Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French
“Everything…depends on discovering the culminating point by the fine tact of judgement. Here we come upon a seeming contradiction. The defence is stronger than the attack; therefore we should think that the latter should never lead us too far, for as long as the weaker form remains strong enough for what is required the stronger form ought to be still more so”.
Karl von Clausewitz
March 15th, 2022. Idus Martiae! The race to the culminating point of Ukraine’s tragedy is on! Possible Chinese support notwithstanding the next ten days or so will prove critical. The Russian war of conquest in Ukraine is now entering a critical phase; a race to reach the culminating point of Russia’s offensive capacity and Ukraine’s defensive capacity. That is why it is vital the West reinforces Ukraine’s capacity to resist and why Russia has started attacking supply bases through which Western lethal aid is passing. The next week or so could prove critical.
The culminating point is reached when a force can no longer conduct operations. For a force engaged on offensive expeditionary operations that point is reached when a force simply can no longer advance. In the wake of the second Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, several constraints on the capacity to conduct a Blitzkrieg became immediately apparent. The moment Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border a large gap appeared between the scale and quality of the Russian forces needed to maintain offensive Russian military momentum and the force available given the capacity of Ukraine’s capacity to resist and the space in which to conduct defensive operations on their own terrain.
It also became rapidly clear that the basic operational and tactical planning of the Russian General Staff was inadequate. Much of the intelligence underpinning the campaign was either faulty, out-of-date, or just plain wrong; mission goals and areas of responsibility between Battalion Tactical Groups had not been clearly established or delineated; secure communications between headquarters and forward deployed forces failed often; force protection was virtually non-existent; joint operations between air and ground elements were rendered extremely difficult by a lack of co-ordination and communications, and the Russian practice of ‘seeding’ regular army formations with conscripts led to rapid deterioration in the morale of the force in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance. Above all, the lack of sufficient Special Operating Forces and Specialised Forces, allied to a lack of precision-guided munitions in sufficient quantity, rendered the original strategy of decapitating Ukraine politically and militarily impossible to realise.
The result is becoming increasingly self-evident for a poorly-planned and executed Russian military campaign in which incompetence marches side-by-side with costly but stalled momentum with Russian forces forced to adopt a campaign of attrition against Ukrainian civilians for which they are not designed. Attrition warfare requires time, manpower, ammunition and resources. The Russians are rapidly running out of all three which is why they are recruiting Syrians. One lesson they should have drawn from their major VOSTOK and ZAPAD exercises is that the consumption of combat ammunition always exceeds ready stocks, particularly in urban warfare. Sanctions have accelerated this by blocking the delivery of munitions to Russia from places such as Finland and Slovenia. This is why Russia has turned to China.
The Ukrainians have excelled as a defensive force and as the morale of Russia’s forces has plummeted the defenders have seized the moral high ground. Lessons-learned from Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea are apparent in the way the Ukrainians have successfully conducted information operations and managed to get inside of the Russian command loop. Reinforced by Western real-time intelligence and advanced anti-air and anti-tank munitions the Ukrainians have been able to maintain a mobile defence hitting Russian formations when and where it hurts. However, this heroic defence has come a great cost to Ukraine’s embattled regular forces and the many irregulars who have joined the fight.
For Clausewitz the successful application of military force requires both the moral and the physical to be superior to that of an enemy. Russia began this war firm in the belief that the physical superiority of its forces over their Ukrainian enemy would prevail. As the war shifts from one of movement to one of attrition it is vital the West reinforces the capacity of the Ukrainians to resist. In practice, that means supplying them with sufficient lethal aid to fight the Russians to a standstill and pose the Kremlin with an acute dilemma: order general mobilisation to fight a long war and risk the wrath of the Mothers of St Petersburg and beyond or come to terms with the Ukrainians. Either way the political price for Putin will be high given the human cost of his strategic folly.
In two months in 1982 Britain successfully re-took the Falkland Islands from the Argentinian occupiers. To do so the British had to undertake the longest seaborne invasion in military history. Whilst Argentina was only 400 miles from the Falklands the British were over 8000 miles distant. The sheer distance meant the size of the Task Force sent was limited in scale. However, it prevailed because the force was of such a higher level of technological and force quality compared with the bulk of its Argentinian opponents that it was able to exert both physical and moral superiority over a larger defensive force. Russian forces lack both the quality and the quantity over their Ukrainian counterparts to establish physical or moral superiority. The war in Ukraine is thus testament to the abject failure of the Russian General Staff to modernise the Russian Army in particular. Consequently, Putin’s entire political strategy of using coercion and implied threat of force to extract concessions from his neighbours already lies in tatters. Does that mean the end of Putin and bully Russia is over? No, far from it.
What must the West now do? First, accelerate and expand the delivery of capabilities and weapons specifically intended to help Ukraine destroy the land and sea-based artillery, rockets and cruise-missile launchers that are land-based and sea-based platforms. This means more intelligence, more counter-fire radar, more long-range systems, more ammunition, and more anti-ship, and naval mines. Second, look to the future. Both China and Russia will already be deconstructing this war to identify and implement lessons for the future. So must we!
Putin? Beware the Ides of March, Caesar!
Ben Hodges and Julian Lindley-French
LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges is the former Commander, US Army Europe. Julian Lindley-French was Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy. They are co-authors with Gen. (Ret.) John R. Allen of the book Future War and the Defence of Europe and both are members of The Alphen Group.