I really wish I was not doing this, but after having written about Putin’s strategies and tactics in Creating Chaos over five years ago – and making some projections, of which the worse case ones have proven correct – I feel compelled to comment on the tragedy (for both Ukraine and Russia) that continues unabated.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Putin’s apparent abandonment of tactics that were working extremely well as recently as the fall of 2021 (in Syria, Libya, Central Africa and most recently Belarus) is shockingly hard to understand – and appears to be largely driven by his fundamental misunderstanding of Ukraine and its post Soviet legacy, as well as his lack of experience in strategic, conventional warfare. Both are eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s WWII invasion of Russia and illustrate that neither former infantry corporals or KGB covert action field officers are exempt from making huge geopolitical mistakes. The following article illustrates that point far better than I could here:
As far as what comes next, it certainly appears that the fall back Russian strategy is to proceed to secure additional separatist territory for the break away enclaves in the southeast and fragment Ukraine, establishing a base for future political warfare and ongoing fragmentation and destabilization against an independent Ukraine. Given Russia’s seemingly immense military advantage that would seem likely.
However, its important to recall that in the first major Russian conventional warfare in the east, back in 2014, Ukraine were defeated due to Russian equipment and tactics (including advanced artillery bombardment from inside Russia) which the Ukrainian Army was not prepared to combat. This time, with the advanced anti-tank and anti-air weapons which Ukraine has, its going to be much tougher and bloodier for the Russians in the East. Which does not mean they won’t take territory, but its going to cost them a lot more (including costs to the Russian separatist enclaves). Ukraine is going to fight it like a real war, and Russian bases on the border will not be exempt.
I’ve added the following link as this military blog story gives a very accurate picture of the brutality of the Russian invasion – their looting on the retreat to Belarus is particularly odious – and in particular the impact of an in depth defense with anti-armor weapons which is something new to the battlefield that Russia did not face in its first invasions of eastern Ukraine in prior years.
In fact if the shift to provide heavier weapons from the West (note – the UK and EU members are moving much more quickly in that regards than the US, which appears to have become overcautious and mired in indecision) happens quickly enough its very possible Russia will literally lose – if not territory in the east, certainly a large part of its standing Army and its missile and ground warfare assets. That is going to be really hard to replace given the sanctions (recall that Ukraine itself was the major technology vendor and advanced equipment supplier back in the Soviet era).
Another key element in this would be whether or not the UK (and the US) provide missiles of the harpoon class capable of taking out Russian warships – which have become key to their ongoing, brutal bombardment tactics.
Of course its simply speculation but one possible outcome of a war in eastern Ukraine is that “enabled” Ukrainian combat could end with Russia as something of a second tier geopolitical player (Putin has already been forced to recalled garrison forces from Georgia and Syria) , perhaps simply an ally to China as Italy was to Germany in the late 1930s. If that occurs,, Putin’s gambit will have resulted in a major resurgence for the EU and perhaps equally uncomfortably for Russia, for Turkey as well.
Anyone interested in more dialog on the Ukrainian situation might also tune in on the second half of the following session with Chuck Ochelli, which we recorded last Thursday.
A few other developments that need to be mentioned.
1. Russian tactics apparently called for a coup d main assault to take out the Ukraine’s command and control structure, as had occurred during1968 in Czechoslovakia and later in Afghanistan. Apparently this did not succeed, most likely because the Ukrainians had anticipated this and prepared themselves.
2. According to credible sources, Russian field commanders received the green light to commence the assault only a week beforehand. As someone who was himself involved in the planning of combined arms operations, something of this size and complexity cannot be properly executed in so short a time. It’s no wonder that there was mass confusion during the assault phase.
3. The Russian Army has not conducted such a massive combined arms combat operation since the Afghanistan war, with command staffs having little experience operating in an actual combat environment, There are also reports vast logistics bottlenecks which have deprived troops in the field of ammunition, supplies and equipment.
4. Russian military equipment has apparently not performed well in the field. While the Russians do field some effective weapons systems, they’ve often been outclassed by Western arms used by the Ukrainians.
5. A large percentage of the assaulting force was made up of conscripts who have had little training and are therefore inexperienced with operating in combat conditions. There are also reports of morale problems in the ranks, including desertions, equipment sabotage, and incidents of insubordination.
6. Relating to the above, the Russian command structure has apparently broken down, with officers stepping in to do the jobs of NCOs. The situation has become so desperate that even General Officers have had to go so far as to expose themselves in the field to motivate troops. This resulting in the deaths of seven Flag Officers ( As of now.).
7. Finally, and despite the mass censorship campaign by the Russian media, the war is becoming increasingly unpopular among a large segment of Russian people. There have been demonstrations in a number of cities where thousands have been arrested and imprisoned. With the growing casualties, ( approx. 7000 KIA ), as well as the world wide economic boycotts, it is likely that domestic discord will increase among Russia’s population.
All of this therefore, does not bode well for Putin. Indeed, a number of commentators have stated that if these setbacks continue, his very regime could be in danger of collapsing.
That’s a very good list John – as I would expect from you with your experience. Chuck and I have covered some of those points in earlier shows, especially in regard to a planned decapitations effort that failed (possibly due to a leak from within the Russian FSB itself) and the failure of the airborne assault against Kiev. Losses of special forces helicopters and either one or two very large Russian transports plus the unanticipated and tenacious defense by local territorial Ukrainian security forces may turn out to be major factors in that.
The failure of Russian communications security has been serious, with a limited number of encrypted phone systems available and those apparently working on cellular systems the Russians themselves took out of service with infrastructure attacks. I would also speculate that western signals intelligence as well as more general situations intelligence has been provided far more quickly and effectively to the Ukrainians than was expected – certainly something that did not happen in the earlier large scale Russian incursions.
But as you said, the logistics failures and very short time frame for combined arms planning may end up having been the biggest factor – which of course Putin never really considered given his wrongheaded world view of Ukraine as well as his lack of experience.
I’m not sure how long it will take for a realistic view of the war to develop inside Russia, Putin’s media control is almost total at this point and Russia has moved into a level of censorship not seen since the Stalinist era in an almost unbelievably short time – however the body count is so significant that it can only be denied for so long, as the Russian experience in Afghanistan proved.
Thanks for your itemized the events in your list, at this stage its really good to have a through grip on what is happening since the military commentary I’ve seen has been relatively limited – some good coverage, but only in bits and pieces and more on military blogs than in the major media.
On the coverage of the war itself I do agree that military websites and blogs do have the best and most up to date information on the Ukraine situation. As far as mainstream sources, for all its flaws BBC has nonetheless done some pretty good reporting on the war.
Something else needs to be mentioned. The author of the CNN piece makes a point of comparing Putin to Hitler. While a number of valid comparisons can be made, one should also remember that another tyrant who was a contemporary of Hitler made exactly the same kind of mistake.
After his signing of the 1939 Nazi/Soviet non aggression pact, Russia’s dictator Joseph Stalin decided to annex parts of Finland to provide a buffer for the defense of Leningrad and the Soviet arctic, with the ultimate goal of absorbing Finland back into the Russian sphere. To his shock and surprise, the unprovoked invasion was unexpectedly and effectively repulsed by the tiny Finnish Army. As ill equipped as they were, for three months the Finns fought the Soviet Army to a standstill. Like Putin, Stalin also expected a quick victory, and thus did not equip the Red Army with proper equipment, including winter clothing. As a result, Red Army troops suffered massively from exposure to the elements, as well as from equipment and logistics shortages.
What ultimately made the Finns capitulate was the lack of material support from the Allied side, as Britain and France were afraid that openly supporting the Finns could bring Russia into the war on the side of Hitler. Something we thankfully do not see happening in the Ukraine. However, this lack of support also contributed to Finland’s decision to come in on the side of Germany a year later.
Here is an excellent analysis of the Winter War by noted military historian Mark Felton:
Excellent point and example! The irony of Russia moving against Ukraine while totally ignoring the German experience in Russia and the Russian experience with Finland is pretty amazing. After all, its not like either is “ancient” history.
Comparing the experience of Finland with what the West can and should do to support Ukraine is an excellent point. Thanks for the post.
“They’ve sowed the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind’
Air Marshall Sir Arthur Harris, Chief of RAF Bomber Command
On the commencement of the combined Allied aerial bombing offensive against Germany 1942
On the war at sea.
The Russian Navy has for the moment, dominated the Black Sea. Russian Naval Infantry (Marines) have made some successful amphibious landings and Russian warships also continue with shore bombardment. However, Turkey has closed off the Bosphorus to all warring nations, thus sealing off Russia’s Black Sea fleet from reinforcements from their Baltic Fleet.
Also, until two weeks ago, the Russian Navy had never lost a warship in action since World War II. That ended when a fully loaded amphibious landing ship was struck by ground fire and her combat load exploded. The other two landing ships also withdrew with one of them aflame.
Finally, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that Britain will be sending Harpoon antiship missiles to the Ukraine to defend their coast from naval assaults. The US made Harpoon is the world’s most effective and versatile anti-ship missile, and can be launched from ships, aircraft, submarines, or shore based launchers.
This is certainly a key aspect of the conflict and if the UN were really what it was created to be it would have moved to enforce a no fire zone in international waters adjacent to Ukraine. If Harpoons are deployed to relive the air attacks in the SE, it could well be a game changer. Increasingly Russia seems forced to rely on air and sea stand off bombardment and that simply has to be take off the table.
I sincerely hope to see Harpoons go into play ASAP as well as more air defense systems capable of taking out cruise missiles. And although there is no way to absolutely verity it, the following news item suggests the potential impact of Ukraine being able to take the combat to Russian warships:
Thanks for the very interesting and well informed discussion and comments.
I share the concern about low quality of media reporting of the conflict. As a British citizen the BBC is a significant source of news for me and I was struck by the comment that BBC coverage was better than most. That was somewhat worrying as I’ve not been impressed with BBC coverage so I shudder to think what mainstream news in the US must be like!
I’ve found the overviews by ISW quite helpful. They seem to draw heavily on Ukraine General Staff information, but in practice turn out to be generally accurate in their assessments. The wardrive blog is quite good for more detailed information, to some extent.
Unfortunately it looks like the Russians are not going to repeat the mistakes of inadequate logistics, dispersal of effort and lack of co-ordination of air and ground forces that characterised the first phase of this war. It remains to be seen what the relative balance of combat power will be in the Donbas and what state the Ukrainians are in.
If they have the capability to defend in the Donbas and attack elsewhere, perhaps further west towards the south coast or south of Kharkiv then it may still be difficult for the Russians to achieve their new, more limited objectives, but we shall have to see.
My remarks about media coverage are generally based on the ratio of actual news to commentary – I think of it as the “stuffing” factor, its particularly bad on the full time news channels. Generally I also find that the BBC has much better connections to overseas news, especially with European contacts. The US media has been focused elsewhere so long and have pulled back so far on the number of field reports that to me they lag in that area. In this instance the more news reports that can be pulled directly from eastern Europe the better.
I have found NPR’s daily news summaries to be both focused and good, possibly because they are in text and bullet pointed. Sometimes I long for the old days of ten minutes of news and weather on the hour….not 24 hour dialog and commentary.
As to the impending battle in the East…well Ukraine has been fighting there for years and they know the territory. Russia is hard pressed for personnel and many of their first rate units have been badly chewed up already – while much of the Ukrainian defense in the north was brilliant work by local and territorial defense forces.
The Russians can bombard targets to pieces, the question is whether they can advance through them in the face of field forces with advanced weapons. And whether they could stay…that did not work in previous advances when they totally destroyed eastern cities in major armored advances, not sure it would work now.
And of course one of the major differences now is the degree of battlefield intelligence the US and NATO are providing – I dare say that is greater than what Russia can provide at this point and its key to a flexible defense. I have no doubt Russia can advance to a point, perhaps enough to give Putin his May day celebration. Advance and hold long term now…after the war crimes…hard for me to conceive. At best the war maps would change to “contested territory”.
As a further example of some of the very good, albeit specialized site information available on the combat in Ukraine the following article brings up in much more detail how the calculus of territorial conquest is changing: