Sometime in the distant future, when the Russian internal documents relating to the conduct of this war in Ukraine are made public, one of the great conundrums of our time may finally receive a definitive answer: why Russia has been prosecuting its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine with one hand tied behind its back, always holding back the vast destructive forces at its command, and so drawing out the operation and suffering losses of its soldiers in a way which a more cruel, ‘American style’ campaign would largely have avoided.
At the very start of the armed conflict, I remarked on the specifics of what I called ‘the Russian Way of War’ now being applied in Ukraine. This approach does not inflict death on huge numbers of civilians, does not count on a ‘shock and awe’ initial attack to demoralize and overrun the enemy. I said at the time that the overriding considerations on the Russian side were the traditional ‘brotherly’ relations between Ukrainians and Russians, who were extensively intermarried and had relations on both sides of the national frontiers. The intent of Vladimir Putin and his war collegiums was to do minimal damage to the Ukrainian people, to try to separate the ‘healthy’ elements in the Ukrainian military command from the rabid nationalist Azov and similar irregular forces that had become embedded in the army over the past eight years. If the two could be separated, the war could be won with absolute minimum expenditure of materiel and loss of life.
However, in the early weeks of the operation, after it had become manifestly clear that these were illusions, that Russia was facing a unified military force supported by widespread popular civilian backing, still there was no change visible in how Russia was operating on the ground. The only hint of change to come was the refocusing of available forces on the capture of Mariupol, to secure the whole Azov Sea littoral and the progressive redirection of the ground forces to the encirclement of the major part of the Ukrainian army that was entrenched just to the west of the line of demarcation with Donbas. In compensation, there was the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kiev and Chernigov, in the north.
There has been a lot of supposedly expert analysis of the war from British, American and other retired generals. Add to that the ignorant but voluble speculations of simple Western journalists, especially ladies, who have never held firearms of any kind let alone drawn up battle plans. All of these Western commentators begin with assumptions on how an invasion of Ukraine should be fought, assuming the war was unleashed by the USA or Britain. Any deviation by the Russian forces from the timetable or scope of such a Western style assault aimed, of course, at overthrowing the regime in Kiev and subjugating the entire country, is deemed to be a failure of morale or ability to coordinate air cover, artillery and other elements of the battle. Full stop. The conclusion they reach is that the Russian armed forces are far less ominous than we had feared, and we should not hesitate to expand NATO and push them back.
At the same time, no one, NO ONE, in the West has commented on a few obvious facts that place the Russian ‘military operation’ totally outside the traditions of invasions or other acts of aggression. The Russians’ choice of words to describe what they were about to do was anything but arbitrary. They had specific objectives of ‘demilitarization’ and ‘denazification,’ to which was added in the past couple of weeks, almost as an afterthought, to secure the Donbas from any further attacks by Ukrainian forces positioned on the other side of the line of demarcation. The importance of the last-named would not be obvious to Western readers, because the only war pictures put up on Western media are those showing suffering of residents of Mariupol or Khamatorsk. However, Russian television viewers are shown daily the consequences of Ukrainian missile and artillery barrages on the civilian population of Donetsk and surrounding villages, with a daily death toll and casualties requiring hospitalization. This is only the tail of a story of vicious attacks in violation of the Minsk Accords that goes back eight years and produced more than 14,000 civilian deaths, of which the West has chosen to be oblivious to this very day.
The appointment several days ago of General Dvornikov to head the next phase of the war, the full liberation of the Donbas and liquidation of the main concentration of the Ukrainian ground forces, received immediate comment in the Western media. Russian media are just beginning to catch up and publish their evaluation of what changes in the conduct of the war may result.
Dvornikov distinguished himself as commander of Russia’s very successful military operation in Syria. He was known for effective coordination of air and ground forces, something for which the first phase of the war did not seem impressive, whether because of incompetence, as Western analysts insisted, or because of avoidance of collateral damage and loss of civilian life within the constraints of a geography where the enemy troops were intermixed with residential housing, as the Russian narrative insisted. The new battlefield in Donbas would be far better suited to “technical” solutions of artillery and missile strikes.
However, the appointment of Dvornikov is only one sign that the Russian Way of War is being reconsidered at present in the highest levels of the Russian command. In part, this is so because of the ever more daring, or shall we say reckless American and NATO promises to supply heavy armaments to Kiev. The alarm bells rang in Moscow yesterday over statements by a Deputy Secretary of Defense in Washington that the next level of support to Kiev would include intermediate range missiles capable of striking at airfields within Russia.
The Russian response to that threat was immediate. General Konashenkov, the spokesman of the Russian military throughout the campaign, issued a special announcement that any attacks on Russian territory coming from Ukraine would result in Russia’s directing strikes at the decision-making instances in Kiev, which the Russian command had so far chosen not to do. This obviously means the Ministry of Defense, Zelensky’s presidential administration, perhaps the Rada, as well as their handmaidens including Ukrainian television towers would now be instantly destroyed. De facto regime change would be the direct consequence.
While the leaders of several European countries have in the last couple of days publicly discussed whether Russian actions in Ukraine constitute “genocide,” as Joe Biden blithely declared, no one seems to remark on the most glaring contradictions to any notion of Russia’s presently staging an all-out war in Ukraine.
Ursula van der Leyen, Boris Johnson and the prime ministers of Poland and several Baltic States calmly travel to Kiev, stroll down the boulevards of central Kiev together with Zelensky, as if no war existed. To be sure, they are surrounded by security escorts, but these are only of value should there be some violent passersby on their route. The possibility of a Russian missile attack seems not to cross anyone’s mind. In light of Konashenkov’s remarks, all that may change abruptly at any moment.
Finally, I am obliged to mention that not all military professionals in Russia have remained silent over how the ‘military operation’ is being conducted. Last week, reporting live from Mariupol and surveying the scene of utter destruction around him, Yevgeny Poddubny, the most experienced war correspondent of Russian state television, veteran of the Syrian war and other hotspots, quietly muttered, as if spontaneously: “in a military campaign you normally bring in forces six times the numbers of your opponent and here we were nearly matched in numbers.” Surely therer was nothing “offhanded” about that.
The point was repeated in yesterday’s edition of the semi-official newspaper Rossiiskaya Gazeta in an interview with Lieutenant General Leonid Reshetnikov, a retired officer of the foreign intelligence service. Reshetnikov said:
“When on the attack, military science tells you that you should have a minimum of three times the numbers of the defending side. But on the ground, according to available information, we are artacking from a minority position. We are achieving results that come very rarely in history, in Izyum, in Novaya Kakhovka and in other territories. This shows the mastery of our soldiers and command.” Yes, Reshetnikov has cast his remarks as a compliment, but the hidden criticism is there for anyone who cares to look closely.
From the beginning, I have directed attention to what Russian social, academic and political elites have to say about the ‘special military operation.’ One of my key markers has been the Evening with Vladimir Solovyov political talk show and yesterday’s edition provided a lot of food for thought.
First, with regard to sanctions, there was near unanimity among the panelists that it is time for Russia to respond directly and strongly to the full economic and hybrid war that the United States and Europe are now waging against their country. They call for an immediate cut-off of gas supplies to Europe, to an embargo on export of titanium and other essential raw materials for advanced industrial production in the West. One alternative to these cruel and devastating moves against Europe would be to try it all out first on Japan, which has been a fervent enforcer of the trade war on Russia and even in the past few days publicly came out in support of the Azov ultranationalists, by removing them from the list of global terrorists. Russia should impose a total commercial embargo on Japan, beginning with hydrocarbons and extending into all spheres, such as fishing concessions. Moreover, Russia should position tactical nuclear weapons and other significant armaments on the Kurile Islands as a firm reminder of who owns these territories now and forever.
As regards military action, the consensus of the panelists was also in favor of all-out war on Ukraine, to hell with collateral civilian casualties. The war must be ended quickly, decisively and with minimum further Russian casualties. Period. As several noted, it is highly likely that television viewers are also confused by Russia’s ‘softly, softly’ approach till now. While they trust the Commander in Chief, they want more decisive action in the air and on the ground. It is worth mentioning that the panelist who represents Russia’s ‘creative’ classes, director general of the Mosfilm studios, Karen Shakhnazarov, who had been wavering in his support for the war a couple of weeks ago, was now ‘all in’ and doing his best to find solutions to winning the kinetic war at once.
Then there was also the question of war mobilization. The consensus of panelists was that the Russian economy has to be put on a full war footing, with decision making concentrated in the Executive and removed from the hands of entrepreneurs. This is required not for the ongoing conflict with Ukraine but for continuation of the wider war with the U.S.-led West that constitutes the context for the conflict. Dispatch of longer range missiles to Kiev would make the USA a cobelligerent and Russia should be prepared to strike at the ‘decision making’ institutions there.
In short, the logic of the discussion on Solovyov’s show was that the Russians should make perfectly plain to Washington that it is courting disaster, that we are not in a video game but in a life and death struggle in which Americans do not enjoy immortality.
How much of this feistiness will influence the next moves from the Kremlin remains to be seen. But American analysts would do well to cast an eye on programs like Solovyov’s lest we all move on to end of the world scenarios out of ignorance and miscalculation.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2022
34 thoughts on “The Russian Way of War: Part Two”
The nature of the war also changes as civilians escape from target areas. As they disappear then full sca
le shock and awe becomes more feasible. Hence the attempt to block civilians leaving by train.
I don’t know this programme sadly and my Russian is too basic to watch it but I hope the belligerent sentiment described in your piece is not reflected in the Kremlin’s action. Trump has just said that the US has a bigger and better nuclear arsenal so nobody can push the US around but hopefully this reckless display of testosterone won’t be shared by the current administration.
No matter which administration, the deep state is in charge either way and their belligerence has been proven over and over.
Putin had a reputation for weakness (contrary to the popular view of him) among the western foreign policy elite even before this invasion started. Now, it is the West that is steadily turning up the pain dial, I think surprised even themselves at the lack of Russian response. First flooding Ukraine with stingers and manpads, at least there was a precedent to that – Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now rapidly increasing to tanks, missile systems, full tactical satellite intelligence, I hear to be extended to targets in the Crimea.
There is a slowness to Russia, in changing military tactics, in responding to sanctions, that is shocking to westerners used to our “shock and awe” style, as evidenced in Iraq and also even with the enormous sanctions put on Russia the first weekend after the invasion.
The Russian navy flagship was hit last night, and is certainly out of action for the remainder of the war, and quite possibly will be scrapped altogether. There was a Ukrainian helicopter attack on a village inside Russia that same night. The last few days brought news of hugely escalating western weapons deliveries soon to come. This war might spin out of control for the Russian government very soon as the West smells blood, and China keeps a distance (huawei pulled out of Russia yesterday).
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Putin may be a little ‘weak’ as you say, but he is also THE most experienced war leader in the world right now, with only successes under his belt. He also warned several times at the very beginning that they have thought this thing through to the end and have countermeasures in place for any possible eventuality, which of course implies up to and including nuclear conflict.
Next level is mass bombardment of the troops who refuse to surrender in Donbass.
And/or more aggressive attacks on key infrastructure in Kiev and elsewhere as the good Doctor here has suggested.
Then they could go for bases in NATO countries nearby (Poland, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania – if they have them? ) and suchlike.
Then they could attack UK-US naval pieces if they are in play. And so on up to armageddon.
At first the story was that the Moskva cruiser was sunk. Now it appears otherwise via Southfront: “The Russian Defence Ministry has explained the current situation with the cruiser Moskva.
The ship was damaged as a result of fire and detonation of ammunition, but did not sink.
The fire on the Moskva cruiser has been contained.
As of the morning of April 14, there was no open burning. Ammunition explosions have been stopped.
The cruiser Moskva remains buoyant. The main missile armament is not damaged.
The crew has been evacuated to the Black Sea Fleet ships in the area.
Measures are being taken to tow the cruiser to the port.
Causes of the fire are being established.”
Not so bad. If it had been sunk, the Russian people would have been howling for all-out war to crush Ukraine military and regime once and for all. That won’t happen necessarily, but probably more Russians are now able to accept that many thousands will soon be killed in Donbass and they deserve it. For isn’t it true that it wasn’t just the ‘Nazis’ who were killing people in Donbass for eight years? Yes, it is true. Well, it’s their time to be shelled.
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Re: ‘almost as an afterthought to secure the Donbas from any further attacks by Ukrainian forces positioned on the other side of the line of demarcation” :
I thought it was extremely clear from the very beginning that the principal steps involved recognizing the two breakaway republics (after refusing to do so for eight years which to me is a large questions mark) and then also signing a mutual defense pact in accordance with the request of the Duma (which I believe had been made earlier but Putin refused to sign into law) after which the two principal goals were demilitarization and denazification. The latter is controversial but based on solid logic: clearly there has been significant input from foreigners and oligarchs creating extremist strike forces some of which are embedded in the normal troops in a 1:10 ratio to enforce command policies. A military fifth column. They have little to do with the common peoples’ wishes – especially in Eastern Ukraine where most speak Russian. If they are out of the equation, Ukraine – esp. again in the East – has a chance to normalize. With them in the picture, that will prove impossible. It’s a VERY valid goal, in other words.
As to demilitarization: clearly this is for the purpose of protecting the citizens in Donbass. You can’t just push the forces back to the correct borderline and let them sit there bombarding you but just from 100 km further back. No, you have to defang the snake entirely. So that goal of demilitarization is a logical, necessary and indeed inevitable part of protecting the two breakaways.
As to: “why Russia has been prosecuting its ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine with one hand tied behind its back” This indeed is baffling. But I remember Putin’s early meeting with the business leaders a few days in. He stressed many times that Russia did not want to break the world economic system and so should honor all contracts, supply gas and so on.
On the one hand this could be straightforward: after this kerfuffle in Eastern Ukraine is over and the Yankees have been driven out, then Europe might finally begin a long overdue rapprochement with Russia and together they can build a new Eurasian civilization to the benefit of all wherein Russia will become the Central Kingdom. This is a grand vision not only for Russia but also the world. I suspect Putin has this vision along, perhaps, with the re-Christianization of the West which is falling into a decadence seemingly beyond rescue. (The West too needs denazification albeit of whomever is pushing all this ‘woke’ business.)
On the other hand, it might be worth exploring the degree to which Russia and her partner China are part of a ‘globalist’ push to ‘Reset’ the current world order. This conflict might be coordinated with Resetters (Deep State) in the US and Europe with Nazi brigades, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers as collateral damage in a far wider war. This would explain why Putin doesn’t want to break the system, why he keeps supplying gas, why they seem to be holding back. This is a phony war – though of course many are being killed. Not as many as die of hunger every day in Africa, but still many – something like 10,000 dead so far and counting, i.e. significant but nowhere nears being a bloodbath.
Meanwhile China is closing down her manufacturing and trade output operations ostensibly for covid. A worldwide depression is almost certain to follow if not already inevitable before this. Whether by accident or design the war in Ukraine with the sanctions severely curtailing many key elements in the world supply chain – including food – and now the Chinese enforced shutdown of hundreds of millions, big things are about to happen in which the killing or capturing of 75,000 poor saps in Donbass are just a small part of the overall picture.
You are writing good stuff. Much appreciated.
“I think Russia is expecting that all-out war to come.”
All the more reason now for the government to unleash the real sanctions. Cut any and all deliveries to the West.
In case of all-out conflict, at worse it will have prevented NATO to stockpile, ensuring their replacement of weapons might be impeded, at best it will wake them up, to step back from the rink.
As Churchill famously described Russia: ‘a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma!’
One hallmark of Putin and/or Russia’s style is incrementalism. They are a very large beast of a country despite a small population relative to US, EU, India, China. But their day spans 11 time zones so is 35 hours long, for example. They are like a supertanker which takes a long time to turn but once pointed in the right direction is very hard to push off course. Militarily it is often said that they are the undisputed master of land-based warfare. They have won international tank maneuver competitions many years in a row. This involves coordinating artillery spotting, overhead intel and rapid movement – or something. Land warfare involves massing large numbers, i.e. is much more traditional.
Also, their tactics have been described as that of water. They flow around cities. The move into an area for a while and then move out like a tidal flow. So they are flexible, not fixed and rigid like in WW1 trenches.
So being both incremental and fluid makes them difficult to understand sometimes but clearly they are massing against the main Donbass UKr army who in turn has been adding to their numbers as well. The latter is extremely well dug in but the former have considerable firepower including thermobaric, bunker-busters and so forth. Either this will remain a stand-off or it will be a bloody business for a while but in either case the situation is somewhat fixed, i.e. in a particular and relatively contained location. The Ukies are trapped. I think their surprise move might be a coordinated attack on Donetsk itself which might be a gamechanger for a while, but probably not much more than that.
Meanwhile the big issues remain the big issues. Are we about to have war in the Pacific? Quite possible. Taiwan? Quite possible. Escalation in Europe? Quite possible. America is led by illegitimate clowns so only a war can keep the current regime (whomever they are) in power making war that much more likely. Given that war is indeed more likely, maybe Putin is wisely holding back because he knows that this Ukraine battle is just an opening skirmish in a much wider conflict which will last years. I find this hard to conceive of but at the same time the trajectory towards totalitarianism and international conflict has been ongoing ever since Trump’s election in the US with increased lawless resistance, then covid lockdowns and controls, then clearly tampered election and now a deliberately manufactured crisis threatening world war, possible conflict in Pacific and massive shut-down of the world’s largest manufacturer China. Where else are we headed but world war with such a setup?
For the world is a bit like Russia: a supertanker hard to turn around but once headed in a direction hard to stop. The direction is clear: economic slowdown on massive international scale with increased military conflict, food shortages, political turmoil and so on. With such a trajectory so clearly in play….
I would say the only thing going well for Russia from this whole invasion thing is how well the country has held up wrt sanctions and (lack of) international isolation.
My pet theory is that now that Russia and rich Russians can no longer keep money in the West, this will actually put huge upward pressure on the ruble over time. For the past 30 years, Russia was a large capital exporter, in the form of oligarchs taking most of their liquid assets out of the country, and more recently in the Russian government’s huge $/€ reserves kept for national security reasons. Actually, East Asia pioneered the holding of huge dollar reserves as a way to keep the value of their domestic currencies down. Russia did not keep reserves for this reason, but a weak ruble was a side effect. Now that even if it wanted to, Russia cannot grow its $/€ reserves, and oligarchs feel much less safe taking large sums of money to the West, the result will be a appreciating ruble over time. I believe Russia will end 2022 with a dollar GDP considerably higher than before the invasion. In fact, the main currency problem for Russia may turn out to be keeping the ruble from getting to high and hurting Russian domestic industry and even agriculture. The government may achieve this through 1) a Russian mini-BRI (the Chinese overseas development initiative) and 2) a domestic development bank encouraging import substitution & agricultural development. It helps that the finance ministry and economy people in general seem very competent in Russia.
Regarding the lack of international isolation outside of the West, this is down factors outside of Russian control. I was very surprised at the robust Indian support, which I think stems from a very strong Indian desire not to be told what to do by the USA and even more gallingly by Europe/UK. They are supporting Russia primarily to demonstrate their independence. The gulf state support for Russia was also my other big surprise, and I think that stems from worries/shock at the central bank seizures of Russian reserves, which the gulf states (correctly) think may happen to them in the future. Chinese support has been decidedly lukewarm. Huawei, which I think Russia was counting on for all sorts of products, left the country and even withdrew support for Russia’s Mir system, which even Google did not do. Chinese state-adjacent media actively supports Russia, but it seems to be nearly all talk so far.
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My op-ed “Putin: pariah or prophet” aroused a lot of ‘noise’ on Twitter. Specifically, I had a long fight with a young Belgian journalist whom I attacked in the op-ed, as he loudly applauded the premature suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. This yougster also wrote an agressive piece in his newspaper on the Bucha massacre entitled: “Putin bears damning responsibility for these war crimes”.
I added a summary of all this as a reaction under my article. Several reactions from others agree that he went way over the top. I lodged a complaint with his editorial board and requested to print my comments in the paper. To read my op-ed, go to https://geopolitiekincontext.wordpress.com/2022/04/15/poetin-paria-of-profeet/ and hit the Google translate box in the right upper corner. Any additional reaction under the op-ed will of course be welcome!
Great piece. Found a typo: ” Surely therer was nothing “offhanded” about that.”
The Russian Federation leaders are playing the long game. President Putin is taking the political moral high ground; preserving energy and gas contracts, foreign corporate contracts within Russia and confining the SMO within its technical strategic goals. This is done, to deflect against the West’s propaganda campaign, and moreso to keep its global south allies aligned with Russia. What is happening is a sort of “Mexican standoff” between Russia and the USA and its European NATO vassal states. It is a pressure cooker to get Russia to break and engage in direct conflict with the US/UK/NATO axis. The goal for the USA is goad Russia into an attack on a NATO ally – Poland or Czechoslovakia most likely, or even to attack US assets. For Russia, it needs to be able to prove direct US/UK or NATO involvement against its military operation which will greenlight an escalation against NATO or the US directly. There must be a legal justification for Russia to escalate beyond Ukraine; solid, indisputable and actionable. Whomever breaks first, the other will have the moral high ground in their escalatory response for both its citizens and its allies.
From the Russian perspective, and rather unfortunately, a serious tragedy may need to occur, either from a direct attack on territory of the Russian Federation, or a large military loss that can be attributed to US/NATO involvement. Once that tragedy occurs, the full fury of the Russian war machine will be let loose along with all the sanction ace cards held by the Russian leadership to be used at the most opportune moment.
The USA will not negotiate. In fact its very institutional policy doctrines are the diminishment, containment and destruction of the current leadership of the Russian Federation. Escalation seems to be the certain outcome of this conflict.
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