image Putin’s Plan Projected Swifter Success, Still Superior. Photo: Flash90, Reuters

Disappointed, Hardly Defeated

A Strategic Whole Larger Than The Sum Of Its Tactical Setbacks

By Amir Oren

The jury is still in on the Russia-Ukraine war. In, rather than out, because the trial is ongoing and the judge is yet to send the jurors to  deliberate and reach a verdict. Some tentative impressions are nevertheless in order, especially as they impact Israel.

Many observers, official and otherwise, have commented on the slow pace of the Russian advance on Ukrainian targets. It makes the invasion more costly, directly in casualties and indirectly in blows to the Russian economy due to sanctions, and there is growing dissent within the Moscow power elite and visible disappointment at the conduct of the war, but there is no obvious relationship between the tactical or even the operational – the quality of the military campaign – on the one hand and the strategic on the other. The ancient lesson about losing battles while winning wars, or vice versa, still applies.

Western experts noted that the Russian private soldier is not motivated enough to put up a fight agaibst the Ukrainians – both in uniform and civilians who took arms to defend their homes and homeland – and that the crucial element in an Army is the Non Commisioned Officer, the seasoned Sergeant, and the Russians have apparently neglected their NCO’s. Other problems: Cumbersome and outdated logistics, flawed coordination between the Air Force, Army and (Black Sea) Navy, and Armor inferiority in friction with anti-tank weapons.

The latter is surprising, since decades ago the Soviets led the world in developing and fielding tactical missiles against planes (Gary Powers’ U-2), vessels (Israel Navy’s Destroyer Elath) and tanks. Yet the lessons of the 1973 war were better learned by those who absorbed the effectiveness of these weapons than by their creators. The IDF implemented its lessons learned in acquisition, tactics and training. The US adopted many of the relevant ones in its Air-Land Battle doctrine. The Russians have seemingly lagged behind.

Drones of various sorts are the weapon of choice now, for various reasons. It is faster and cheaper to train a drone operator than a pilot. The Unmanned Aerial Vehicle is much less expensive, and when it is downed no-one in flight suit is killed or taken prisoner. Neither is there risk of a fighter pilot defecting with his secrets-laden aircraft. The drone, however, is not decisive.

These are inportant professional aspects, to be dissected once fuller data is collected, but they can lead to an optical error. The strategic whole is not the total sum of many tactical components.

While the Russians may bleed more than they foresaw, and Ukrainian civilians and their infrastructure certainly do, it is the final score that matters, not the price paid by the parties.

This is where Vladimir Putin, as the ultimate decision-maker, fits in. Putin, more than 22 years after first reaching the pinnacle of Moscow power as Prime Minister and President, has apparently concluded that simply sitting on the throne is boring. Challenging the status quo, shaping one’s legacy, seeing oneself in grand historical terms – this is worthwhile when a political leader approaches 70.

Age notwithstanding, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine echoes two Arab rulers, Anwar Sadat and Saddam Hussein. Sadat, in twice launching a bid to break the status quo, by ordering the Yom Kippur War and then, four years later, flying to Jerusalem in a peace initiative. Saddam, in invading Kuwait.

Saddam also did something so peculiar, that only Putin has now dared to emulate. The Iraqi dictator twice used his capacity to acquire weapons of mass destruction as pieces on a strategic chessboard. In both cases, it backfired, but the lesson is applicable to Putin only on one level.

In 1991, a mere three years after the end of the long Iraq-Iran war, which featured Chemical attacks and the first missile barrages against capital cities, Saddam had Chemical and Biological warheads and the capacity to use them against Israel, which was in the dark regarding his intentions. It was also assumed that a decade after the destruction of Osiraq, Saddam was both working on a renewed Nuclear project and planning his revenge against Israel, which had neither missile defense nor adequate protection for its population against CW and BW attacks.

After two weeks of conventionally-armed Scuds caused some public panic but did not draw Israel into the war, thereby tearing apart the Arab-based Coalition, Defense Secretary Richard Cheney went on CNN to warn Saddam that if he escalates by going Chemical, “the Israelis are liable to retaliate with non-conventional weapons”. When this statement was followed up by an express reference to Israel’s presumed Nuclear weapons, Cheney did not play the usual rhetorical games. It will be “a decision Israelis will have to make, but I think Saddam should be very cautious”.

In the event, Saddam refrained from using his non-conventional warheads and aerial bombs, making do with a symbolic attack by several concrete-warhead missiles against the general vicinity of the Dimona reactor. But the Cheney threat was notable for the businesslike refusal to deny that Israel was in possession of Nuclear weapons and may use them with American acquiescence.

It was of course notable in the American-Israeli context, where ever since Golda Meir visited Richard Nixon in September 1969 Washington closed its eyes (or at least its mouth) as regards Dimona, in return for Israel neither testing nor brandishing its Nuclear arsenal. But there was another level – the U.S. has vowed, in the Non-Proliferation Treaty it initated, that Nuclear weapon states will not use them against those outside the elite club. Cheney, who could not threaten Saddam with retaliatory American Nuclear strikes, did it by alluding to non-NPT member Israel.

Of course, the spectre of Iraqi WMD was one of the major reasons – critics would insist, pretexts – for the second Iraq war, when Cheney was once again a key and hawkish member of a Bush adminidstration. Saddam, for domestic and regional power and prestige considerations, indicated he had WMD when he actually did not, fooling the world’s intelligence agencies and their political masters. Rather than making the U.S. rethink its invasion plan, this assumed danger gave it an added impetus.

That double Gulf Wars story is applicable to Putin, who is almost as ruthless as Saddam was, because Russia has a superior status as a declared Nuclear-weapon state. Ukraine may be to Russia what Kuwait was to Iraq, but Putin’s toolbox is much more potent, and he seems to use almost all of it.

Having isolated the battlefield by deterring  NATO from intervening against him, for fear of casualties and an escalation towards World War III, Putin has been playing up his own image as a solitary decision-maker bent on achieving his aims, one way or another; the former KGB officer who will stop at nothing and is not prone to accepting advice from lieutenants. This may be a liability to Russians and their neighbours, but in the domain of psychological warfare it is an asset. All other leaders must assume that Putin will not budge.

Then there is the Nuclear card. He threw it on the table by publicly raising the alert level in the military units operating missiles, bombers and submarines. A Kissingerian signal, within his sovereign rights, intended to show determination – don’t mess with Vladimir Vladimirobich.

Finally, there is the Russian way of war – harsh, insdiscriminate, result-oriented, avoiding frontal confrontation if possible but otherwise ready for scorched-earth attrition. With no effective military coalition on Ukraine’s side, the message is clear – continued resistance is pointless, Russia will suffer but its victims will suffer more, better cut everyone’s losses and cut a deal, a euphemism for accepting Putin’s demands.

In 1982 the Begin-Sharon government sent the IDF to the outskirts of Beirut, in a “special military operation” projected to be easy and over in 48-72 hours but taking many more weeks, years and casualties. The Lebanese capital came under an Israeli siege, with Kiev-like scenes, until Yasser Arafat gave up and left, almost three months after the invasion began.

One always wishes for a quick move, casualty-free and with a happy end. It almost never happens. Eight years ago, when the IDF stood several kilometers from Gaza City and the Mediterranean coast, it took it – per political decision – 51 days, double the length of the Ukraine war so far, to finish Operation Protective Edge with Hamas in a virtual tie, based in mutual aims and the wasted follow up. One should not fall into the trap of underestimating Putin’s chances of emerging from Ukraine with most of the prizes sought in his pocket.