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Turning the World Upside Down: Observations after Six Months of War by Bálint Somkuti

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Turning the World Upside Down: Observations after Six Months of War

Six months ago, on February 24th, Russia attacked Ukraine. Why?

According to the official explanation, Russia’s objective was to ‘de-Nazify’ its neighbour. It was apparent already back then that the Russian leadership, via aggression commenced through this transparent excuse, intended to reverse the divisive processes begun on Maidan Square at the end of 2013. Then, at the Maidan Uprising in Kyiv, protesters amassed by the thousands to reverse Ukraine’s decision to strengthen ties with Russia rather than sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement. The revolution that followed resulted in the Russian annexation of Crimea, but the fallout overall was considered unfavourable for Russia.

Why exactly then, and why at all, the attack termed ‘special military operation’ by the Russians was started has continued to be a subject of debate to this day. 

Another answer comes from certain western commentators, alleging President Putin’s failing mental or physical health was the trigger, but no significant evidence of it has been verified. 

Others are convinced that the actual casus belli was Ukrainian President Zelensky’s speech delivered at the Munich security policy conference, questioning the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on a nuclear-weapon-free Ukraine. 

Still another group of experts suspects that the effect of the frenzied, inexplicably rapid pull-out of the United States from Afghanistan must have prodded the Russian bear from its cave. 

We may never know the true answer. It is, however, a fact that not many people foresaw—including the author—that this war of brothers would break out at all. 

The first days of the armed conflict brought major turmoil. Russian paratroopers appeared in Kyiv, and soldiers dressed up as Ukrainians were shooting at civilians in the streets. Reportedly, President Zelensky barely managed to dodge the operation aimed at capturing him. A similar story, however, had been aired at the time of the 2016 coup against Erdogan, and so it is probably more of a topos in modern conflict, in the case of the country at war since 2014, than a genuine piece of news. 

After the first days of the war, attacks against major cities including Kyiv and Kharkiv were stalled by the persistent opposition of the Ukrainian armed forces. The enormous amount of modern western weapons caused major losses in the Russian columns, apparently unprepared for such a response.

Under unfavourable weather conditions, a 60-kilometre Russian convoy was lined up on the road leading to Kyiv, and the Russians suffered significant losses. 

It turned out during the first week that the Russian leadership had made a severe miscalculation.

Despite poor economic prospects for 2022 and low public support for President Zelensky, the aggressors were not welcomed with flowers in Russian-populated areas either. 

The cause of this major intelligence fiasco could be due to a network of agents—turned with American assistance—to produce false reports, or it could be due to something else. In any event, a meaningful amount of information for such a dire Russian misstep continues to be missing. One thing is certain: except for the port city of Kherson, the leadership in Kyiv managed to retain control of all big cities in Ukraine. Despite the stalled advance towards the east and the north, Russia’s destruction of the hinterland of the Ukrainian military began in the first days. The targets of ballistic and cruise missiles were Ukrainian fuel and ammunition depots, and military barracks. 

It was already visible in the time that ‘totality’—as a characteristic feature of modern warfare—was not in the cards. At the beginning, the Ukrainian side did not attack targets within Russian territory, as might be expected. Furthermore, the Ukrainian population continued to have their energy needs supplied with electricity from the power stations grabbed by the Russians, who continued to sustain the transference of gas from Hungary to Ukraine.

Ukrainian “diplomacy”—which has never boasted of restraint—shifted into high gear, and tried, employing a wide selection of insults, to squeeze more support and aid from countries (including Hungary and Germany), whose involvement had been dismissed as insufficient. 

In response to the aggression, the leadership of the European Union introduced a series of sanctions against Russia intended to be devastating, and western companies announced their exit from the Russian market one after the other. 

In the middle of March, the Russian leadership appeared to be faltering for a moment. Moscow increasingly employed threats of going nuclear, and due to heavy losses combined with a completely stalled attack, reports were justified in stating that the level of capabilities of the Russian armed forces was rather low. The siege of Mariupol, a city of special importance for the connection of Crimea with the mainland, defended persistently by Ukrainian special forces, had just begun.  

The significant majority of countries globally, however (in fact two thirds of them)—with such giants as India and China among them—refused to impose restrictions on Russia. This development reinvigorated Russian self-assurance, and a series of increasingly self-confident Russian statements on western sanctions began to be issued. 

Then, at the beginning of May, the attack of Russian forces in the Donetsk-Luhansk regions (territory of the separatist republics) commenced, and the Ukrainian transport network consequently suffered major damage. Transformer stations indispensable for electrified railway lines were being hit systematically. On May 20th, Mariupol fell, and by then it became clear that reinvigorated and reorganised Russian forces were causing unmitigated losses to the Ukrainian military. In the course of the frontal onslaught, which surprisingly focused on the strongest Ukrainian positions, even bigger cities were only able to hold out for a couple of weeks at most, and by July, it looked like the strength of the Ukrainian military would soon be running out.

Russia continued to advance, as shown by the fall of Pisky (a town converted into a fortification) in the middle of August, despite Russia’s own weak logistical support and long-range weapon assistance given to Ukraine by the West. According to public sources, a Russian offensive was also started from another direction in the much-threatened Kherson oblast by the end of the month. 

Despite the increasing Russian advantage in terms of military technology (but not in terms of personnel), Ukrainian armed forces continue to hold out, but the fact that young unmarried women were also conscripted recently has shown the extensive proportions of Ukrainian losses. 

Let us take a look at some takeaways from the war that has been ongoing for half a year now. 

Above all, it should be stated that western economic sanctions have impacted all areas of our lives—and they have failed. According to the official explanation, the sanctions were introduced in order to make the Russian leadership incapable of financing its “special military operation.” This would have been a viable option had responsible leaders—or, leaders who acted with any responsibility—asked themselves two questions:

First, am I able to provide for the replacement of volumes lost due to the sanctions? If the answer is not clearly yes, then sanctions diminish my ability to perform my main task: guaranteeing of the functioning of society and the economy. 

Second, can the target of my sanctions sell the products I used to purchase to someone else? If the answer is not a clear no, then the sanctions are worthless, since I will be worse off, and the other side will not. It should be noted that it was not only energy carriers that had been sourced from Russia but countless other products as well, some of which are required for the proper functioning of agriculture, for example. 

Replacement of the missing products is only possible at a steeper price, and the quality of what is available is often worse, a combined burden that carries grave consequences, including a food crisis. Let us be clear: we are facing the threat of famine.

Another conclusion drawn from these past six months pertains to the perceived ineffectiveness of the Russian armed forces. In the beginning, expectations were low: Russian military units were deployed with maps from the Cold War; T-72s exploded after a single hit; the initial offensive was full of flaws. All of these pieces led to the premature conclusion that the Russian military posed only a minimal threat.

But anyone faintly familiar with Russian military history knows that the key to Russia’s successes had never been in the operation of cutting-edge technology, but in the toughness, persistence, the gradual introduction of new and effective procedures, and the reliable application of methods learned. It happened even in the second half of 1944, when Hungarian ‘Turán’ tanks managed to ambush the advanced Russian Soviet T-34s without radio, and the Turán’s weapon system proved to be more effective. Sporadic triumphs like this, however, were unable to stop the Red Army’s roll toward the West. 

Although the number of Russian troops deployed in the current conflict has been far from overwhelming, the industrial background and human resource pool of Russia represent a major advantage.  

In summary, the end of the war is still out of sight.

As the European Union increasingly feels the financial consequences of its own hasty and improperly justified decisions and actions, the costs amounting to billions of euros per month required for keeping the technically bankrupt Ukrainian state afloat are becoming increasingly unsustainable. 

The Ukrainian national consciousness that has been shaped in front of our eyes makes Ukrainian society capable of putting up with inconceivable losses, but their armed forces are continuously losing despite western armaments that have been trickling in. 

On top of all this, by destroying Kissinger’s lifework, the leadership of the United States has managed to achieve that the Russian-Chinese cooperation which was slightly questioned at the beginning of the war has evolved into an extremely strong alliance by now.

In this situation, there is only one way out for Europe: it should hope a peace agreement is achieved as soon as possible, because this would be in its own interest.

Bálint Somkuti is a security policy expert and military historian

The article originally appeared on the Hungarian news site