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How Russia lost its way in the fog of war — lessons on strategy from Ukraine

How Russia lost its way in the fog of war — lessons on strategy from Ukraine
Demonstrators at a protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine outside the Russian embassy in New York on Sunday, 27 February 2022. (Photo: Ismail Ferdous / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Turning strength into weakness is one of the early lessons from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at least from the perspective of Kyiv. What other lessons are there, asks Greg Mills in the third of a series of articles on the crisis.

Many observers expected a rapid Ukrainian capitulation in the face of an overwhelming Russian invasion. It has not, however, gone quite that way, even though Ukraine is under considerable pressure. 

Russian forces continue to attack through four axes — from Belarus to the north, Russia to the northeast and east, and from Crimea to the south — with the aim of taking control of major population centres, especially Kyiv and Kharkiv. Heavy armour, airborne special forces, decapitation and terror strikes, and sabotage elements are all being employed, as predicted.

But progress has been slower than anticipated, for several reasons. 

The first of these is simply that war is hard, that a fog descends quickly to complicate matters. And Russia’s military abilities, despite the use of nearly 200,000 combat troops in the invasion, seem limited — mediocre at best.

Its army is heavily reliant on conscripts and appears short on competence, the result of decades of neglect masked by effective propaganda. Russia has become a shell of a superpower militarily, economically and especially politically, despite its possession of nuclear weapons.

Such difficulties may have been compounded by a detached commander-in-chief who is leading from his dacha, cosseted by his former KGB comrades. Coupled with a notorious institutional hierarchical inflexibility, Russia battles to adapt any plan to changing circumstances. This is complicated by inevitable logistics challenges, which are likely only to worsen the farther Russian forces travel and the more congested routes become. This has made the taking of key airports imperative as supply depots. 

It may be that the Russians have not yet committed the force levels they can, and when they do it’s all over, but even this is subject to the logistics and complexity challenges outlined. Mass formations also make a tempting target, especially for drones, loitering and other munitions. And even if (when?) the Russians take Kyiv, they will probably have to fight a guerrilla war, which will be pricey and unpopular, as colonial wars against guerrillas invariably are. Afghanistan serves to remind both the West and Russia of this cost.

Another reason for the slower than expected progress is that the Ukrainians are fighting hard and are well led, from the top by the charismatic President Volodymyr Zelensky. Whereas the Russians might have (wrongly) expected a similar level of Ukrainian resistance as faced when capturing Crimea in 2014, those lessons appear to have been well learnt by Kyiv. As one British military specialist who has worked with the Ukrainians has noted, they “have a unique advantage in that they understand the Russian mindset and military approach whilst at the same time understanding the Western way of fighting”. 

They thus have a very good idea of what the Russians are going to do and when supported by Western intelligence this has had a material effect.

It has not stopped there. The Ukrainians (and their international network including the Anonymous collective) has out-hacked the Russians, so far at any rate, shutting down various Russian military and government websites. They even managed to reprogramme Russian TV to play the Ukrainian national anthem, forcing state channels to go off air in the Baltics and Black Sea region.

The West has stepped up to the plate in delivering the type of defensive support that Ukraine can best employ: anti-tank and air-defence missiles plus, it is presumed, intelligence sharing. The Russians have also so far comprehensively lost the diplomatic battle. It’s not just that the Europeans have slapped unprecedented sanctions on Moscow and its oligarchs, but that support of its key ally, China, has wobbled, not least in the UN, while Kazakhstan’s refusal to support Russia with troops has been complemented by condemnation by both other key Russian allies.

Perhaps most notable have been the disappointing effects — or application — of the Russians’ much-vaunted “hybrid” or “non-linear” war plan. 

Much was made of Russia fighting such an asymmetric war involving non-military and military elements, tipped by a prolonged period of political destabilisation. General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of the General Staff, wrote in 2013 of “a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace. Wars are no longer declared and, having begun,” he writes, “proceed according to an unfamiliar template”. From this came what has been stamped the “Gerasimov doctrine”, a weave of military, technological, information, diplomatic, economic, cultural and other tactics to achieve strategic goals.

Alternatively termed a “chaos strategy”, the idea behind it was that the Kremlin can avoid direct competition by splintering its opponents’ cohesion and alliances in the grey area between peace and war, where politics and armed conflict overlap. The aim behind such division is to undermine its enemies politically, thus ensuring Russian regime survival. Hence the need for a narrative and supporting tactics (from military actions through business ties, sporting accomplishments and cyber-activities to diplomatic moves) to achieve these goals. 

This approach recognises some important shifts in modern warfare as a result of the scale of information flows, and who controls that information. There are five billion internet users globally, the average user spending almost seven hours online each day. And nearly 60% of the global population uses social media, on which they spend nearly 2.5 hours each day. Given that social media tends to affirm viewpoints based on a selection of prior material and friendships, it can reinforce prejudices and divisions. Now the individual can challenge the state monopoly on information, with digital firepower, access to transnational networks and virtually no barriers to entry. But an overarching, reinforcing narrative can be shaped by government actions. 

As David Patrikarakos notes, “Whereas in war as it is traditionally understood, information operations support military action on the battlefield, in Ukraine [in 2014] it became clear that military operations on the ground were supporting information operations on TV and in cyberspace.” The idea behind today’s operations — helped in part by a challenging of accepted norms, “truths” and standards within educational systems — is, Patrikarakos observes in War in 140 Characters, for Russia “to erode trust in all sources of truth, allowing for so-called fake news to infect real news” through its multiple sources of propaganda. 

Establishing such a narrative is at the heart of modern warfare. And countering an unprecedented volume of information and the relative sophistication of its means is often particularly challenging for ponderous, sclerotic state bureaucracies. 

Contrary to Russia winning international support for its plight and armed choice — in essence, an explanation for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — in achieving psychological dominance of the enemy, Russia has been systematically and quickly diplomatically outmanoeuvred and encircled, both by the West and the Ukrainians. The invasion of Ukraine has been largely a conventional war, 1970s style, albeit one with some cyber and media elements, though this has been merely a modern technique to deliver old-style propaganda and disinformation and misinformation effects. The military difficulties encountered early on have forced a change of Russian tactics, including the use of terror missile strikes on Ukrainian civilians. 

It’s not that the Russians did not try to run a hybrid campaign; it’s the failure of just such a campaign that resulted in the invasion. What started off as a media assault to change “the reality in Europe”, says Marek Madej of the University of Warsaw, now has, as a direct result of the failure of this indirect approach, become a war to occupy Kyiv. 

This much may have been inevitable given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s highly centralised system of power, the homogeneous composition of the higher echelons drawn, like the Russian president, from the security service, and his belief that Russia’s security and prosperity do not lie in accommodation with the West. To the contrary, as Russia moves from an authoritarian to an increasingly totalitarian system of government, “it sees the world in Darwinian terms, as a struggle for survival”, says Marek Menkiszak of the Polish Centre for Eastern Studies, a think tank in the prime minister’s office.

In this way, this is not a war about Ukraine per se, but rather about the leadership of a powerful country that believes it can unilaterally dictate through force and undermine the principles of international relations and law. The West has quickly realised that if not confronted, others could be emboldened to do the same.    

In contrast to Russia’s debilitating challenges, Western credibility has been enhanced by the role of its intelligence agencies, which correctly reported on the concentration and intentions of the Russian forces and then, nearly to the hour, predicted the invasion. This involved much more than satellite imagery, flights and drones, but also the analysis of other movements including blood banks and specialist equipment needed in the event of an actual invasion. 

As the former British foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind has noted, “Just as impressive as the technical and professional brilliance of MI6, GCHQ and their American counterparts was the political decision to broadcast these intelligence discoveries and not keep them for purely internal consumption. Normally, intelligence agencies are opposed to letting the adversary know what they have discovered.”

The West has learnt “vital lessons”, he writes, as to “how to dominate the information space and use intelligence in creative ways”. By contrast, the Russians look a bit silly — or at least duplicitous — given routine statements by Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, among others, that Western warnings about the imminent invasion were “pure fantasy”. 

The West’s response, analysts believe, would have shocked the elites around Putin who saw Nato and the Europeans as weak, easily corrupted, distracted by the pandemic, inwardly focused and fascinated with China in the case of the Biden administration, and short-termist in their outlook. 

There are several other immediate strategic takeaways of which Africa should take note.

One is to realise the necessity of regional partnerships beyond the rhetorical, both as a means of preventing war and, when that fails, ensuring materiel support.  

The contemporary shift from letting your fighting do the talking to letting your talking do the fighting requires careful understanding of the effect to be achieved, the techniques (including media and diplomatic, governmental and non-governmental) available and the message to be delivered. In sum, there is a need to look strong, in control and steadily moving towards your stated objectives. Few African countries have managed to portray this convincingly, instead routinely reverting to appropriating the narrative of others without the credible means to deliver this.

Another lesson is to trust the West more (again). The ignominious fall of Kabul predictably led to questions about the reliability of the West as an ally. To an extent, these concerns were amplified in the run-up to the Ukraine invasion. On both Afghanistan and Ukraine, it is the West that had been warning for ages of the outcome but their policy regardless seemingly stayed fixed. In the case of Ukraine, Nato embarked on all the steps that gave Kyiv the ability to fight alongside the defence body but none of the protections of membership, a realist policy dressed up as a liberal one. 

Then, remarkably, it sprung into action, culminating most recently in Germany’s commitment to spend 2% of its GDP on defence, an extra €100-billion that not even former President Donald Trump could bully Berlin into. 

The West has now re-earned some respect: for one, the Europeans and their allies have rapidly imposed previously unthinkable sanctions on the Russian regime; they could do the same to other despots, and there are a few in Africa. Or, donors might more carefully calibrate aid to the type of domestic political system. The West has also shown it has substantial enabling power but only if there are willing local partners. A key indicator of this willingness lies in whether African governments will stand up for democracy elsewhere and not only act in their own immediate interest.  

This resurgence is bad news for dictators and may assist in reversing the slide to authoritarianism under way since the mid-2000s. Arresting this democratic recession is of critical importance to governance and growth in Africa. According to Freedom House’s latest report, today only about 20% of the world’s population lives in countries classified as “free”, down from 46% in 2005, while just 9% of Sub-Saharan African people live in such free conditions.

Finally, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict inevitably emphasises the importance of a win-win outcome to this, as other conflicts. “Of course, we want peace, we want to meet, we want for the war to end,” Zelensky has said, recognising the need for a political solution. Ukraine has until now shown how to turn a losing military hand into a more-or-less winning one. 

Yet, for Putin, there is little option currently but to double down on the military option. He has to demonstrate, however unrealistic this ambition is, that Ukraine will not be permitted to decouple from Russia and demonstrate a successful alternative under a different system. If this were to happen, according to Menkiszak, “there is basically no reason in the future why Russia would not follow Ukraine”. So, he cannot back down. 

In this scenario, for all of Moscow’s challenges, failing a dramatic Russian military reversal, at the very least it looks as if Ukraine will be cut in two as the northern and southern advances link up and the Ukrainians in the east are surrounded. This would create some sort of failed or frozen but effectively dismembered state, where an insurgency against Russia would ensue, no doubt supported by those in the region who have experienced Russian totalitarianism first-hand and in living memory. With his financial avenues to the West cut off — at least only partially, since Europe would have to find a different energy source soon — Putin would have to strategically realign with China, seeking to complement his resource wealth with the demography of the People’s Republic.  

This scenario recognises that there are clear and possibly existential limits to the nature of external assistance to the Ukrainians. Nato will not put troops into the conflict, not even to police a no-fly zone, as this would bring them into direct confrontation with Russia. Then all bets would be off. There is no certainty that Putin would step back from the use of nuclear weapons. He already has used radioactive material in poisoning Alexander Litvinenko and a weapons-grade nerve agent, Novichok, more than once against his enemies abroad. 

The task of the West — and Zelensky — is thus now to quickly find a path out that allows for de-escalation and a path back somehow to re-engage Russia. 

And if Putin loses, or even thinks he has nothing to lose, there is a danger that we may all lose. DM

Dr Mills is in Poland.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Innocent people are dying en masse and the world can no longer stand by and watch.

    People like Putin who have no conscience and no scruples are not affected by words and rationality. It is equivalent to dealing with a young child who doesn’t yet understand causality.

    He will only be stopped by action.

    (we in South Africa have experience of this courtesy of zuma, malema and others of their ilk)

    This is probably a dim question… but why can’t Ukraine invite EU and US troops to their country. They don’t have to do anything, simply be there. If Russia then knowingly attacks them, they can defend themselves with impunity.

    • Charles Parr says:

      The Europeans obviously haven’t wanted to put NATO boots on the ground because that would be seen as a precursor to WW3 but at some stage they’ll need to commit aircraft and missiles as a minimum. The EU is boxing cleverly at this stage as the Russian economy is very weak but the Ukranians are bearing the brunt of an overwhelming force and fighting bravely. At some stage NATO will need help and why not while Russian armour is in tight columns on narrow roads. It could turn into a pigeon shoot.

      • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

        Indeed – sadly it is presumably pretty useless giving weapons to people not trained to use them. So if approach not already used I suppose a safe approach might be to train people in “at risk” countries in the use of weapons technologies. And then provide the weapons if/when necessary to optimal effect.

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