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How Putin Misunderstood Rumsfeld

How Putin Misunderstood Rumsfeld

Friday, 1 April, 2022 - 04:45
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

Apart from its political impact the international order the war that Russia has launched against Ukraine contains countless features that should interest military analysts and planners across the globe.

This is the first time since World War II that the Russian army (formerly Soviet Red Army) is tested on the battlefield against a medium-sized adversary in a classical war.

In the 1950s, the Red Army fought border wars with Communist China and managed to annex large chunks of territory across the border. But that was not a full-scale war as a much weaker China, then also devoid of nuclear weapons, shied away from fighting back in a meaningful way.

Also in the 1950s the Red Army’s tanks rolled into Warsaw and Budapest to crush unarmed anti-Communist uprisings. In 1968 the same scenario was played out in Prague where Russian tanks rolled over the Czech revolution.

Russia’s 10-year war in Afghanistan was also atypical. The Red Army was “invited” to intervene by the Communist regime in Kabul and was not fighting against a classical army. The Russians mainly relied on their air force, bombing civilian areas, while the boots-on-the ground part was assigned to the Afghan army and its Uzbek militia.

The two wars that the Red Army waged in Chechnya were also one-sided affairs as Russian fire-power gave the invaders a massive superiority. Although they lasted several years, the two wars did not provide a proper test of Russian capabilities because the adversary lacked adequate weapons and was forced to fight a cottage-industry form of guerrilla warfare.

In Georgia, Russia chose a limited objective: annexing South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and stopped the war before the much weaker and under-gunned Georgian army could reorganize and fight back.

In Syria, Russia employed massive air power to bomb targets using the remnants of the Syrian army, Iran’s mercenaries from Lebanon, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and elements of the Quds Force from Iran to provide boots on the ground.

Thus the war in Ukraine provides the first real opportunity to assess the Russian military’s performance in actual combat and for an appreciable length of time.

No doubt, NATO analysts and planners are having a whale of a time studying every detail of this war, which provides a treasure of information about Russian weaponry, strategy, tactics, command-and-control systems, and military doctrine.

The way Vladimir Putin, as commander-in-chief has conducted this war is puzzling.

He began by calling it “special operations” so that he would not have to obtain the consent of the Russian parliament (Duma) to wage war.

This may have been because he expected a quick victory and did not wish to share the glory with anyone.

Putin also refused to name a commander-in-chief of the forces unleashed against Ukraine. This is the first time in war history that the general in over-all command is not identified let alone glorified. This time we have no dashing Field Marshal Zhukov marching to Berlin, let alone the gout-stricken General Kutuzov shining in Borodino

Putin’s strategic thinking has been chaotic to say the least and, because he consults with no one, it is hard to discern a decision-making pattern related to reality.

He started to assemble large forces close to Ukrainian borders with Russia and Belarus, not to mention the Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves, with the claim that nothing but a demonstration of force through “military exercises” was intended.

Because he did not reveal his real intentions, his military subordinates seem to have assembled a potpourri of forces from special police units to raw recruits from Siberia and Tatarstan to professional killers from Chechnya.

The assembled forces were told they were to invade Ukraine only a day before it happened.

What Putin seems to have ignored is the importance of rotation in war. Having assembled over 200,000 troops he seems not have realized that he would need three times as many in reserve to ensure orderly rotation on the battlefield.

For every soldier in combat, an army has another one that is resting, recovering from wounds and battle fatigue, or simply retraining, and a third who is getting prepared to step in at a moment’s notice.

Every chunk of land you capture, you need to leave some men behind to cleanse and control it, thus, reducing the forces you have for advancing.

Putin’s failure in that domain may explain the reason for slowing down the invasion and the loss of some captured territory to Ukrainians.

Another surprise is the Russian army’s lack of a backbone provided by professional non-commissioned officers (NCOs). This is an army in which officers are in direct leadership of the rank and file, most of whom seem to be ill-trained conscripts.

Also surprising is Putin’s reliance on largely antiquated tanks, gas-guzzlers of the first order, that require complicated logistics for refueling and repair.

He also ignored that, at this time of the year, Ukrainian soil is turned into an ocean of mud and a trap for tanks. (Hitler’s generals learned that in 1941when their Operation Barbarossa was stuck in Ukrainian mud for weeks.)

Another surprise is that Putin’s army is using antiquated systems and networks that allow US spy satellites to hear all Russian communications and pass the gist to the Ukrainians. This may partly explain why Russian losses, including eight generals, have been so heavy.

It is hard to establish the number of Russian losses.

But even if we go by conservative estimates based on Russian official leaks, Putin’s army has suffered a 20 percent loss in killed and wounded. This is twice the maximum accepted in classic military doctrines that consider a 10 percent loss, known as decimation in military jargon, as the upper limit of tolerance beyond which you either seek a ceasefire or change strategy.

Putin’s invasion army has been acting as an orchestra without a conductor and lacking a notes-sheet.

It is difficult to know why so many disparate operations are started and then abandoned or why infrastructure that might be needed by Russian forces in later stages, not to mention putative victory, are randomly destroyed.

Also puzzling is the use of the letter Z to identify Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Because Ukrainians use the same Soviet-made tanks and vehicles, the Z identification enables them to know not to attack their own side. More diabolically, it enables the Ukrainians to put a Z on their own tanks and vehicles and sow confusion in Russian ranks through surprise attacks.

Even more puzzling is the latest Russian decision to dig trenches in various areas and mine several strategic roads as if they were preparing for a World War I remake.

Putin presents his Ukrainian adventure as “active defense”, the misunderstood Russian version of Donald Rumsfeld’s “preventive war” shibboleth.

In practice, however, rather than preventing a war he has triggered one which he seems unable to control.

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