How to Get a Breakthrough in Ukraine
The Case Against Incrementalism
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 Iraq, 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 hierarchical. In principle, Russian doctrine allows for local initiative, but the command structures in place do not encourage subordinates to risk disobeying their orders. Inflexible command systems can lead to excessive caution, a fixation on certain tactics even when they are inappropriate, and a lack of “ground truth,” as subordinates dare not report problems and instead insist that all is well.
Russia’s problems with command in Ukraine are less a consequence of military philosophy than of current political leadership. In autocratic systems such as Russia’s, officials and officers must think twice before challenging superiors. Life is easiest when they act on the leader’s wishes without question. Dictators can certainly make bold decisions on war, but these are far more likely to be based on their own ill-informed assumptions and are unlikely to have been challenged in a careful decision-making process. Dictators tend to surround themselves with like-minded advisers and to prize loyalty above competence in their senior military commanders.
Putin’s readiness to trust his own judgment in Ukraine reflected the fact that his past decisions on the use of force had worked out well for him. The state of the Russian military in the 1990s before he took power was dire, as shown by Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s 1994–96 war in Chechnya. At the end of 1994, Russian Defense Minister Pavel Grachev reassured Yeltsin that he could end Chechnya’s effort to secede from the Russian Federation by moving Russian forces quickly into Grozny, the Chechen capital. The Kremlin viewed Chechnya as an artificial, gangster-infested state for which few of its citizens could be expected to sacrifice their lives, especially when confronted with the full blast of Russian military power—misguided assumptions somewhat similar to those made on a much larger scale in the current invasion of Ukraine. The Russian units included many conscripts with little training, and the Kremlin failed to appreciate how much the Chechen defenders would be able to take advantage of the urban terrain. The results were disastrous. On the first day of the attack, the Russian army lost over 100 armored vehicles, including tanks; Russian soldiers were soon being killed at the rate of 100 a day. In his memoirs, Yeltsin described the war as the moment when Russia “parted with one more exceptionally dubious but fond illusion—about the might of our army . . . about its indomitability.”
The first Chechen war concluded unsatisfactorily in 1996. A few years later, Vladimir Putin, who became the ailing Yeltsin’s prime minister in September 1999, decided to fight the war again, but this time he made sure that Russia was prepared. Putin had previously been head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, the successor to the KGB, where he began his career. When apartment buildings in Moscow and elsewhere were bombed in September 1999, Putin blamed Chechen terrorists (although there was good reason to suspect the FSB was seeking to create a pretext for a new war) and ordered Russian troops to gain control of Chechnya by “all available means.” In this second Chechen war, Russia proceeded with more deliberation and ruthlessness until it succeeded in occupying Grozny. Although the war dragged on for some time, Putin’s visible commitment to ending the Chechen rebellion was sufficient to provide him with a decisive victory in the spring 2000 presidential election. As Putin was campaigning, journalists asked him which political leaders he found “most interesting.” After citing Napoleon—which the reporters took as a joke—he offered Charles de Gaulle, a natural choice perhaps for someone who wanted to restore the effectiveness of the state with a strong centralized authority.
The taking of Crimea confirmed Putin’s status as a shrewd commander.
By 2013, Putin had gone some way toward achieving that end. High commodity prices had given him a strong economy. He had also marginalized his political opposition at home, consolidating his power. Yet Russia’s relations with the West had worsened, particularly concerning Ukraine. Ever since the Orange Revolution of 2004–5, Putin had worried that a pro-Western government in Kyiv might seek to join NATO, a fear aggravated when the issue was broached at NATO’s 2008 Bucharest summit. The crisis, however, came in 2013, when Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, was about to sign an association agreement with the EU. Putin put intense pressure on Yanukovych until he agreed not to sign. But Yanukovych’s reversal led to exactly what Putin had feared, a popular uprising—the Maidan movement—that ultimately brought down Yanukovych and left Ukraine completely in the hands of pro-Western leaders. At this point, Putin resolved to annex Crimea.
In launching his plan, Putin had the advantages of a Russian naval base at Sevastopol and considerable support for Russia among the local population. Yet he still proceeded carefully. His strategy, which he has followed since, was to present any aggressive Russian move as no more than a response to pleas from people who needed protection. Deploying troops with standard uniforms and equipment but no markings, who came to be known as the “little green men,” the Kremlin successfully convinced the local parliament to call a referendum on incorporating Crimea into Russia. As these events unfolded, Putin was prepared to hold back should Ukraine or its Western allies put up a serious challenge. But Ukraine was in disarray—it had only an acting minister of defense and no decision-making authority in a position to respond—and the West took no action against Russia beyond limited sanctions. For Putin, the taking of Crimea, with hardly any casualties, and with the West largely standing on the sidelines, confirmed his status as a shrewd supreme commander.
But Putin was not content to walk away with this clear prize; instead, that spring and summer, he allowed Russia to be drawn into a far more intractable conflict in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Here, he could not follow the formula that had worked so well in Crimea: pro-Russian sentiment in the east was too feeble to imply widespread popular support for secession. Very quickly, the conflict became militarized, with Moscow claiming that separatist militias were acting independently of Russia. Nonetheless, by summer, when it looked like the separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk, the two pro-Russian enclaves in the Donbas, might be defeated by the Ukrainian army, the Kremlin sent in regular Russian forces. Although the Russians then had no trouble against the Ukrainian army, Putin was still cautious. He did not annex the enclaves, as the separatists wanted, but instead took the opportunity to get a deal in Minsk, intending to use the enclaves to influence Kyiv’s policies.
To some Western observers, Russia’s war in the Donbas looked like a potent new strategy of hybrid warfare. As analysts described it, Russia was able to put its adversaries on the back foot by bringing together regular and irregular forces and overt and covert activities and by combining established forms of military action with cyberattacks and information warfare. But this assessment overstated the coherence of the Russian approach. In practice, the Russians had set in motion events with unpredictable consequences, led by individuals they struggled to control, for objectives they did not wholly share. The Minsk agreement was never implemented, and the fighting never stopped. At most, Putin had made the best of a bad job, containing the conflict and, while disrupting Ukraine, deterring the West from getting too involved. Unlike in Crimea, Putin had shown an uncertain touch as a commander, with the Donbas enclaves left in limbo, belonging to no country, and Ukraine continuing to move closer to the West.
By the summer of 2021, the Donbas war had been at a stalemate for more than seven years, and Putin decided on a bold plan to bring matters to a head. Having failed to use the enclaves to influence Kyiv, he sought to use their plight to make the case for regime change in Kyiv, ensuring that it would reenter Moscow’s sphere of influence and never again contemplate joining either NATO or the EU. Thus, he would undertake a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Such an approach would require a huge commitment of armed forces and an audacious campaign. But Putin’s confidence had been boosted by Russia’s recent military intervention in Syria, which successfully propped up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, and by recent efforts to modernize Russia’s armed forces. Western analysts had largely accepted Russian claims about the country’s growing military strength, including new systems and armaments, such as “hypersonic weapons,” that at least sounded impressive. Moreover, healthy Russian financial reserves would limit the effect of any punitive sanctions. And the West appeared divided and unsettled after Donald Trump’s presidency, an impression that was confirmed by the botched U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021.
When Putin launched what he called the “special military operation” in Ukraine, many in the West feared that it might succeed. Western observers had watched Russia’s massive buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border for months, and when the invasion began, the minds of U.S. and European strategists raced ahead to the implications of a Russian victory that threatened to incorporate Ukraine into a revitalized Greater Russia. Although some NATO countries, such as the United States and the United Kingdom, had rushed military supplies to Ukraine, others, following this pessimism, were more reluctant. Additional equipment, they concluded, was likely to arrive too late or even be captured by the Russians.
Less noted was that the Russian troop buildup—notwithstanding its formidable scale—was far from sufficient to take and hold all of Ukraine. Even many in or connected to the Russian military could see the risks. In early February 2022, Igor “Strelkov” Girkin, one of the original Russian separatist leaders in the 2014 campaign, observed that Ukraine’s military was better prepared than it had been eight years earlier and that “there aren’t nearly enough troops mobilized, or being mobilized.” Yet Putin did not consult experts on Ukraine, relying instead on his closest advisers—old comrades from the Russian security apparatus—who echoed his dismissive view that Ukraine could be easily taken.
As soon as the invasion got underway, the central weaknesses in the Russian campaign became apparent. The plan was for a short war, with decisive advances in several different parts of the country on the first day. But Putin and his advisers’ optimism meant that the plan was shaped largely around rapid operations by elite combat units. Little consideration was given to logistics and supply lines, which limited Russia’s ability to sustain the offensive once it stalled, and all the essentials of modern warfare, including food, fuel, and ammunition, began to be rapidly consumed. In effect, the number of axes of advance created a number of separate wars being fought at once, all presenting their own challenges, each with their own command structures and without an appropriate mechanism to coordinate their efforts and allocate resources among them.
The first sign that things were not going according to Putin’s plan was what happened at the Hostomel airport, near Kyiv. Told that they would meet little resistance, the elite paratroopers who had been sent to hold the airport for incoming transport aircraft were instead repelled by a Ukrainian counterattack. Eventually, the Russians succeeded in taking the airport, but by then, it was too damaged to be of any value. Elsewhere, apparently formidable Russian tank units were stopped by far more lightly armed Ukrainian defenders. According to one account, a huge column of Russian tanks that was destined for Kyiv was initially stopped by a group of just 30 Ukrainian soldiers, who approached it at night on quad bikes and succeeded in destroying a few vehicles at the head of the column, leaving the rest stuck on a narrow roadway and open to further attack. The Ukrainians successfully repeated such ambushes in many other areas.
Ukrainian forces, with Western assistance, had undertaken energetic reforms and planned their defenses carefully. They were also highly motivated, unlike many of their Russian counterparts, who were unsure why they were there. Agile Ukrainian units, drawing first on antitank weapons and drones and then on artillery, caught Russian forces by surprise. In the end, then, the early course of the war was determined not by greater numbers and firepower but by superior tactics, commitment, and command.
From the outset of the invasion, the contrast between the Russian and Ukrainian approaches to command was stark. Putin’s original strategic error was to assume that Ukraine was both hostile enough to engage in anti-Russian activities and incapable of resisting Russian might. As the invasion stalled, Putin appeared unable to adapt to the new reality, insisting that the campaign was on schedule and proceeding according to plan. Prevented from mentioning the high numbers of Russian casualties and numerous battlefield setbacks, the Russian media have relentlessly reinforced government propaganda about the war. By contrast, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the initial target of the Russian operation, refused offers from the United States and other Western powers to be taken to safety to form a government in exile. He not only survived but stayed in Kyiv, visible and voluble, rallying his people and pressing Western governments for more support, financial and military. By demonstrating the overwhelming commitment of the Ukrainian people to defend their country, he encouraged the West to impose far more severe sanctions on Russia than it might otherwise have done, as well as to get supplies of weapons and war materiel to Ukraine. While Putin stubbornly repeated himself as his “special military operation” faltered, Zelensky grew in confidence and political stature.
Putin’s baleful influence also hung over other key strategic decisions by Russia. The first, following the initial setbacks, was the Russian military’s decision to adopt the brutal tactics it had used in Chechnya and Syria: targeting civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and residential buildings. These attacks caused immense suffering and hardship and, as could have been predicted, only strengthened Ukrainian resolve. The tactics were also counterproductive in another sense. Combined with the revelations about possible war crimes by Russian troops in areas around Kyiv, such as Bucha, Russia’s attacks on nonmilitary targets convinced leaders in Washington and other Western capitals that it was pointless to try to broker a compromise settlement with Putin. Instead, Western governments accelerated the flow of weapons to Ukraine, with a growing emphasis on offensive as well as defensive systems. This was not the war between Russia and NATO claimed by Moscow propagandists, but it was rapidly becoming the next closest thing.
An unbroken string of poor command decisions left Putin with few options.
A second key strategic decision came on March 25, when Russia abandoned its maximalist goal of taking Kyiv and announced that it was concentrating instead on the “complete liberation” of the Donbas region. This new objective, although it promised to bring greater misery to the east, was more realistic, and it would have been yet more so if it had been the initial aim of the invasion. The Kremlin also now appointed an overall Russian commander to lead the war, a general whose approach would be more methodical and employ additional artillery to prepare the ground before armor and infantry moved forward. But the effect of these shifts was limited because Putin needed quick results and didn’t give the Russian forces time to recover and prepare for this second round of the war.
The momentum had already swung from Russia to Ukraine, and it could not be turned around quickly enough to meet Putin’s timetable. Some analysts speculated that Putin wanted something that he could call a victory on May 9, the Russian holiday marking the end of the Great Patriotic War, Russia’s victory over Nazi Germany. As likely, though, was his and his senior military commanders’ desire to make territorial gains in the east before Ukraine could absorb new weapons from the United States and Europe. As a result, Russian commanders sent units that had just been withdrawn from the north back into combat in the east; there was no time to replenish the troops or remedy the failings exhibited in the first phase of the war.
In the new offensive, which began in earnest in mid-April, Russian forces made few gains, while Ukrainian counterattacks nibbled away at their positions. To add to the embarrassment, Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva, was sunk in an audacious Ukrainian attack. By May 9, there was not a lot to celebrate in Moscow. Even the coastal city of Mariupol, which Russia had attacked mercilessly since the start of the war and battered into rubble, was not fully captured until a week later. By that time, Western estimates were suggesting that a third of the initial Russian combat force, both personnel and equipment, had been lost. Rumors had circulated that Putin would use the holiday to announce a general mobilization to meet the army’s need for manpower, but no such announcement was made. For one thing, such a move would have been deeply unpopular in Russia. But it would also have taken time to get conscripts and reservists to the front, and Russia would still face chronic equipment shortages.
After an unbroken string of poor command decisions, Putin was running out of options. As the offensive in Ukraine completed its third month, many observers began to note that Russia had become stuck in an unwinnable war that it dared not lose. Western governments and senior NATO officials began to talk of a conflict that could continue for months, and possibly years, to come. That would depend on the ability of the Russian commanders to keep a fight going with depleted forces of low morale and also on the ability of Ukraine to move from a defensive strategy to an offensive one. Perhaps Russia’s military could still salvage something out of the situation. Or perhaps Putin would see at some point that it might be prudent to call for a cease-fire so he could cash in the gains made early in the war before a Ukrainian counteroffensive took them away, even though that would mean admitting failure.
One must be careful when drawing large lessons from wars with their own special features, particularly from a war whose full consequences are not yet known. Analysts and military planners are certain to study the war in Ukraine for many years as an example of the limits to military power, looking for explanations as to why one of the strongest and largest armed forces in the world, with a formidable air force and navy and new equipment and with recent and successful combat experience, faltered so badly. Before the invasion, when Russia’s military was compared with Ukraine’s smaller and lesser-armed defense forces, few doubted which side would gain the upper hand. But actual war is determined by qualitative and human factors, and it was the Ukrainians who had sharper tactics, brought together by command structures, from the highest political level to the lowlier field commanders, that were fit for the purpose.
Putin’s war in Ukraine, then, is foremost a case study in a failure of supreme command. The way that objectives are set and wars launched by the commander in chief shapes what follows. Putin’s mistakes were not unique; they were typical of those made by autocratic leaders who come to believe their own propaganda. He did not test his optimistic assumptions about the ease with which he could achieve victory. He trusted his armed forces to deliver. He did not realize that Ukraine was a challenge on a completely different scale from earlier operations in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria. But he also relied on a rigid and hierarchical command structure that was unable to absorb and adapt to information from the ground and, crucially, did not enable Russian units to respond rapidly to changing circumstances.
The value of delegated authority and local initiative will be one of the other key lessons from this war. But for these practices to be effective, the military in question must be able to satisfy four conditions. First, there must be mutual trust between those at the senior and most junior levels. Those at the highest level of command must have confidence that their subordinates have the intelligence and ability to do the right thing in demanding circumstances, while their subordinates must have confidence that the high command will provide what backing they can. Second, those doing the fighting must have access to the equipment and supplies they need to keep going. It helped the Ukrainians that they were using portable antitank and air-defense weapons and were fighting close to their home bases, but they still needed their logistical systems to work.
Third, those providing leadership at the most junior levels of command need to be of high quality. Under Western guidance, the Ukrainian army had been developing the sort of noncommissioned officer corps that can ensure that the basic demands of an army on the move will be met, from equipment maintenance to actual preparedness to fight. In practice, even more relevant was that many of those who returned to the ranks when Ukraine mobilized were experienced veterans and had a natural understanding of what needed to be done.
But this leads to the fourth condition. The ability to act effectively at any level of command requires a commitment to the mission and an understanding of its political purpose. These elements were lacking on the Russian side because of the way Putin launched his war: the enemy the Russian forces had been led to expect was not the one they faced, and the Ukrainian population was not, contrary to what they had been told, inclined to be liberated. The more futile the fight, the lower the morale and the weaker the discipline of those fighting. In these circumstances, local initiative can simply lead to desertion or looting. By contrast, the Ukrainians were defending their territory against an enemy intent on destroying their land. There was an asymmetry of motivation that influenced the fighting from the start. Which takes us back to the folly of Putin’s original decision. It is hard to command forces to act in support of a delusion.