Ukraine and the Russian Way of War Redux

The record of U.S. intelligence regarding the Russo-Ukrainian War has been abysmal. First, there are indications that we were surprised by Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” launch in February. And once the war began, the consensus was that the Russians would be able to execute a coup de main, the rapid seizure of Kyiv and the installation of a pro-Russian government. This is what the Soviets did in Afghanistan in 1978.

But apparently, U.S. intelligence failed to identify serious deficiencies in the Russian army.   These included: the inability of the Russians to execute modern, combined-arms warfare, which integrates air power, cyber resources, battlefield intelligence, armor, artillery and UAVs; catastrophic failures in command and control and logistics; and the all-important but unquantifiable moral factors, e.g. poor morale, the absence of unit cohesion, and lack of trust between superiors and subordinates. Those deficiencies, coupled with a spirited Ukrainian defense, led to initial Russian failure

The Russian failure to execute the coup de main against Kyiv and continuing problems as the Russians redeployed units to Eastern Ukraine soon gave way to a “Ukrainian victory narrative” holding that with more support from NATO Ukraine could prevail and even that a weakened Putin might be ousted, leading to a cessation of hostilities on terms favorable to Ukraine.

But U.S. intelligence apparently missed another possibility: that Russia would revert to its traditional “way of war” based on mass and attrition. This is how the Soviets prevailed over the German Ostheer, the Army of the East, in World War II. During the first six months of the war the Ostheer inflicted what seemed to be irrecoverable losses (killed, missing in action, POWs) on the Red Army in excess of 3 million men. It is estimated that more than a quarter of all Soviet troops killed in World War II died in 1941. Another 1.5 million were wounded or became sick. This means that of the 5.5 million men who made up the Red Army at the start of the war some 80 percent had become casualties by the end of 1941, a loss rate far in excess of any army in military history. 

But the vast manpower of the Soviet Union made the Red Army a hydra-headed monster: Despite the massive losses of the summer, the Red Army totaled 6.9 million by September 1941, and by the end of the year it had grown to 8 million.      

Of course, today’s Russian army is only a shadow of the Red Army, and Russia’s demographic problems limit a reprise of the Russian manpower feat in World War II, but the resilience of the Russian people should never be discounted. The fact is that Russia has chosen to fight a war of attrition, pounding Ukraine into submission, employing its traditional arm of decision: artillery.  It is estimated that Russia possesses somewhere between a 15:1 to 40:1 advantage in artillery, and Ukraine is rapidly running out of its Soviet-era artillery ammunition.

Reports indicate that Russian artillery has pulverized Ukrainian forces in Donbass, causing massive casualties. The situation in Ukraine is reminiscent of the Russian destruction of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya in 1994-1995. As in Ukraine, the Russians were stymied in their assault, suffering high casualties. They responded with a massive bombardment of the city, reducing it to rubble. Should the Russians resort to long range bombardment of Ukrainian cities, Ukraine’s NATO-provided anti-tank weapons would make little difference.

It’s not pretty, but it appears to be effective. There is an old adage, attributed to both Lenin and Stalin, that “quantity has a quality all its own.” It seems to be the case that after blundering around and taking losses for a few weeks, the Russians have remembered how to wage an old-fashioned, World War II-style war of attrition based on a preponderance of artillery. As one European military commentator observed, “it’s been so long since anyone fought a conventional war that they had to remember how to do it.”

What’s next? What is the likely endgame? That depends on which side is more resilient. And it is clear that any “victory,” however defined, will be Pyrrhic. The best possible outcome at this point would seem to be a negotiated settlement along the lines of the Minsk agreements of 2014-2015, according to which Russia would control Donbass and Luhansk and Ukraine would pledge not join NATO. 

Will Zelenskyy agree to give up Ukrainian territory to end the war? Such an outcome may not be just, but as Thucydides reminds us, “questions of justice arise only in the case of equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.”

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About Mackubin Owens

Mackubin Thomas Owens is a retired Marine, professor, and editor who lives in Newport, RI.

Photo: LYSYCHANSK, UKRAINE June 13, 2022. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)