22 Feb 2023

Looking Back a Year Later With Amazement

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Ukrainian girl inspects destroyed Russian tank last October.

Anatol Lieven

A year ago, all but one of Russia’s chief aims in Ukraine were defeated in the first three weeks of the war, before the arrival of Western heavy weaponry. The reasons for this comprehensive Russian reverse — which no Western observer, including myself, predicted — are of great interest to military analysts, even if some of the lessons they teach are very old ones.

Between the start of the Russian invasion on February 24, 2022, and the middle of March, Russian forces failed to take the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv; failed to take Ukraine’s second city, Kharkiv, though it is less than 20 miles from the Russian frontier; failed to occupy the whole of the Donbas; and failed to capture Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. The only Russian bridgehead established west of the Dnieper River, at Kherson, was so limited that it ultimately proved untenable.

The only major objective that the Russians did achieve was to capture the “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea. Even so, the capture of Mariupol took another two months and involved the complete destruction of the city. The diversion of troops necessary for the siege of Mariupol made it impossible to sustain offensives elsewhere.

The errors in initial Russian planning and strategy are now glaringly obvious. Russian intelligence completely underestimated the strength of Ukrainian resistance — or if any of their predictions were accurate, they either never reached Putin or were ignored by him. In addition, it seems likely that it was fear of the domestic political reaction that led Putin not to call up additional reservists for the “Special Military Operation.”

As a result, Russia invaded Ukraine (a country of 230,000 square miles and 41 million people) with barely 200,000 troops and seven different objectives. So while the Russian armed forces as a whole were much larger than those of Ukraine, in practice Russian troops were often outnumbered by the Ukrainians they were facing. This disparity grew as Ukraine called up every man that it could during the summer, while Putin hesitated for seven months to carry out even a partial mobilization in Russia.

Until October 2022 no supreme commander was appointed for the operation — perhaps because Putin feared the emergence of a victorious general who might challenge his own power. So there were serious problems of coordination between the different Russian fronts. This may have contributed to some appalling failures of staff work and logistics, such as the 40-mile-long traffic jam of Russian vehicles that built up on a single road north of Kyiv.

Russian command-and-control problems must have been worsened significantly by the number of senior officers killed by Ukrainian missile and artillery strikes in the first months of the war. U.S. technical intelligence was largely responsible for identifying local Russian headquarters. Like the strike on Makiivka over the New Year that killed dozens (or possibly hundreds) of Russian troops, these successes may also have been enabled by poor communications security on the Russian side.

U.S. satellite intelligence spotted Russian military build-ups and allowed the Ukrainians to anticipate Russian attacks. Ukrainian civilians in Russian-held areas were also able to simply call Ukrainian forces on their cell phones and tell them where Russian convoys were to be found. This in turn partly contributed to the atrocities against civilians committed by Russian soldiers, which have done so much to tarnish the image of the Russian army.

Despite all this, and despite longstanding and well-known problems with the poor quality of NCOs and lack of initiative on the part of junior officers, the Russian army might have been expected to do better. This was because of the colossal Russian superiority in the two weapons of the classical “Blitzkrieg,” as practiced by Germany in 1939-42, the Soviet Union in 1942-45, and Israel in most of its wars: armor and airpower. The failure of these two arms is perhaps the most striking lesson of the war in Ukraine so far, and indicates that Ukrainian hopes that Western tanks and warplanes will allow them to break through may also be misplaced. Their failure has also led to immense casualties among Russia’s best infantry units.


4 Feedbacks on "Looking Back a Year Later With Amazement"


This was 90% a failure of the generals and 10% a failure of communism/Soviet culture. It could even be 80% 20% or more. The generals do not have full authority and they face serious repercussions for mistakes so they make fewer decisions of their own and follow policy or command. A good example of how this works was Schwarzkopf during the Gulf war. He was the absolute commander and it was 100% his to lose or win. So he used his power, didn’t look to command for direction and took the intuitive when minutes counted and kicked ass.

I think the Russian culture doesn’t like or accept giving someone absolute power easily and everyone from farmers to generals grows up matures and develops their mindset under the belief that any decision they make on their own could get them put in jail so they are very slow to respond and very wary of not adhering to the rules.

This is no way to run an army. Give the general everything they need and the absolute power to make decisions and make sure you picked the fight guy. And if they screw up or fail to act accordingly replace them with someone you think can and will do what is necessary.


A decent analysis, but it misses a key reason why Ukraine wants western tanks: their sustainability. Russian tanks were made according to the “win fast or die trying” Russian doctrine. So, they’re not made to be repaired on the battlefield. Nor is there much in the way of spare parts. To be repaired, Russian tanks must often be sent back to the factory.

Western tanks are made to be repaired in the field, and have lots of spare parts.

Oh, and they’re *much* better than their Russian equivalents.

Fusil Darne

The Russians are learning, and the Ukrainians will be learning, that tanks are obsolete. The unmanned drones that are blowing them and the crews that man them to Hell cost less than a weeks worth of supply and maintenance on a tank.


The war in Ukraine is led by the same geopolitical experts and seasoned military tacticians who executed the Afghanistan withdrawal, so relax.


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