August 25, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 405

Russia's 'Special Operation' Turns Into 'War'

August 25, 2022 | By Dr. Vladislav L. Inozemtsev*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 405

August 24, 2022, marked six months since the beginning of Russia's "special military operation." Coincidentally, on this date, Ukrainians celebrated the 31st anniversary of their country's independence. In one of my previous analyses, I mentioned that it looked doubtful that Russia would crush the Ukrainian resistance any time soon.[1]

As everyone knows, the Kremlin fiercely resists calling its "special operation" a "war" against Ukraine, or even against the "Kyiv junta." This reflects not only its addiction to lies and "newspeak," but rather the Kremlin's notion that the Russian aggression should be considered a presumably "measured" use of force abroad undertaken to protect national interests. This is nothing new. In similar cases, most countries do not declare war on others. For example, President George W. Bush never asked the Congress to declare war on Iraq in 2002 but rather got from it an Authorization of Use of Military Force (AUMF), as happened in previous cases (e.g., Korea and Vietnam).

By designating their incursion as a "special military operation," the Russian leaders presupposed, that the aggression would not backfire in a way that would harm the Russian people. They believed it would have been just another "adventure," like the involvements in Georgia in 2008, Crimea and Donbass in 2014, or in Syria since 2015. However, after several months of the "special military operation," Ukrainian forces started to set up targets in Russia (or at least in the regions the Russian leadership claims belong to it), this has not happened in the country since, I would say, Chechen separatists carried out terrorist attacks in Russian cities – including several in Moscow – around 20 years ago.
Crimean bridge (Source:

Ukrainians Hit Russian Territory

This time, things look different, since not only do Ukrainians try to blow up or set fire to military installations in Moscow[2] and other regions of Russia, but they hit Russian territory with high-precision long-range weapons operations from Ukrainian territory. In recent weeks, such cases were recorded in the regions of Bryansk[3] and Lipetsk,[4]  while in Crimea a major Saki military air force base[5] and large ammunition warehouses in Dzhankoy were almost completely destroyed[6] in attacks that were witnessed by hundreds of locals and caused a massive evacuation of locals. The Russian Black Sea Fleet's headquarters in Sevastopol became a target for drone attacks at least twice.[7] Following both cases, thousands of passenger cars flooded the Kerch Bridge,[8] which was completed in 2018 and links Crimea with continental Russia (several top administrators of the occupied peninsula reportedly fled to Moscow),[9] while the Ukrainian leaders openly stated the bridge itself will be destroyed as soon as they get weapons advanced enough to hit it.[10]

Of course, the recent attacks were not the first that happened in Russia since late February. There were several cases of setting fire to military recruiting offices (военкоматы: "military commissariat") throughout the country, and independent analysts considered several explosions at military facilities and even railroads to be terrorist acts executed by Ukrainian infiltrators. I would mention here that Russian special services have been extremely concerned about Ukrainian refugees moving eastward – they saw potential subverters and terrorists in almost everyone among them. Yet, the explosions that happened in the past near the Ukraine-Russia borders in the Bryansk and Voronezh regions were not officially labeled Ukrainian attacks, but were considered the result of Ukraine's missile or artillery failures. It is worth noting that because of the numerous explosions in several districts of both regions, children will not be able to come to school in September and will study through distance learning. However, nowadays, it is impossible to consider such acts as "missile failures," as the strikes on bridges in the occupied Ukrainian territories and on Russian military installations in Crimea are highly precise. Moreover, Russian servicemen, who are stationed in Russia close enough to the conflict zone, also cannot feel safe.

So, for quite a long time the Russian leadership tried to hide that Russia was being hit, insisting that all the "incidents" in the military facilities within Russia were caused by servicemen, who smoked and carelessly handled fire. There are dozens of jokes and memes on Russian social media making fun of the Russian army that may become the only one in the world suffering deadly casualties not because of "friendly fire" but due to "friendly smoking."

The attack on the Saki airfield was so perfectly documented by both the Ukrainians and the locals that it made the Kremlin's lies evident. Hence, Moscow was forced to openly admit that the demolition of Dzhankoy warehouses resulted from a subversive action[11] (I would suppose that the Kremlin will claim that these "destructive forces" are linked to the Crimean separatists, as no one wants to become responsible for the security services failure of having been unable to stop infiltrators from Ukraine). However, no matter what Russia will say, the course of the conflict has changed.

No Russian Breakthrough

In February, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted that the objective of the "special operation" was to increase Russia's security and eliminate some intolerable "threats" caused by Ukraine's "militarization." So, as the war now hits Russia itself, it would become increasingly difficult to claim that "everything goes according to the original plan" (I would argue that such a formula had already disappeared from the official statements, at least as early as late June). Moreover, an even greater challenge to the Kremlin comes from the fact that it seems that Russia cannot respond accordingly to the Ukrainian actions. For months, Russian officials reiterated that they would hit Ukraine's high command headquarters if Ukrainian forces inflict damage to the Russian territory,[12] but no direct retaliation has been recorded so far. Quite recently, former President Medvedev, who became the most outspoken apologist for the current war, insisted that "Ukraine should be prepared to face a doomsday if it attacks the Crimean Bridge,"[13] but it is hard to believe this would happen (it looks like the bridge will inevitably be hit and made dysfunctional). All this rapidly turns the ongoing conflict into a real war and symbolizes Russia's incredible military impotence. There is a lot of evidence emerging from the Kremlin suggesting President Putin has become increasingly dissatisfied by his commanders and that Russian public support for attacks against Ukraine is starting to evaporate (some sources claim that recent polls indicate only 41 percent of Russians support the war, while 48 percent are against it).[14]

Until the Kremlin's "adventure" in Ukraine threatened Russia itself, Putin's freedom to maneuver was quite huge – even while Moscow launched its attack, as the Russian leadership believed it would yield an easy and rapid victory, many options existed for declaring some results as victorious. Because the Kremlin "recognized" the "independence" of Donbass separatist republics prior to its offense, even the option based on their "liberation" might suit as a symbolic victory. Since Russians quite soon succeeded in cutting a land corridor into the annexed Crimea, the creation of the so-called "Malorossiya" that Russia failed to accomplish in 2014-2015 was another point at which to stop the assault and declare victory. Yet, I would say that no success or breakthrough can be proclaimed at a time when Ukrainian forces are shelling Russian military facilities in Russian regions and thousands of Russian vacationers from all over the country are fleeing Crimea in panic.

The difference between a "special military operation" and a war is huge, as the first may be undertaken for a rather long time – and as it appears senseless, the people start to dream of terminating it at almost any cost and without any great dissatisfaction. One of the best examples is the Afghan "special operation," launched by the Soviet Communist leadership in 1979. During an almost ten-year conflict, the Soviet Army lost almost 20,000 soldiers and officers, the country wasted up to five percent of its annual GDP, and the Soviet "assistance" to the Afghan people finally became so unpopular that the military withdrawal was welcomed by almost everyone across the USSR.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, its last leader Mikhail Gorbachev was blamed for many wrong decisions, but not for the termination of the Afghan war. The same might be said about the first Russian war in Chechnya that was almost entirely lost by 1996; Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision to broker a peace accord was widely hailed. Hence, if the Russian-Ukrainian conflict had remained locked inside Ukraine, it would have been possible for the Kremlin to fight for a long time without inflicting any critical damage to Putin's approval ratings – but the current developments make the war much more problematic for Russian leaders, since now it seems there is no decent way back from where they are. There is a huge difference between a "special operation" and war, because the first one can be "terminated" almost at any stage while the latter may only be either won or lost.


Here I should point out that many analysts, both in Russia and in the West, used to say that Russia cannot lose the war since it is a nonsense to say Russia may be militarily defeated. I would only mention such brilliant theorists as Henry Kissinger and Edward Luttwak who believe Russia is undefiant. This is true – but a very important point must be made in this context. Russia has been very successful in staying up to invaders – the Polish, Swedish, French, and German armies expe­rienced its capabilities one century after another.

However, all these seminal examples apply to the cases in which Russia defended itself from intruders that approached its "core." Quite to the contrary, in the case in which Russia waged a war on its outskirts and faced either the rising nations or ones that defended their independence, it has lost almost every time – one should just remember its war with Japan in 1904-1905, with Poland in 1920, or Finland in 1940. The Russian war with Ukraine belongs almost certainly to this second category and one may expect that as it turns from a "special operation" into a war, Russia is embarking on a path leading to great challenges. If not the country itself, as happened after the fiascos in the World War I or the Cold War, for sure the current regime will face demise, sooner rather than later.

*Dr. Vladislav Inozemtsev is MEMRI Russian Media Studies Project Special Advisor.


[1] MEMRI Daily Brief No. 383, What To Expect From The Long War With Russia, May 20, 2022.

[2], accessed August 25, 2022.

[3], July 29, 2022.

[4], July 29, 2022.

[5], August 11, 2022.

[6], August 16, 2022.

[7], August 20, 2022.

[8], August 9, 2022.

[9], August 17, 2022.

[10], August 17, 2022.

[11], August 16, 2022.

[12], April 13, 2022.

[13], July 17, 2022.

[14], accessed August 25, 2022.

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