Lessons & Implications of Putin’s War ONE MONTH IN:

Lessons & Implications of Putin’s War ONE MONTH IN:

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03 Apr 22

By the Editor – a seismic calamity unfolding that if nothing else is full of lessons – not just for the combatants but for the West across the spectrum from the tactical to the strategic.  The author draws strands together after a month of the Russo-Ukrainian war to highlight such lessons that we must urgently consider at the now probable dawn of a new Cold War.

Writing to his friend Friedrich Engels in 1863, Karl Marx declared that “…who measures world history by … what he happens to think are ‘interesting news items,’ could regard twenty years as more than a day when major developments of this kind are concerned, though these may be again succeeded by days into which 20 years are compressed.”[emphasis added]. No-one can be in any doubt that since Putin launched his catastrophically misjudged blitzkreig attack on Ukraine on 24 February we have lived through just such intensely transformative weeks.

This is an interim retrospective, drawing on many public and not public sources. I offer first a tactical review of what I see to be some key lessons of the first month and then draw some strategic implications at the end: for this war and for its wider geo-strategic and domestic, British, politics.

Since that Thursday in late February, we have learned many things that we did not previously know. We have learned that the Ukrainians would not fold as Putin expected, nor garland his tanks with flowers, but would fight like lions: that their re-established nationhood would be annealed in the fires of battle. We have learned that in President Zelensky they were blessed with one of the Free World’s authentic modern heroes. Cometh the hour, cometh the man.  “I don’t want a ride, I want ammunition” is already as iconic in the national story of democratic Ukraine as John Paul Jones’s “I have not yet begun to fight” is in the story that America tells itself about itself: Jones’ reply when the Royal Navy ships Serapis and Countess of Scarborough called on him to surrender his shattered vessel Bonhomme Richard off Flamborough Head during the American War of Independence.[1]

We have learned that the first echelon Russian forces crossed the border on Putin’s false narrative which no-one had dared to correct or, it seems, to challenge. Since then, he has flailed and railed at his security cabinet and the FSB, seeking scapegoats; but speaking in Canberra on 30 March the Director of GCHQ offered the informed opinion that Putin is still not fully aware of the enormity of the tactical defeats inflicted on Russian Federation (RF) by Ukraine’s armed forces (UAF). In a demonstration of the RF Army’s rigid ‘top down’ control, front line commanders, having failed to achieve their Day-1 objectives, showed no initiative but seem to have simply tried again and again with repeated failing attacks to follow their orders. Hostomel airport, which Russian forces finally ceased to contest at month’s end, was a case in point. And having failed to secure absolute air superiority in those critical first days, commanders ploughed on regardless, acting as if they had (as they should have done), thereby ceding a key advantage to the defenders and incurring great losses in consequence. Here were shades of ‘Charlie Wilson’s War’ in Afghanistan when that Texas Congressman and a socialite, Joanne Herring, succeeded in arming the mujahideen with anti-aircraft ‘Stinger’ missiles that made the skies unsafe for Russian helicopters. But this time there was more. British and US trained Ukrainian Marines and SF were able to destroy thirty RF helicopters – and more – on the ground in a significantly successful attack at Chornobaivka airfield near Kherson on 7 March – Day-12 – of which more below. In retrospect it was an acceleration event.

Putin initiated his attack with extraordinary disregard for practical operational considerations which evidently no RF General had dared to question. His war began in winter temperatures which went into a severe sub-zero spell for which the infantry were unprepared and unequipped. Without good quality cold weather gear and especially boots, Russian soldiers became quickly incapacitated with frostbite, hungry with only cold potatoes and onions to eat; and, with intermittent fuel supplies, AFVs became freezers. They soon turned to foraging. Worse, when temperatures eased the rasputitsa came: the thaw which turns frozen ground to deep mud. This added to the woes of the forty mile convoy on the Belarus axis which became narrowly canalised because neither wheeled nor tracked vehicles could manoeuvre cross country. Stuck and immobile, it was a target-rich environment; and while eventually it did manage to disperse after a fashion and advance to firing positions around the northern suburbs of Kyiv, it later became clear that small Ukrainian Army teams with man-pack anti-tank weapons and the Bayraktar drone force had been able to disrupt logistics flow and command and control with selective attacks on fuel bowsers and command vehicles.

Disrupting secure communications forced officers onto less secure nets, and into more forward positions as they sought to restore momentum by imposing their own personalities – and hence into personal danger, all the more so as morale swiftly crumbled to the point that around 11 March (Day-16) his unit having suffered 50% casualties, Col Yuri Medvedev of the 37th Guards Motorized Rifle Brigade outside Kyiv was run over deliberately by one of his own tanks. It was the use of young conscripts who have died in large number that may well turn out to be Putin’s most serious vulnerability once the fury of their mothers fully erupts. The Ukrainians played, to the hilt, the ‘psyops’ value of weeping teenagers  being comforted by motherly Ukrainian ladies who then enabled them to telephone their mothers. Even in Putin’s tightening dictatorship, the mothers of Russia’s lost soldiers have a special legitimacy and hence power.[2]  They and the Afgantsy veterans[3] played a pivotal role in the last days of the USSR.

Throughout, the Ukrainians have shown that they had precise, actionable intelligence on all fronts which permitted them to kill more General Staff officers than Russia had lost since the battles of the Great Patriotic War. To date, seven generals, many colonels and First Rank Captain Andrey Paliy (deputy commander of the Black Seas Fleet and deputy head of the Naval Academy at Sevastopol in Russian-occupied Crimea) have been killed. Paliy was a Ukrainian by birth who chose to serve with the Russian Navy. He was reported to have been killed ashore with RFN(RF Navy) Marines on 19 March during a repulsed attack on Mariupol. The highest ranking Army officers killed during Month One were Lt Gen Yakov Rezantsev, the 49th Combined Arms Army commander who had predicted an easy victory on Day-3 and Lt Gen Andrei Mordvichev the commander of the 8th General Army of the Southern Military District. Ukrainian General Staff reported them both to have been killed on Day-12 during the assault on Chornobaivka airfield which, if eventually confirmed independently, suggests a fatal underestimate of Ukrainian capabilities at the highest levels at that time.  Six further Ukrainian attacks on the airfield were reported during the month until Russia withdrew all attack helicopters after a Russian Buk anti-aircraft missile failed to ignite, fell back and destroyed its own battery around 23 March. Another significant casualty was General Magomed Tushaev, a Chechen warlord, reported killed on Day-3 (27 February) after a 56 tank convoy of Chechen tanks was destroyed near Hostomel where, one may reasonably assume, his orders were to join forces with the RF Airborne troops – who were also slaughtered in the Day-1 and Day-2 battle for Antonov Airport. This engagement was significant because the Chechens had reportedly been deployed with decks of cards of their targets on a fast ‘decapitation’ mission to capture or kill the Ukrainian leadership.  Likewise Vladimir Zhonga was targeted, who led the Sparta Battalion, a pro-Russian militant group operating in the Donetsk People’s Republic. 

In addition to these successful selective killings, the Ukrainians appear to have deliberately targeted certain Russian units. There are in-country reports that the Chechens who were intended to give edge to fighting in built-up areas as well as in targeted assassinations, have largely left Ukraine having suffered up to 70% casualties. Likewise, two units of the RFN Marines who landed in early support of efforts to take Mariupol – where Capt Paliy met his end – have returned to base in Crimea after being rendered combat-ineffective. Another RFN Marine unit trying to by-pass Mykolaiv to reach Odesa was reported on 23 March to have returned to Crimea after taking 50% losses including most of its officers. These may be seen as calculated psychological signals to invading forces.

It is a truism, which is nonetheless true, that amateurs talk about tactics while professionals talk about logistics. Because of Putin’s perversely inverted false narrative of a walk-in-the park ‘liberation’ of eager Ukrainians oppressed by “Nazis,” the imposed planning assumptions seem to have been simple and led by ‘teeth’ with little thought to ‘tail’.   Launch an overwhelming aviation assault into the Hostomel airfield (which failed catastrophically); then drive from there into Kyiv to seize the capital, while the RF Army advances at pace from the north brushing aside any opposition and link ups. Accordingly, those first echelons jumped-off with chronically insufficient supplies of every sort and without robust (ie defensible) logistic trains or sources of major resupply, and in no way sufficient for the switch back to the RF Army default mode of heavy stand-off bombardment. But tellingly there are in-country reports that they were carrying their dress uniforms for the victory parade: a detail which gives us a window into Putin’s mind.  Here are shades of a dusty display case in the Moscow Central Army Museum which exhibits some of the cargo of victory medals recovered, along with a dead white horse, from a Luftwaffe transport plane that crashed near the Sheremetyevo ‘furthest north’ line during Hitler’s invasion of Russia in 1941. 

Some of the Russian logistics failures have been different in kind to Hitler’s: 70% loss of steam engines through frost-burst pipes has not been an issue in 2022; but the rasputitsa – General Mud – is the rasputitsa and together with modern problems, all together have been as calamitous as the miscalculations that halted the advance of Guderian’s Panzers during Operation BARBAROSSA: a case study taught in every Staff College but evidently forgotten in the successor to the Frunze Academy.[4] 

It is not clear that the RF forces have sufficient depth and breadth of resupply to be able to move to a new phase of intensive combined armed attack, even on a single axis of main effort, after having committed conservatively 40% of its best front-line capabilities to this month’s operations and having lost masses of its best equipment and units.  One well-documented failure may serve as generally indicative.  Russian wheeled military vehicles have long been equipped with a rather nifty cab-operated tyre inflation and deflation system as an aid to cross-country travel. Tyre pressures can be adjusted on the move. But these depend upon tyres being of high quality and flexible. This last month, the RF forces have experienced huge issues with tyres, most of Chinese manufacture but not to military grade. The incidence of tyre blow-outs seems to have been related to inattention to detail and to something more endemic. For months and maybe years, trucks and wheel-based systems like Grad MLRS, have stood parked for long periods without being moved, thus creating weak points in tyres which, as soon as stressed operationally in cold conditions, failed. Inability to bring up replacements and maybe lack of central supply to do so, have led to the abandonment intact of wheeled equipment including MLRS. Tracked vehicles today, as in 1941, demand much servicing and repair of wear and tear; and from abandonment, sabotage by Russian conscript troops or handing over for reward, at the end of Month One the Ukrainian General Staff claim to have more serviceable tanks and AFVs, after losses, than they had when hostilities began. The Ukrainians also made one special capture near Kyiv: an advanced Krasukha-4 electronic warfare radar and UAV jamming command module which, it is reported, has been transferred to the USA for examination. There have been reportedly seven such captures of EW sets, to date

Logistically, the Russian Federation war plan was madly overambitious. Putin’s war opened with five simultaneous axes of advance by around 110 battle groups across a 1,000 mile perimeter requiring 66 undefended supply routes with average length of 50 miles. The first  month showed that not only was the ‘tail to tooth’ ratio inadequate for the forward units but that there had been insufficient logistic planning in depth. Therefore even when, by late March, the RF armed forces cut back its main ground effort first to two axes (northern and eastern salients with a deployed amphibious force in the Black Sea – with an implied threat either to fix or feint to which I’ll return) and now, by the time of writing (31 March), with allegedly only one axis directed at the Donbas, both volume and quality of resupply are still plainly a problem.

In retrospect we may see that Plan B – the decapitating blitzkrieg envelopment of Kyiv by RF Airborne and Tushaev’s Chechen flying column from Hostomel, by the famous ‘snake convoy’ from the north and other forces from the south – was abandoned in failure by the end of the first week. The RF reverted to traditional Plan A: ‘rubbleisation’ and terror using indirect fires – heavy artillery which was at first discriminate but not for long and increasing use of cruise (Kalibr) and short range ballistic (Iskander) missiles as well as dumb bombs. Here two more problems have become apparent. While actual figures are not released by Free World intelligence services for obvious reasons, it seems that the RF is running short of missiles. Certainly rocket motors were on the shopping list proffered to Xi Jinping, which may be one of the reasons that Kinzhal (‘dagger’) hypersonic missiles and other advanced air-launched cruise missiles have been deployed – the first Kinzhal on Day-23 to destroy an arms store at Deliatyn, western Ukraine.  (It seems that Russia is able to employ Fifth Columnist and/or infiltrated GRU agents to mark high value targets.  However, in the case of the multiple cruise missile strike on foreign legionnaires at Yavoriv on 13 March, it appears that former British SF whose mobile numbers had been captured by GRU agents near Hereford or Poole failed to observe ‘Opsec’ when their +44 numbers appeared on the Ukrainian mobile networks and illuminated them as targets.) Such costly weapons are only justified by very high value targets; and while a large store of western weapons – if that is what it was – qualifies, it is not clear that a fuel dump does. Therefore we may be seeing indirect evidence of overextension.

The second problem reported is that there have been, by NATO standards, astoundingly high rates of projectile and bomb duds. Up to 60%. The Buk accident at Chornobaivka airfield was mentioned above. This chimes with reports of major unserviceability with reserve equipment being brought into the orbat. There were reports on 26 March that the commander of the 13th Tank Regiment in the 4th Guards (Kantemirovskaya) Tank Division committed suicide when it became evident that 90% of his reserve tanks were unusable. Theft at low level of precious metals from electronics and generalised corrupt diversion at high level of military budgets from weapons to villas and luxury yachts seem to have been widespread – as the crusading Russian MP Alexander Nevzorov has long warned.

Given these issues, it was therefore noteworthy and unsurprising that RFN missile launching warships in the Black Sea took an increasing role in long range bombardments as the month went by. The RFN has large bombardment capability deployed, led by the Fleet flagship the Slava class missile cruiser Moskva, two or three guided missile frigates and half a dozen missile corvettes. The failure to take Mariupol throughout the month, despite appalling carpet obliteration in breach of any norms, kidnappings, forced transportation of residents to ‘filtration camps’ in Russia and the certain commission of war crimes, nor to gain land footholds sufficient to justify the high risks of an amphibious landing, left that force poised afloat offshore. 

By the 23 March, with remarkable stupidity, someone ordered the Tapir-class LST Orsk and two Ropucha (‘Toad’)-II class LSTs to berth alongside in Berdyansk port, which had recently been captured by Russia. Russian Defence TV Zvezda proudly filmed the event and shortly thereafter, early in the morning of 24th, the Ukrainian armed forces hit the Orsk with a ballistic missile, destroying it and damaging the Ropuchas which cut their moorings and were seen hurriedly leaving harbour, with signs of fires aboard. The UAF have their own anti-ship missile (Neptune), not yet deployed. It is reported that western resupply will include anti-ship missiles which would have special importance in holding at risk the RFN, the least shaken part of the Russian Orbat. Already, one patrol boat, the Vasily Bykov that was involved in the act of defiance by Ukrainian soldiers on Snake Island, had been lured into range and hit by Ukrainian MLRS rockets on 7 March.

The loss of the LST is arguably the most significant Russian loss of the invasion so far for two reasons. First, because Turkey has closed the Bosporus to warships under the Montreux Convention and so replacement cannot be obtained. Secondly, taken with the terrible mauling of the RFN naval infantry and the loss of the Deputy Fleet Commander, the psychological impact might make the RFN even more wary of risking any opposed amphibious landings for which, in any case, the Russian Armed Forces have no major successful combat experience. ZAPAD exercises are well and good; but as the prescient Russian analyst Alexander Nevzorov observed last year, “… military exercises are just a performance on an imaginary piano. You can pretend until someone shoves a real piano under your hands. That’s when the humiliation starts. It will turn out that the great pianist can’t even play Twinkle, Twinkle with one finger.” He was not taken seriously. Nevzorov has consistently pointed to the degree by which systemic corruption has weakened the Russian armed forces; and this month has provided much reason to pay close attention to his views. However, it was reported on 24 March that Russia’s Prosecutor General had launched a criminal prosecution against him for reporting that Russian planes bombed the maternity hospital in Mariupol. Nevzorov will need protection in the spotlight of public attention.

Amphibious operations, as readers of the Naval Review and all military historians know, are arguably the most complex of all to carry off safely and successfully. In today’s world, only the USMC and HM Royal Marines have that past experience, institutional and muscle memory. Therefore successful deterrence of RFN plans on the Black Sea coast has a disproportionate importance because of Odesa’s strategic significance as Ukraine’s premier port through which the vast bulk of its trade passes. As Professor David Abulafia the preeminent historian of the world’s oceans observed on 31 March, who holds Odesa holds the key to the entire region.[5] The unfolding sea-land battle along the Black Sea coast will be a central focus of the next phase in this war and I judge that, if well supported, Ukraine has the morale and the military art to command this phase as it did the first. Not easily, but feasibly.

Month One of Putin’s war was book-ended by two engagements which showed graphically that the Russians are fighting a mid-20th century war and the Ukrainians a 21st century one. Deploying tactically critical early supplies of British NLAW anti-tank weapons, elements of the First Guards Tank Army advancing recklessly in close formation on the road to Kharkiv in the first days of the invasion, were blown away by UAF teams. On 1 March the 4th Guards (Kantemirovskaya) Tank Division, famous from Stalingrad 1942-3 and from its role in the 1991 Moscow coup, occupied Trostyanets near the border, straddling the supply routes southwards. By the end of the month, the Ukrainians had drained the Russian offensive of energy to a point where morale fell apart. On 26 March the 4th Guards at Trostyanets was reduced to smouldering wreckage as Ukrainian soldiers re-took the town.   By the end of Month One, taking conservative median numbers, it would seem that the Russians had lost more soldiers KIA and far more wounded, and between 75% and 120% losses in major equipment categories, than they sustained in nine years and nine months in Afghanistan. From the Russian point of view this is not a sustainable position; nor can it hope to occupy and hold any ground that it does take without impossibly large numbers of occupying forces who would be vulnerable to every teenager and granny with a Kalashnikov.

With the RF Airforce strangely absent, helicopters going down like fire-crackers, land forces enmired literally and metaphorically most especially in logistics and above all with collapsing morale, at the end of Month One we see RF land forces unable to maintain offensive momentum on two main efforts. All of which says that the most important lesson of Month One is not to underestimate the enemy as Russia did; nor should we, as Brigadier Rich Cantrell RM, commanding 3 Cdo Bde, wisely reminds everyone. Russia has mass, nukes and a plainly unstable outlaw dictator.

The moral is to the material as three to one said Napoleon[6] and at the end of this era-shaking month I judge that it is the story of the young conscripts who were lied to by their officers, coerced into signing up as contract soldiers and then ill supplied with kit or with food, ill armed, and, on some reports, used cynically as bait to flush out Ukrainian positions, who have responded by desertion and by sabotage, that may be the thread that unravels Putin. The dead and wounded conscripts and their mothers.

Meanwhile increasing flows of Western materiel have been arriving in Ukraine in time for major engagements in the Donbas, soon to include British long range artillery, counter-battery radars to drive the guns, Starstreak man-pack anti-aircraft missiles, armoured Landrovers, Australian Bushmaster AFVs, US Switchblade loitering munitions as well as CBNW suits, and all manner of sustainment. In all this the Anglosphere has been to the fore, seconded by Scandinavians. In contrast the EU has been missing in action; and when it arrived, led by President Macron (who has played both sides of the street with Putin), its interest was mainly to push its own self-obsessed ambitions to rival NATO and (aided by embittered ‘rejoiners’ in the British establishment) to carp at the success of a nimble and sovereign UK which made us the indispensable nation.  Also to pressure the Ukrainians to premature ‘settlement’ in a talks context where there is no reason to trust any assurances.

During the decades packed into this month we have seen Russophile German foreign policy from Schroeder to Merkel stood on its head during the first weekend. Nordstream II never opened. We have seen the EU dream of ever closer union move into its twilight as nations of Europe responded as nations following a British lead prompting a reflex desire in Brussels to seek to keep control through the dangerous aspiration for an EU defence identity: the  ‘strategic compass’ from which trap we and the Danes must steer well clear. We have seen NATO awaken as a strong man from sleep, shaking his mighty locks. We have seen a British Prime Minister be the first to give voice to the public realisation that this war is not just Ukraine’s and that Putin must be seen to fail, thereby providing the leadership, which our weakest link, a gaffe prone US President, cannot give. We have seen the Russian economy cratered with frightening efficiency which has helpfully served as a reminder to the Chinese Communist Party as it pursues Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ of world domination by mid-century, that the Free World is not without resolve or means to contest that ambition; and as a result we have seen a useful debate surfacing in the CCP which does not conclude that standing by an outlaw Putin is necessarily in the CCP’s medium term interests.[7]

At home, Mr Putin has forced attainment of energy security to the top of the political agenda. We need an urgent return to rational from performative actions, namely a realisation that wind and solar are very expensive low grade energy sources and only provide an illusion of energy security. They have been the source of our current energy crisis and are no part of the solution.  What we need is an aggressive exploitation of thermodynamically competent fuels: of national gas reserves, fracked and North Sea, as the bridge to next generation small modular nuclear reactors with (like Germany) an insurance programme of ultra-supercritical coal-fired stations that run at 50% thermal efficiency and re-opened mines to fuel them.[8] In short, a return to the sensible strategy being followed before Blair’s government began the 20-year excursion down the dead-end of thermodynamically incompetent fuels.

The rescue of democratic Ukraine has become the just war of our generation as the rallying of the International Brigades has shown; and during Month One the United Kingdom has been the pace-maker in this race. Ukrainian soldiers shout ‘God Save the Queen!’ as they fire NLAW and we are by a large margin the most popular country among Ukrainians. At the 40th anniversary of the Falklands War, which was no imperial throw-back but the first war of the modern age, have we finally shaken off the ‘declinism’ and learned helplessness of recent decades and, during the decades packed into last month, discovered what the mission of ‘global Britain’ looks like and feels like?  There are signs that we have. But as the energy security priority reminds, this is indeed only the end of the beginning.


[1] Jones was as good as his word and it was the British ships that eventually surrendered to him.

[2] The stories are beginning to appear in our Press: for example, V.Bowman, “Used as ‘cannon fodder’, the young Russians sent to their deaths in Ukraine: Youngsters killed on the battlefield were ‘unprepared’ for the horrors of war ” Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2022

[3] Russian term for the Soviet soldiers who fought the 1979-89 Afghan war.

[4] Martin van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton, Cambridge University Press, 1977

[5] D. Abulafia, “If he captures Odessa, Putin will dominate the Black Sea”, Daily Telegraph, 31 March 2022

[6]In war, three-quarters turns on personal character and relations; the balance of manpower and materials counts only for the remaining quarter.” Taken from notes entitled Observations on Spanish Affairs, which Napoleon wrote in August 1808 

[7] Hu Wei, “Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice”, US-China Perception Monitor, 12 March 2022  https://uscnpm.org/2022/03/12/hu-wei-russia-ukraine-war-china-choice/

[8] J. Constable & A. Montford, Taking Back Control: Addressing Britain’s Fuel Diversity Emergency, Net Zero Watch, March 2022

[9] Emeritus Research Professor, LSE; member of  CDS Strategy Advisory Panel (in abeyance); founder member of Royal Marines Advisory Group