In the picture
The destroyed centre of the Ukrainian city of Kharkov [Twitter].
After the initial shock of the start of a 'classic' Russian aggression against another European country, many observers, in view of the disproportionate battlefield between the two enemies, had predicted a sudden victory that would lead to the rapid collapse of Zelensky's government and its immediate replacement by one more receptive to Moscow's interests and concerns. The world would protest, sanctions would be imposed, but life would soon return to normal, and Ukraine would be definitively within Russia's security sphere.
It seems unreasonable to think that Putin would have envisaged anything other than a quick decision on the war that would limit its political and economic costs. To this end, he would have designed an operation based on ground efforts carried out simultaneously from different directions, with the one launched from the north on Kiev, the political centre of the country, being the main one.
Success in such an operation would have confronted the world with a 'fait accompli' favourable to Russia, hardly reversible, and one that would soon make the bitterness of war forgotten. However, as Moltke, the Prussian luminary of operational art, acutely observed, no military plan withstands the first contact with the enemy. Instead of the flash victory Putin had envisaged, Russian troops have been slowed down by an enemy that, against all odds, stands up to their advance.
Such resistance demonstrates that war is far from being an activity of result as predictable as an exercise on the laboratory of Chemistry of a high school, and that it is the territory of uncertainty, chance and friction; a human activity in which moral forces and the will to resist play an important role.
Unfortunately for the brave Ukrainians who are defending their territory with such exemplary tenacity, the difference in forces between Russia and Ukraine - despite the Western military financial aid - is so great that it is not too risky to assume that sooner or later Putin will defeat Zelensky, and that Russia will achieve the military and political goals it has set for itself. But he can no longer think that he will do so at no cost, or at a cost that is less than the gain from victory.
When war is at its height, it is neither possible nor advisable to draw lessons from it. The military action does, however, present some interesting aspects that allow us to advance some preliminary ideas. Firstly, and assuming, as we have said, that Putin was seeking a short and decisive campaign, the offensive on Kiev has shown deficiencies in the capacity of the Russian armed forces, which in some cases have been labelled incompetent. There may have been some incompetence, although it is probably not so much in the executing units as in the general staffs that have made erroneous intelligence judgements that have underestimated the enemy's capacity for resistance and, consequently, have not correctly assigned resources and missions to the different offensive efforts.
The fatal consequence of this calculation has been the delay in achieving the planned objectives. Putin had to recalibrate his deployment to apply more means and more firepower than he would surely have wanted to use to occupy Kiev and take out Zelensky, and he is still fighting for the capital.
If militarily this is an inconvenient and even embarrassing status , it is even more so from a political and strategic speech point of view. The escalation of violence he has needed to adjust his plans inevitably translates into more deaths - civilian and military - and greater material destruction, damaging his already battered international reputation and bringing him a step closer to the edge of war criminality, making him a pariah.
Moreover, its tardiness, and the Ukrainians' temperament, has worked the until recently almost impossible miracle of uniting Europe against it, producing such notable effects as the German decisions to fail the entrance in service of Nord Strean 2, to accept - partially, truth be told - Russia's exit from the SWIFT payment system, or the unprecedented decision to send offensive military equipment to Ukraine. It has even managed to get Switzerland to abandon its secular neutrality to join the announced economic sanctions.
Europe seems to be waking up - also thanks to Putin - from the lethargy in which it has been living for a long time, to understand that it must invest more in its defence to make it more capable in the face of American military power. It remains to be seen what practical effects this realisation will have on the defence budgets of European states, and whether it will bring about a profound change in mentality or, on the contrary, be an ephemeral sentiment.
Ukraine's future is still at stake. It is highly likely that Zelensky will eventually have to yield to Russian pressure, and it is not easy to predict what might happen if that time comes. It may be that resistance will cease, that Ukrainians will accept their fate, and that interest in Ukraine will wane in the rest of the world, sacrificing the country to Russian geopolitical designs. It may also be that Ukraine will continue to resist - spontaneously or led from exile by Zelensky himself - by resource to irregular means forcing Russia into a costly and protracted military occupation of the country that may end up turning into a Putin-busting ulcer if it results in the growth of the domestic civil service examination . How long could Putin resist such a scenario?
Whatever the future of this war, what it has already shown is that its nature remains as Clausewitz defined it in the early 19th century: a trinity in which the forces of violence, reason and chance interact. No matter how many labels are added to the phenomenon of warfare to make it hybrid, cybernetic or asymmetric, or to place it in the grey zone, conventional warfare remains a reality that should not be buried prematurely. When one thinks that, only two years ago, Britain was debating the desirability of eliminating tanks from the Army's inventory...