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Why War Fails

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On February 27, a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian forces launched an operation to seize the Chornobaivka airfield near Kherson on the Black Sea coast. Kherson was the first Ukrainian city the Russians managed to occupy, and since it was also close to Russia’s Crimean stronghold, the airfield would be important for the next stage of the offensive. But things did not go according to plan. The same day the Russians took over the airfield, Ukrainian forces began counterattacking with armed drones and soon struck the helicopters that were flying in supplies from Crimea. In early March, according to Ukrainian defense sources, Ukrainian soldiers made a devastating night raid on the airstrip, destroying a fleet of 30 Russian military helicopters. About a week later, Ukrainian forces destroyed another seven. By May 2, Ukraine had made 18 separate attacks on the airfield, which, according to Kyiv, had eliminated not only dozens of helicopters but also ammunition depots, two Russian generals, and nearly an entire Russian battalion. Yet throughout these attacks, Russian forces continued to move in equipment and materiel with helicopters. Lacking both a coherent strategy for defending the airstrip and a viable alternative base, the Russians simply stuck to their original orders, with disastrous results.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the Chornobaivka battle as a symbol of the incompetence of Russia’s commanders, who were driving “their people to slaughter.” In fact, there were numerous similar examples from the first weeks of the invasion. Although Ukrainian forces were consistently outgunned, they used their initiative to great advantage, as Russian forces repeated the same mistakes and failed to change their tactics. From the start, the war has provided a remarkable contrast in approaches to command. And these contrasts may go a long way toward explaining why the Russian military has so underperformed expectations.

In the weeks leading up to the February 24 invasion, Western leaders and analysts and the international press were naturally fixated on the overwhelming forces that Russian President Vladimir Putin was amassing on Ukraine’s borders. As many as 190,000 Russian troops were poised to invade the country. Organized into as many as 120 battalion tactical groups, each had armor and artillery and was backed by superior air support. Few imagined that Ukrainian forces could hold out for very long against the Russian steamroller. The main question about the Russian plans was whether they included sufficient forces to occupy such a large country after the battle was won. But the estimates had failed to account for the many elements that factor into a true measure of military capabilities.

Military power is not only about a nation’s armaments and the skill with which they are used. It must take into account the resources of the enemy, as well as the contributions from allies and friends, whether in the form of practical assistance or direct interventions. And although military strength is often measured in firepower, by counting inventories of arms and the size of armies, navies, and air forces, much depends on the quality of the equipment, how well it has been maintained, and on the training and motivation of the personnel using it. In any war, the ability of an economy to sustain the war effort, and the resilience of the logistical systems to ensure that supplies reach the front lines as needed, is of increasing importance as the conflict wears on. So is the degree to which a belligerent can mobilize and maintain support for its own cause, both domestically and externally, and undermine that of the enemy, tasks that require constructing compelling narratives that can rationalize setbacks as well as anticipate victories. Above all, however, military power depends on effective command. And that includes both a country’s political leaders, who act as supreme commanders, and those seeking to achieve their military goals as operational commanders.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored the crucial role of command in determining ultimate military success. The raw force of arms can only do so much for a state. As Western leaders discovered in Afghanistan and Iran, superior military hardware and firepower may enable forces to gain control of territory, but they are far less effective in the successful administration of that territory. In Ukraine, Putin has struggled even to gain control of territory, and the way that his forces have waged war has already ensured that any attempt to govern, even in Ukraine’s supposedly pro-Russian east, will be met by animosity and resistance. For in launching the invasion, Putin made the familiar but catastrophic mistake of underestimating the enemy, assuming it to be weak at its core, while having excessive confidence in what his own forces could achieve.

Commands are authoritative orders, to be obeyed without question. Military organizations require strong chains of command because they commit disciplined and purposeful violence. At times of war, commanders face the special challenge of persuading subordinates to act against their own survival instincts and overcome the normal inhibitions about murdering their fellow humans. The stakes can be extremely high. Commanders may have the fate of their countries in their hands and must be deeply aware of the potential for national humiliation should they fail as well as for national glory if they succeed.

Military command is often described as a form of leadership, and as outlined in treatises on command, the qualities sought in military leaders are often those that would be admirable in almost any setting: deep professional knowledge, the ability to use resources efficiently, good communication skills, the ability to get on with others, a sense of moral purpose and responsibility, and a willingness to care for subordinates. But the high stakes of war and the stresses of combat impose their own demands. Here, the relevant qualities include an instinct for maintaining the initiative, an aptitude for seeing complex situations clearly, a capacity for building trust, and the ability to respond nimbly to changing or unexpected conditions. The historian Barbara Tuchman identified the need for a combination of resolution—“the determination to win through”—and judgment, or the capacity to use one’s experience to read situations. A commander who combines resolve with keen strategic intelligence can achieve impressive results, but resolve combined with stupidity can lead to ruin.

Not all subordinates will automatically follow commands. Sometimes orders are inappropriate, perhaps because they are based on dated and incomplete intelligence and may therefore be ignored by even the most diligent field officer. In other cases, their implementation might be possible but unwise, perhaps because there is a better way to achieve the same objectives. Faced with orders they dislike or distrust, subordinates can seek alternatives to outright disobedience. They can procrastinate, follow orders half-heartedly, or interpret them in a way that fits better with the situation that confronts them.

To avoid these tensions, however, the modern command philosophy followed in the West has increasingly sought to encourage subordinates to take the initiative to deal with the circumstances at hand; commanders trust those close to the action to make the vital decisions yet are ready to step in if events go awry. This is the approach Ukrainian forces have adopted. Russia’s command philosophy is more........

© Foreign Affairs

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