Anyone who has been following the news lately has not been immune from hearing about the Russo-Ukrainian War, which although having begun in 2014, after the Ukrainian Revolution and the seizure of Crimea, escalated rapidly in 2022, with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. In 2021, Russia began a large military build-up along its border with Ukraine, amassing up to 190,000 troops and their equipment. On 21 February 2022, Russia recognized the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic, two self-proclaimed breakaway quasi-states in the Donbas. The next day, the Federation Council of Russia authorized the use of military force, and Russian troops promptly advanced into both territories.
Now the reasons for the war, aren’t going to be discussed. There were Western provocations and there were some insane theories only justified in Putin’s head. That’s not the point of this article. Anyone who has ever read anything about strategy, has definitely come across the great classic – The Art of War, written by Sun Tzu, an ancient Chinese military strategist whose comments on war and strategy still resonate strongly in the modern era. Sun Tzu was one of history’s finest military tacticians and analysts and his teachings and strategies formed the basis of advanced military training for millennia to come. The book is divided into 13 Chapters – obviously it is too extensive to discuss in detail. However, what I am trying to do, is assess the Russian war strategy in Ukraine against the principles espoused by Sun Tzu and assess why it is a war characterized by massive blunders.
I am going to look at some of Sun Tzu’s most apt statements regarding the conduct of warfare and see if the Russian Armed Forces paid heed to these or not.
“Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you move fall like a thunderbolt.”
A major mistake made was that Putin informed Ukraine where his forces would attack and even mobilized in a slow and cumbersome manner. There was no great deception or disguised plans – anyone and everyone knew what would be coming. This was a major error, as it allowed Ukraine to prepare traps and to build up resistance. It also allowed Ukraine’s allies in the EU and the US, to prepare a vast array of sanctions to wage economic war against Russia. This ensured that the war if not won quickly would be a massive drain on Russian resources.
“The worst strategy of all is to besiege walled cities.”
Let’s redefine as having to conduct siege warfare against any city. In a city, in close urban combat, defenders have an advantage that few can last out against many. You need numerical superiority to overcome a city’s defenses – mobile warfare doesn’t work. Had Russians read the history of their own defenses against Nazi Germany in Stalingrad, they would have by-passed such cities to destroy Ukraine’s military forces. Instead they attacked Kiev, Kharkiv and Mariupol, the last of which resulted in the defenders holding up in the Azovstal Steel Works. Kiev and Kharkiv were massive failures. Urban combat in modern days is a meat grinder – tanks and armored vehicles are of not much use in closed settings where a single soldier with AT weapons could carry out a deadly ambush and choke major roads and lanes. Artillery turns buildings into rubble but it also means, more hiding places for the defenders. If your army is set up for short wars (like the Russian Army), it needs to take out military targets and by-pass cities. Once supply lines are closed off and the threat of reinforcements eliminated, a city can fall.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
The entire war was fought on assumptions instead of cold hard facts. No one in Putin’s inner circle, carried out a simple analysis – what are Russia’s actual strengths? Will Ukrainians defend their country aggressively? Have the Ukrainians upgraded their defensive capabilities since 2014 when Crimea fell? Is the Russian Army prepared for an offensive on multiple fronts? Are the logistics set up to endure economic sanctions and a long grinding war?
From the goal of the war to his own army’s strengths and weaknesses, Putin and his cronies got it all wrong. After the Covid pandemic, there was little enthusiasm for war even in Russia – especially against Ukraine who most Russians have close ties with (which were destroyed as the war progressed). What was the objective? To eliminate Nazis? An army cannot accomplish such a vague objective? There was no endgame – we liberate Donetsk and Luhansk and then we stop or we take Kiev and then we negotiate – no. Just vague aims and grandiose goals of rebuilding the Soviet Union without their old power. Just like Hitler’s Nazi Germany got it wrong when they invaded the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia underestimated Ukraine’s resolve to defend their motherland.
What is apparent in Ukraine – on both sides – is not just an ability to continue to resist, but an astonishing ability to persist. In what has become a grinding war of attrition with high numbers of casualties on both sides, neither combatant appears ready to throw in the towel. But in this scenario, as an aggressor, for Russia this achieves nothing.
“Military tactics are like water. For water, in its natural course, runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So, in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and strike at what is weak.”
Again, like I mentioned earlier about avoiding cities – here the Russian military commanders made several mistakes. Attacking a well-defended city like Kiev was a massive mistake and that too with few parachute regiments. Artillery is a supporting arm – however, for the Russian Army, everything supports their artillery. Artillery is excellent at pounding strongholds or suppressing enemies – as a primary arm, it also destroys what you seek to capture. Cities and villages made into rubble turned every corner into an ambush zone for Russian armor.
Warfare needs to be flexible to maintain the initiative – the Russian Army has showed itself to be highly inflexible in terms of how it conducts the warfare. Firstly instead of full mobilization right from the beginning, where it would have had 6 months to prepare the next lot of conscripts, it classified a full-scale invasion as a “special military operation” thus, meaning reserves could not be tapped or trained well. Second, it bombed cities and random targets without destroying the enemy’s ability to strike back – which means expensive munitions were wasted against targets of no strategic importance. It resembled Hitler’s V1 and V2 rocket attacks on London – of no military consequence whatsoever.
“There are five essentials for victory: He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight. He will win who knows how to handle both superior and inferior forces. He will win who’s army is animated by the same spirit throughout all it’s ranks. He will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared. He will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.”
So let’s take on this dictum, one at a time. Putin did not assess his own army and country’s mood for war when he decided to move forward. He did not take Ukrainian will to resist, their army being supplied with advanced weapons and the response of the EU and the US to his invasion. Thus, had he been a good strategist, he would not have attacked Ukraine at a time when not only was his enemy ready for him but also his own country and army were unprepared for the difficulties of war. Next, Putin took on the gamble because on paper, the Russian Army seems to be a juggernaut surpassing Ukraine’s reserves in tanks, planes and artillery. However, most of the equipment was Soviet-era and unfit for active combat. Plus, there were not enough trained personnel to man the equipment they had. Destroyed tanks can be replaced but trained crew-men cannot easily be replaced.
Next we talk about the spirit of the army – the Russian army didn’t really know what they came to Ukraine for. If they were liberators, why did the Ukrainians resist so fiercely? If they came to kill Nazis, then where were they and how to eliminate them? On the opposing side, the Ukrainian army was filled with the spirit of resistance and defending their motherland – one simple goal – to resist and fight back invaders. Thus, on the third point, Russia failed too. Then, we talk about being prepared and waiting to take the enemy unprepared – here too, as mentioned earlier, Putin did not try to utilize an element of surprise. He caught only his own army unprepared asking them to wage a war on a broad front against the second largest country in Europe after Russia itself. Plus, having warned Ukraine for almost a year and then a slow and chaotic mobilization on Ukraine’s borders, made sure that the Ukrainians would not be caught unprepared.
Last, they would win who has military capacity and are not interfered with by the sovereign. Though Russia had the military capacity on paper, the capacity that could be brought to bear quickly was small and was not taken into consideration. Plus, an army with conscripts, mercenaries and proxy soldiers is not an army with strict discipline and control. Also, untrained soldiers means NCOs cannot take on day-to-day decisions and senior commanders are needed for even minor decisions thus, the high casualty rates among Russian generals which is usually unheard of in modern combat. In terms of interference, Putin made similar mistakes like Hitler and continued to micro-manage military strategy while having no clue about the same – being a spy and being a general are not the same.
“There is no instance of a country having benefitted from prolonged warfare.”
Modern warfare is expensive. Each bomb and missile thrown at the enemy needs to have a ROI (return on investment) associated with it. Add to that economic sanctions resulting in your economy not being set up to support prolonged war. Though oil and gas are plenty in Russia, it lacks the industrial capacity for high-tech missile components and microchips which are the bread and butter of modern weapons. The modern army is efficient and needs to move fast and accomplish its goals quickly otherwise the burden of supplying it becomes an enormous expense. With the invasion having gone on for more than six months, the war has no real end in sight and huge quantities of ammunition and equipment have been used up and reserves are not up to the mark.
For example, the Russian military relies on artillery to destroy enemy formations: Russia’s fondness for the “god of war” dates back several centuries and Russian tactics still emphasize artillery as a decisive instrument for destroying enemy formations, while maneuver units handle mopping up the survivors. While self-propelled artillery vehicles can accompany troops on offensive maneuvers, in general the Russian military now seeks to keep the enemy at arm’s length from its frontline positions so that the artillery can blast enemy troops without hitting friendly forces.
Moscow has long been wielding more and bigger guns as a means to compensate for its forces’ qualitatively inferior training. Whereas Western militaries increasingly use artillery to launch precision strikes against enemy positions, the Russian army still values large-scale area bombardments with overwhelming volumes of firepower. However, a weakness of Russian artillery is its centralized command-and-control structure, which makes it difficult for frontline troops to request fire missions. This results in an enormous wastage of shells against a broad area and cannot be utilized to aid swift movements.
Vladimir Putin’s use of inaccurate data often undermines his decisions. Putin’s wishful thinking about the power of the Russian military is reflected in his apparent expectation that it could conquer Ukraine with only 150,000 military personnel. This is significantly less than the 250,000 soldiers in the Ukrainian armed forces and far off the ratio of offensive to defence forces traditionally needed for a successful campaign – 3:1. Putin seems to have decided to launch the invasion based on the expectation that Ukrainian citizens would surrender without a fight and their political leaders would run away. Clearly, the data he drew on was deeply flawed.
At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russian military entered Ukraine in marching columns rather than combat formations. The Russians’ assumption that they would not face resistance caused them to suffer huge losses in the first few days of the war, forcing them to withdraw from the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions. The inadequate training and incompetence of Russian military personnel – combined with the strict hierarchies in which they operated, which left officers incapable of acting on their own initiative – meant that they were unable to quickly coordinate advances deep into enemy territory. The Russian military responded to these failures by reverting to tactics based on artillery barrage fire: it launched massive artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions that lasted several hours, clearing the way for offensives involving infantry and armoured vehicles. The Russians mainly used this tactic – which resulted in more territorial gains than any other approach – in eastern Ukraine, where they concentrated more than half their forces.
But the situation changed after the US provided Ukraine with M142 HIMARS – mobile multiple rocket launchers that the Ukrainian armed forces used to destroy more than 50 Russian ammunition stores in just a few weeks. This severely inhibited the delivery of ammunition to Russia’s artillery units, thereby reducing the intensity of the shelling in several areas and slowing the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. Logistics are also a traditional weak link in the Russian army. The Russian military’s logistics were so poorly organized that many units simply could not reach their destinations. There are many causes of such disorganization – Ukrainian forces’ operations to disrupt Russian logistics, corruption and negligence in the Russian army, the indolence of Russian generals, and so on.
The Pentagon estimates that up to 80,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed or wounded in the war. Now, this could be an exaggeration especially as most of the information comes from gung-ho Ukrainian estimates. However, even if not 80,000, the death toll has been high. Russia has also sacrificed a colossal amount of equipment, including more than 1,700 tanks (equivalent to 65 per cent of its pre-war inventory); 4,000 armoured vehicles; and 200 aircraft (which again, though exaggerations from Ukrainian sources, point towards high numbers). For example, in a single battle in Bilohorivka in May, Russia lost almost 1,000 soldiers and nearly 100 pieces of equipment while trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets River.
One of the main reasons why Russian forces have incurred huge losses is that the Kremlin prioritises political goals above military objectives – as one could see in Izium and Severodonetsk. The capture of Severodonetsk became a political goal simply because it was the last city with a large population in the Luhansk region. The Kremlin wanted to seize the city as proof that it controlled the entire region. However, the operation had limited strategic value and required the Russians to weaken their positions on other fronts.
Thus, as we see, the war is one, Sun Tzu would be ashamed of a strategist. Not only is it being fought for the wrong reasons, it is also being fought poorly. The only winner in this war is death and a good leader would forego his ego and try to bring the war to a swift conclusion. Sadly Putin has shown himself to be a poor strategist surrounded by sycophants. Non-adherence to Sun Tzu’s dictums has already predicted the loser of this conflict. It is now for time to decide, whether anything can be salvaged or not.