There is a useful military adage often used by generals in times of war: no plan survives contact with the enemy. Vladimir Putin’s plan, it now appears, didn’t even survive contact with his own troops.
Russia’s leader has combined a major strategic miscalculation with tactical stupidity on a scale unprecedented in recent times. Four weeks after the launch of his special military operation, his generals have failed to achieve any of their planned objectives. Advances on all fronts have stalled and no decisive battles have been won. There have even been reports (currently unverified) of Russian units being encircled by Ukrainian forces near Kyiv.
Russia has still not acquired air superiority and has failed to take a single major city. The latest casualty figures from Ukraine claim that 12,814 Russian soldiers have been killed in action, at least four of whom are generals. Nearly 5,000 mercenaries are also thought to have perished. The number wounded could also be as high as 40,000 personnel. In terms of hardware, Russia has lost more than 1,400 armoured vehicles, 1,470 tanks, 96 aircraft and 118 helicopters.
Although Russia is said to be able to endure pain like no other country and has a vast number of conscripts, so many casualties in just four weeks is unsustainable. In Afghanistan, the Russians lost 14,000 troops in ten years and that conflict helped to bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. By comparison the British and the US lost around 7,500 personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Putin’s rapidly depleting military resources may also explain the call for mercenaries from Syria to join the fight and the use of hypersonic missiles. Though, it could be, in part, an attempt to warn Nato to keep its distance.
A day after Putin launched his invasion, General Sir James Everard, a former cavalry officer and ex-Nato Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe said that he fully expected Putin to have the war finished within 21 days; he anticipated that many of Ukraine’s valiant defenders would be destroyed in a rapid shock and awe firestorm. But the lightning dash has turned into a war of attrition with Russia turning to mediaeval tactics, as seen with the destruction of Mariupol.
Despite the mounting civilian death toll, Ukraine remains in no mood to surrender. Such admiral defiance leaves Putin in a quandary. He is now embroiled in a conflict with no achievable end game and which he can’t possibly win – not dissimilar to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Armies can only win wars if their soldiers are prepared to fight, if their morale is high and if they are properly equipped and well trained. But most importantly, soldiers must believe in the cause. It would seem that few, if any, of those boxes have been ticked by the average Russian squaddie. Within days of the start of the conflict, Russian soldiers began abandoning tanks and armoured vehicles either because they had broken-down or had run out of fuel. There have also been reports of mutiny and Russian soldiers shooting themselves in the legs so they don’t have to fight. Captured Russian troops have been filmed tearfully phoning their disbelieving mothers back in Russia, explaining that they had been duped into fighting and now want to come home.
During the conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, British soldiers knew that if they were wounded they could expect to receive expert medical treatment within an hour. Those who succumbed to their wounds were honoured with military funerals. In contrast, mobile crematoria are reported to be following the Russian troops in Ukraine, ready, seemingly, to dispose of the dead.
Worse still, many dead and wounded Russian conscripts have been abandoned on the battlefield. All of these appalling failings serve only to undermine already fragile morale. Major General Jonathan Shaw, a former director of Special Forces in the British Army, believes that the multiple tactical failures are largely due to the cultivation of obedience over initiative, so every soldier simply does what they are told: a Soviet era hangover which still exists today.
Such slavish obedience to orders, Gen Shaw suggests, explains why the 40 mile long Russian convoy came to a halt just north of Kyiv: no one had the courage or initiative to suggest an alternative plan, such as changing the tyres on the armoured vehicles so that they could move off road.
Life as a Russian conscript is also a miserable existence: they are paid around £23 a month, and living conditions are appalling. Bullying or hazing of recruits by senior ranks is rife and brutal.
History shows us that conscripted armies tend not to win wars unless they are fighting for national survival: the US in Vietnam is probably the prime example although the Russian conflict in Afghanistan is also relevant.
The impact of institutionalised corruption within Russia has also taken its toll. While over $60 billion (£45 billion) was pumped into the Russian armed forces last year, millions of roubles were syphoned off by corrupt officials leaving tanks, aircraft and missile systems broken and short of spares.
General Sir Richard Dannatt, who served as Chief of the General Staff from 2006 to 2009, argues that the UK and the rest of Nato had given the Russian Army ‘too much credit’ in recent times. ‘Their inability to mount a major all arms operation, properly supported by good logistics, has been woefully exposed,’ he tells me. ‘Moreover their battlefield leadership has been appalling. The absence of clearly explained reasons for the operation to their troops has been verging on the criminal – asking young men to risk and lose their lives without knowing why.’
Even if the Russian generals managed to turn their mistakes around and the war in Ukraine becomes a stunning victory, the Russian armed forces are in a weakened position. If Putin were to withdraw from Ukraine tomorrow it would take months before Russian generals would be in a position to launch another major offensive, whether against Poland, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, or Finland – countries which have all been threatened in recent weeks.
The known unknown in all of this is Putin’s unpredictability. He may double down on his failed Ukraine venture and try his hand elsewhere in Europe, he may use tactical nukes or chemical weapons. As a senior Ministry of Defence source told me recently: ‘Anyone who says that they know what Putin will do next is basically guessing’. That is not to say that Putin is no longer a threat. But he invaded Ukraine to make a point and has failed. The West should no longer fear him.
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