War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.1 Clausewitz, 1833
Russian, like western powers, have lost wars against inferior opponents. In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, being defeated ten years later. The first Chechnya war, 1994-6, revealed that, “Despite having superior technology, the Russians were incapable of defeating the Chechens, who relied largely on guerrilla fighting tactics.”2 (my emphasis). The war was resumed in 1999-2000 when they achieved regime change. Their ‘victory’ provoked 17 years of guerrilla war. Putin’s victory in the Crimea, 2014, was followed by an attempted annexation of the Ukrainian Donbas. Eight years of Ukrainian resistance is providing them with intense combat ‘training’.
Russia isn’t alone with embarrassing failures. Britain, and her coalition partners, failed in Afghanistan,3 Iraq,4 Libya,5 and Syria.6 These are well documented and ‘oven-ready’ test cases for Russian Staff Colleges.
Apart from recent history, the Second World War provides invaluable lessons, especially from the Soviet Union, who played a prominent part.
The sinking of the Moskova and retreat from Kyiv has changed Russian tactics. Mariupol is on the brink of being razed to the ground. Additionally, missile attacks continue on urban areas. Military analysts know there’ll be negative outcomes as it’s a known known.7 Slaughtering civilian populations is pointless. Soviet history has the best example from the 900 days siege of Leningrad. The siege provided an inspirational narrative for the Soviet Union.8 Carpet bombing cities in Nazi Germany didn’t reduce patriotism despite hundreds of thousands of deaths.9 Why will Ukraine be different?
Russian analysts know Ukraine is perfect for tank-based warfare but not on the cusp of spring. The spring melt period creates a quagmire, forcing tanks onto roads. Every example of asymmetrical warfare shows tanks on known routes are sitting ducks.
Where Putin has been unlucky is the west turning the conflict into a surrogate war. Massive quantities of armaments have been provided, along with training. The USA alone has donated $3 billion in weapons.10 These weapons have been supplemented by Britain and other NATO countries. The Ukrainian armed forces have been levelled-up. Furthermore, their soldiers are battle-hardened, making them a formidable enemy.
Russia’s analysts failed to reflect on patriotism in the general population, which is ironic. The Great Patriotic War, as WW2 is called in Russian history books, depended on the population being mobilised. Their charismatic leader, Stalin, remained in Moscow rallying world support from anti-communist American and British governments. President Zelensky skillfully uses social media for political purposes. He persuaded the British, for example, to permit him to address parliament in an unmediated broadcast streamed to the debating chamber itself.
Putin’s invasion is heading towards a disaster. The worst possible outcome is the continued onslaught on the civilian population. There are no modern examples of a knock-out blow from brutal attacks on civilian populations. Attacks on civilians tend to promote patriotism and generate the seeds of guerrilla warfare..
Ukraine has porous frontiers, which are undefendable. President Biden is willing to supply weapons and there’s a hideous prospect of a long-drawn out war. Soviet history has a vivid experience of this with Partisan groups who undermined the Nazis from the behind their lines. This is probably the Russians’ greatest tactical mistake amongst the fundamental errors of judgement and execution.
Russia’s strategy in Ukraine relies on 20th century tropes. The paradigm is razing Nazi Germany to the ground. This was insufficient. The 1953 Rising and the building of the Berlin Wall, 1961, demonstrates the elusive nature of victory. The German- Soviet model collapsed, in 1989, precipitating the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The Great Powers haven’t succeeded in using overwhelming military superiority to gain military successes and Russia won’t buck the trend. The Russian invasion has been badly executed against an enemy that’s had years to prepare. Worse, it’s now a surrogate war. The western powers have provided resources and Ukraine is no longer militarily inferior. Only tactical nuclear weapons will reassert Russian military superiority and even Putin’s supine General Staff might refuse to implement that option.
Russian tanks being ambushed Another Russian convoy is ambushed by brave Ukrainians using chillingly lethal anti-tank missiles – YouTube
1 ‘Fog of war – Oxford Reference This is often abbreviated to ‘the fog of war’
7 “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.” There are known knowns – Wikipedia