At first glance, Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine seemed to suggest a change in the approach of the Russian armed forces.
Moscow was perhaps calculating that missile strikes and a multipronged invasion of ground forces would lead to a swift surrender by the Ukrainian government. Putin appears to have anticipated a repeat of Russia’s decisive seizure of Crimea in 2014 or its invasion of Georgia in 2008 – but what we have seen is more similar to its intervention in Chechnya in December 1994 when the Russian armed forces were initially unable to convert their military superiority (certainly in terms of numbers) into military and strategic success, and thousands of Russian troops proved unable to secure the North Caucasian republic.
The strength of the Ukrainian resistance appears to have surprised Moscow and in recent days there has been a change in the Russian approach, shifting towards greater use of artillery and missile strikes against major cities, such as Kherson, Kharkiv and Mariupol.
There are echoes of the Russian intervention into Chechnya in late December 1994 here, when the Russian leadership planned a massive armoured offensive against the Chechen capital, Grozny, intending to stage a decisive strike with air support, relying on speed to take the Chechen leadership by surprise and ensure Russia held the initiative. But the Chechen forces had been long prepared for a strike against the city and the attack was a dismal failure.
From Afghanistan to Chechnya and Ukraine: Underestimating the will of the people
The Russians underestimated the will of the Chechens to defend their homeland; similarly, Putin appears to have underestimated the will of Ukrainians to defend their country.
The experience in Chechnya also demonstrated an apparent disregard among those in command for lessons learned in Afghanistan. The Soviets counted on the surprise shock of the initial invasion and short-term military occupation to undermine their adversary but had underestimated the resolve of the Afghan population and its will to resist.
Russian Defence Minister Pavel Grachev had claimed that Chechen resistance would be crushed in a couple of hours with minimal forces, but Chechen forces were prepared for an invasion.
The progress of the Russian intervention force was also slow, hampered by civilian blockages, breakdowns and poor weather.