said Hoffman, who served multiple tours in Moscow. "My imagination was never good enough, in spite of all the intelligence I read, in spite of the fact that I speak fluent Russian and I listen to the news and I talk to intelligence officers, lots of sources. In spite of all that, I am continuously amazed."
Consider Russia's decision to seize the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster, at the beginning of the war.
"Would anybody have imagined that the Russian soldiers would have bedded down in Chernobyl's forest and radiated themselves? No. Well, yes. OK. I couldn't imagine that. But I get it. It's what they do."
The Russian forces left Chernobyl, regrouped, and are now launching a new offensive focused in eastern Ukraine, in the region known as the Donbas.
"Now we can state that the Russian forces have started the battle for the Donbas that they have been getting ready for a long time," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video message Monday night.
"Another phase of this operation is starting now," Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday.
Russia is doing things differently this time
The Pentagon said Monday that Russia had moved 11 new battalion tactical groups into Ukraine in recent days. That brings the total to 76 such groups, all of them in either the east or the south of Ukraine. Each battalion can have up to 1,000 troops.
The Pentagon described the Russian buildup as a "shaping operation," intended to put substantial forces in place so Russian forces won't face the logistical problems that plagued the initial invasion.
The Russians have moved more tanks, artillery guns, helicopters and command-and-control elements into eastern Ukraine, the Pentagon said.
In the earlier fighting, Ukraine's smaller but more agile forces were able to repeatedly ambush the Russians in the forests and urban areas in northern Ukraine.
But the terrain in eastern Ukraine, which is mostly open plains and farmland — similar to the American Midwest — could favor Russians with their large armor formations.
Military analysts say it will be more difficult for the Ukrainians to sneak up and surprise the Russians in this landscape. But there's also heavy ongoing fighting in multiple cities in eastern Ukraine, and the Ukrainian forces have been holding their ground through weeks of combat.
The U.S. and other NATO members have been supplying the Ukrainians with large quantities of small weapons that can be used by individual soldiers or small units, such as Javelin and Stinger missiles.
Ukraine has been pleading for larger weapons, and the U.S. announced a new $800 million military assistance package last week that includes howitzers and other equipment more suited for the battles expected in the east.
But the Pentagon said it will first have to train the Ukrainians in how to use the howitzers, and it's not clear when those weapons will be moved into Ukraine.
Putin is not known for listening
In a speech last week, CIA Director William Burns said that over time, Putin has been less willing to listen to advisers, and this has led him to make many bad decisions.
"His circle of advisers has narrowed, and in that small circle, it has never been career-enhancing to question his judgment or his stubborn, almost mystical belief that his destiny is to restore Russia's sphere of influence," said Burns.
The initial offensive launched on Feb. 24 was hugely ambitious. Putin's aim was clearly to drive out President Zelenskyy and his government; seize the capital, Kyiv; and take control of much, if not all, of Ukraine.
But the Russian advance quickly stalled and Putin was forced to cut his losses and withdraw all of the Russian forces around Kyiv and other parts of the north. The capital is still being hit by long-range Russian airstrikes, but the city does not face any imminent ground threat from the Russians.
While Putin is now focused on the east and the south — and linking up the Russian forces in these two regions — it's not clear if he would stop there, or if he wants additional territory as well.
As a former intelligence officer, Putin has kept many of his intentions closely held. He has invested heavily in Russia's spy networks but has also shown displeasure with his intelligence community.
In a televised meeting just before the war began, Putin publicly humiliated the head of the foreign intelligence service, Sergei Naryshkin, when he stumbled during a discussion of Ukraine at a Kremlin meeting.
"Speak plainly," Putin admonished him at one point. When Naryshkin then said clearly that he agreed with Putin, the Russian leader then told him, "Good. Please sit down."
Another senior intelligence official, Sergei Beseda, who is responsible for Ukraine, is reportedly under either house arrest or has been jailed.
"It's consistent with the way that Vladimir Putin and his predecessors would treat their own inner circle," Hoffman said. "It's a dangerous game to be a Russian senior military officer or senior intelligence officer. One day, you're in the favor of the czar, and the next day, you're in jail."
Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.
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