In warfare, especially when one is the aggressor, quickly securing enemy territory is crucial to the invader's success. The more territory it quickly occupies, the more damage it inflicts upon the defender's morale. Consequently, prior to launching an invasion, the aggressor carefully determines the best route of attack – one allowing defensive forces to be avoided as much as possible while penetrating inland as far as possible.
It was for this reason Russia opted to take one invasion route into Ukraine where its defensive forces were lacking. Under cover of conducting a military exercise in Belarus – a Russian ally directly north of Ukraine – President Vladimir Putin's forces lingered there afterward. Then, on Feb. 24, Belarus became a launching pad for a Russian invasion route into Ukraine, providing it with the shortest route of advance toward the country's capital of Kyiv.
However, the Russians were unable to reach Kyiv, ironically being turned back by an "invisible force" they themselves had created 36 years earlier when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. The Russians encountered this force at a place called Chernobyl, which, in 1986, was the site of what is considered to be the world's worst nuclear reactor disaster. The cause of the disaster was a combination of a flawed Soviet reactor design and mistakes made by poorly trained operators. Obviously due to the absence of Ukrainian defense forces there, Chernobyl easily fell into Russian hands within the first day of the invasion.
However, as Russian troops advanced through and bivouacked in Chernobyl, they dug trenches and otherwise disturbed the soil. The trenches were dug in what is called the Red Forest, taking that name after thousands of trees turned red immediately after the nuclear disaster. It is considered "the most polluted in the entire (exclusion) zone." By choosing this as one of its invasion routes, the Russians reportedly stirred up a deadly dust, not only endangering them but neighboring countries as well.
The invisible force that ultimately has driven the Russian forces out is radioactive dust. Chernobyl and the surrounding area have virtually been uninhabitable, which was why no Ukrainian defense forces were occupying the territory. So great is the radiation risk that Ukraine does not even allow trained workers, wearing protective gear, into the forest. While Russia was well aware of this, nonetheless it chose to expose its own forces to the radiation risk simply to take advantage of the easier access route to Kyiv.
Consequently, hundreds of Russian troops are now being treated in hospitals in Belarus suffering from acute radiation sickness. There has been at least one reported death from the radiation exposure, and there will undoubtedly be more. Meanwhile, those not yet sickened have beaten a hasty withdrawal. Without having to fire a shot, Ukrainians were able to affect a Russian withdrawal from Chernobyl.
But an invasion route through Chernobyl was not the only example by which the Russian military leadership demonstrated little concern for their troops. Numerous cases of frostbite have occurred as no effort was made to equip troops with cold weather gear. And the Russian advance also has been frustrated by the little consideration given to replenishing fuel and food, leaving empty gas tanks and empty stomachs.
Poor training has resulted in numerous ambushes by Ukrainians in which Russian troops fail to take minimal responsive action to minimize their casualties. Additionally, in an ultimate slap at its own troops, immediate medical care for the wounded has been lacking. It is no wonder Ukraine reports that over 17,000 Russian soldiers have so far died.
The Russian army has undoubtedly learned a lot about itself during its invasion into Ukraine. While it has learned an invader's superior firepower does not necessarily trump a defender's determination to protect the homeland, it has also learned its own government shows little concern over the risks – some of which are totally avoidable – to which it is exposed. A combination of both these realizations can effectively break the morale of even the greatest of armies. While the Ukraine war has dispelled the long-held myth of a great Russian army, such realizations most assuredly are undermining whatever fight this paper tiger of a military force has left.