Mick Ryan

May 17, 2022

The Sydney Morning Herald

Throughout their Ukrainian campaign, the Russian military has been continually forced to reassess its strategic objectives. Plan A was to seize Kyiv, Kharkiv and other key points, capture government leaders and force a political accommodation from Ukraine. The battlefield performance of the Ukrainians, and strategic leadership of President Zelensky, quickly revealed the folly of this plan.  Plan B for the Russians saw their multi-axis attacks in the south, east, northeast, north and in the skies above Ukraine placed on a slower timetable. This strategy also failed. They then shifted to a focus on the Donbas and the creation of a “land bridge” from Russia to Crimea. Since the invasion began in February, the Russians have constantly downgraded their political goals for Ukraine, and the strategy for achieving them.

This is not unusual in warfare. While political objectives shape how war is conducted and what battles are fought, so too do battles reshape political objectives. As American strategist Eliot Cohen recently wrote, “retaining a sense of direction in war is a constant struggle for political and military leaders at the top, and so the staff officers (and the commentary journalists) are doomed to frustration.”

The Ukrainians have not suffered from a similar level of shifting objectives. Perhaps, as the defender, their goals are simple – defend their sovereignty, their people, and their land. But more recently, the notion of victory over Russia has crept into the strategic discourse.

The Ukrainian military, reassured by the steadfastness on its political masters, has demonstrated consistency throughout the war.

The Ukrainians have achieved this through the adoption of a simple military strategy: corrosion. In Australia, we describe the capacity to fight as “fighting power”. It is made up of physical, moral, and intellectual components. The Ukrainian approach has hollowed out the Russian physical, moral, and intellectual capacity to fight and win in Ukraine, both on the battlefield, and in the global information environment.

This strategy of corrosion sees Ukraine attacking the Russians where they are weak, while also using some of their combat power to delay Russian combat forces. British military historian and theorist, Basil Liddell Hart described this as the indirect approach. In his classic book, Strategy, he writes how “effective results in war have rarely been attained unless the approach has had such indirectness as to ensure the opponents’ unreadiness to meet it. This indirectness has usually been physical and always psychological.”

The Ukrainians have taken this advice to heart. They have attacked the weakest physical support systems of an army in the field – communications networks, logistic supply routes, rear areas, artillery and senior commanders in their command posts. In the Battle for Kyiv, the Ukrainians were able to fight the Russians to a standstill because they were able to penetrate Russian rear areas and destroy parts of their logistic support. They corroded the northern Russian expedition from within, and eventually, forced its humiliating ejection from Ukraine.

In the east, the Ukrainians have again adopted this strategy of corrosion. They are attacking Russian logistics, even though the Russians have moved more cautiously. The Ukrainians have also attacked critical enabling capabilities such as engineers, surveillance drones, fuel depots and senior Russian commanders. Once again, the Ukrainians have corroded from within the physical capacity of the Russians to fight.

Perhaps more importantly, these acts in the physical world are impacting on the moral and intellectual components of Russian fighting power. Russian morale is being corroded because of its battlefield defeats, supply challenges and withdrawals in the face of Ukrainian pressure at Kyiv and Kharkiv. Ukrainian use of social media, showing off Russian deficiencies, has magnified this moral corrosion. The collapse in morale has resulted in declining battlefield discipline, with Russian desertions, battlefield refusals and war crimes. Bad morale and discipline, if not addressed, can become endemic in an army. The Ukrainians have slowly diluted Russia’s will to fight. Another major battlefield setback could result in a total collapse in Russian resolve.

The Ukrainians have also forced a form of intellectual corrosion on the Russians. Under pressure to achieve some form of victory due to previous setbacks, the invaders are taking greater tactical and operational risks with their military operations. The disastrous assault river-crossing over the Severskyi Donets – where at least one Russian brigade had its combat capability destroyed – is indicative of an army that is becoming less capable of assessing the risks of significant operational or tactical decisions.

The Ukrainian consistency in implementing their strategy now sees the Russian army approaching its high watermark in Ukraine. And in corroding the Russians physically, morally, and intellectually from within, the Ukrainians have evolved the military art. Conventional ground and air operations have absorbed special operations forces and information operations into a new, unified whole. What we once understood as separate conventional, unconventional, or information operations are now components of an integrated and indivisible whole.

This is what 21st century warfare looks like. The Ukrainians have proved to be masters of it. There is much that every mid-sized country with limited resources (including Australia) can learn from them.