By Mark Hertling
February 20, 2023
The Washington Post
Looks have always been deceiving when it comes to Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. From the start, Russia’s capacities were overestimated. Both the size of its army, and the modernization it had supposedly undergone indicated to many observers that Russia would triumph easily. But since the invasion began, the Russian military has failed to adapt its strategy and operational objectives to battle conditions and circumstances.
Today, ahead of the one-year anniversary of the conflict, coverage of the war’s battles mostly focuses on the fighting along the central and southern front, with cities such as Bakhmut and Vuhledar dominating headlines. Russia has been making small gains at great human cost to its troops around the former, and has squandered thousands of its soldiers for nothing at the latter. This might look like an emerging stalemate, but it is anything but. It is, in fact, a slugfest.
The war has gone through five phases and, through each one, Ukraine’s forces have significantly outperformed Russia’s, in no small part because of a military culture of adaptability. Russian forces continue to be hampered by a lack of that very same culture, as well as by a lack of leadership and initiative.
During my time as commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, I got to know Ukrainian leaders and soldiers during various training missions, and saw this culture of adaptability grow and develop. I also had the opportunity to closely watch Russia “demonstrate” (but not properly train or exercise) its military capacity on several occasions, and frequently noted the deep and pervasive corruption that bedeviled its armed forces.
So, before even knowing the details of Putin’s strategy or his military’s operational objectives, I knew immediately the invasion would not end well for the Russian leader. “Ukraine will fight above its weight class,” I told a colleague on the first night of the war. “And Russia will be embarrassed.”
Putin never officially announced his strategic goals. To try to understand what his generals might do, I tried to ascertain what those might be. He seemed to want regime change in Kyiv, the destruction of Ukraine’s army, the subjugation of Ukraine’s population, control of the Black and Azov Sea ports (and perhaps of Moldova, as well). It was obvious Russia didn’t have the number of soldiers or the combined arms effectiveness to achieve Putin’s ambitious war aims.
Worse, Putin’s army ignored one of the most important principles of war: unity of command. The generals planned an attack on nine different axes of advance, but were never able to coordinate ample naval and air forces into a massed assault.
The war started on Feb. 24. It took about six weeks for Phase 1 of Putin’s campaign to fail.
On April 2, Putin was forced to try a different approach. He shifted Russian forces to the east, while placing new generals in charge. But he did little to address the damage inflicted on the army by such a catastrophic beginning. Estimates vary, but up to 40 percent of front-line Russian combat units appear to have been mauled, with supply lines and effective command decimated. Putin moved most of his army east, and subsequently ordered his army to be rebuilt in weeks. Any general familiar with the physical and psychological demands associated with regeneration of a force this severely degraded would tell you this would not work.
On April 18, Putin launched a new Russian offensive in the east — the start of Phase 2 of the war. New arrows and circles were drawn on Russian maps, but the Russian generals and their troops on the ground continued to underperform. There was no meaningful adaptation and no attempt to learn hard lessons from earlier setbacks. Pieced-together, low-morale units were thrown into the fight with little planning, bad reconnaissance and ineffective battlefield leadership. Ukraine, on the other hand, was not complacent. Its generals were fast learners, and Ukrainian soldiers were innovative and adaptive. The Russian forces continued to suffer huge losses.
Phase 3 began in July and lasted through September. Ukraine’s army forced a large-scale withdrawal in the northeast in the Sumy and Kharkiv oblasts, using small-scale counterattacks directed at just the right locations, aided by a large-scale operational deception in the south. Ukrainian special operations forces also contributed significantly to this phase, using stealth and disciplined operational security to ensure that Russia was embarrassed behind its own lines. For most of the summer, the Russians sustained casualties that far exceeded those suffered during the disastrous Phase 1 and 2.
Phase 4 began in late September, when Putin announced that several of the partially occupied southern regions of Ukraine would undergo annexation. This was accompanied by Putin’s order to mobilize an additional 300,000 Russians for the fight. The referendums in the occupied territories, in preparation for months, were met with an effective insurgency by Ukraine’s population and territorial forces, and were delayed multiple times. And the mobilization, while successful in bringing a limited number of “fresh” but unwilling soldiers to the front line, was still plagued by the same deficiencies that characterized Russia’s war effort from the start. The mobilizations were rushed and improvised, recruits were poorly trained and equipped, and Russian leadership was still lacking.
In contrast, Ukraine’s actions during this period consisted of an impressively coordinated use of conventional forces that had successfully incorporated newly arrived Western weapons, most notably precision-guided artillery and rockets. In addition, this phase featured more Ukrainian special operations activity, and the continued use of territorial resistance fighters. Russia responded to all this by lobbing missiles into densely packed Ukrainian cities to target critical infrastructure and Ukrainian civilians. The war crimes committed by Russian leadership and their forces continued.
Since December, we have been in Phase 5 of this war. Though the front might not have moved much, there has been significant fighting and extensive casualties on both sides. This phase is
best understood not as a stalemate, but as Ukraine struggling to survive a Russian onslaught. Putin continues his messy mobilization and is sending fresh cannon fodder (or “cannon meat,” as Russians call these wretches) at Ukrainian lines in assault waves.
Ukrainian generals have balanced limited but continuous counterattacks with an active defense, while also being forced to allocate scarce air-defense capabilities to protect civilians. Ukrainian forces are also continuing to conduct intelligence operations to identify targets they will likely strike in the near future. It’s a delicate balance for the decision-makers in Kyiv. They are trying to hold the defensive lines while training and equipping their forces with newly obtained, advanced Western materiel that will make a qualitative difference in the looming counteroffensive.
Ukraine’s armed forces have admirably adapted in each phase of this fight, learning lessons from training they received over the last decade, and from the scars earned on the battlefield itself. And Russia has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to do the same.
It will remain difficult for Russia to change — simply because it can’t. A nation’s army is drawn from its people, and a nation’s army reflects the character and values of the society. While equipment, doctrine, training and leadership are important qualities of any army, the essence of a fighting force comes from what the nation represents. Putin’s autocratic kleptocracy is thus far proving no match for Ukraine’s agile democracy.
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling commanded the 1st Armored Division during the Iraq surge and later commanded U.S. Army Europe.