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Bad history makes for bad policy on Ukraine

Bad history makes for bad policy on Ukraine

To contend with Russia the West needs a deeper understanding of its military past, and world view.

Analysis | Europe


With the failure of Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive despite billions in armaments and months of training, the post mortems have begun.


They follow: The West was too slow in providing missiles and aircraft; Russia had too much time to prepare trenches and minefields; Ukraine needed more time to learn combined-arms tactics and employ Western armor effectively. Yet underlying all these excuses was a broader analytical failing that has yet to be acknowledged: flawed and often facile historical analogies led defense planners to underestimate Russia’s resilience.


Even today, with the horrific costs of overconfidence plain to all and Ukraine at a crucial crossroads, the same flawed analysis of the Russian adversary persists.


Time and again, policymakers and commentators based their expectations of the war based on flawed historical parallels. One example is Russia’s acceptance of mass casualties and use of “human wave” attacks where they lose three or more soldiers for every Ukrainian casualty.


Time and again — right up to the present — commanders and commentators cite this as a sign of severe Russian weakness. Whether discussed in the jargon of an “asymetrical attrition gradient,” or simply referring to Russian soldiers as “cannon fodder,” analysts frequently note that such profligacy with human lives is a legacy of ponderous Soviet and Tsarist armies.


But what they fail to note is that this tactic often brought victory. Tsarist armies took massive casualties in battles with Swedish, Persian and Turkish forces as they built the Russian empire. In defeating Napoleon, the Russians suffered as many casualties as the French despite the advantage of fighting on their home ground and their familiarity with the Russian winter.


Soviet Marshal Zhukov absorbed 860,000 casualties to the Germans’ 200,000 at the Battle of Kursk in World War II. He also lost 1,500 tanks to the Germans’ 500, yet Kursk is remembered as a great triumph that crushed Hitler’s final hopes of victory. Can one imagine Germany celebrating its superior casualty ratio while being defeated by Stalin’s hordes?


However shocking this tactic may be, it is a resource that Moscow has and Kyiv does not. Consider the battle for Bakhmut and the daily bulletins trumpeting Ukraine’s success in killing thousands of Russians, right up to the moment that Bakhmut fell to Wagner Group mercenaries — weirdly reminiscent of the Pentagon’s body-count bulletins in the Vietnam war.


At Bakhmut Ukraine lost the indispensable cream of its army to hordes of dispensable Russian convicts-turned-storm troopers in doomed defense of a strategically insignificant town that President Zelenskyy vowed would not fall. The average age of Ukrainian soldiers is now 43.


Losing Bakhmut hurt Ukrainian morale, but it is Russian morale that pundits say is shot. And they remind us that military disasters sparked Russian uprisings in the past — in 1905 after defeat in the Russo-Japanese War, or the debacle of WWI that led to the collapse of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.


Given their hardships and suffering, why wouldn’t Russians do it again and overthrow Putin? Pundits often ignore that, after a decade of economic chaos and global humiliation in the 1990s, Putin is respected for restoring stability and national pride. Tsar Nicholas II, by contrast, was rather more like Boris Yeltsin — weak and out of touch, reliant on hated advisers, presiding over chaos.


It’s also likely that, unlike a distant debacle with Japan or European carnage triggered by an Austro-Serbian dispute, many Russians believe in this war because they see Crimea and Donbas as historically and culturally Russian.


Whether it stems more from deep-seated imperial attitudes or a decade of anti-Western propaganda, Russians still back Putin and even take pride in standing up to the best NATO can throw at them. An effort to appreciate the views of Putin and his people is not being “pro Russian” even if we find those views wrong or repugnant.


On the contrary, such an approach is key to “thinking in time” with accurate historical analogies, and vital to avoiding the conceit of assuming that Russian soldiers or citizens will behave as we would.


On the eve of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, U.S. Joint Chiefs chairman General Mark Milley declared that Russians “lack leadership, they lack will, their morale is poor, and their discipline is eroding.” Of course, if your main historical lesson is that Russian armies crack under strain, then you look closely for signs of dissent and soon find a looming collapse.


This is how superficial history joins with confirmation bias to produce flawed analysis. Stymied by fierce Russian fighting, Ukrainians troops themselves told Milley he was wrong: “We expected less resistance. They are holding. They have leadership. It is not often you say that about the enemy.”


As Kyiv’s crisis deepens and recriminations spill out in public, commanders at all levels of the Ukrainian Armed Forces agree that they and their NATO advisers badly misjudged Russian tenacity: “This big counteroffensive was based on a simple calculation: when a Moskal [slur for ethnic Russian] sees a Bradley or a Leopard, he will just run away.”


But what about taking the fight to Russia? Former CIA Director General David Petraeus predicted that Russian resolve could “crumble” in response to Ukrainian drone attacks on Moscow. Such strikes “bring the war to the Russian people” and might convince Putin’s regime that, like the USSR’s Cold War quagmire in Afghanistan, Russia’s current war in Ukraine is “ultimately unsustainable.”


In fact the old Soviet elite did not see the Afghan war as unsustainable, nor were they much concerned about public opinion. It took both a generational transition and a bold new leader who prioritized improving ties with the West — Mikhail Gorbachev — to finally manage an exit.


The point is not that war isn’t costly. The Afghan war was, and the Ukraine war is even more so. The point is that accepting defeat in a major war that was justified as a vital national interest is unlikely until there is both a new leader and turnover in the ruling elite.


As for “bringing war to the Russian people” by bombing Moscow, when did that ever work? NATO brought the Kosovo War to the Serbian people in 1999 by bombing Belgrade, and it only rallied them to the side of dictator Slobodan Milošević; 25 years later, Serbs remain strongly pro-Russian and anti-NATO. And when Chechen rebels bombed Moscow and other Russian cities in the early 2000s, it only rallied Russians around Putin and helped justify his increasingly authoritarian rule.


These aren’t mere historical quibbles, but illustrations of flawed analogies that framed both strategic expectations and tactical decisions. And they have cost dearly, in both Ukrainian lives and now Western support. Confidence in Washington-Brussels elites falls even as officials still claim that Ukraine is winning and Putin “cannot outlast” the West.


In fact, as NATO empties its warehouses of equipment and misses deadlines for producing new munitions, it’s hard to conclude otherwise unless one is trapped in another oversimplified WWII analogy: that of America as the “arsenal of democracy.”


Many have contrasted America’s innovative private arms producers with Russia’s technology-starved state factories, predicting that Moscow would soon exhaust its munitions. Instead, Russia has consistently belied the “all brawn and no brains” narrative, not only outproducing the West in tanks, artillery and shells but defying sanctions to develop new precision-guided bombs, drones and missiles. Perhaps those discounting Russian ingenuity forgot the Katyusha multiple-rocket launcher, a legendary artillery weapon that both the Germans and Americans copied in WWII.

With a looming crisis in efforts to keep Kyiv supplied with munitions, it is useful to look closer at American arms production in WWII, when the “arsenal of democracy” was in certain respects more like Putin’s economy than Biden’s. But today Washington faces a complex set of institutional obstacles: “least-cost production models,” contractor aversion to stockpiling, export restrictions, and environmental regulations the likes of which do not trouble Putin.

A final lesson from WWII’s “armaments race” is a caution against technological hubris such as that seen in today’s gushing about the superiority of Western Leopard or Abrams tanks over the Russian T-72 and T-80. Germany’s Tiger tank was clearly superior to the Soviet T-34 in WWII, but the latter was cheap, reliable, and easy to produce in numbers; at Kursk, Soviet tanks outnumbered German ones by 2:1.

So as NATO planners and media pundits take up the “cannon fodder” refrain again with reference to the heavy losses Russians are taking as they advance in the battle for Avdiivka, these planners and pundits would do well to consider a quip famously attributed to Soviet wartime leader Josef Stalin: “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

Photo credit: Soviet troops of the Voronezh Front counterattack behind T-34 tanks during the Battle of Kursk. (Unknown Red Army photographer/ CC BY 4.0)
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