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Russia’s Military Blunders Are Bad News for Ukraine

Putin’s callous calculus is unmoved by Russian tactical failures and Ukraine’s resistance. Almost as ruthless as Saddam, but with actual nuclear weapons, it’s premature and dangerous to call his war a failure

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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A protester holds a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a demonstration, in support of Ukraine, in front of the Russian Embassy in Madrid, Spain
A protester holds a poster of Russian President Vladimir Putin at a demonstration in support of Ukraine, in front of the Russian Embassy in Madrid, SpainCredit: AP Photo/Paul White
Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The jury is still in on the Russia-Ukraine war. In, rather than out, because the trial is ongoing. Some tentative impressions are nevertheless in order, especially as they impact the West and Israel.

‏Many experts, official and otherwise, have commented on the slow pace of the Russian advance on Ukrainian targets. It is making the invasion more costly, directly in casualties and indirectly in blows to the Russian economy due to sanctions.

Russia’s defense ministry has admitted as much by announcing that the focus is on the Eastern front, more ambitious and Western-oriented aims having been abandoned for lack of progress. But even "self-limiting" wars can be strategically won even while battles are lost, because in the long run, national stamina will win over tactical brilliance.

‏Western observers note that the Russian private soldier is not motivated enough to put up a fight against the Ukrainians, whether civilian or in uniform, and that the crucial element in any army is the non-commissioned officer, the seasoned sergeant, and the Russians have apparently neglected their NCOs training and motivational packages too.

Other problems: Cumbersome and outdated logistics, flawed coordination between the air force, army and (Black Sea) navy, and armored corps inferiority falling victim to anti-tank weapons.

A Ukrainian serviceman fires an NLAW anti-tank weapon during an exercise in the Joint Forces Operation, in the Donetsk region, eastern Ukraine before Russia's invasionCredit: AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda

‏The latter is surprising, since decades ago the Soviets led the world in developing and fielding tactical missiles against tanks, as well as planes and ships. Yet the Arab-Israeli wars, in this regard, offered lessons that were better learned by those who absorbed the effectiveness of these weapons than by their creators.

The IDF implemented its anti-missile playbook with lessons learned in acquisition, tactics and training. The U.S. adopted many of the relevant ones in its Air-Land Battle doctrine. The Russians have seemingly lagged behind. They, or their 1970’s predecessors, were better on the attack than they are now in being forced to swallow their own medicine.

‏Drones of various sorts are the weapon of the hour for the Ukrainian defenders. 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 a flight suit is killed or taken prisoner. Neither is there the risk of a fighter pilot defecting with his secrets-laden aircraft. The drone, however, is not decisive. It can deflect a blow, but not turn around a campaign.

‏All of the above – weapon systems, motivation, ingenuity – are important 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.

People look at the gutted remains of Russian military vehicles on a road in the town of Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday.Credit: Serhii Nuzhnenko /AP

‏The Russians are bleeding more than they foresaw, and Ukrainian civilians and their infrastructure are feeling what General Sherman called upon scorching Georgia’s earth "the heavy hand of war," but it is the final score that matters, not the price paid by the parties.

The conditions in Israel’s contingency plans vis-a-vis Gaza and Lebanon are different, but world reaction would be similar to the abhorrence at Putin’s brutality. No amount of pre-war warning and then images of missiles hidden in apartments will save Israel from unbearable outside pressure to stop. The campaign would have to end in less than a week.

‏This callous calculus 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, president, prime minister and president again, 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 what power is really worth when a political leader approaches 70.

Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a damaged city center building after a Russian air raid in Chernigiv, Ukraine. Russian forces have escalated attacks on cities crowded with civiliansCredit: AP Photo/Dmytro Kumaka

‏Age notwithstanding, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine echoes two Arab rulers: Anwar Sadat in the Yom Kippur War and Saddam Hussein in invading Kuwait.

‏The Iraqi dictator, in both the 1991 and 2003 wars, used his capacity to acquire weapons of mass destruction as pieces on a strategic chessboard. In both cases, it backfired, because he faced the world’s leading nuclear Superpower, ready to threaten to respond in kind itself or by condoning another, undeclared power to do so – Israel.

Defense Secretary Richard Cheney warned Saddam, on CNN, that if he were to escalate by going chemical, "The Israelis are liable to retaliate with non-conventional weapons." It would, he said, 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, making do with a symbolic attack by several concrete-warheaded missiles in the general vicinity of Israel’s Dimona reactor.

But the Cheney threat was notable for the businesslike way he suggested Israel could use nuclear arms with American acquiescence. It was also a ploy to bypass an American commitment under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to refrain from using nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear country, a treaty to which Israel is not a signatory.

A serviceman waves from a military truck parked in a street in Mykolaivka, Donetsk region, the territory controlled by pro-Russian militants, eastern Ukraine Credit: AP Photo

‏Putin, who is almost as ruthless as Saddam was, is operating on another level, because of Russia’s superior status as a declared nuclear-armed state. Ukraine may be to Russia what Kuwait was to Iraq, a disobedient province, but Putin’s toolbox is much more potent, and he seems to be using almost all of it.

> LISTEN: 'This Is Putin's Show, He Has Several Ways to Take It Nuclear'

Having deterred 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 neighbors, but in the domain of psychological warfare it is an asset. All other leaders must assume that Putin will not budge.

‏He threw his nuclear card on the table by publicly raising the alert level in the military units in charge of missiles, bombers and submarines. A Kissingerian signal, within his sovereign rights, intended to show determination: Don’t mess with Vladimir Vladimirovich.

Russian soldiers disembark from a Russian military helicopter after landing at an undisclosed location in Ukraine a week into their invasion Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

‏Finally, there is the Russian way of war - harsh, indiscriminate, result-oriented, avoiding frontal confrontation if possible but otherwise having no scruples against 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.

‏It is not for impatient Israelis to pronounce Putin’s campaign a failure just because Ukraine has put up a brave resistance and pushed what may have been planned as a lightning strike into its second month and counting.

‏In 1982, the Begin government authorized a 48-hour, 40 kilometers Operation Peace for Galilee, and that resulted in a two-month siege of Beirut until Yasser Arafat was forced out. Eight years ago, when the IDF stood several kilometers from Gaza City and the Mediterranean coast, it took 51 days, double the length of the Ukraine war so far, for the political echelon to agree to end Operation Protective Edge with Hamas in a virtual tie, as no party came out with any lasting gain.

‏With Putin having a much harder hand of war than his opponents, he has unfortunately a good chance of emerging from Ukraine with most of the prizes he sought in his pocket.

Amir Oren, a veteran observer of Israeli, American and NATO military and political affairs, has written for Haaretz on defense and government for more than two decades. Twitter: @Rimanero

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