Mud And Thunder
Did pre-war analysis overrate the Russian armed forces?
Weeks into their illegal incursion into Ukraine, the war effort can fairly be said to be severely disappointing for Russian forces. It is an exaggeration to say it is a total military disaster for Russia, and you should not take seriously those analysts who advance this view — but it very clearly has not gone the way that Russia anticipated, and their struggles have been surprising in light of their previous successes in wars of expansion under Vladimir Putin. Why is this the case?
On Tuesday I brought you the transcript of an extensive interview with Anatol Lieven on the domestic backlash being felt within Russia. Today’s Transom features analysis from Chuck DeVore, who, prior to a career in politics and his current role as Vice President of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and worked as an intelligence officer looking at exactly these kind of westward Russian incursions during the latter days of the Cold War. He maintains pre-war analysis undervalued three important factors: weather, terrain, and morale.
What We Ignored About Russia’s Ukraine War: Weather, Terrain, and Morale
Every American has a right to express an opinion on any matter—one does not have to be a veteran to have a view on taking steps that might make the nation more likely to go to war any more than one must be capable of becoming pregnant to comment on abortion laws.
That said, not all analysis is created equal. In my own case, I rarely if ever offer opinions about the outcomes of sporting events. I played basketball and football in high school but don’t follow college or professional sports. It doesn’t interest me.
Regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine, some analysts have academic training or practical experience in international relations, and some are veterans. Even within the veteran community, there’s a big difference between someone who served as, say, a naval officer or a pilot compared to someone who was trained as an infantry or intelligence officer. In my case, I am the latter, having retired in 2007 as a lieutenant colonel.
On February 12, twelve days before Russia invaded Ukraine, I tweeted the following:
I don’t recall much, if any, mention in the pundit class about the significant effect the mud season would have on Russian mechanized operations—it’s so much easier to focus on numbers as in, “The Russians have 2,800 tanks and the Ukrainians have 200, therefore the Russians will win.”
But if tanks are road-bound due to mud and they’re employed inexpertly and met with a determined enemy, then numbers matter less than other factors. On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, I tweeted this, while the majority of professional analysts were predicting a swift, decisive Russian victory:
Now that the conflict in Ukraine is three weeks old, Russian offensive momentum has been checked and Russia is attempting to resupply and rebuild their forces.
In the meantime, Ukraine has mobilized its reserves and has been training many more citizens called up in a general mobilization. Many of these forces would, by U.S. standards, be lightly equipped infantry. So, how can such a force be effective against the heavily armed Russian force consisting of tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery?
The answer is simple, really — use terrain.
Back in 1991, after serving a few months as the All-Source Intelligence Center chief for the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin—the Opposing Forces—during Desert Storm/Shield, I was published in the OPFOR’s professional quarterly, the Red Thrust Star.
My piece was about how a:
“Mixed force of light infantry and armor operating on rough terrain can defeat a mechanized and armored force of similar size by attacking the enemy in a piecemeal fashion. Dismounted infantry can maneuver… with little fear of being engaged by their road-bound enemy.”
I concluded the essay by suggesting:
“Bypassing their heavy opponents, infantry may attack soft targets like supply convoys, command posts, support areas, and artillery batteries… More importantly, infantry attacks on supply convoys and soft targets force the opposing commander to use his combat units to patrol the main supply route and protect vital assets… …because the enemy’s forces are spread out trying to counter the infantry threat… …the enemy can be defeated in detail.”
The Ukrainians are likely doing this to Russian forces northwest of Kyiv—the decisive area of operations in this campaign—where the terrain is very marshy and forested, limiting the mobility and effectiveness of combat vehicles.
A Ukrainian victory here would virtually end the threat of Kyiv ever falling to Russian forces while also freeing up significant Ukrainian forces for counteroffensives elsewhere.
If so, look for Russian peace negotiations to get more earnest in the coming days while Russian assaults on the encircled coastal city of Mariupol will become more desperate and intense. Lastly, Russian President Vladimir Putin may be tempted to use chemical weapons to achieve a battlefield victory elsewhere.