‘Putin’s original plan has completely failed’ Military expert Mykhailo Samus reflects on 100 days of Russia’s war in Ukraine
June 3 marks the hundredth day of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Meduza’s sources say that the Kremlin is trying to play down this fact, but Russian officials continue to assure that everything is going to plan. After three months of intense fighting, Russian forces have managed to occupy large swaths of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions in southern Ukraine, but were driven out of the Kyiv region. In mid-April, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced that the “second stage” of the invasion was underway. This bloody “battle for the Donbas” remains ongoing. Throughout the invasion, the Ukrainian army has not only defended the country, but also launched counter offensives. For insight into what these 100 days of all-out war have meant for Ukraine and its armed forces, Meduza turned to military expert Mykhailo Samus from the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies (CACDS). This interview has been edited and abridged for length and clarity.
Russia and Ukraine have been fighting a full-scale war for more than three months now. Hostilities are taking place across a vast territory and affecting the lives of millions of people. During wartime, it’s not always possible for journalists to quickly verify information shared by eyewitnesses and government officials, which is why we flag certain claims in our articles. Meduza is also careful when seeking out experts for commentary and analysis.
Looking back, how prepared was Ukraine for the fighting that began on February 24, 2022?
The Ukrainian Armed Forces were fully aware of the reports that Russia was preparing for a full-scale invasion. How the Russian offensive would play out wasn’t a secret: an information phase, cyberattacks, special forces operations, missile and airstrikes, landing operations, and, eventually, operations by ground forces.
Russia was gathering all of its forces quite openly, so Ukraine was preparing for such a turn of events. But [many] believed that from a military, political, geopolitical, and economic point of view, Putin wasn’t stupid and inept enough to attack Ukraine.
Nevertheless, various measures were taken in Ukraine to prepare the armed forces and the entire nation for a potential large-scale war. For example, the law “On the Fundamentals of National Resistance” was adopted in [July] 2021. It created a system of national defense that consists of all possible components: the Armed Forces of Ukraine, law enforcement agencies, volunteer Territorial Defense formations, [and] the possibility of organizing a resistance movement in the occupied territories and on enemy territory.
In addition, we had talks with our Western partners about supplying Ukraine with more powerful weapons. At that time, Ukraine was mainly supplied with defensive weapons. Unfortunately, we weren’t supplied with anti-missile and air defense systems, despite the fact that all these years we had been shouting that these weapons were necessary to prevent Russia from carrying out this kind of large-scale operation.
How effective have these preparations proven to be?
Putin’s original plan has completely failed. What was the Kremlin’s plan? I call it Afghanistan ‘79 plus Czechoslovakia ‘68. In the course of a few hours, Russian forces [were supposed to] enter Kyiv, kill or arrest Zelensky and his entourage, and replace him with [Ukraine’s ousted former president Viktor] Yanukovych. Russian troops move into Ukrainian cities and set up permanent posts, like in Czechoslovakia in ’68, and the Rosgvardiya [Russian National Guard] comes in.
According to Russian intelligence officers, Ukrainians should have had a neutral or positive response to such a turn of events. The fifth column recruited [in Ukraine] — which was reported [to Putin] — would organize new administrations, the security forces would go over to the Russian side, and thus there shouldn’t have been any war at all. In other words, Russian forces weren’t preparing for a war.
In reality, none of this went as planned. Thanks to the adoption of the law “On the Fundamentals of National Resistance,” a volunteer Territorial Defense was created. These are volunteer units that operate constantly. People [who join them] lead ordinary lives, go about their business as normal, but go for training once a month. They have units, weapons. When Russian reconnaissance and sabotage groups — special operations forces — began to enter Kyiv, it turned out that there were about 20,000 armed volunteers on the streets. All of these reconnaissance and sabotage groups were simply destroyed.
This model [of Territorial Defense] is very effective in peacetime, and even more so in wartime, because these people already know what to do in the event of aggression. After the start of the large-scale invasion [in late February and early March], there were lines of volunteers looking to enlist in the Territorial Defense. [Russian troops] didn’t take Kharkiv because there is such a powerful Territorial Defense force there, which became even more organized and powerful as time went on. And it’s the same for Kyiv. I think that this was a shock for the Russian command.
The Russian army’s long logistics chains, hundreds of kilometers long, also point to the fact that they weren’t preparing for war. Advancing Russian columns entered [Ukraine’s territory] and were destroyed, because they had no logistics. Apparently, they assumed that since there wouldn’t actually be a war, they could calmly roll into Kyiv and other cities and organize logistics later, once things had calmed down. None of this happened. All of these troops were destroyed during the first phase of the so-called “operation.”
The Russian army’s retreat from northern Ukraine [in early March] indicated a complete collapse of the Kremlin’s plan. Apparently, the Kremlin did not receive real intelligence for some reason. This information was distorted by either the FSB, military intelligence, or [officials] in the presidential administration. It’s up to the Russians to figure out who lied to whom.
Now, the generals have apparently promised Putin that they’ll destroy the Ukrainian army in the Donbas and then return to Kyiv, to the north [of Ukraine], to the center, and so on. This won’t happen. After 100 days, the Russian army is boasting that they took Popasna. Of course, this is a good result, but it doesn’t feel like a strategic success. At this rate, the war could go on for decades for Russia.
There is hardly any publicly available information about Ukraine’s mobilization efforts, with the exception of data on the number of cases brought against draft dodgers. Do you think the Ukrainian authorities have managed to avoid problems when it comes to mobilization?
There really is no information about this process and there won’t be any. Unlike Russia, we have martial law. According to representatives of the President’s Office, before the war there were 200,000 people in the army, and now there are 700,000 — and they [may mobilize up to] a million.
Problems always arise, but there aren’t any visible ones. I don’t see protests [in Ukraine] saying “We don’t want to fight.” The sentiment is completely different. Besides, this war has been going on for eight years. From 2014–2016, we had six waves of mobilization. What organizational problems could there be? This system has been worked out. Now it’s just the seventh wave.
Have there been any fundamental changes in the Ukrainian army’s strategy during these 100 days?
Since 2016, the Ukrainian command understood that an attack would come from six or seven directions at once. The only problem was that they couldn’t estimate the concentration of forces in the south. Russian forces [coming up] from occupied Crimea managed to get the farthest. In all other directions, [Russian troops] were stopped immediately.
The Ukrainian strategy was formulated while conducting a defensive operation, which, as conditions developed, turned into counter-offensive and offensive operations. This happened in the north, for example: in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Sumy, and Chernihiv. These cities weren’t taken by Russian troops. After a certain period of preparation, counter-offensive operations were conducted and [in late March] Russian troops were driven out of the northern territories.
In other directions, [Ukraine’s] strategy was organized according to the same principle. The mission is very simple: the de-occupation of Ukraine’s territories, including the Crimea and the Donbas.
The destruction of the [Russian] missile cruiser Moskva [in mid-April] greatly changed the situation in the Black Sea. For the first time since the Second World War, the Russian fleet lost its complete dominance [in the region]. Now it’s afraid to go to sea, because Ukraine has not only Neptune missiles, but also [American] Harpoon missiles that have a range of 300 kilometers [186 miles]. The entire Black Sea is under fire. This is a new feeling for Russian sailors.
I think that the war at sea should end with the complete destruction of [Russia’s] Black Sea Fleet and the demilitarization of the Crimea. It’s clear. Ukraine can no longer tolerate the Black Sea Fleet in the Black Sea because it’s a destabilizing factor for the region. As unusual as it may sound, I think this is the task now facing the Ukrainian Navy, because there is no trust in Russia on the diplomatic front.
The so-called battle for the Donbas has been going on since mid-April. The Russian authorities say that they’ve all but taken Severodonetsk, and there’s an ongoing offensive against Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. What are the Ukrainian army’s prospects in this region?
What you’ve described is what the Russian side wants. The situation [on the ground] is actually slightly different.
Russia began the so-called battle for the Donbas with big plans: an offensive from the north, from Kharkiv, and from the south, near Zaporizhzhia, meeting in the city of Dnipro. The second arrows were drawn from Izyum in the north and Huliaipole in the south, meeting in Kramatorsk or Sloviansk. The third, smallest “pincer” was from Severodonetsk and Popasna — that is, what’s happening now.
The first two plans failed. After the failure in the north, Putin was [seemingly] promised that the Donbas would be taken by May 9 [Victory Day] and that [Russian troops] would once again head towards Kyiv and Odesa. By May 9, however, no progress had been made. There were attempts to break through in Izyum, but in the south, in Huliaipole, there was no progress.
When it became clear that there would be no big battle for the Donbas, [the Kremlin] decided to at least achieve a political goal — to take Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in order to declare that the “LNR” [the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic] is now independent, and that Russia had achieved its goals in the “special military operation.”
Now, Russia has concentrated a lot of forces [in the Donbas]. The Ukrainian armed forces are gradually withdrawing to prevent encirclement. They understand that the capture of Severodonetsk doesn’t change anything for the Russian or the Ukrainian army from a practical point of view. Now, the Russian army is wasting tremendous resources to achieve political objectives and I think they will be very difficult to replenish.
For the Ukrainian army, defending Severodonetsk isn’t advantageous. But if they retreat to Lysychansk they’ll be in more favorable tactical conditions. Therefore, the Ukrainian army is gradually withdrawing or leaving Severodonetsk, and upholding the combat mission. The combat mission is to destroy enemy troops and carry out offensive operations. Now they are being carried out in the directions of Kharkiv and Kherson, and Russia is bogged down in the Donbas.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych speculated that the Russian army may return to northern Ukraine and increase its pressure in the south. Are these expectations justified?
Russia doesn’t have the strength to start the operation over again. In order to plan anything in the north of Ukraine, they’d first have to achieve some success in the Donbas. [Russian troops would] have to conduct a large offensive from Izyum [in the north] and Huliaipole [in the south] at the very least. So far, Russia hasn’t been able to achieve any visible success at this level.
Like I said, from a tactical point of view, a destroyed Severodonetsk doesn’t change anything. It [will] just be in ruins, and I don’t know how it will be useful to the Russian army. In the south, Ukraine has every opportunity, for example, to de-occupy Kherson and other territories, and strike at the Black Sea Fleet. Russia may be in for a few surprises. And these surprises may not even be tactical, but rather operational ones that will affect the strategic picture.
It seems that support for Ukraine from the U.S. and European states has already passed its peak. Is this really the case?
Right now the American war economy is Ukraine’s war economy. Nothing more, nothing less, because the lend-lease bill was signed and in the initial stage, $40 billion was allocated [to assist Ukraine]. [The United States is currently] our main ally in terms of the war economy. The U.S. also assembled the so-called Ramstein coalition. Two meetings have already been held to coordinate [military] aid for Ukraine, so that there’s no chaos.
Therefore, on the whole, Western aid is just beginning to gain momentum. As always, there are complaints about the speed [of weapons deliveries], but each country has its own level of bureaucracy. If someone had said three months ago that we would be supplied with HIMARS or anti-ship missiles, for example, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now this is the reality. In Ukraine, it’s seen as the norm and they’re also asking to speed all this up.
To be honest, I wouldn’t put pressure on [Germany]. Its army is falling apart and they have old weapons from the Cold War. We’re demanding some supplies from their arsenal, but in order to start using this equipment it needs to be modernized. All of this requires time and resources. In addition, the German armed forces don’t have much equipment at the moment.
Germany’s military-industrial complex really is quite powerful, it’s one of the world leaders in terms of exports, but again, there’s a problem. Manufacturing a particular system takes time; negotiations are underway. Germany can help Ukraine in any other way — financially or in terms of resources. I think we’ll get there eventually.
In mid-May, President Zelensky said that French President Emmanuel Macron asked Ukraine to make concessions on its sovereignty. And major European Union states oppose granting Ukraine candidate status for accession to the EU. What can Ukraine expect from Western partners going forward?
Ukraine has an objective: to de-occupy its territory, to defeat Russia in this regard. Other countries have their own objectives.
If you look at big business in Germany, it’s clearly in a state of shock. What’s happening in the complete destruction of 50 years of work to create a system of relations, including gas cooperation, with the USSR and Russia. And for what? For the Germans it’s unclear. Their dear friend Vladimir [Putin] decided to destroy it all. [This shock] is also noticeable in Macron’s constant contact with Putin. He needs to save French business, which was very tied up in Russia. As a result, the French authorities asked Putin to stop, and Putin dug in his heels. Why should he stop and not the Ukrainians? He’s a powerful guy from the KGB.
Consequently, very difficult times are coming for Western big business. Of course, for European countries the best option would be to somehow stop this war. And since their dear friend Vladimir isn’t agreeing to back down, they have to put pressure on the Ukrainians and say: “Why don’t you somehow make an agreement? Go on and sign something. Yes, it’s a bit of your territory, your interests…But we’ll pay. Let’s not destroy everything we’ve built, that’s the main thing.”
But Ukraine can’t agree to that. Whereas in 2014–2016 Ukraine agreed to make some concessions in terms of signing the Minsk agreements and still held some negotiations with the Kremlin, now this is practically impossible. After what Russian soldiers did in Ukraine — those massacres in the Kyiv region, the Chernihiv region…
Ukrainians simply can’t afford [to make concessions]. We need to liberate our territories and no longer have anything to do with Russia. Some kind of agreement will probably be signed someday, but not now. All attempts by our Western friends are understandable. They really didn’t want to impose an embargo on oil and gas, but again, there’s no escaping it, because [Russia’s] aggression and war crimes continue.
Of course, there are business interests, but there are also universal human values. It’s very important for Europe to keep this foundation. The value of democracy is not in money, but in loyalty to freedom of speech and equality. Therefore, no matter how hard the oligarchy tries to maintain the existing model [of relations between Europe and Russia], Western society won’t allow it. It was the public in European countries that sided with Ukraine and made their politicians change their views. There can be no other way out, except for Ukraine and Europe coming closer together, no matter how politicians or business try to stop it. Attempts to thwart [Ukraine’s] candidate status to the European Union are attempts to save room to maneuver with Putin.
Fortunately, these are still democracies, so they are guided by the mood in society. Politicians may not like Zelensky, but Europeans do — they like that Ukrainians weren’t afraid to stand up and fight. So European business and politicians have no chance. If they don’t change now, then the next elections will bring in new politicians, who will work more actively with Ukraine. That’s the reality.
After the atrocities in Bucha, Ukraine and Russia walked away from bilateral negotiations. At the same time, President Zelensky said that dialogue will resume sooner or later. Is there any reason to believe that this will happen soon?
Those weren’t negotiations, those were consultations. Everyone was trying to understand what was happening, what Putin was up to, why he did it, why he was destroying Europe’s economic model, why he was destroying Russia, and why he was hurting Ukraine. We tried [to figure it out through talks], but we still didn’t understand anything, because [Russia’s lead negotiator Vladimir] Medinsky was going on about “denazification.” Well, okay, Putin decided that he wants to destroy Ukrainians. Super, that’s a great goal for the twenty-first century. How he saw it playing out, I don’t know. What kind of negotiations can there be? Unfortunately, there’s nothing to talk about as yet.
Possible negotiations will only begin when the [Russian] offensive in the Donbas fizzles out and Ukraine goes on the counter offensive. When Russian generals tell Putin that the situation needs to be fixed quickly — things could get much worse in the future and it’s not clear how the [Russian] people will react if there’s 40–50,000 dead. There’s already 100,000 wounded. People may already be starting to whisper in their kitchens about how their leader is inept. At this point, I’m sure Putin will say that Russia has always been in favor of negotiations.
In your opinion, under what conditions could a dialogue begin?
Treaties are always concluded after events on the battlefield become fixed. Putin started his war with demands for the “denazification” and “demilitarization” of Ukraine. Negotiations took place when Russian troops were stationed near Kyiv. Let’s see what happens on the battlefield. The situation has changed quite a bit.
Negotiations will take place when Ukraine begins to actively counterattack, Russian troops start falling, and the authorities throw in the towel and say, “We need a break.” Russia would need about six months to a year to mobilize, recover, and build up its forces, and apparently it will try to take this pause. But I still hope that Ukraine won’t let that happen.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart