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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE CLOSURE: UPDATES, RESOURCES, AND CONTEXT

Why most predictions about the Ukraine war have been proved wrong

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

The predictions when Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago were grim. Kyiv would fall in days. European support for Ukraine could splinter. And later, when Russia slashed gas supplies to Europe, many feared public support for Ukraine would fall. None of those things happened. NPR's Frank Langfitt looks at why.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: As tanks rolled towards Kyiv on February 14, many thought Russia was headed for a swift victory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So the Russian military is really an overmatch for the Ukrainians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Ukraine's military is badly outgunned.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's likely that the Russians will take control of Kyiv but not without a fight.

LANGFITT: The Ukrainian leadership was also deeply worried. Back then, Oleksii Arestovych was an adviser to the office of the Ukrainian president. He was holed up in Kyiv with Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

OLEKSII ARESTOVYCH: It was a huge number of Russian forces, and it's about maybe 20 or 25 times more Russians than our defenders. We completely understand it's impossible to defend Kyiv.

LANGFITT: After Zelenskyy refused to evacuate, Arestovych says they handed out machine guns.

ARESTOVYCH: And I think first five days, we will die. All in this building, we will die.

LANGFITT: The Russians never made it past the suburbs. The weaknesses of the Russian military are now well-documented - endemic corruption, terrible logistics, rigid command and control. But Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank, says the Russians could have succeeded.

JACK WATLING: I think that plan was viable, as in it could have worked for them to isolate Kyiv.

LANGFITT: Watling says Russia made at least one fatal mistake. It only told its units north of Kiev they were invading Ukraine at the last moment.

WATLING: They thought they were on training exercises in Belarus.

LANGFITT: Russia wanted to maintain the element of surprise. It worked, but it also left officers and soldiers unprepared, psychologically and otherwise. Commanders scrambled to study old maps they brought, including those which dated to the mid-1980s.

WATLING: Platoon commanders were basically told, drive down that road until you get to X. Well, they didn't know what X was, especially since the Ukrainians are pulling down the street signs. And so we saw instances of Russian troops getting into the center of a town, not knowing where they were, getting out, trying to chat with the locals to work that out, not having their weapons loaded and then being hit with artillery.

LANGFITT: Watling says the military's lack of faith in its own troops proved decisive.

WATLING: When you don't trust your people, then friction essentially becomes the enemy. The ability of your own system to coordinate itself becomes catastrophically fouled up. And that's fundamentally what led the Russians to fail.

LANGFITT: If the Russians lacked faith in their own forces, they were banking the Europeans and the Americans would fragment or fold. After all, in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea, a strategic peninsula nearly the size of Massachusetts, the U.S. and the EU responded with sanctions. And in 2021, American troops pulled out of Afghanistan amid harrowing scenes, which revealed deep divisions between the U.S. and its NATO allies.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: It was very chaotic at the airport. You know, there were these videos circulating on social media that showed Afghans running alongside a C-17, clinging to it.

LANGFITT: An image that Russian President Vladimir Putin could only have found encouraging. The European Union has 27 members with often different agendas, which in consensus can be notoriously difficult. But Putin's long buildup of troops on Ukraine's border gave the U.S. time to call him out and rally support. When it came, the audacity and the brutality of the Russian invasion horrified people across Europe and united their leaders. NATO allies poured weapons into Ukraine at a staggering rate. Bruno Lete is a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

BRUNO LETE: I think for Europe, it meant the end of an era of complacency, the end of economic complacency, military complacency. And it came very sudden, like a slap in the face.

LANGFITT: Kristi Raik is deputy director of the International Centre for Defence and Security, a leading think tank in Estonia. She says the invasion also exposed a certain naivete.

KRISTI RAIK: It has forced Europeans to recognize that having too much of idealism and pacifism can actually be dangerous if it leads to closing one's eyes to the threat of war.

LANGFITT: After setbacks on the battlefield, Vladimir Putin tried to divide NATO allies by weaponizing energy. European nations relied on Russia for about 40% of their natural gas. Putin cut the vast majority of that flow. European nations responded by cutting energy consumption by 15% and found new energy sources. Liana Fix is a fellow for Europe at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

LIANA FIX: Many doomsayers were afraid that the European Union will not be able to get off Russian gas as quickly. And it was also something that Russia did not expect. So Russia's energy weapon has really lost its edge.

LANGFITT: Fix also says the scale of the invasion, the biggest since World War II, focused minds.

FIX: If there's an existential crisis to the European Union and to European countries, those are the moments when Europeans stick together and finally are able to agree on a solution.

LANGFITT: The war and Russia's policies have taken an economic toll. In December, inflation, largely driven by high energy prices, was still over 10% in the United Kingdom. But Isabell Hoffmann, founder of eupinions at Germany's Bertelsmann Stiftung Foundation, says a strong majority of Europeans still support arming Ukraine. A mild winter helped.

ISABELL HOFFMANN: The energy crisis is not as bad as people might have imagined it to be. You know, nobody is freezing in their homes.

LANGFITT: David Quarrey, Britain's ambassador to NATO, says Ukraine's gains on the ground, Russia's continued attacks on civilians and energy infrastructure have also shored up public support.

DAVID QUARREY: First of all, people have seen the Ukrainians succeeding and paying an enormous price to defend their country, to defend their freedoms. And secondly, people see the absolutely horrific cost that Russia is imposing on Ukraine at the moment.

LANGFITT: Considering all the concerns of the beginning of the war, Isabell Hoffmann says Europe has acquitted itself pretty well.

HOFFMANN: There is a lot of talk around how democracies are weak. Little societies are weak and easily to manipulate, etc., etc. But I think there's equally evidence there to show that they're quite resilient.

LANGFITT: Over the past year, that may have been one of President Putin's biggest miscalculations. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.