During his unannounced trip to Kyiv this week, President Joe Biden spoke admiringly about the resilience of Ukraine's state and democracy. But a year earlier, the United States and its allies harbored grave doubts about Ukraine’s ability to stand up to Russia’s February 24, 2022, invasion.
"The inflated estimates of Russian military capacity and the downplaying of that of Ukraine had real consequences," said Eliot Cohen, professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "They slowed down not only the supply of weaponry to Ukraine but also policymakers' assessment of the realities."
The belief that Ukraine would be quickly defeated prevented the West from supplying Ukraine with heavy military equipment early, agreed British political expert Taras Kuzio.
"Western governments didn't want to give that because they were convinced that Ukraine would be quickly defeated."
The re-examination of these early predictions began within weeks as the Ukrainian army turned back a Russian column driving toward Kyiv. Three primary explanations for the miscalculation have emerged.
Lack of expertise
"Very few people understand Russia sufficiently," said Alexander Vindman, who served as a director for European affairs for the U.S. National Security Council.
"Even fewer people understand Ukraine," he said.
A fundamental flaw was a failure to understand that Ukrainians "are people that had been engaged in a war for eight years, that these are very tough-minded folks," Vindman said, referring to Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.
Kuzio said this misunderstanding was compounded by an approach to post-Soviet history that focuses mainly on the Russian perspective.
"Those advisers to the governments are usually experts in Russia, and they believe that they have some God-given right to be also experts on the other 14 republics of the former U.S.S.R., which is completely ridiculous. It does not happen anywhere else in the world. If you're an expert on Argentina, you're not an expert on Brazil or Mexico," he said.
"Many in the West mistakenly thought Ukraine was just like Russia but weaker, more corrupt, and chaotic," agreed Orysia Lutsevych, head of Chatham House's Ukraine Forum, in an article for The Guardian newspaper. "In fact, while Ukraine is by no means perfect, it is more agile and decentralized, compared to the autocratic and rigid Russian state."
Western analysts also didn't account for the reform of the Ukrainian army since 2014, relying too much on "anecdotal studies of Ukrainian capabilities from 2014-2015," said George Barros, an analyst on Russia and Ukraine at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Kuzio believes that some Russian narratives were making their way into the Western analysis, which exaggerated the East-West divide in Ukraine and the weakness of the Ukrainian state.
Cohen at Johns Hopkins suggested that "even a subconscious acceptance of Russian contempt for Ukraine as a lesser people" might have clouded the Western experts’ analysis.
"Most of the Western expert opinion was based on the narratives Russia has been promoting for the last 30 years," said Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. Oksana Markarova in an interview with VOA. She said these narratives, which portrayed Russia as a mighty military force and Ukraine as a weak society that would welcome Russian troops, "originated from the Soviet Union and the Russian Empire."
Markarova said the Western thinking also was influenced by the recent experience in Afghanistan, where President Ashraf Ghani fled the country as soon as the Taliban threatened Kabul in 2021. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government stayed in Kyiv and millions of citizens rushed to defend their country, forcing Western leaders to re-evaluate the situation.
"At least it all began to reduce negative expectations," Markarova said.
The experts also noted that, based on raw numbers and data alone, Russia’s military appeared to be an overwhelming force compared to the Ukrainian army.
"Many analysts also overestimated the Russian military due to relying too heavily on net assessment — the comparative analysis of military, technological, political, economic and other factors governing the relative military capability of states," said Barros.
He explained that while the Institute for the Study of War was late to predict the invasion, it correctly assessed that the Russians would fail in their effort to capture Kyiv.
"It is clear that the Russian military is suffering endemic problems with leadership, information, command and control, intelligence and other key aspects of combat power, despite having larger resources than Ukraine."
Vindman brought up his experience working at the U.S. Embassy in Russia.
"I spent three years in Moscow working with the Russian military. From monitoring and observing how they operate, it was clear to me that not everything would work, and that they would not be able to use it all in operational concepts that they could employ in Ukraine."
According to Kuzio, Western experts also did not appreciate how Russia’s engrained corruption would affect its military. "If Russia is a mafia state, then the Russian military will be, too; it is a part of that state."
"Military analysis is not fortune-telling," said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies program at the Center for Naval Analysis. Kofman said he correctly predicted the looming war a year ago but underestimated the Ukrainian resistance.
Still, he said, most analysts understood that Russia would have a hard time trying to control Ukraine. "The consensus was Ukraine would lose the conventional war, but Russia would not succeed in occupation. Many Ukrainian colleagues shared this view."
Kofman said he believes the analysts did not misread Russian capabilities as much as they underestimated the Ukrainian ones.
"There was little knowledge of Ukraine's plan for defense and no evidence of systematic preparation."
He said the analysts had also assumed that Russia would mount "a joint force operation, taking Ukraine’s ability to resist seriously, rather than a risky decapitation strike with no Plan B for a sustained war, under the assumption Ukrainian resistance would collapse easily."
Some factors that influenced the outcome — ranging from the strength of Ukrainian society to the unknowns about FSB penetration of Ukrainian elite circles — were too complex to assess, he said, referring to Russia’s Federal Security Service.
Kofman underscored that the U.S. policy on intelligence support and military assistance to Ukraine changed dramatically after the first weeks.
"I think we were never seriously asked how the war could look if the U.S. truly backed Ukraine," he said.
Natalia Churikova contributed to this report.