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