WELL, I for one am disappointed.
We were told for years, decades even, what a Russian or Soviet invasion would be like. There might be a build-up of tension, but there might not; Russian/Soviet military strategy incorporates ‘maskirovka’, deception, to misdirect attention, rather like Operation Fortitude convinced the Germans that D-Day was a feint. There would be large-scale military exercises, mass tank formations, attack helicopters and the like. Instead of turning right and going home, the formations would suddenly turn left and pile across the border. At the same time there would be airstrikes to catch the opposing air force on the ground. Spetznaz special forces would be inserted behind the lines to cause chaos in logistics and command and control; some forces infiltrated across the border well in advance would be activated. Power stations and TV and radio would be targeted, blacking out electricity supplies and news broadcasts. Paratroopers would seize key locations. The tank formations would rapidly advance, supported by close air support from fighter-bombers and helicopters. Strong opposing forces would be bypassed and encircled, later destroyed to preserve the forward momentum. There would be decapitation exercises to isolate and eliminate the opposition government. Meanwhile useful-idiot politicians from countries not directly involved in the fighting, whose hostility to their own nations’ policies and defensive alliances make them supportive of Russia/USSR in all but name, would call for an end to the war and demand a peace conference.
Well, at least the last bit is spot-on. Nothing else remotely is.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been rather like the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914, Imperial Germany’s solution to fighting a two-front war against France and Russia that did not manage to take Paris in six weeks as promised, leading to years of near static warfare that was finally broken by, you guessed it, massed tank formations. As the Russian army has advanced further into Ukraine, its ability to manoeuvre has slackened. It’s almost as if Russia’s tank forces have never previously fought a major campaign during the spring thaw on the steppes and has now discovered the effect of deep mud on armoured columns and supply trucks. Or perhaps it was just the Wehrmacht that got literally bogged down on the Eastern Front. There is a reason why land campaigns in the Northern Hemisphere usually commence between July and September. The weather, and thus the ground conditions, are so much better.
If there is not a crisis of confidence amongst Russia’s military commanders, there should be. It is quite rare for an aggressor nation to win a long conflict. Just ask Germany, the only country in history to have lost two world wars. While the military may prevail in the short term due to surprise, in the long term economic reality takes control. The Nazi blitzkriegs were followed after the fall of Stalingrad by almost unhindered erosion from economically, materially, and numerically superior opponents, while Germany’s supplies dwindled due to blockade, just as they had in the Great War. Germany’s early victories in both wars were almost entirely founded on having mobilised its economy for war earlier than its opponents and also to a greater extent. Once Germany’s opponents caught up, it was all over. After July 1943, Germany could not win the war, and by October 1944 it had lost.
Russia is now subject to what is in effect a blockade, albeit one not enforced by military means. Russia’s ability to wage a long war depends on the viability of its economy. Unless Putin is willing to become a client state of the People’s Republic of China, economic isolation can lead, as it did in the late Soviet era following the invasion of Afghanistan, only to rapid economic decline and collapse.
This is not the first time Russia has faced an unwelcome military reality in the last 40 years. The performance of Soviet equipment used by the Iraqi army following Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait was so poor that after an Anglo-American air campaign lasting over a month which crippled Iraq, Saddam’s forces were wiped out in a ground campaign that lasted precisely 100 hours. The coalition land attack started in late February 1991, rather than during classic campaign season, but that was owing to the arid conditions in the desert at that time of year. Perhaps Putin believed that he could do his own version of Desert Storm/Desert Sword on the steppes at the same time of the year. Saddam’s swift defeat caused crisis of confidence in the USSR’s armed forces, and may have accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union as the civilian leaders realised the game was well and truly up and all the money diverted from the civilian economy to the military had been wasted. The new military reality seems to be like the old military reality. A wag once described the USSR as being like ‘Upper Volta with rockets’, and this seems to be the case. The only reason for Russia’s position on the world stage is the size and reach of its armed forces, specifically its long-range bomber fleet and its nuclear arsenal. But that’s it.
It is Russia’s strategic capability that has inhibited Western policy, just as it did when the USSR piled into Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. The West’s response to the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 seems similar to the current war: to arm local forces with man-portable missiles launchers and other infantry-based munitions to fight a proxy asymmetric war of attrition. The fundamental difference is that this policy seems to have been enacted some time in advance of the invasion. But there is another difference.
Unlike the Afghan Mujahideen, time is not on the side of the Ukrainian armed forces. They are outnumbered and outgunned. Their supply lines are at the same or greater risk of compromise compared with their opponents. As has been discovered, the rate of use of munitions has been much greater than anticipated by military leaders, and resupply seems precarious. Ukrainian opposition using sophisticated conventional weapons is shading into insurgency using improvised devices, some as rudimentary as a Molotov cocktail. There is also the issue that Putin is not as squeamish as the West about flattening opposition forces and structures using conventional artillery and missiles. Imagine if the US Army had used Putin’s tactics in Iraq. Yet the usual suspects who would have protested at that are quite silent about this.
As the mud dries on Ukrainian roads, warfare may become more mobile, which can only be to Russia’s benefit. Ukraine may hold out using insurgent tactics but Russia’s defeat might be not in the field of battle, but in the counting houses. Putin cannot come back from this outrage in the same way Brezhnev did from invading Czechoslovakia. Detente would be defeatist, rather like the Helsinki Conference of 1975 accepted the slave state status of numerous Eastern European countries. It is blockading Russia that will cause Putin to fail, and this will have to go on for years until Russian policy changes, presumably by the fall of Putin and his gangster clique in one way or another.