Russia’s War in Ukraine: A Strategy for Old Timers

By Georges Henri Soutou

Ukraine is defending itself against Russia’s aggression by a fascinating combination of old techniques and equipment and the deft use of new technology and intelligence. It is being watched closely by NATO and adversaries.

The next war would be high tech, high intensity warfare, we were told. Up to now the war in Ukraine has been high tech, but also low tech, and certainly high intensity, but instead of a quick spasm we are experiencing a more and more drawn out conflict with phases of varying activity, which reminds us of both World Wars. Historians begin to feel more at ease with this war than was believed possible initially.

Railways are back! The historians have followed their strategic significance since the American Civil War through the great European Wars, but they became neglected (some types of Western tanks cannot be transported by rail). Now they are back, with both their advantages (capacity) and drawbacks (a rigid grid). We note that the Wehrmacht in Russia was able to fight 450 kilometres ahead of its rail-heads, for the Russians now it is more like 100 kilometres.

“General Winter” and “Rasputitsa” are also back as strategic factors. Procuring departments will have to take that into account for the next generations of combat vehicles.

In 1914, ordnance for the new French 75mm gun was exhausted after less than two months. But the Army had kept in storage the former “de Bange” system, with tens of millions of shells. It was less advanced than the 75mm, but it did the job. The Russians are doing the same, going back to T 62 tanks and unguided missiles. Lesson: never throw away anything, which was a widely held view in the impoverished Europe of the 1950s – a view with which we oldies are familiar but which became forgotten.

Bombardments of civilians are very much back, either indiscriminate or focused on utilities, with the same alternating rationale between achieving tangible results for degrading the enemy’s war making capacity or just trying to demoralise civilians. The United States Strategic Bombing Survey is once again a useful reading.

The Ukrainian reaction to those bombings, which seems to be effective, will need to be assessed, like the quite effective work of the German Technische Nothilfe organization in World War Two.  Of course, bombardments never ceased since 1945 elsewhere on the planet, but they are now back in the “Western” part of the world, a fact which will be closely monitored by many malevolent States.

Another throwback to past discussions is the uncertain value of economic sanctions, or “blockade”, as they said in 1914. Did they play a decisive role in the victory against Germany during both World Wars, or could they be largely circumvented, and did they rather help the German authorities to mobilize public opinion? The very same discussion applies to Russia today. It is any case sure that the quick collapse of Russian economy which many expected did not take place.

But the adverse consequences for the blockading countries are a new factor, because the world economy has become much more complex than in 1914 or 1939. The only thing which Great Britain really missed in 1914 were German optics for the Royal Navy. They were acquired through Switzerland…  

Now France (I shall stick to her case) is experiencing growing problems and uncertainties, not uniquely but largely linked to sanctions, with possible political reverberations in the near future. A much more refined analysis of the pros and contras of sanctions will be needed in the future.

But we have also learned other new lessons. As for the fading value of Crimea-like “hybridity”, although I rather admired the 2014 Crimean operation. It was swift and sufficiently ambiguous to deter outside interference. But this time, that strategy failed at the beginning of the war, in the suburbs of Kiev because Moscow misjudged the Ukrainian government, army and people. 

Another new lesson: the combination of Info-centric warfare as well as rockets and drones of all kinds, from low tech to high tech, seems to be more efficient than we imagined, with at times a merging of secret services “active measures” and outright war-fighting which gives food for thought.

But that combination can be generalised – even for non-State organizations, which could easily acquire the simpler kinds of drones. I note that Germany has taken the lead in organizing an air defence system for Central Europe, drawing on the Israeli experience, which seems to become suddenly very relevant for Europe. All that is new, or rather had been forgotten since 1945 because putative adversaries were far away or technically impotent, and because, of course, of nuclear deterrence.

Which leads us to further questions: what is the meaning of nuclear deterrence today? And, to make myself yet more friends, what do those new developments mean for forces projection and particularly for aircraft carriers? That is all quite rejuvenating! And for another TAG blog.

Georges-Henri Soutou is an Emeritus Professor at Sorbonne University and member of the Institut de France.