On Monday, May 9, Russia will hold its annual celebration marking the defeat of Germany in World War Two. Since 1945, Moscow has hosted a grand military parade in Red Square with dignitaries reviewing the troops from atop the mausoleum than contains Vladimir Lenin’s tomb.
During the long twilight of the Cold War, there was an entire sub-branch of Kremlinology dedicated to analyzing who was invited onto the mausoleum, with its top tier having room for about 20 people. This will be the first Victory Day Parade ever to see Russia involved in a conventional war in Europe, hence, the symbolism of who is, or is not, on the mausoleum may take on greater significance.
For the past nine years, General of the Army Sergey Shoygu has presided as the parade inspector. For eight of those years, General of the Army Oleg Salyukov has been the parade commander. Will either reprise their roles, given the crippling corruption and incompetence hobbling the Russian military that occurred under their watch?
Of note, General Valery Gerasimov was the parade’s commander from 2009 to 2012. Putin ordered Gerasimov, the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, to personally take command of Russia’s renewed offensive to the north of the Donbas Basin in Ukraine’s east, He arrived in the region on April 27. Reports suggest he was wounded in the leg on May 1 by a Ukrainian artillery strike.
But Russia’s war against Ukraine has not gone according to plan. The initial attempt to topple the government in Kyiv in the days after the Feb. 24 invasion failed. Expectations for a quick victory were built on a wobbly three-legged stool.
In speeches and papers, Gen. Gerasimov suggested that successful Russian operations achieve information and psychological dominance over the enemy. To do this, chaos must be sown in the initial period of war — even before the first kinetic shots are fired. This can only be done by ignoring the traditional lines between war and peace, and politics and war. Further, and this is important to Western nations that are now finally sending Ukraine the military equipment, ammunition, and spare parts needed to fight, is the fact that hybrid warfare sees the synergy of chaos (nonlinear and nonmilitary tactics) as no longer merely supporting of conventional force, but equivalent to it.
Thus, the widely reported Russian and Chinese cyber-attack on Ukrainian networks initiated before formal hostilities were a form of chaos-seeding, as well as aggressive exploitation of social media to spread false reports and undermine Ukraine’s standing with Western democracies.
That these hybrid tactics weren’t enough to win on the cheap doesn’t mean that they don’t have value. It simply means that Ukraine, having had a near-death experience in 2014, reformed and upgraded its defenses. Regeneration is an advantage held by representative governments such as Ukraine over security states like Russia. Even imperfect representative governments are more adaptable than the most perfect of security states.
First, is Putin truly ill, and will he go under the knife? For such a powerful, paranoid man with many enemies who likely ordered the assassinations of scores of opponents and dissidents, this decision must weigh heavily. Who can be trusted? While he is vulnerable, any one of a number of people could kill him — including Nikolai Patrushev himself.
But the claimed illness brings an upside to Putin. Putin took personal command of the war in late April, handing domestic authority over to Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin. Putin’s direct involvement in a war that hasn’t panned out, though Russia is firing more long-range missiles deep into Ukraine, means “cancer” could be a graceful exit or a way to salvage a reputation and a retirement. For Putin, the war might be over, though not likely the war itself.
Russians place great significance on special dates, and few dates are more special than May 9. Not long ago it was suggested that Russia’s retooled offensive against Ukraine in the east and the south might have borne enough fruit by May 9 to declare victory, real or symbolic. Those thoughts have sailed through the air like a Russian tank’s turret, landing with a thud in muddy, bloody reality. Thus, this Victory Day Parade will be devoid of triumph.
Watch carefully the Red Square mausoleum for signs of Russia’s future.
Before and even during Russia’s war on Ukraine, Western observers continue to elevate climate change as a significant risk. This merely reveals their utter lack of seriousness.
There’s a consistent record of elite fear that the masses are consuming the Earth. The predictions of pollution, famine, and death have all been proven wrong as humans are a net resource, not a liability due to ingenuity and adaptation. Thus, the straight line of doomsaying from Timothy Snyder’s “Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning” where Snyder improbably concludes the Nazis’ monstruous evil was aimed at dealing with an ecological crisis, to Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” a generation earlier, to Thomas Robert Malthus, the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, and the view that the Irish potato famine was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population.”
Now, of course, the sophisticates say the world will end in heat, storms, drought, and floods—all caused by mankind’s growing prosperity due to the widespread availability of hydrocarbon energy.
Yet, just as the population bomb foretold in 1968 never happened—though it did influence policy, as bad ideas are prone to do—neither has, nor will, climate doom. As Bjorn Lomborg and others have pointed out, climate-related death from floods, droughts, storms, wildfire, and extreme temperatures declined almost 100-fold from the 1920s to 2021, even as the global population grew four times from 2 billion to almost 8 billion.
Wildfires used to burn about 4.2% of the land annually in the early 1900s; now, it’s 2.5%. Even in drought-prone California with its Mediterranean climate that concentrates the vast majority of its precipitation in the winter, wildfires burned on average 4.5% and 12% of the state before 1800—but 2020’s 4.2% burn was hyped as a “climate apocalypse” rather than the result of poor or nonexistent forest management practices.
Lastly, even in the U.S., the cost of flood losses as a share of the economy has steadily declined since the early 1900s.
Even the U.S. Department of Defense—a crucial operation that should be focused on existential threats from Russia, with the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, and China, with its nuclear force growing exponentially by the decade, has been caught up in the nonsense. In the DoD’s Climate Risk Analysis report published four months before Russia invaded Ukraine, there isn’t a single mention of Russia or Ukraine, and China is mentioned once in the context of potentially taking advantage of climate change fears in the “Indo-Pacific, (due to) sea-level rise and more extreme weather events.” Never mind that coral-based atolls grow or subside naturally with the sea-level while scientific observations have found “…significant decreasing trends in global hurricane numbers and ACE (Accumulated Cyclonic Energy) from 1990 to 2021.
Paradoxically—at least for those unable to weigh risks—Russia’s attack on Ukraine has led to the deaths of some 23,000 people—both military and civilian, made 10 million refugees, and caused $565 billion in property damage.
Compared to climate-related deaths and damage in 2020 and 2021, the war has killed more than did climate extremes in the last two years and caused more damage in barely more than a month of fighting than did weather disasters in both 2020 ($210 billion) and 2021 ($329 billion). And even that damage is declining as a share of the world’s economy compared to prior decades as the absolute value of property improvements increase with the global GDP.
Further adding to the manmade misery is the fact that Russia and Ukraine are major exporters of wheat and other foodstuffs. Ukraine’s farms are under attack and Russia’s farms may be embargoed. Even President Joe Biden predicted the world will see food shortages due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying, “It’s going to be real.”
Add to war-induced famine the record increase in the circulation of the U.S. dollar, which has driven food inflation to 7.9% last month, the highest since 1981.
The war and irresponsible monetary policy will cause far more misery and suffering than any combination of climate extremes. That our leaders are focused on the latter (though only by working to make energy less affordable and less reliable) at the expense of the former shows their incompetence.
This is illustrated by the spectacle of former Secretary of State and current Climate Envoy John Kerry pleading with dictators to cut their emissions—dictators who laugh at our folly while they prepare for war.
Russia’s first military campaign against Ukraine has culminated without reaching its objectives: the overthrow of the government of Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the installation of a pro-Moscow puppet regime.
Incapable of defeating the Ukrainian military, Russia now seeks to destroy Ukrainian cities, killing as many civilians as possible to force a surrender. It won’t happen, as each barrage steels Ukrainian resolve to resist.
As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters a new phase, here are four things to watch.
Ukraine has 7 million people fit for military service and is seeking to mobilize them for the defense of the nation. Ukraine can draft more military personnel than can Russia, as Ukraine is in an existential fight and has virtually unlimited financial backing from the EU and America.
By mid-April, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will have received enough training to competently serve as infantry, allowing Ukraine to replace losses and increase the size of many units. This will give Ukraine the option to increase counterattacks – if it has tolerance for the higher losses that might entail.
Until the fields dry out in late May or early June, allowing for rapid cross-country mobility, Russia will only have one viable option: to pound Ukrainian cities with artillery. To do so, Russia needs to secure supply lines to within 10 to 20 miles from city centers – the range of its rocket launchers and artillery. And it needs to protect them from increasingly effective Ukrainian drones.
Russia has a bigger challenge with mounting something more than harassing bombardment against Ukraine. The abysmal state of their maintenance practices has stripped them of the trucks needed to ship the thousands of tons of artillery ammunition to the front.
Belarus recalled its ambassador from Ukraine a few days ago and is making noises that it might send troops to help Russia. There are three problems with that. First, the Belarussian army isn’t very good—its main job is to cow its own citizens into not overthrowing Belarussian strongman president Alexander Lukashenko.
Second, the border between Belarus and Ukraine is defined by the extensive Pripyat Marsh, one of the world’s largest, making military movement south difficult.
Third, if Lukashenko does commit a significant portion of his army against Ukraine, he risks domestic unrest that threatens his own regime – and by extension, Russian President Vladimir Putin. That risk outweighs any gains that would be expected on the battlefield.
Putin has asked China for help. The areas in which Russia has the greatest need are precision-guided munition resupply and new trucks. America and its allies need to make it very clear to China that seeing equipment of Chinese manufacture in Ukraine will trigger significant sanctions on the Chinese economy. The West cannot afford to allow Beijing to bail Moscow out of its Kyiv quagmire.
The last thing the free world needs is an ascendant alliance of dictatorial states.
Every American has a right to express an opinion on any matter—one does not have to be a veteran to have a view on taking steps that might make the nation more likely to go to war any more than one must be capable of becoming pregnant to comment on abortion laws.
That said, not all analysis is created equal. In my own case, I rarely if ever offer opinions about the outcomes of sporting events. I played basketball and football in high school but don’t follow college or professional sports. It doesn’t interest me.
Regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine, some analysts have academic training or practical experience in international relations, and some are veterans. Even within the veteran community, there’s a big difference between someone who served as, say, a naval officer or a pilot compared to someone who was trained as an infantry or intelligence officer. In my case, I am the latter, having retired in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel.
On February 12, twelve days before Russia invaded Ukraine, I tweeted the following:
“Don’t underestimate #Ukrainians’ will to resist. Don’t underestimate that #Putin’s plans will not go well (a conventional attack is very difficult for an army not well practiced—it’s hard). Don’t underestimate chance for unexpected escalations elsewhere.”
I don’t recall much, if any, mention in the pundit class about the significant effect the mud season would have on Russian mechanized operations—it’s so much easier to focus on numbers as in, “The Russians have 2,800 tanks and the Ukrainians have 200, therefore the Russians will win.”
But if tanks are road-bound due to mud and they’re employed inexpertly and met with a determined enemy, then numbers matter less than other factors. On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, I tweeted this, while the majority of professional analysts were predicting a swift, decisive Russian victory:
Now that the conflict in Ukraine is three weeks old, Russian offensive momentum has been checked and Russia is attempting to resupply and rebuild their forces.
In the meantime, Ukraine has mobilized its reserves and has been training many more citizens called up in a general mobilization. Many of these forces would, by U.S. standards, be lightly equipped infantry. So, how can such a force be effective against the heavily armed Russian force consisting of tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery?
The answer is simple, really — use terrain.
Back in 1991, after serving a few months as the All-Source Intelligence Center chief for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin—the Opposing Forces—during Desert Storm/Shield, I was published in the OPFOR’s professional quarterly, the Red Thrust Star.
My piece was about how a:
“Mixed force of light infantry and armor operating on rough terrain can defeat a mechanized and armored force of similar size by attacking the enemy in a piecemeal fashion. Dismounted infantry can maneuver… with little fear of being engaged by their road-bound enemy.”
I concluded the essay by suggesting:
“Bypassing their heavy opponents, infantry may attack soft targets like supply convoys, command posts, support areas, and artillery batteries… More importantly, infantry attacks on supply convoys and soft targets force the opposing commander to use his combat units to patrol the main supply route and protect vital assets… …because the enemy’s forces are spread out trying to counter the infantry threat… …the enemy can be defeated in detail.”
The Ukrainians are likely doing this to Russian forces northwest of Kyiv—the decisive area of operations in this campaign—where the terrain is very marshy and forested, limiting the mobility and effectiveness of combat vehicles.
A Ukrainian victory here would virtually end the threat of Kyiv ever falling to Russian forces while also freeing up significant Ukrainian forces for counteroffensives elsewhere.
If so, look for Russian peace negotiations to get more earnest in the coming days while Russian assaults on the encircled coastal city of Mariupol will become more desperate and intense. Lastly, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be tempted to use chemical weapons to achieve a battlefield victory elsewhere.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has proffered, as one of his rationales for invading Ukraine, the need to “de-Nazify” the nation. Russian propaganda, some people sympathetic to it, and others perhaps well-meaning, points to the Azov Battalion in Ukraine as proof of that nation’s Nazi leanings.
To preface this discussion, it’s important to put into context what Putin means by de-Nazification. Both the Nazis under Hitler and the Soviet Union, especially in the early years under Lenin, emphasized national identity.
Because the Soviet Union sought to be a global communist empire, it anticipated a host of Soviet Socialist Republics (SSRs) for everybody: Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and even Germany, Hungary, and the rest of Europe. Under this construct, the SSRs would be united in their international communist ideology, but unique in their national identity. In this, Lenin and later generations of Kremlin leaders, rightly surmised that the larger an empire is, the more leeway it must grant its provinces, at the risk of fomenting rebellion.
It was in this early time of the U.S.S.R.’s history that Ukraine saw a resurgence of its language, literature, and national identity after decades of Russification under the Tsars.
Thus, when Putin speaks of de-Nazification, what he really means is to Russify — to return to the age of the Tsars circa the 1860s, when Russia imposed a 40-year ban on the publication of books and newspapers in Ukrainian.
Putin’s insular view of what it means to be de-Nazified aside, there appear to be some actual armed neo-Nazis in Ukraine in the form of the Azov Battalion. What is the Azov Battalion and how did it come into being? Just as importantly, is it uniquely Ukrainian, or are there similar groups elsewhere?
In late 2013, as Ukraine’s fourth president, the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych, approached his fourth year of a five-year term, political unrest — known as the Euromaidan protests — grew out of a public desire for closer integration with the European Union rather than Russia. By February 2014, Yanukovych had fled to Russia while Russia was invading Crimea and sending Russian officers to the Donbas Basin provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, in Ukraine’s east.
In the chaos of 2014, the Ukrainian military, which had been left in disrepair and hobbled by corruption and cronyism, was wholly inadequate to the task of defending the nation. Crimea fell almost without a shot, while Donetsk and Luhansk were rapidly brought under de facto Russian control. Mariupol, the second-largest city in Donetsk with some 430,000 residents, was abandoned under pressure by Ukrainian government forces in May 2014.
But five weeks later, government forces, including the Azov Battalion, retook the city. Three months later, the Russian-backed separatists of the Donetsk People’s Republic tried again to take Mariupol, and again, the Azov Battalion played a leading role in keeping the city under Ukrainian control.
t the time, the Azov Battalion’s insignia and the ideology of its leadership and rank-and-file wer openly neo-Nazi. The unit was also accused of war crimes, including using torture on their Russian-backed enemy. When confronted with the similarity between the Azov Battalion’s unit patch and that of the German Nazi 2nd SS Panzer Division, Azov officials denied the connection, claiming that their symbol is an abbreviation for the slogan “National Idea.” (In Ukrainian, the letters “H” and “I” are tilted to the right by 45 degrees.)
Chris Joyner, writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 4, quoted Prof. David Malet, an expert on transnational fighters with the School of Public Affairs at American University, who noted that as the Ukrainian military gained proficiency, it sought to tame the Azov Battalion and discourage foreign extremists from volunteering in Ukraine. Malet told Joyner, “A lot of Russian propaganda has focused on Nazi ties, trying to paint all the volunteers in Ukraine as Nazis, when again it’s probably been a pretty good mix of it on both sides.”
Of course, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is Jewish, as was the nation’s previous prime minister, Volodymyr Groysman. This led Hans Jakob-Schindler, senior director of the Counter Extremism Project, to sarcastically note of Putin’s claims of Ukraine as a Nazi state was, “apparently, a very new kind of Nazi that only a Russian understands how that works.”
Reinforcing Groysman’s view, the 450-member Ukrainian parliament, or Rada, only has one member from a party accused of neo-Nazi leanings. Svoboda, founded in 1991 at the dissolution of the Soviet Union, recruited skinheads and employed neo-Nazi symbols in the 1990s, only to later moderate. It reached its apex in the 2012 election, winning 10 percent of the vote and 37 seats. In the 2019 election, Svoboda received only 2 percent of the vote.
Returning to Malet, his contention that there’s a “good mix” of neo-Nazi-like groups in both Ukraine and Russia is important for context.
Putin has his own ultra-nationalist groups. For instance, in 2014, a Russian motorcycle gang with close Putin ties known as the “Night Wolves,” was used as the vanguard of the Crimea invasion — inaugurating a new era of so-called “hybrid warfare.” By streaming into Crimea, the Night Wolves showed that the Ukrainian central government was powerless. The gang’s ideology is based on contempt for a decadent and rootless West with its leader Alexander Zaldostanov admitting that “death to faggots” might be an appropriate motto.
In some sense, the rise of nationalism has paced the rise of globalism and the subsequent disorienting displacements of work and dilution of culture. One reaction to this can be seen in the concurrent rise of neo-paganism.
When I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1983, I never saw pagan symbology. By the time I retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard in 2007, it was noticeable, but not yet widespread. Interestingly, when I toured Folsom Prison in 2006 while a member of the California State Assembly, the prison chaplain told us the two fastest-growing faiths behind bars were Islam and Wicca, the latter being a revival of paganism.
There is a certain logic in this. Christianity is a global faith, making no distinction between people. Further, Christianity teaches forgiveness, to love one’s enemy, and to turn the other cheek. In the context of the profession of arms — or the dangerous reality of being incarcerated — Christianity may be seen by some as weak, whereas paganism can appeal to a warrior ethos.
Insofar as Ukraine and Putin’s Nazi accusations against the nation, the question is whether actual Nazis with real animus towards the Jewish people and other minorities can gain a foothold and use their power to persecute people. This prospect appears vanishingly small, and, if Ukraine survives as an independent nation, even less so.
The ongoing MiG-29 fiasco in Ukraine is a prime example of the incompetence of President Joe Biden’s administration. America was promised that electing Biden would put the “adults back in charge.” Instead, we’re led by a geriatric man surrounded by ideologues whose attitudes were formed in university safe-space bubbles and later solidified at Georgetown cocktail parties. (“Don’t like the price of gas? Get a Tesla or ride the bus, peasant.”)
Not to worry, though, Biden has dispatched Vice President Kamala Harris to Poland to solve the problem. The diplomatic and military affairs odyssey of trying to replenish the Ukrainian Air Force’s inventory of Soviet-era combat aircraft is illustrative of the descent of the American foreign policy establishment.
They’re said to be dragging their feet on the transfer of combat aircraft because Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened war should the transfer occur. This is highly unlikely — more so, given the less-than-impressive performance of the Russian military.
If Talleyrand said of the restored Bourbon dynasty after the abdication of Napoleon, “They had learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” then our foreign policy elite could be said to have “Learned nothing and forgotten everything.”
In 1950, as the Cold War was ramping up, the Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China gave permission for North Korea’s Kim Il-Sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather) to invade South Korea, which was then garrisoned by a small number of U.S. troops. The Soviets provided tanks, aircraft, infantry weapons, a large amount of ammunition, and other supplies to the North Korean military. The Soviets also sent combat pilots and anti-aircraft gunners to North Korea. These men killed Americans in combat.
But because an open admission of belligerent involvement would have serious ramifications for escalating tensions between the two nuclear powers (the Soviet Union exploded its first atomic bomb in 1949), the Soviet assistance was covert. Soviet pilots were instructed not to speak Russian over their radios and their MiG-15s flew with the markings of the North Korean People’s Army Air Force or the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force, although American pilots often overheard the Soviet pilots speaking or swearing in Russian during the stress of aerial combat.
Some six Soviet pilots achieved “ace” status (downing five or more aircraft), with Soviets downing at least 142 U.N. (mostly U.S.) aircraft. A decade later, the Soviet Union provided significant support to North Vietnam in its Cold War proxy war with the South. In a speech in Moscow in 1971, senior North Vietnamese General Võ Nguyên Giáp admitted, “We would like to carry on this mission together with the Soviet Union, because no one can do it without the Soviet Union.”
About 3,000 Soviet military advisors were stationed in North Vietnam during the war. As in Korea, they killed Americans in direct combat. Some 16 of them were, in turn, killed, compared to the 58,281 Americans killed and more than 1.5 million Vietnamese lost on both sides.
Soviet involvement included the training of North Vietnamese fighter pilots and anti-aircraft crews starting in 1964, as well as the manning of anti-aircraft batteries in North Vietnam — successfully shooting down American combat aircraft. Ironically, these Soviet anti-aircraft personnel were mainly Ukrainian. Soviet commando teams also conducted missions against American targets and Soviet snipers may have even operated in South Vietnam.
As an aside, in 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union, I helped stand up and manage a cargo aircraft refueling business in Kamchatka. The region’s vice governor at the time was Boris Sinchenko, an ethnic Ukrainian. Many of the people in Kamchatka and to the north in Magadan (the logistics hub of what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn dubbed the “The Gulag Archipelago” ) were Ukrainian—exiled there as Stalin sought to extinguish the troublesome embers of Ukrainian national identity.
In a rare moment of vodka-assisted candor, Sinchenko (also rendered Zinchenko) told me he was an “air traffic controller” in Hanoi during the Vietnam War. Sinchenko’s euphemism in aid of polite conversation couldn’t hide what he was really doing in Hanoi—he was operating air defense radars that aimed to kill Americans.
Such was the Cold War. Both sides probed and tested each other’s will on the periphery, often resulting in deadly confrontations. But both sides tightly controlled the ramp to escalation, each wanting to avoid a general war that might involve nuclear weapons.
In today’s context, the issue of MiG-29s is no different from the provision of Javelin and other antitank and antiaircraft missiles to Ukraine, a sovereign nation. Further, these arms shipments — regardless of Putin’s threats — are significantly less provocative than the Soviets directly killing American servicemen in the theater of combat in Korea and Vietnam.
For U.S. and NATO assistance to Ukraine to rise to that level, we’d have to see American and allied fighter aircraft, piloted by Americans and operating from Ukrainian bases — but pretending to be Ukrainian — directly engaging Russian forces. To again draw from history, even that wouldn’t be considered a declaration of war by longstanding Cold War precedent.
Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, experienced military analysts and pundits expressed a wide range of opinions about Russia’s military capabilities and Ukraine’s ability to effectively resist.
Through the 20-20 vision of those viewing the recent past, it’s clear that most analysts overestimated Russian capacities and underestimated Ukrainian ability to resist. This shouldn’t be a surprise. Warfare is complex and thankfully rare enough that forecasting outcomes are more fraught for the analysts than is predicting sporting matchups or election outcomes.
One example from history illuminates the challenge. When the Germans invaded France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, many experts predicted a stalemate, not unlike that of World War I — a short German advance followed by bloody trench warfare.
The French had prepared for the conflict, building a mighty system of defensive fortifications known as the Maginot Line on their frontier with Germany. France did so largely in reaction to the very severe losses they suffered in the opening stages of WWI when their “Attaque à outrance” (Attack to excess) doctrine resulted in massive casualties and little to show for it in the face of machine guns and modern artillery.
In the harsh winter of 1939-40, the French feverishly worked to extend their line of fortifications, but the weather was so cold, the concrete they poured crystalized, rendering it ineffective against German artillery. Even so, as the Germans invaded, their army only outnumbered Allied forces by a scant margin: 3,350,000 troops to 3,300,000.
The Allies had an almost 2:1 superiority in artillery — 7,378 for the Germans, 13,974 for the Allies. In the air, the Germans had an almost 2:1 advantage, 5,638 to 2,935. Lastly, in tanks, the decisive battle system, the Allies seemingly had an advantage, with the Germans possessing 2,445 tanks to the Allies 3,383 or more.
Yet, only six weeks after the German invasion, Allied armies were wrecked or surrendered, with the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France all having capitulated. What happened?
In retrospect, the German victory was due to a few small things that all but a few Western analysts such as Britain’s B. H. Liddell Hart could foresee. For instance, French tanks were well-armored but slow. They also featured one-man turrets, overwhelming tank commanders by the need to fire their own guns and command at the same time.
Radios in tanks were also in short supply in the French army. Further, German doctrine called for the joint employment of infantry, armor, and air power. The result was a rapid German advance over a ponderous Allied military.
In some ways, the Russian assault on Ukraine appears to suffer from the near opposite of the pre-war expectations in 1940. Russia was widely anticipated to roll over Ukrainian resistance. There are a few reasons this has been the case.
First, the Russians vastly underestimated the determined resistance the Ukrainians would offer. As a result, they sized their force and planned their initial assault to rapidly topple the government in Kyiv with minimal damage to either side. When that didn’t happen, they had no Plan B.
Second, Russian planners were overconfident in the fighting prowess and morale of the conscripts that make up significant portions of their combat units. Whether to preserve operational security or due to cultural disregard for sharing information to the average soldier, Russians appear to have been largely mentally unprepared for the coming fight.
Third, Russian planners ignored their own meteorological history insofar as the perils of the mud season known as Rasputitsa. Normally, a month or two in the spring and fall, Rasputitsa notoriously turns the Russian and Ukrainian countrysides to vast stretches of mud that make cross-country movement off improved roads all but impossible. There was never a hard freeze in Ukraine this winter, meaning Rasputitsa never ended — making Russian forces more road-bound than is tactically advisable.
Fourth, Ukraine learned a lot from its sharp defeat at the hands of the Russians in 2014 in the Donbas Basin to the east and in Crimea. Under former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the Ukrainian military underwent an extensive effort to retool and reform, rooting out corruption and revising doctrine. These efforts have paid off handsomely on the battlefield.
These factors and others are likely to lead to a long struggle in Ukraine. Images of hastily requisitioned civilian vehicles emblazoned with the now-infamous “Z” on Russian flatbed rail cars suggest the Russian government is unable to muster sufficient logistics support for its stalling effort.
Similarly, Western powers and Ukraine need to prepare for the likelihood of a drawn-out war. This means high-volume consumables such as shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles need to be replenished immediately by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, especially given the worldwide chip shortage.
Further, provisions should be made for repairing and refurbishing the vast amount of military equipment that has been damaged or captured in this conflict but that might otherwise be returned to use. This could be done in NATO nations adjacent to Ukraine and might be a useful way to employ additional volunteers wanting to help Ukraine who are skilled in maintenance but otherwise not fit for combat. Such a capability would also be useful in allowing the gathering and return to the operational status of old Soviet bloc equipment from the dozens of nations around the world that might be purchased or donated.
If this war turns into a contest of attrition, then Western economic sanctions will eventually degrade the Russian economy’s ability to support the war effort, potentially moderating Russian demands for Ukrainian territory or disarmament. To be clear, a long war will be devastating for Ukrainian civilians and destabilizing for nations hosting large refugee populations. But the damage to Russian power, especially in the long term, may even be greater.
When Russian President Vladimir Putin greenlighted the invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, he expected a quick collapse of the Ukrainian government. Had Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy fled, Putin might have seen the installation of a pro-Moscow puppet regime that would have greatly lessened the need for Russian occupation forces. It didn’t happen as planned.
Now, some 180,000 Russian troops of the initial force of 200,000 are estimated to have been committed to the invasion. This force is pressing in on a nation of 46 million people with a territory almost as large as Texas.
Ukraine’s active military at the onset of the war was 200,000. Their reserve forces are reported to be as high as 900,000 with another 7 million people who are fit for military duty.
With Putin’s political objective of installing a friendly government in Kyiv out of reach, the Russians now seem intent on increasing the cost of resistance to Ukraine, depriving the nation of electricity and water while driving millions of refugees into Europe.
Comparing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from the north, east, and south, with the German-led invasion from the west and southwest in 1941 yields some interesting comparisons.
In 1941, the German Army Group South had about 941,000 soldiers and 1,000 tanks. The Romanian military, with a German army attached, mustered about 640,000 men and 250 tanks from the southwest. Hungarians contributed another 30,000 in the early stages of the invasion. Facing the Axis onslaught. Thus, about 1.6 million men were committed to the operation — about eight times larger than the force Russia has committed so far.
Facing them were two Red Army groupings (called fronts) totaling slightly more than 1 million men with almost 5,700 tanks.
The Germans invaded on June 22, 1941. By Aug. 23, two months later, the battle of Kiev had started and by Sept. 26, the Soviet defenders having been surrounded, the city was taken. The distance to Kyiv from the German jumping-off points in occupied Poland was almost double the distance of the Russian staging areas in Russia northeast of Kyiv.
Also of note, the Axis began its siege of Odessa on Aug. 8. The mostly Romanian-led effort to reduce the city lasted for about 10 weeks until Oct. 16. Unlike today for Ukraine, however, the Soviet Union had a modest ability to resupply the port city by the Black Sea.
Importantly, under Stalin, Ukrainians were largely disarmed. Anti-Axis partisans eventually numbered more than 250,000 in Ukraine, but these formations had to be armed and supplied by Soviet efforts (though some were soldiers caught up in 1941’s massive pockets who escaped into the woods and marshes rather than surrender).
While modern weaponry, sensors, and communications allow for different tactics, the basic math of an occupation stands—soldiers on the ground are required to occupy a region. With insufficient soldiers, the terrain is only temporarily held. As analysts pour through open-source information to try to understand the largest conflict Europe has seen since the end of WW2, there have been numerous products produced to illustrate what’s happening. One of the better ones is a daily update from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The analysts at ISW distinguish between areas they assess as “Russian controlled” vs. those areas that Russian forces have merely advanced through. Even so, this approach can be misleading.
Nathan Ruser with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has produced a completely different set of maps that, in many ways, is far more revealing.
Mr. Ruser has traced the routes Russian battalion tactical groups have taken as they attempt to impose Moscow’s will on Kyiv. Ruser’s map shows a series of highways and secondary roads over which the Russians must maintain supply lines, provide local security from Ukrainian attacks, and maintain a basic level of anti-aircraft capacity.
There are three additional points to consider in comparing Ruser’s map with the more conventional ISW map.
First, the Russian mud season — Rasputitsa (no relation to Rasputin) — usually runs a month or two in the fall and in the spring. There was no hard freeze in Ukraine this year, so Rasputitsa never ended. This means that vehicles leaving a hardball road risk becoming mired and photos from the conflict suggest many have.
Second, the areas north of Kyiv, to the west and east of the Dnieper River, are very marshy. This further restricts off-road movement. Complicating this matter for the Russian invaders is the reported intentional flooding of the low-lying areas north of Kyiv. This action mirrors measures taken by the Dutch to slow the German attack in 1940 — measures the Germans took themselves in 1944-45.
Third, modern armies are far more road-bound than armies of the past. Few Russian soldiers dismount from their vehicles until in actual combat. As a result, significant portions of the Ukrainian countryside have yet to be pacified by the Russians.
Thus, in addition to the Russian force being of insufficient size to occupy Ukraine, the way it has been deployed and is being resupplied opens up a major vulnerability: its forces are stretched out along roads and not able to provide mutual support. The Ukrainians reportedly took advantage this of over the weekend when a sortie out of Kharkiv ambushed Russian forces northwest of the city (Shown as the thin blue line on the ISW map).
Lastly, one other important development to consider.
Sometime on Friday, a Ukrainian military cargo aircraft was seen flying to an airport just outside of Istanbul, Turkey. The location of the airport was close to Baykar, the Turkish firm that designed and builds the Bayraktar TB2, an armed drone used to great effect by the Ukrainians in the opening days of the conflict. The aircraft returned to a Polish airfield near Lviv. In all likelihood, this aircraft was filled with Bayraktar TB2 and control stations. Days earlier, it was reported that several Turkish Air Force cargo flights were made between Ankara and Rzesow in southern Poland. Concurrently, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced that a shipment of new Turkish combat drones were pressed into service.
Look for the replenished stock of Bayraktar TB2s to begin targeting Russian surface-to-air missile systems thus allowing the remaining Ukrainian air force to begin attacking Russian columns of armor and supply trucks with a reduced likelihood of being shot down.
Listening to news reports on Russia’s war on Ukraine, whether hard news or punditry, can be depressing — endless images of urban destruction and reports of advancing Russian forces.
Yet, it is not foreordained that Russia wins and Ukraine loses. Winning a war is not merely an exercise in numbers or technology. As General George S. Patton observed, “Wars may be fought with weapons, but they are won by men. It is the spirit of men who follow and of the man who leads that gains the victory.”
Since Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to quickly topple the Ukrainian government and kill President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the war has widened into a contest involving almost the entire border region shared by the combatants along with the stretch of border between Belarus and Kyiv some 80 miles to the north of Ukraine’s capital city.
Much media attention has been given to Russia’s advances along the Sea of Azov in the south and on the approach to Ukraine’s third-largest city, Odessa, on the shores of the Black Sea as well as the remarkable attack that captured Europe’s largest nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. These Russian successes are discouraging for Ukrainian defenders but, in the grand contest, they matter far less than the battle for Kyiv.
In the Eighteenth Century, Frederick the Great, noted: “He who defends everything, defends nothing.” In this context, Ukraine’s task is simple — not easy — but simple. It must keep a viable government, preferably in the capital city of Kyiv. To do that, Ukraine must maintain its supply lines to Poland in the west with the city of Lviv being the key transportation hub in the west. As long as Kyiv, Lviv, and the roads between them remain in Ukrainian hands, the fight can continue. As long as the fight continues, the economic pressure of Russia mounts, making it increasingly difficult to sustain both the fight and Putin’s hold on power. Thus, losses in the south are regrettable, but they are not fatal to Ukraine’s cause.
In that regard, there are fascinating signs coming out of what may be a decisive battle to the northwest of Kyiv on the long, winding, secondary road from Chernobyl. This is the road where a 40-mile-long column of Russian vehicles was spotted by satellite. Most of the vehicles are supply trucks. They would be carrying fuel, ammunition, and food for the Russian forces that have advanced to the very outskirts of Kyiv itself but have seemingly been stalled for several days.
One attribute of a good intelligence officer is the ability to “feel” the battle. To pick up clues from the chaos of combat — the pace of events and where they happen, as well as odd silences, all mean something. Creating a coherent picture from the violence can then inform decisions that can lead to victory.
Out of this come three reports that, if true, suggest the beginnings of a devastating reversal for Russian forces operating northwest of Kyiv.
First, reports today in multiple outlets that Russian Major General Andrei Sukhovetsky was killed in combat by a sniper. Sukhovetsky, 47, was an elite Russian Spetsnaz commando and veteran of Russia’s war in Syria. The commander of the Russian 7th Airborne Division, he was assigned the mission of leading the Russian thrust from Belarus to Kyiv. Men like Sukhovetsky have an outsized presence on the battlefield. They’re inspirational. Their personal leadership at the point of the spear often means the difference between victory and defeat during the fast-paced controlled violence of war. His loss would be devastating to his men and to the organizational momentum of the forces he commanded.
That Sukhovetsky was killed by a sniper suggests that he was personally trying to regain the initiative against Ukrainian forces who had fought him to a standstill.
The second report of merit is the heavy damage sustained in the town of Irpin on the northwest border of Kyiv’s city limits. The damage to this city suggests a major battle — an effort by the Russians to breakthrough. They didn’t.
The final piece of the puzzle is the Battle of Bucha. Ukrainian forces claimed the recapture of Bucha hours after the devastation visited on Irpin. The timing is important here. The Russians tried and failed to take Irpin and then the Ukrainians retook Bucha two miles to the northwest of Irpin.
These events, combined with the nearby loss of Sukhovetsky, a two-star general, suggest a reversal of fortune for the Russians in the drive that’s come closest to Kyiv and, most importantly, threatens Kyiv’s logistics links to the west.
Of significance, Ukrainian success at Bucha put their Stinger antiaircraft missiles within range of Antonov International Airport, formerly the home of the world’s largest aircraft, until it was destroyed in fighting days ago. This means that Russia will no longer be able to safely fly cargo into the airport as Bucha’s town center is only two miles south of the airport, well within the Stinger’s 5-mile range.
Yet, hours after Bucha’s apparent recapture, there were widespread reports of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers ranging further to the west and south of Kyiv, likely probing for weak spots in the Ukrainian defense in the direction of Zhytomyr, about 100 miles to the west of Kyiv, after being rebuffed on the most direct route to the capital city.
Lastly, as more and more Ukrainians mobilize and join local defense units, the regular Ukrainian Army and their reserve forces will be freer to maneuver — to counterattack the invading Russians with a greater degree of confidence knowing that the militia has secured the cities.
One of the most consistently fun, annoying, and frustrating things about being a retired military intelligence officer is how frequently random military vehicles get called “tanks.” Look, I know, tanks are kind of cool, I get it; I spent a lot of time in them in my career, starting with this vintage M60A1 at Ft. Bliss, Texas. But not everything painted with camouflage that can move is a main battle tank.
So, what are we seeing north of Kyiv that the media has been fixated on for the last several days? What does it mean? Is it a harbinger of the expected siege and fall of Kyiv — 1,000 tanks and artillery pieces? Or is it something else?
You can tell much about the point of view of the reporter covering this column of vehicles by the degree of alarm accorded it. But the satellite photos, called overhead imagery by intelligence fossils like myself, released by Maxar Technologies show mostly trucks with some local security.
That they’ve been on the road now for as long as four days tells a lot about the operation they are supporting, the terrain, and the leadership and training of the force.
When an intelligence officer regards the terrain on which he is to provide advice to his commander, he conducts a thorough analysis, looking that the size and quality of roads, the capabilities of bridges, chokepoints, and the corridors in which combat vehicles can tactically maneuver.
The roughly 80-mile route from the Belarus-Ukraine border from the Chernobyl salient to Kyiv on the western side of the Dnieper River runs over a secondary asphalt road. This road frequently crosses rivers, runs through small villages, or is bordered on both sides by the eastern extent of the mighty Pripyat Marsh — the geographical feature which defines the border between Ukraine and Belarus.
The road is not able to support a large military force, even if unopposed in an exercise, especially during the spring and fall months during a time the locals call “Rasputitsa” — the mud season. Unfortunately for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military commanders, Ukrainian soil never froze solid this winter, so the fall Rasputitsa is still a factor.
This is why there have been so many photos coming out from the conflict that show all manner of Russian military vehicles bogged down in the mud. As soon as a vehicle on a narrow road becomes disabled or is destroyed in combat, or as the vehicles maneuver off-road in response to combat, they risk becoming mired. Even if they don’t get stuck in the mud, they end up consuming far more fuel that must be delivered to them than they would were the ground frozen solid.
Thus, that 40-mile-long column of “tanks” is more likely mostly trucks carrying fuel, ammunition, and food to the advanced forces of the Russian 20th Combined Arms Army on the outskirts of Kyiv. That this column hasn’t apparently moved much may mean that the Russian forces just north of Kyiv are running low on basic supplies.
This greatly increases the importance for the Russian army to achieve success to the east of Kyiv where the road network is far more developed and, if the terrain is captured and secured, capable of bringing in the volume of supplies needed to properly surround Kyiv and place it under siege.
In the meantime, the forces near Kyiv may be vulnerable to a Ukrainian counterattack. While some of the Russian conscript soldiers and even the veteran contract troops may be more likely to surrender due to low morale exacerbated by a lack of food and fuel.
As the bombardment of Ukraine’s two largest cities intensifies, there’s another aspect of the struggle between Russia and Ukraine that is getting less notice from military analysts fixated on troop numbers and equipment — the moral aspect of war and its interplay with information warfare.
Based on the relatively small force Russian President Vladimir Putin sent charging at Kyiv, he appeared to expect Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to flee and his government to collapse. When Zelenskyy refused President Joe Biden’s offer of evacuation, saying, “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he galvanized the Ukrainian will to resist and inspired much of the world to stand firm against Putin’s war.
These moral factors are impossible to calculate in a conflict, especially at the onset, but they can tip the scales towards victory or defeat as much as bombs and tanks.
On Tuesday morning, Fox News featured a remarkable interview with Taras Tymo, a Ukrainian Catholic University professor. Tymo mentioned that his eldest of five children, a son, had just left home to join the war effort. Tymo then spoke about “civil society.” He said that Putin had destroyed civil society in Russia, like dictators and one-party states like China usually do, as they cannot allow any organization outside of the state.
In America, we too often take civil society for granted. In his “Democracy in America,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans constantly unite, “…To hold fetes, found seminaries, build inns, construct churches, distribute books, dispatch missionaries to the antipodes. They establish hospitals, prisons, schools by the same method. Finally, if they wish to highlight a truth or develop an opinion by the encouragement of a great example, they form an association.”
Today we see that sort of quintessential American civil society in the ongoing example of Louisiana’s Cajan Navy and its spontaneous response to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast.
As Tymo was talking, the feed switched to scenes of ordinary Ukrainian civilians, mostly women, organizing food and clothing shipments for the war effort. It was organic and heartfelt. Ukrainian civil society was rallying to the nation. Tymo, confident in victory, remarked that not only has Putin destroyed civil society but he has no idea of what it is and what it is capable of.
That Fox News, like most other Western media outlets, can report live on the war a week after the Russia invasion is one reason the world has turned against Putin. Another is the constant stream of videos emerging from Ukraine — some likely staged, most probably not. Ukraine is winning the information war and the Russians are belatedly trying to shut it down. They likely won’t be able to though, as modern communications are increasingly distributed and resilient (see Elon Musk’s donation of Starlink terminals).
Thus, as Putin’s generals have committed some six to eight divisions of troops and support forces totaling approximately 100,000 men, mostly conscripts, with another 100,000 in reserve, Ukraine is mobilizing. With some 7 million people ages 16 to 49 fit for military service, there’s another 4 million available for service in that age range. Many of these will be the defenders of Kyiv.
In this respect, Ukraine is mirroring the historical example of revolutionary France. In the late 1700s through the Napoleonic era, in response to existential threats from the monarchies of Europe, France became a “nation in arms.” While its European enemies were mobilizing small, professional armies, France was able to conscript millions into its military effort. Even after devastating losses, France was able to regenerate its military manpower. Many everyday Frenchmen believed they had a stake in the revolution’s success, even long after Napoleon declared himself emperor.
Similarly, while Putin can commit 200,000 relatively well-equipped soldiers, now that the war has slowed and the nations of the European Union, America, and others are offering increasing amounts of armament and financial aid, Ukraine can overmatch that many times over.
As the Germans approached the gates of Moscow in 1941, the Soviet Union mobilized millions of workers and Communist Party cadres to build trenches around the city and to man militia divisions. These units were not as well-trained or as well-equipped as regular Red Army units, but they had a tremendous will to fight the invader (fortified, as the situation required, by NKVD barrage battalion units that arrested or shot soldiers retreating without orders).
Thus, as the Russians work to encircle Kyiv, that city of almost 3 million people should be able to generate a local defense militia of about 600,000 people. On Tuesday, President Zelenskyy appointed Major General Mykola Zhyrnov to lead the defense of Kyiv, with the city’s elected mayor, former heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, maintaining responsibility for civil aspects of defense.
If the Russians are to effectively encircle the city, they will need to create a double ring line, with troops facing inward to besiege the city, and facing outward to guard against likely avenues from which a Ukrainian counterattack to relieve the city may develop. To do that, Russia may have to finish its fight in the east against Sumy and Kharkiv. After which, they may bring those forces west to join the effort at Kyiv — that or insert another 30,000 troops down from the Chernobyl salient on the border with Belarus through the highly-congested main supply route. That’s a two-lane country road that emerges from the Pripyat Marsh some 60 miles north of the city — a route vulnerable to interdiction.
The contest in Ukraine threatens to enter a far more deadly phase as Russia seeks to break the will of the defenders using massed fires, while Ukraine continues to mobilize its people into a cohesive defense.
As the sun set on the fifth day of Russia’s offensive war on Ukraine, peace talks started in Belarus. These talks are designed to raise hopes in Ukraine and signal a willingness to talk to the world.
But they are likely a charade, a ruse by ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. When the talks “fail,” Putin will likely place the blame for additional destruction on Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
So, what may be next?
Russia’s assault on Kharkiv is intensifying with heavy bombardment. Ukraine’s second-largest city’s outer belt road is only 13 miles from the Russian border. This makes securing the supply lines to the city far easier than routes leading to Kyiv. It also means that artillery and rocket systems bombarding the system can largely be stationed in Russia itself, relatively safe from Ukrainian forces.
More than 1 million people live in Kharkiv. Physically securing the city would result in massive casualties for the largely conscript Russian force—a force that has proven itself poorly led and with low morale. As a result, there is a significant possibility that Putin believes destroying Kharkiv might cow Zelenskyy into surrender.
If the bombardment of Kharkiv continues and features the deployment of large thermobaric bombs, it means Putin is willing to risk the swing of much of world opinion against him, which could, in turn, further damage Russia’s economy and imperil his personal rule.
In the meantime, Russia continues to resupply its forces in the vicinity of Kyiv. This is the main fight. The supposed pause in Kyiv has been linked to talks in Belarus. It’s really due to the ongoing challenge of maintaining supply lines over 60 to 70 miles via secondary roads that run through forests and swamps—roads that may be interdicted by Ukrainian light infantry who were positioned for this purpose.
Russian forces may surround Kyiv while destroying Kharkiv, and then pressure Zelenskyy into accepting terms or else see his capital city reduced to ash.
Some critics of the calculation that the Russian assault on Kyiv has stalled point to the U.S. buildup and capture of Baghdad in 2003. The American and allied assault featured 309,000 personnel supplied from a distant shore fighting 340 miles from Kuwait to Baghdad, about five and a half times the distance from the Chernobyl salient on the Belarusian-Ukrainian border to Kyiv. Opposing them were some 375,000 Iraqi military personnel.
That operation started on March 20, 2003. The government of Saddam Hussain fell on April 9, 20 days later. The big difference is that Hussain’s government had already generated its maximum military power at the moment of the U.S.-led offensive. In Ukraine’s case, the stand of Zelenskyy and his refusal of the U.S. offer to evacuate him, has led to a nation in arms. Ukrainian military power is growing as citizens mobilize.
In the meantime, the Russian Ministry of Defense has suggested that Belarus will join the fight against Ukraine. But President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus has increasing public unrest of his own to deal with. And his military is even less well-trained and equipped than the Russian military. Further, the 674-mile-long border between Belarus and Ukraine is defined by the dense Pripyat Marsh, a significant natural obstacle that makes north-south movement difficult.
Lastly, in a significant development, North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations are giving combat aircraft to Ukraine—all of it Soviet-era equipment that the Ukrainians already know how to operate. Most significant among these are Poland’s 27 well-maintained and updated MiG-29s, the same model flown by many Ukrainian pilots. America pledged it will replace these donations with more capable F-16 fighters that these NATO nations are already flying.
The donations of fighter and ground attack aircraft to Ukraine are of a higher profile than donations of ammunition, and shoulder-fired antiaircraft and antitank systems. Russia will likely feel the need to escalate its rhetoric in response to this move.
As this conflict enters its first full week of fighting, it’s important to reflect that Ukrainian resistance has been far fiercer and more effective than most analysts expected—and certainly more than Russia expected. It recalls one of Napoleon’s dictums, “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.”
Ukraine has the moral high ground in this fight. as exemplified by their remarkable, and in many ways, unlikely, President Zelenskyy—a person who shows that one man can make a difference in history.
It’s now five days since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his mostly conscript army into Ukraine to overthrow the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and it hasn’t gone as planned. In what may signal frustration, Putin has put his nuclear forces on alert in one last desperate move to beat his chest and show the world who’s in charge.
Time has given some clarity to the operation and allows the drawing of some conclusions.
I’m a retired Army lieutenant colonel—an intelligence officer. My training, from 1983 to 2007, was a Cold War focus on the old Soviet Union, the predecessor state to the Russian Federation. Never in my time as an intelligence officer was I able to see the worst-case scenario of a large-scale conventional Russian attack in Europe—until now.
I’ve seen multiple reports of Russian conscripts who didn’t know they were invading Ukraine. They’re confused. They don’t know who to shoot at, as “Ukrainians look the same as us.” The Russian force appears to suffer from: Poor training; poor leadership (bad officers); and a cultural disregard for information-sharing down the chain of command, which prevents lower-ranking soldiers from making informed decisions in the chaos of war.
The result of all this is a lack of initiative from soldiers when non-commissioned officers and officers are killed or wounded.
It is important to note that the Russian army hasn’t fought a conventional war against a near-peer enemy since 1945. It’s out of practice, poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly motivated. It does have plenty of heavy armaments—very large thermobaric bombs. It can destroy, but it can’t fight effectively.
Regarding the “Father of Bombs,” a large thermobaric or “vacuum” bombs capable of destroying a city block, killing 10,000 or more civilians and soldiers. Using one on Kyiv would horrify the world and likely increase calls for war crimes charges on Russian leaders. The Russians have used smaller thermobaric weapons against Ukrainian bunkers.
This opens another question: How powerful are Russia’s reconstituted zampolit? Putin brought them back in 2018. The zampolit were political officers in the old Red Army, previously called “commissars” until 1942 when the position’s battlefield power was scaled back in response to negative military command implications.
If a Russian field commander is ordered to use a city-busting thermobaric bomb, will he? Or will he refuse to carry out the order, like German Gen. von Choltitz when Adolf Hitler ordered him to destroy Paris—unless a zampolit is looking over his shoulder with a pistol?
Logistics is also manifesting itself as a Russian weak spot. Logistics is hard—it’s harder in combat. It requires synchronizing the delivery of fuel, ammo, and food to frontline forces all while the enemy is shooting at your resupply trucks. At four days in, Russian forces are running out of basic supplies. This has a powerfully negative effect on morale.
Complicating Russian resupply efforts are indications that Ukrainian light forces hunkered down during the initial Russian wave passed by, only to reemerge when the lightly armored supply columns entered Ukraine. Also of note is the increasingly effective Ukrainian use of Turkish-designed BayraktarTB2 drones. These low-cost, slow, non-stealthy drones have scored dozens of kills on Russian columns. Ukraine has about 60 of them.
As Ukrainian resistance stiffens and tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens rush to defend their nation, other nations in the region have been emboldened. Germany is sending 1,000 antitank missiles and 500 Stinger antiaircraft missiles. The Czech Republic and the Netherlands are sending small arms and ammunition.
The SWIFT financial communications system is being turned off for Russia. European nations are closing their airspace to Russian commercial aircraft. Now the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has used the term “war” to describe Russia’s assault on Ukraine, invoking the provisions of the 1936 Montreux Convention, allowing Turkey to block Russian warships from the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean.
All of this suggests a growing willingness to confront Putin’s aggression. Even at home, protests against Putin’s war are growing bolder in Russia.
Putin needs friends. China has distanced itself. Kazakhstan denied Putin’s request for forces. And now Putin is pressuring his Belarusian puppet, President Alexander Lukashenko, to join the fight along its 674-mile-long border with Ukraine.
But Lukashenko’s armed forces are even less capable of fighting than their Russian cousins and the border with Ukraine is defined by the vast Pripyat marsh. Even so, the likely objective of a Belarusian assault would be the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, the main route through which Western supplies enter Ukraine.
Putin’s aggression likely won’t end well for Putin.
The Russian assault on Ukraine is now three days old with sharp fighting seen in the capital city of Kyiv overnight. Yet, Kyiv stands.
America offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy replied, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”
Zelenskyy’s reply was reminiscent of past heroes in times of war: Gen. Anthony McAuliffe who replied in “NUTS” in response to the German demand for surrender at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944; and the Texans striving for independence from dictator Santa Anna’s Mexico with their “Come and Take it Flag,” which was itself appropriated from Spartan King Leonidas and his response the Persian surrender demand at the Battle of Thermopylae.
This bravery, in a day when modern communications allow all Ukrainians and the world to see it, has rallied Ukrainians to defend their nation. And now that the fighting has gone on for three days, what might that mean?
Russian President Putin is said to have assembled 200,000 troops for the invasion. It is estimated that half of them have been committed so far. Further, Putin has called on 10,000 battle-hardened Chechen mercenaries. More than half of Russian forces are likely committed to the battle of Kyiv.
Ukraine has 245,000 active-duty members, but most are in the east, facing the Russian-led and equipped militia in the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukraine also has another 220,000 reservists. Many of these are spread across the nation slightly larger than the state of Texas.
The strategic target is Kyiv and its independent government. To move the reservists to the fight, they must contend with Russian air superiority, slowing their march. More importantly, given this struggle for national survival, 7,000,000 men of military age and fit for military service are taking up arms. Every day, many more older men — and many Ukrainian women — are also being issued weapons, making Molotov cocktails, and joining the fight.
The ongoing Ukrainian mobilization means that the Russian military will soon be outnumbered most everywhere on the battlefield. The Ukrainians may not have the same level of modern equipment — missiles, jets, helicopter — but they have numbers and will power. And, the Russians need to eat, they need fuel, and ammunition — their resupply trucks must get through. They won’t, not in large enough numbers; everyday Ukrainians will see to that.
Kyivians need to eat as well. Perhaps Putin’s operational plans are to surround the city of three million and starve it into submission, forcing Zelenskyy to surrender to avoid a humanitarian catastrophe. Of note, images of fighting overnight show streetlights still working in the capital city meaning refrigeration is still working, stretching out food supplies by a few days.
But as Putin’s offensive falters and his strength back home is questioned, there’s another, more sinister possibility: He’ll unleash thermobaric bombs on Kyiv. These massive conventional weapons would destroy entire city blocks, killing 10,000 civilians and soldiers at a time. But terror bombing rarely cows the target into submission. Rather, the use of these superweapons will further spur Ukraine and the world against Putin.
Putin would fall shortly after his use of the thermobaric weapons, or he’ll try to take the rest of the world with him.
The war in Ukraine is likely to expand beyond Ukraine. War rarely unfolds as intended.
The Russian offensive against Ukraine unleashed by Russian President Vladimir Putin is now two days old. There are two big things to consider as the conflict grinds on: strategy and morale.
The first is the survival of Ukraine’s young president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Zelenskyy and his democratically-elected government are the focus of Putin’s war. The German military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “The talent of the strategist is to identify the decisive point and to concentrate everything on it, removing forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives.” Zelenskyy is that decisive point.
For an opposing force, the contrary is often true. In Ukraine’s case, it is — that is, the survival of Ukraine’s government and the prevention of the installation of a quisling, a pro-Putin government in Kiev.
But as von Clausewitz noted, “…no strategy ever survives the first engagement with the enemy.” Ukraine is fighting back. Whether it will be enough is an open question, though every day Zelenskyy’s government survives increases their odds of success.
The second factor, morale, is crucial. In that aspect, the Ukrainian people have seen some inspirational moments aided by rapid dissemination via cell phones.
The images of a helmeted Zelenskyy in the field with his soldiers invoke the memory of other wartime leaders, such as Winston Churchill during Britain’s darkest hour.
These images, and stories arising from the flames of Putin’s brazen attack, may serve as new historic foundation mythology for a very old nation.
America has the Boston Massacre with Crispus Attucks, the first martyr of the revolution, Molly Pitcher manning the cannon at Monmouth, and George Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas Eve to attack German mercenaries on Christmas morning.
Ukraine now has Snake Island, with its 13 defenders telling a Russian warship to “go f— yourself” in reply to a demand to surrender. The Russians killed all 13 border guards.
The Ghost of Kiev as well — perhaps an urban legend, perhaps not — a Ukrainian MiG-29 pilot credited with downing six Russian aircraft — and racking up more than four million views on one video posted to Twitter on Friday.
And, of course, Zelenskyy himself, who, unlike the last feckless Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani, remains at his post — though a successful relocation to Lviv in Ukraine’s west to carry on the fight would be preferable to death or capture.
And then there’s the Biden administration and its response to Russia’s offensive against Ukraine.
During his press conference Thursday, President Joe Biden responded to a question by claiming, “No one expects the sanctions to prevent anything from happening…” Days earlier, Vice President Kamala Harris said sanctions would deter Putin.
As to the sanctions announced by Biden, he said to give them 30 days to work. But the Battle of Ukraine will be won or lost by then.
Instructively, the Russian Ruble immediately gained 8 percent on Biden’s announcement of weak half measures. The Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped 2.5 percent in relief, and oil plunged by more than $4 a barrel on the word that Biden and our NATO allies would still welcome copious supplies of Russian oil and natural gas and pay for it in hard dollars.
War entails sacrifice. So far, the sacrifices are being shouldered by Russian conscripts and the Ukrainian people. The West? Not so much.
If Ukraine survives as an independent nation, Putin will fall, and Biden’s sanctions will have had nothing to do with his demise. The credit will be due to Ukrainian courage and Putin’s hubris.
The invasion of Ukraine by the armed forces of Russia at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s orders marks the first time since 1945 that Russia has engaged in a conventional war with a near-peer nation.
Ukraine isn’t restive Warsaw Pact nations, it isn’t Afghanistan, it isn’t Chechnya, it isn’t Georgia, and it isn’t Crimea.
The conflict launched by Putin is on a far grander scale than the invasion of Crimea in 2014, launched as Ukraine’s last pro-Russia president, Viktor Yanukovych, was driven from office in a popular uprising.
Putin, by choosing to reach beyond the ethnic-Russian majority separatist provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas Basin, has decided to end the independent, Western-looking Ukrainian government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and install a pro-Putin quisling.
And while the fog of war, some deliberate mis-and disinformation operations by the combatants, and the far-from-perfect filter of Western media leaves much unknown at this time, what is known is that Zelenskyy is still in power a day after the Russian offensive. Further, the Ukrainian military appears to be taking a toll on the Russians invading from three sides: south across the Pripyat Marshes from Russian satellite Belarus; west from Russia, including Donbas; and north from the Black Sea in the region of Odessa and Transnistria, a Russian client breakaway state in Moldavia.
Modern conventional war is extremely difficult to do well. Imagine being a conductor of an orchestra, all while the audience was lobbing soccer balls at you and your musicians as you perform J.S. Bach’s Chaconne in D — that’s modern warfare. Putin is attempting a highly complicated operation over large distances in the face of a determined foe. Further, he’s doing so with an army largely composed of conscripts serving for only one year.
Since Putin has decided to oust the Ukrainian government, this means that every day Zelenskyy remains in office is another day that adds to Ukrainian national confidence to resist — and another day that Putin looks to have miscalculated.
And as the war drags on, there are five things that may happen beyond the war in Ukraine.
First, Putin might expand the conflict even further—perhaps to the Baltic states.
Second, Finland and Sweden may seek to join NATO. We should let them.
Third, China may come to Russia’s aid in some form or view the conflict as an opportunity to attack Taiwan.
Fourth, volunteer units from Poland, the Baltic nations, and beyond, may seek to join the effort against Russia.
And lastly, if the Zelenskyy government survives and maintains the support of its people, Putin’s 22-year-reign will be in jeopardy.