Putin’s military strategy ‘failing’ in three crucial elements

Putin 'will lose in Ukraine' says former head of British Army

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A military historian and strategist has laid bare the three key strategic failures of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that have had a domino effect on its ability to make sweeping gains in the conflict. Professor Edward Luttwak said that Vladimir Putin’s tactical blunders have made a Russian victory “unlikely”.

It is widely believed – and repeated by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson just yesterday – that the Russian military had planned for a swiftly executed intervention that would lead to the fall of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, in a matter of days.

However, Russia’s armed forces have been dogged with setbacks and humiliating retreats, retaliating with air strikes on population centres and Ukrainian infrastructure.

As the war stretches into its eighth month, the much smaller Ukrainian armed forces have been able to make incisive counter-attacks on Russian occupied regions – particularly in the north-west of the country – while Putin faces economic and domestic turmoil at home.

According to Professor Luttwak, best known as the author of Coup d’État: A Practical Handbook, Putin “collided head on with the paradoxical logic of strategy”.

Following the end of the Cold War, the NATO military alliance had weakened significantly, as it was not unified by a common enemy. Putin seized on this opportunity to strike Ukraine.

But by invading Ukraine, the Russian President created a common threat for the West again, and unified NATO behind the plucky ex-Soviet state.

Ukraine’s successes in holding off a far larger and more powerful aggressor have been attributed to the many forms of military aid allies have given it – in large part by the US and UK.

Putin’s second failing, Professor Luttwak said, was Russia’s lack of a strong and commanding navy – typified by the sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva in April.

Writing in UnHerd yesterday, he said: “Even though Russia has effective attack submarines, both nuclear-powered and diesel-electric in Atlantic waters, the US and Canada have been able to support Ukraine by shipping aid entirely unmolested.

“Because Russian naval forces are totally deterred, western Europe has its safe material and strategic depth in the Atlantic.”

According to the military expert, the Russian assault on Ukraine has failed on all four layers of strategy that must be considered for an intervention to prove successful.

On a tactical level, Putin thought an “elite” assault force landing at the Antonov air base outside Kyiv would be able to take the airfield and “swiftly seize the capital”. Meanwhile, Ukraine had only the forces that were nearby.

But Putin underestimated the strong morale among Ukrainians to resist a Russian incursion. Professor Luttwak wrote: “Because they had expected no resistance at all […] they were shocked by the ferocious resistance, and soon had to flee into the nearby woods.

“A Russian tactical victory would not have won the war, but the tactical defeat at the Antonov field was catastrophic, because the entire Russian war plan was based on a fast Coup de Main to seize central Kyiv in a matter of hours.”

That, in turn, concatenated a failure at an operational level: rather than attacking from multiple directions, which would have meant a single tactical defeat would not have stopped the other advances, the Russian military premised their whole plan on capturing the capital.

When they were unable to advance via the Antonov airbase, the columns of tanks and armoured vehicles headed for Kyiv would not be met by the thousands of occupying troops they hoped to fly in.

Professor Luttwak said: “Recall that double column of armoured vehicles and supply trucks in those satellite pictures: it could neither advance nor retreat without entangling itself in thousands of cumbersome U-turns.”

He continued that Putin had become “a reckless gambler”, sending a “very small” army of 130,000 men to attack Europe’s largest nation – a failure of theatre-of-war strategy. By contrast, when the Soviet Union invaded the much smaller Czechoslovakia in 1968, it sent an army of 800,000.

Professor Luttwak has become renowned for his theory on grand strategy – that concerning the scale of a nation’s population and economy. But he argued to draw power from mass in conflict, a nation needs cohesion.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Putin has seen many of Russia’s allies remain neutral – despite recent reports that he may call on nearby Belarus to join the conflict – and push other neutral nations, such as Sweden and Finland, into the hands of NATO.

The Russian despot has already mobilised a far larger number of reservists, which “could stop Ukraine’s victories” once trained. Russia “can lose many battles and yet still keep fighting” in virtue of the number of fighting men it has, Professor Luttwak said.

However, historically a year or more of Russian defeat in wars have usually been followed with victory only with the help of other great powers.

The military expert noted: “This time, however, there will be no allies to rescue Putin.”

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