Valuable – and Expensive – Russian Lessons in Combat with Ukraine
The End State May Not Change. The Route There Certainly Has Detoured
Today we focus on the essence of combat thus far. This is a bit of a change from most of what we see online. Rather than looking at the political, strategic, or humanitarian issues (all of which are very important), I thought we might take a moment to look at the current situation from the perspective of combat units on the battlefield.
This is something of a “busman’s holiday” for those of us who are veterans with combat experience. For others, this may be something of a new view. Whichever group you are in, hope you find this useful.
Experienced Observers of the Russian Military Saw Much of This Coming
At this point, everyone has well figured out that the Russian campaign plans have gone awry. It is likely that in the end, the Russians will persevere, although not as fully or cleanly as they hoped, and at terrible cost. Who knows, Ukraine may yet beat all this, although that is a narrow prospect.
Still, the Russians are having a terrible time. This is largely for internal shortfalls. Students of combat expected much of this to happen. That the Russians apparently did not see this coing tells us much about the quality (or lack thereof) of their leadership. Let’s take a look at what is biting them.
The Russians clearly planned for a lightning strike, with their objectives attained in a matter of hours. When that did not happen, deployed units began running out of everything – food, water, fuel, maintenance parts, medical supplies – everything. That still appears to the case across the battlefield. My 30 years in the Army taught me that more battles in history where lost or won on the foundation of logistics than most people ever imagine.
Seems that everyone considers themselves brilliant tacticians or strategists. Most can do little more than spell Logistics. It is the sword they are impaled upon on the battlefield. Logistics are hard, complex, expensive, easy to do badly, and require long timelines.
Keeping the Troops in the Dark
Russia has always been well known for abusing its own troops. This includes not telling them anything. The result is an army woefully unable to handle change or quick challenge. This time around draftees were deployed out of Russia to a combat mission (supposedly not allowed) and whole units had no idea they had deployed into a war with their neighbor. Not surprisingly, some are sabotaging their vehicles, stalling to engage, or are surrendering.
Would love to see a vigorous campaign by the Ukrainians on the ground and by the West in support to the Russians, ensuring they know what is going on, encouraging them to reject their leaders, and encourage them to defect. The West needs to share such messages with families back in Russia. We need a modern rebirth of Radio Free Europe to reach out in this era. If we work it, Russia cannot seal all outlets.
There is No Replacement for Actual Combat Experience
This is a hard, but almost universally true lesson. Armed forces, especially armies and other ground forces, that have gone for a long time without actual combat experience will likely stumble badly and take significant casualties in initial battles. Really excellent training (more on that shortly) can make a big difference, but even that is unlikely to erase the deficit that must be paid.
Bits of the Russian army have been in battle in recent years – in Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine. But overall, this has not been the case and it shows in this campaign. The lessons are hard learned. Two interesting footnotes here:
One, I have read material that indicates the Chinese are aware of this out of practice factor and worry about it when thinking about attacking Taiwan. Two, it will be exceptionally interesting to see how or if the Russians take on and apply the lessons learned. This is not a culture inclined to admit failure or take responsibility. The prospects are high that the lives lost in these lessons will be for naught. What a waste.
The Best Training is Hard to Conduct
Really first class, highly realistic training is unimaginably hard to do. Almost all armed forces do it poorly. To reach the highest levels require absurdly high levels of resourcing, planning, and prioritization. Not to be too nationalistic, but the US armed forces probably do this better than anyone else. I remember when the first units to go into combat in Iraq. Soldiers often said they found the exercises at our National Training Centers (NTC) more challenging than the actual war they fought in Iraq.
That level of quality does not come cheaply or easily. We were, last time I looked at it, averaging about 10-15 deaths a year at the NTC. Whole units of opposing forces were stood up, thoroughly trained, and realistically equipped. When I was on active duty, the running joke was that the best unit in the Russian army was the mechanized regiment we had at the NTC in California.
They were, in my experience, among the toughest foes I ever faced, in training or in combat. I thought it an indicator that every time I went through a rotation at the NTC for about 2 weeks, I lost about 10 pounds and upon return wanted to sleep for 2 days. THAT is training. The Russians do not come close
Not Much of a Plan B
Adaptability is not a strong suit for the Russians. That is a killer on the battlefield. Few plans survive the first contact. Having an army that always wants to buck decisions upstairs and block information downstairs will suffer more losses. For the Russians, that is the cultural tradition.
They seem willing to bear the cost, figuring they can “make up for it” with more firepower and more troops. They rely more on raw power than smart maneuvers. That can work, but what a price to pay. If only the Russian people would break thier national mold and demand better.
Civilian Damage – So What?
The Russian doctrine seems to have no place for minimizing civilian losses. On one level, it seems to be a byproduct, not to be counted except to deny it, seeking to avoid international criticisms. On another level, it is pursued as a direct policy decision, seeking to terrorize and demoralize the population. An ugly set of realities that is unlikely to change any time soon.
Not Many Observers Saw These Coming
There are three major surprises in this conflict, so far.
(1) The quality and depth of the Ukrainian armed forces. They have risen to the occasion in myriad ways. They deserve great admiration and support.
(2) A world class partisan force is born. Courage and cleverness are everywhere among the Ukrainian people. This will likely wear down and thin out in some ways over time, but I for one am in awe.
(3) Ukraine owns the public media and the world discussion on all this. The Russians have never faced this and it is one reason world condemnation is so universal. Valuable lessons here for everyone.
This Still Likely Ends Badly
But not cleanly. Ukraine is extracting a terrible price. Watch for changes in the military hierarchy and political impacts in Russia from a failed offensive strategy. Unlikely, but perhaps at some point Putin will find a way to declare victory and leave Ukraine (most unlikely but not impossible).
Equally unlikely but possible: others in Russia decide Putin is causing too much damage and will not change, so they make a change in leadership. That could be a coup, could be an assassination, could be some other option. Putin has shut off most options to move against him, but desperation drives innovation. Stand by.
A FOLLOW UP NOTE TO AN EARLIER BLOG POST:
Most of you will recall that some time back I noted the growth of DuckDuckGo as a search engine that puts a log of priority on your privacy. I think that is still the case and they seem the best of the bunch out there, but things on the internet are always in flux and in relative states of Good and Evil.
One of our alert readers flagged an article in the NY Times that noted DuckDuckGo is very popular with right wing extremists, given its privacy notes, and that the site does not always do a good job of screening harmful and false messages. No one is perfect, but consumers should be aware of such issues. Below is a link to that NYT article. Make your own decisions. Thanks to Dick for flagging this one for us.
If you find this blog worthy of your time and curiosity, I invite you to do three things:
(1) Join the conversation. Your voice counts here. If you wish to share COMMENTS anonymously, make the last word in your comment “PRIVATE.” I will assure your privacy via anonymity.
(2) Share the word about this post with friends and colleagues. Share a link in your emails and social media posts (https://agentsofreason.com).
(3) You are welcome to share this post with anyone. It is easy to pass on via email, of course, but also on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus, or Reddit; simply click on the links for these services at the end of this article.
Let’s grow our circle.
4 replies to Some Interesting Military Notes from the War in Ukraine
Thank you Bill for your years of service and for your insight into this complex situation. I am in awe of the ordinary people in Ukraine who are standing up to a crazy man. Peace
I share your awe and admiration, Tom. It is humbling to experience.
My military knowledge pretty much begins and ends with the Civil War, but even I know how crucial logistics are. I can’t believe the Red Army wanted this fight. I’m kind of hoping for a military coup. And I am likewise in awe of the people of Ukraine, my personal favorite being the lady who took down a drone with a jar of canned tomatoes. Would that I had her courage, and her arm.
Great insights. Thanks!