Why the Russians are losing their military gambit in Ukraine
The speech on March 25 by the Chief of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, was an admission of Russia’s failure in the war in Ukraine.
General Rudskoi declared that the “first phase of the operation has been completed.” In fact, the initial Russian plan has been defeated. This was clearly to threaten Kiev so as to bring about a flight of the Ukrainian government, a collapse of Ukrainian resistance, and a Russian-dominated regime in Ukraine.
Instead, half of the Russian forces deployed have been fought to a standstill outside Kiev, and the rest are making only glacial progress in the south and east. As a result, the Kremlin has abandoned its strategy of capturing Kiev, and, as Gen. Rudksoi announced, will redeploy its forces in order to concentrate on completing Russian control of the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Lugansk.
On the war’s eve, Russia recognized the independence of the Donbas republics on the entire territory of these two provinces. At that time, pro-Russian separatists controlled only part of their territory, and, after more than a month of war, the Russian army has still failed to occupy the rest, despite a bitter siege of their third largest city, Mariupol.
It is clear that Russia will now concentrate on consolidating its position in east Ukraine. In Gen. Rudskoi’s words,
“The main goal [of what Russia calls its “special operation”] is to provide assistance to the people of the Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics…
It was impossible to achieve this goal by political means. Kiev has publicly refused to implement the Minsk agreements…
In these conditions, it was possible to help the Donetsk and Lugansk republics only by providing them with military assistance.”
The Russian government and military are now trying to find excuses for the failure to capture Kiev and other cities:
“The public and individual experts are wondering what we are doing in the area of blocked Ukrainian cities.
These actions are carried out with the aim of causing such damage to military infrastructure, equipment, personnel of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, the results of which allow not only to shackle their forces and do not give them the opportunity to strengthen their grouping in the Donbass, but also will not allow them to do so until the Russian army completely liberates the territories of the DPR and LPR.
Initially, we did not plan to storm them in order to prevent destruction and minimize losses among personnel and civilians.
And although we do not rule out such a possibility, however, as individual groups complete their tasks, and they are being solved successfully, our forces and means will concentrate on the main thing – the complete liberation of Donbass”
The truth of the matter is that Russian forces have suffered so heavily in the first weeks of the war that a wider offensive and the capture of many more large Ukrainian cities are now impossible. Once the city of Mariupol and the remaining territory of the Donbas are taken— something that Moscow hopes to complete in the next week or so — the Russian army is likely to stand on the defensive in the territory it has occupied. It may even declare a unilateral ceasefire combined with an offer of peace terms, and essentially challenge the Ukrainians to counterattack, with the risk of incurring extremely heavy casualties in their turn.
The defeat of the initial Russian invasion plan is a rather interesting episode in military history — not because it involves something new, but, on the contrary, because it confirms a whole set of hoary cliches about strategy and tactics — cliches which, for some militaries, have to be relearned the hard way in every war.
The first and oldest of these is the maxim of the classical Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu: “Know your enemy.” Underlying all Russian military failures in the war so far is their total underestimation of the determination and skill of the Ukrainian defense. The Russian military appears to have based its assessment of the Ukrainian military on its miserable condition back in 2014 — despite the fact that one of the motives for this invasion was precisely because the United States had been doing so much to strengthen the Ukrainian armed forces. It would seem that once Putin and his immediate circle had decided for war, any intelligence casting doubt on this decision was simply excluded or ignored (as with the Bush administration in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003).
As a result, the planners of the Russian invasion did not understand or apply Napoleon’s maxim, that “in war, the moral factor compared to the physical is as three to one.” Gen. Bonaparte was of course exaggerating for rhetorical effect. The French armies of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars would not have won without superb modern artillery, and the Ukrainians would not have been able to resist the Russian army without NATO-supplied Javelin anti-tank missiles and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles.
At the same time, it is clear that superior Ukrainian morale — a characteristic of men fighting to defend their homes — has played an important part; and this is something that Russians themselves should understand from their own history in World War II when the fighting spirit of the Soviet army increased the further the Nazis penetrated into Russia and Ukraine.
The remarkable number of senior Russian officers who have reportedly been killed in action in this most recent war testifies to their personal courage and devotion to duty, but the fact that they felt compelled to lead and inspire their soldiers from the front is a pretty clear indication of serious morale problems in the Russian rank and file.
Underestimation of the enemy led to classic errors of military strategy: inadequate forces for the task they were given, and dispersal of those forces in the face of the enemy. The Russian attacked a country of 233,000 square miles from six different directions with fewer than 200,000 men —and, in consequence, failed almost everywhere. This emphasizes the old lesson, that any successful general in history could have taught: relative weaponry and airpower are of course important, but the concentration of mass at a particular point is also still key to victory.
“Get there firstest with the mostest,” as the Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest supposedly (perhaps apocryphally) said during the American Civil War.
Finally, there is the role of cities and urban warfare. As global urbanization grows and grows, this will become a defining feature of future wars. What has above all held up the Russian advance has been the readiness of Ukrainian defenders — like the Chechens in Grozny — to hold out in the urban areas that spread across much of eastern and southern Ukraine. The areas and populations involved dwarf the number of Russian attackers.
Urban warfare has counteracted Russia’s superiority in armor and airpower and maximized the effectiveness of Ukrainian infantry weapons. This has forced the Russians (like the Americans in Mogadishu, Fallujah, Hue, and elsewhere) to resort to massive firepower to dislodge the defenders, and in consequence, to suffer severe political damage from the resulting destruction and civilian casualties.
In other words, Russia’s difficulties have been due not only to a remarkable set of Russian mistakes, but also to certain factors that have always favored well-armed, highly-motivated defenders fighting in their own cities. After peace eventually returns, this lesson will be Ukraine’s best security guarantee against future Russian invasions. It should also be a deterrent to any other great power planning future aggression.