Russia digging in for a long war with the West

In attempting to deliver a knock-out blow to their enemies, Moscow underestimated Ukrainian resistance and resilience. But since then has Russia really 'downsized' the war?

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Ukrainian soldiers stand beside a damaged building in a residential area after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine on Friday, March 18, 2022, as Russian troops try to encircle the Ukrainian capital as part of their slow-moving offensive. Credit: UPI / Alamy Stock Photo.

The Russian military has a long tradition of thinking about and attempting to win wars quickly with the knock-out blow. Influenced by the Prussian wars of unification, Imperial Russian and then Soviet military thinkers sought to find ways to seize the initiative at the outset of a war and attempt to end it by using speed to paralyse the adversary’s decision-making and ability to organise coherent defence. The early defeat of the adversary’s armed forces in a decisive battle would oblige its leadership to seek peace before it could mobilise the state’s resources. The first Gulf War only emphasised such possibilities. Indeed, for some Russian theorists, the use by the US and its allies of conventional precision guided munitions (PGMs) coupled with informational warfare heralded a revolution in the development of conflict.

In this new so-called ‘Sixth Generation War’ (warfare in which one side manipulates their enemy’s perception of time and space, for example interfering in radar screens or satellite imagery to disguise an attack) ground forces would play a reduced role: the precision and lethality of PGMs (precision guided missiles) makes large groupings of soldiers vulnerable, and the missile’s longer range renders distinctions between ‘front’ and ‘rear’ obsolete. In combination with attempts to subvert the enemy population, PGMs could be used to strike infrastructure, military installations and any enemy forces, either to force the enemy to accept defeat, or to effect regime change. 

Such thinking was visible throughout the 2010s, as senior Russian officers, including Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov, repeatedly pointed to what they called ‘twenty-first-century Blitzkrieg’ and the Pentagon’s ‘Trojan Horse’ strategy. In 2019, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu stated, for instance, that in conflicts of a ‘new generation’ [novogo pokoleniya], military actions are ‘short and fast flowing and there is simply no time to correct mistakes’ — and so there was a need to rethink the core tenets of Russia’s military strategy. This is the context in which, nearly three years later, Moscow launched its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.

This opening assault on Kyiv failed. Expectations of a rapid victory with Russian armed forces being welcomed as ‘liberators’ — part of the political narrative – were quickly confounded, obliging Moscow to withdraw its troops after a month and refocus on more limited objectives in eastern Ukraine. A different kind of war has taken shape subsequently, characterised by limited and slow manoeuvre and heavy firepower in Donbas, with continued Russian strikes across Ukraine and a blockade in the Black Sea. The immediate human costs after four months are staggering, with many thousands killed and wounded and millions displaced, combined with the structural damage being wrought on the Ukrainian economy. Moscow may have ‘downscaled its war, but not the brutality’.

A general consensus has emerged among Euro-Atlantic observers that the failure of Russia’s blitzkrieg was due to a blend of hubris and wishful thinking, poor preparation and planning, poor logistics, and flawed command and control, leadership, and treatment of troops, as well as the fine performance of Ukrainian forces, aided by the West. In short — the Russian leadership seriously underestimated Ukrainian resistance and resilience and Russia’s military revealed many substantive shortcomings. Some Russian commentators have also questioned the military’s performance and the conduct of the operation.  

But important questions remain and, as the war continues, not only do they become more pressing, but more are emerging. The first is about who in Moscow underestimated the Ukrainian resistance, or rather, what was the Russian military’s assessment of likely Ukrainian resistance? Obviously, the overall decision was taken to attempt a lightning victory, combining a pre-prepared situation in Ukraine with a series of raids, like the ‘thunder runs’ during 2003’s Battle of Baghdad. Yet the sense of underestimation does not sit comfortably with the Russian military’s build-up of nearly 200,000 men — a substantial portion of Russia’s ground forces — largely surrounding Ukraine.

While the Russian General Staff’s thinking and planning for the operation remains a black box, before the war, respected and experienced Russian military thinkers, including retired senior officers, highlighted the significant difficulties that the Russian armed forces would face in an invasion: a strong Ukrainian air defence, improvements in the Ukrainian military, likely resistance, and the scale of Western support for Ukraine.  Even if we assume that such warnings were completely ignored by the serving military — which is questionable — there are many in the Russian military who will have been aware both of the risks of seeking the knock-out blow, and the rarity of its success in wars through history.

Indeed, there is another long tradition in Russian military thought — those who have advocated strategies of exhaustion or attrition. Gerasimov may have pointed to ‘twenty-first century Blitzkrieg,’ but he has also explicitly cited Georgi Isserson, who in the past pointed out the difficulty of crushing an enemy with one quick strike, and the need for conducting strategy through a series of operations; as well as Alexander Svechin, a proponent of the strategy of exhaustion. And though Shoigu pointed to the increased dynamism of military activity as the reason for rethinking military strategy in 2019, it was Svechin’s ghost that hung over the subsequent discussions, repeatedly cited by Gerasimov, and it is the ‘strategy of attrition’ that features in the Ministry of Defence’s definitions of strategy, again with reference to Svechin.

Svechin criticised the knock-out blow approach for limiting the concept of the offensive to only the military, when instead it should also be waged through political and economic means, which would require longer to take effect. This broader approach could have active military operations of limited goals, even though the strategic goals in the war might be wider. With what today looks like prescience, Svechin pointed to the difficulties of choosing between strategies for a future war — with the result that compromises were often made: the intention of a quick decisive strike while hedging, with preparation for a prolonged war of attrition. The character and duration of a war would be defined by its three parts — political, economic and military — and if the enemy was not riven by internal political conflicts, only a war of attrition could ensure victory.

This in turn leads to questions about the kind of war we are witnessing now, fought on a scale not seen in Europe for decades. Is this the emergence of a ‘new generation’ or some kind of ‘Sixth Generation +’ warfare — a combination of war in the information age with industrial war? The war is proving that quantity still has relevance, and massive consumption of equipment, vehicles and ammunition requires a large-scale industrial base for re-supply. The Russian offensive is consuming ammunition at rates that ‘massively exceed’ US forecasts and ammunition production.  What are the ramifications of this, not just for Ukraine, but also for NATO, and, in turn, how the alliance thinks about future war? What about the people in such a war – soldiers and civilians on both sides? What do stockpiles and production lines look like? In sum, what are the relative balances to be struck between quality and quantity in war?

Moreover, this prompts a question about whether Moscow is actually ‘downsizing’ the war. To be sure, the military focus is currently narrowed to eastern and southern Ukraine — and the advance is grinding. But the military invasion is only one part of the strategic picture. The fighting is taking place against both the background of the attempt to destroy the Ukrainian economy through bombardment and blockade, and also a concerted wider, even global diplomatic effort. Indeed, it is taking place in the context of what Moscow sees to be a broader and longer-term geo-economic struggle for control of access to commodities, transit routes, and markets, and how this will influence the international order. This view has been at the heart of Moscow’s strategic thinking and activity for a decade, with the assumption that competition would intensify through the 2020s, even leading the way. For some in Russia, therefore, what is happening in Ukraine is only the opening salvo in this wider competition.

The invasion of Ukraine is not the first time Moscow has used the Russian military badly, nor the first time they have had problems with logistics, nor suffered heavy casualties because of poor command and control. It is also unlikely to be the last. And the turn to a more attritional approach, as shown by the assault on Sievierodonetsk, has neither resolved many of the Russian military’s problems, nor yielded quite the successes some in Russia hoped for. Nevertheless, the Russian armed forces continue to advance, both absorbing losses and belying anticipations of logistical problems and ammunition shortage.

As Western leaders increasingly see the war becoming a long struggle, and reflect on the new European security situation and their future defence commitments, it is essential to check basic assumptions and examine both Moscow’s horizons and intentions and the lessons the Russians themselves are learning. The war in Ukraine poses a wider, long-term strategic challenge to the Euro-Atlantic community: it is the Great Power Competition made real, an event for which Moscow has long prepared.


Andrew Monaghan