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Two months of horror and resilience: 7 takeaways from the war in Ukraine

Grid’s global team looks at the major surprises in Vladimir Putin’s war.

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.

Two months later, perhaps no forecast has been punctured more forcefully than this one.

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.

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.

The generals

“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.”

Low morale

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.

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

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.”

“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.

“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.

4. China’s gamble

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.

But to date, China’s propaganda and misinformation about the war have mirrored the Kremlin’s own mythmaking.

“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.”

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.

To name just a powerful few:

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.

Money for Moscow

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.

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)

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.

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