Would We Do Better? Hubris and Validation in Ukraine
The hapless Russians are flailing in Ukraine. Their poorly prepared, unprofessional soldiers are incapable of modern combined arms warfare. Even if Russian soldiers were trained and ready, the incompetent Russian officer corps — full of corrupt yes-men — is incapable of employing them effectively.
The latest evidence of Russian ineptness is the annihilation of a unit attempting to cross the Siverskyi Donets River in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian Ministry of Internal Affairs (not an unbiased source on these matters) reported that elements of a Russian brigade, detected by aerial reconnaissance, suffered heavy losses: “70 units of Russian armoured vehicles burned as a result of artillery strikes of the Armed Forces. Of the 550 servicemen in the Russian brigade, 485 were killed.”
Or so we are told. But is that really the case?
Western commentators are by and large content with this narrative and have pounced on the river-crossing fiasco as further evidence of a Russian military that continues to struggle in the face of determined resistance by well-trained and motivated Ukrainian forces. In an article in the Wall Street Journal, military experts dissected the Russian deficiencies, attributing their failure principally to inadequate preparation and bad leadership. They say this failure is one of many that “indicate problems higher in its chain of command than the battlefield level and probably indicate that senior leadership is pushing for gains that troops are unprepared to achieve.” Thus, “Russia is offering the world lessons in how not to do it, say Western combat veterans.”
What if, however, the analysts are seeing the lessons from Ukraine incorrectly, through lenses refracted by their own biases and hubris? What if the key variable is not the professionalism of the Russian military, but the nature of this war?
As we shall see, U.S. and Russian doctrines are similar for a river crossing operation and many other types of tactical and operational maneuvers. If Russia’s failure is attributable to personnel failures, then the war does not challenge current U.S. warfighting concepts and capabilities — if they are wielded by professionals. If the problem is not personnel, then U.S. approaches could be invalidated. Hence, the question: Would U.S forces do better in a war like Ukraine?
Learning to “Whelm”
This wagging of fingers at the bumbling Russian military is new. Many, if not most, military analysts thought the war in Ukraine would end quickly with a Russian fait accompli. The Red Army is in town — resistance is futile!
Many of these assessments were based on wargames involving the Baltic countries — the vulnerable eastern flank of NATO. They showed that the Russians would be in Tallinn, Estonia, and Riga, Latvia within 60 hours. This is where it was believed the Russians posed the most significant security challenge, and the games sought to understand which increases in NATO force posture would provide deterrence.
Given the geography and modest troop presence in the Baltic States, these findings were plausible. The distance from the Russian border to Riga is only about 130 miles, and the three Baltic States are essentially a rather narrow strip with Russia and Belarus directly on their borders. Additionally, the Russians have a militarized enclave in Kaliningrad, astride the Suwalki Gap, that controls land access from Poland into the Baltics. Furthermore, NATO forces in these countries, at the levels employed in the wargames, would be significantly outnumbered and outgunned by any Russian invasion.
The invasion of Ukraine is obviously not going as expected by the Western analytical community, much less by the Russians. One should not, however, forget that Ukraine is not the Baltics. Ukraine has strategic depth and substantial military forces, who have been reorganizing and training under NATO supervision since the 2014 Russian invasion. They are also receiving massive and largely unimpeded materiel support from the West.
Nevertheless, Western military analysts have now gone from being overwhelmed by Russian military power to being underwhelmed by their performance in Ukraine. Perhaps it is time to take a deep breath and simply “whelm.”
Why Has Russia Been Stymied?
Much of the analysis now is focused on identifying the causes for the surprising Russian failures, seeking to lay blame for why the Russians cannot effectively employ their sophisticated kit. The answer apparently lies in a crucial difference: The Russians are not like us.
A recent assessment by West Point’s Modern War Institute is emblematic of what is now a broad consensus view that logistical failures and the inability to conduct effective combined arms are the Achilles Heels of the Russian military. This is partly due to a lack of training and combat experience. More fundamentally, it is because their soldiers are poorly led and do not have the noncommissioned officer corps and mission command empowerment of subordinate leaders prevalent in U.S. and other Western militaries. Thus, the Ukrainian edge is that it “has been attempting to model its military on NATO and US standards, including building up its own NCO corps through engagement in programs like NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme.”
Consequently, in the words of one analysis,
the Russian military many believed to be the second strongest in the world has serious limitations. It has proven to be a facade of gleaming new tanks and planes concealing all of the performance and command problems noted above, until they had to fight.
In short, Russia has a “Potemkin Army.”
What If the Diagnosis Is Wrong?
It is hard to argue with the symptoms of Russian performance, but what if the diagnosis is wrong? What if Western militaries share a similar malady, but are failing to see it because of superficial assessments of the Russians?
In this regard, the river crossing case is particularly instructive. All of the commentators in the Wall Street Journal article emphasize the difficulty of these operations. Retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Peter DeLuca’s comments are representative: “All combat should be a highly orchestrated ballet of kinetic violence, humans, vehicles and aircraft … and a river crossing is one of the most complicated maneuvers.” Consequently, he continues, “it all has to be coordinated to be effective, and we haven’t seen the Russians do that at all in Ukraine.” A British commando engineer, Tony Spamer, also weighed in, basing his comments on his experiences in Afghanistan. “We’d have never rolled up to a site and tried to give it a go.” Instead, he explained that “his units would conduct up to seven slow-speed rehearsals at their base and then practice at speed, each time shaving minutes off the dangerous operations before deploying for action.”
The military professionals cited in the article go into detail about how they would have done this operation differently: elaborate reconnaissance, securing the far side of the river first, deception using multiple false crossing sites, using smoke to obscure the operation, etc. These are all sound doctrinal principles for a river crossing. Ironically, the article notes that this is also Russian doctrine: “Russian troops involved appear to have ignored their own military doctrine and combat manuals, launching a hasty attempt at a maneuver that requires careful planning, extensive resources and strict oversight.” The likely reason for the Russian disaster on the Siverskyi Donets River: “senior leadership is pushing for gains that troops are unprepared to achieve.”
The Russians have, however, conducted several successful river crossings of the Siverskyi Donets River to position forces for offensive operations against Izyum. These crossings enabled the Russians to posture forces for offensive operations in the region south of the river.
These crossings, as well as other successful Russian operations, receive scant media attention. Nor do Ukrainian failures figure prominently in reporting from the war. This is likely the result of a sophisticated all-media Ukrainian information campaign, reinforced by positive stories from journalists whose access is carefully managed by the Ukrainian government. This control of information is reinforced by their military’s excellent operational security. Indeed, it was the Ukrainian government that distributed the video of the botched Siverskyi Donets River crossing.
The failed river crossing is portrayed as yet more evidence that the lackluster Russian performance to date in Ukraine is a failure of leadership, compounded by inadequately trained, inexperienced soldiers with steadily declining morale.
This is to be expected from the Ukrainians who are, after all, engaged in a possibly existential conflict in which international media narratives play a key role in securing support. However, those who are captivated by stories of Russian failures should think carefully about why that is, perhaps because they validate their personal competence and that of their country’s military.
A Comforting Diagnosis for the Wrong Ailment
What is comforting about blaming the Russian failures on their practice, rather than their doctrine, is that it relieves Western militaries of any requirement to thoroughly examine their own doctrine. This is important because, as the various articles note, the doctrine for a river crossing operation is similar across militaries.
River crossing doctrine is based largely upon hard-earned lessons from World War II in Europe, when all armies faced the challenge of crossing rivers and other obstacles to maneuver. Indeed, an opposed river crossing was one of the most difficult to execute operations. Perhaps the most infamous example is the January 1944 attempt to cross the Rapido River during the Italian campaign. That operation failed in the face of determined German opposition and resulted in high American casualties. There were also successful examples, most notably the March 22, 1945, night crossing by boat of the Rhine River at Nierstein by the 5th Infantry Division, part of Gen. George Patton’s Third Army — “the first crossing of the Rhine River by boat by an invading army since Napoleon Bonaparte.” A more famous example was the earlier capture of the Ludendorf bridge over the Rhine at Remagen on March 7, 1945.
World War II was the last time the U.S. Army or the Russian Army actually crossed a river against a competent, well-armed adversary. Operations in Afghanistan were generally discretionary, and river crossings, while complex, faced little opposition there. Nor were they a critical component of an operation’s success, whereas in World War II they were, and in Ukraine they are. Hence, the Russian sense of urgency.
What Is the Ailment?
The river-crossing story highlights the real ailment afflicting both the Russians and their Western observers: chronic inexperience in offensive combat against a competent adversary that is able, in today’s description, to contest all domains in a protracted war that generates high numbers of casualties. Neither Russia nor the West has had operational or combat experiences relevant to the war in Ukraine in over a generation, if not actually since World War II.
By operational experience I mean practice in deploying, maneuvering, and supporting large, multi-echelon formations in joint operations against a competent, well-armed enemy who is determined to fight and capable of doing so. Both militaries have veteran leaders with years of combat experience. Russia has been busy with its military since the 1990s in Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, and Syria, and in other countries with its Wagner Group military contractors. The United States and many of its NATO allies are veterans of Afghanistan, and the U.S. and British militaries saw extensive service in Iraq. However, Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom, the last large-scale U.S. combat operations, were against opponents who were vastly overmatched and occurred in an environment where the United States enjoyed air supremacy and total sea control.
The Ukrainian challenge is different than that facing the Russians. The Ukrainians are defending, and they have had deep experience in this type of operation in the Donbas region since the invasion in 2014. Whether or not they can take the offensive at any scale in the future remains to be seen.
The Russo-Ukrainian War, as of May 24, is only three months old, which is short by the standards of any major war. One could usefully recall that it took from July 7 to September 26 in 1941 for the German assault on the Soviet Union in Operation Barbarossa to reach and take Kyiv. The current war appears to be evolving into a protracted war of attrition. Therefore, the Russian strategy of limited maneuver and a heavy reliance on fires may yet be sound. They seem to be learning, as Russia analyst Michael Kofman pointed out in a recent War on the Rocks podcast. This protraction of major combat operations is also beyond the experience of serving Western officers.
At the beginning of the war, Russia’s active-duty personnel and major weapons systems allocated to the invasion significantly outnumbered that of Ukraine almost two-to-one. Accurate casualty and materiel loss data is difficult to obtain, particularly from Ukraine, where the data is understandably considered a national secret. Nevertheless, if the numbers being reported by each combatant are in the ballpark, then these running estimates show both sides are suffering significant levels of attrition, most importantly in personnel.
If this is true, then Ukraine is potentially in serious trouble if the war continues much longer. Carl von Clausewitz’s observation is as true now as it was in the 19th century: “It is of course in the nature of things that, apart from the relative strength of the two armies, a smaller force will be exhausted sooner than a larger one; it cannot run so long a course, and therefore the radius of its theater of operations is bound to be restricted.” It remains to be seen whether Russia, with its untapped, but largely untrained, manpower can maintain usable forces in the field longer than Ukraine, which is also mobilizing its reserves and volunteers.
Western militaries are also conditioned by what Jeffrey Record calls “casualty phobia.” He traces this phenomenon to the Vietnam War, but notes that its modern implications were manifested in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo. His thesis is that U.S. policymakers and senior military officers believe that the “use of force in situations of optional intervention should be prepared to sacrifice even operational effectiveness for the sake of casualty avoidance” and that in the war against Serbia, “force protection was accorded priority over mission accomplishment.” To support this conclusion, Record cites then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Hugh Shelton to support this conclusion: “The paramount lesson learned from Operation Allied Force is that the well-being of our people must remain our first priority.”
Consequently, Western militaries have focused heavily on force protection. This was possible because of the discretionary nature of most operations—the types of operations most serving military members have experienced almost exclusively during their careers. There also is an ever-present concern behind most operational decisions that the perceived public aversion to casualties could unhinge policy. This is not to say that the irregular wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not brutal and deadly. They certainly were at the soldier, squad, platoon, and company levels. That said, operations rarely involved the employment of battalion or larger formations in combined arms operations.
In over 20 years of war in Afghanistan, not a single platoon position was lost in combat. Casualty levels were extraordinarily low by even Vietnam War standards and medical attention was prompt and comprehensive. Finally, combat was deadly only at the ground level; aircraft largely operated with impunity outside the range of limited adversary air defenses. Aviation losses were in low-altitude operations and almost exclusively helicopters.
The war in Ukraine has starkly demonstrated the high human costs of large-scale, high-intensity warfare. Russian casualties at the Siverskyi Donets River and in other battles show that these are wars where company, battalion, and even larger formations can be annihilated in the blink of an eye, resulting in large numbers of soldiers killed in action and wounded, as well as significant materiel losses.
Consequently, in Ukraine, we are seeing the return of the imperative for force preservation, rather than force protection. This is currently beyond the consciousness of Western militaries and current combat casualty care capacity.
Changing the mindset from “force protection” to “force preservation” borders on heresy in current Western military culture. In Ukraine, Russia is learning the necessity of force preservation the hard way — in the unforgiving crucible of combat. A reasonable question is whether or not Western governments have prepared themselves, much less their citizens, for a conflict that could result in thousands of deaths and many more casualties in just a few weeks. Would this butcher’s bill awaken the passion of the people described in Carl von Clausewitz’s On War trinity, even in countries with volunteer militaries? Could this level of casualties challenge, if not unhinge, policy?
The fact that the Russians are reconstituting units from fresh troops and remnants of units decimated in combat is the reality of protracted, high-intensity combat. Our own history from World War II shows the potential cost of peer warfare. The 1st Infantry Division, in 443 days of total combat in North Africa, Sicily, and Europe, suffered 20,659 casualties. This figure is greater than the authorized strength of 15,000 for a World War II U.S. infantry division.
Importantly, these levels of casualties in the Ukraine war also call into question the ability of Western armies to maintain adequate fighting strength in other than short wars with modest casualties. Much is being made of the Russians relying on hastily mobilized reserves to replace losses. Ironically, as has been demonstrated since the Napoleonic Wars, the levée en masse is a requirement for protracted state warfare at this level. The Russians and Ukrainians both have systems in place to conscript their citizens; the practice has been abandoned, along with its supporting infrastructure, in most Western countries. Perhaps this is a case of prudent preparation, rather than an act of desperation?
This War Is the Same, but Different
While many aspects of the Ukraine war echo past major wars, such as World War II and, to a lesser degree, the Korean War, there are several new dimensions. One in particular, likely explains the Siverskyi Donets River crossing debacle: ubiquitous surveillance of the battlefield. The Ukrainians reported that they had discovered the Russian crossing operation via aerial reconnaissance. The potential sources of this information are much more diverse and numerous now than in even the most recent conflicts. They include a wide variety of drones, commercially available satellite imagery, intelligence from Western sources, and other means.
This new reality essentially means that there is nowhere for a relatively large formation to hide. Surprise, particularly at a limited number of potential crossing points on a river, may not be possible. Thus, these types of physical deception operations may also be pointless. Finally, given the sophistication of many sensors, smoke screens may be less useful than in the past.
This new reality renders those criticizing the Russians not only wrong but dangerous. They are clinging to a doctrine that may be completely outdated in the current operational environment. That they persist in the view that Russian incompetence is mostly due to untrained and poorly motivated soldiers, led by corrupt and incompetent leaders, gives them a comfortable answer that does not invalidate their expertise or current practices.
Why Is This Dangerous?
Understandably, military experts see the war through the lens of their own experiences: their wars. Because the war in Ukraine is beyond their direct experience, many American observers rely on analogies with what they know, such as Operation Desert Storm or the initial phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their views are rightly sought out, given the paucity of knowledge about military operations among most civilian policymakers and the broader populace. Thus, their view that the Russian failure is in execution, not doctrine, prevails.
These experts also offer comforting conclusions: The good guys, who look like us, are beating the bad guys, with our help. It is a righteous war. We would do just fine. These are also dangerous conclusions, from two perspectives.
First, they validate current U.S. approaches without looking beyond first-order explanations for Russian inadequacies to learn from them. In the parlance of how the U.S. military parses things — doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, people, facilities, and policy — the Russian military is similar in most of these areas to the U.S. military with two glaring exceptions — their obvious deficiencies in leadership and people. This shows the validity of our doctrine, organizations, training, and materiel — both on hand and being developed for competition and potential conflict with China and Russia. There’s no need to look behind these doors if the real problem is people and leaders.
It may be true that the Russians do not have a professional all-volunteer military, a strong noncommissioned officer corps, or mission command-oriented leaders who take the initiative. Whether this last point is actually true in the U.S. military — given evidence of risk aversion in Afghanistan and Iraq — it is strongly believed to be so within the institution. There are, however, doubters. In the words of then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley: “I think we’re overly centralized, overly bureaucratic, and overly risk averse, which is the opposite of what we’re going to need in any type of warfare.”
The U.S. Army in the 1970s and 1980s looked to the World War II Wehrmacht for lessons about how to fight the Soviets outnumbered and win. After all, the Germans had actually fought the Red Army. Former Nazi officers, such as Gen. Hermann Balck and Gen. Friedrich von Mellenthin, explained their system and its importance during conferences and meetings with U.S. officers and officials. Americanized versions of German professional military education practices, officer professionalism, and encouraging subordinate initiative through Auftragstactik, which became U.S. mission command, were adopted in the U.S. Army as best practices. But we should well remember that the same type of Red Army destroyed the vaunted Nazi Wehrmacht during World War II in a long, grinding war of attrition supposedly suffered from the similar centralized leadership and hastily trained soldier maladies as today.
Furthermore, a revisionist history, not unlike that of the Lost Cause narrative about the Confederate defeat in the U.S. Civil War, was peddled by the Germans. Robert Cittino wrote that they
described the Soviet army as a faceless and mindless horde, with the officers terrorizing their men into obedience and dictator Josef Stalin terrorizing the officers. It had no finesse. Its idea of the military art was to smash everything in its path through numbers, brute force, and sheer size.
Thus, just like the Union Army, “‘quantity had triumphed over quality.’ The better army lost, in other words, and the elite force vanished beneath the superior numbers of the herd.”
These perceptions shaped U.S. views about Russian forces during the Cold War and, despite being disproven in the 1990s, are echoed in assessments today. As retired Army colonel and diplomat Joel Rayburn said in an interview with the New Yorker, “A bad army was ordered to do something stupid.” While officers are now promoted based on patronage, this is not all that dissimilar from the requirement for political reliability in the Russian military in World War II. What should have been considered then and now is why the German forces were crushed by such an inferior adversary? Perhaps enough people, materiel, and an indomitable will to fight despite privations and setbacks are exactly what are really necessary to endure and win in peer warfare. Ironically, these are the traits exhibited by the U.S. military itself in World War II as it did its part to defeat the Axis powers. These are also the Russian traits that Tolstoy wrote about, that bested one of the most celebrated armies in history: Napoleon’s Grande Armée. They may explain the continued support of the Russian people for the war, despite Western disbelief, that Putin has framed as a war by the West against Mother Russia, and has labeled Ukrainians as “Nazis” to further evoke the Great Patriotic War.
This leads to the second danger: hubris. The unspoken implication of the Western analysis is that we would do better than the Russians because we are better than them.
The words of Gen. James McConville, when he assumed office as Army Chief of Staff in August 2019, are not just talking points, they are deeply believed within the U.S. Army and by the other services about themselves: “Our Army — Regular, National Guard, and Reserve — is the best-trained, best-equipped, and best-led land force ever to take to the field.” McConville also gave the principal reason for why this is true: “People are always my #1 priority: Our Army’s people are our greatest strength and our most important weapon system.” Given these deeply held convictions, it is not surprising that militaries that do not share U.S. approaches would fall short on the battlefield.
These views are dangerous in Western assessments of the Ukrainian military. Currently, the prevailing narrative is that the Ukrainian edge is that they have evolved into a modern Western military, trained for over a decade in Western methods. They are professionals. Therefore, they will prevail. Just as we would. Again, nothing to learn here.
However, the actual evidence is unclear; the assessments of the prowess of Ukraine’s military may be wishful thinking and hubris. The title of a Wall Street Journal article epitomizes this view, saying it all came down to “years of NATO training.”
One should recall that Western initiatives to reform the Ukrainian military did not even begin until after the 2014 Russian invasion. Although they have progressed, many of the senior officers were raised in the Soviet system. When I visited the National Defense University in Kyiv in 1996 on an exchange visit as the director of academic affairs at our National University, all of the senior leaders were former Soviet officers. Some were also Russian citizens who chose to stay in Ukraine because there was nothing in Russia to go home to after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Consequently, a deeply entrenched Soviet-style bureaucracy and training model permeated the Ukrainian military. Thus, their rehabilitation is fundamentally a bottom-to-top institution rebuilding and culture-changing endeavor that will take time. In particular, initiatives to create a merit-based and proficient officer and noncommissioned officer corps are decades-long efforts that are just taking root at the lower- and mid-levels of the Ukrainian military. Consequently, many of the tactics above the small unit look more Russian than American, as does most of the equipment.
An indication that there is some way to go beyond the NATO training is that there is little evidence that the Ukrainians are executing joint and combined arms offensive operations. This capability will be important if the transition from the defense and attempt offensive operations to restore territory lost to Russia. Furthermore, Ukraine also appears to be ceding ground in the Donbas to a slow, grinding Russian advance.
Consequently, the analysis of the Ukraine war needs to address another unasked question: What if this view that quality people and leaders are the most important ingredient in modern warfare is wrong? What if Stalin was correct that quantity has a quality all of its own? If that is the case, then the Ukrainians may need much greater assistance if they are to survive a Russian-style grinding war of attrition.
Additionally, as the United States plans for how it will compete and potentially fight China and Russia in the future, the approach should be characterized by humility and an intense desire to challenge existing assumptions, concepts, and capabilities, rather than to validate current approaches.
As it did for Russia, it could happen to us, and we need to fully understand what “it” is.
David E. Johnson, Ph.D., is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. From 2012 to 2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for Gen. Raymond T. Odierno.
Image: Ukrainian Airborne Command via ArmyInform