We Should Help the Ukrainians Go for a Decisive Win

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Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank through the town of Trostsyanets near Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers ride a tank through the town of Trostsyanets, some 400 km eastern of capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, March 28, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

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Gary Anderson lectures on Alternative Analysis (Red Teaming) at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs. He served as a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense during the George W. Bush administration.

Western military analysts who predicted a quick collapse of Ukraine under the boots of the mighty Russian army are wrong again. They are now urging Kyiv's forces to dig in and conduct a long war of attrition.

Instead, the Ukrainian army should go on the offensive to retake the disputed Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of Ukraine, as well as the southern coastline. If that sounds like an audacious move, it is, but there is some sound military history behind the notion.

George Patton believed that the only way to really get to know an enemy is to fight him. The Ukrainians have been fighting the Russians for nearly six weeks now and believe that they have the measure of their opponents. Repeatedly in history, overconfident and underdisciplined armies have been first routed and then disintegrated by a well-executed surprise offensive. The most recent example was the 1967 Six-Day War, when a coalition of Arab states was armed with state-of-the art Soviet (Russian) equipment and attempted to conquer Israel. Once an Israeli preemptive airstrike had turned the vaunted Soviet-supplied fighters and bombers into junk, ill-trained Egyptian and Syrian tankers began dying in droves at the hands of well-drilled Israeli tank crews. A few days into the war, Arab tankers and other mounted troops began to abandon their vehicles at the first sight of an Israeli tank or aircraft.

Another example is the fall of France in 1940. The French had an army considered to be the best in Europe, including probably the best tanks in the world; excellent aircraft; and the vaunted Maginot Line, a range of fortifications meant to deter attack. Some of the shock experienced by French forces during the German advance can be attributed to the Germans attacking from an unexpected direction through the Ardennes Forest -- which had been considered impassible by large, armored forces -- but that does not explain the extent of the debacle. The French general staff and Army-level formations found the Germans ahead of them at every turn. High-level decision-making paralysis set in.

As with the Russians today, the rot in the fabric of the French army went far deeper than anything that mere surprise could explain away. Once the inflexible, top-down French operational plan was disrupted, they could not recover. At lower echelons, French officers had been discouraged from taking individual initiative absent direction from higher headquarters. Except for a few rebels like Brig. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, paralysis set in among the rank and file. Ill-trained, poorly motivated draftees began drifting away from the ranks, spreading panic among civilians and troops moving up to the front.

The Russian army is showing all the signs of disintegration detailed in the examples above. Whether the massacres of civilians in places such as Bucha are part of a policy decision in Moscow to spread terror, or a demonstration of morally bankrupt troops acting on their own, is irrelevant. The poorly led and ill-disciplined Russian troops are apparently not stopping with civilians; officers are being "fragged" by their own troops and vehicles are being disabled to avoid combat. In either case, Russian leader Vladimir Putin is not off the hook. As commander in chief of the Russian armed forces, he is responsible for everything they do or fail to do.

A recent war game conducted by the U.S. Marine Corps tried to project the war a year out. If things keep going as they are, with Russian forces concentrating to the east and the Ukrainians digging in to prevent further Russian gains, the Marine Corps analysts see a long bloody slog for both sides that would resemble 1915 on the Western Front. Unfortunately, that outcome will give the Russians time to sort out their logistics, replace incompetent leaders, and recover some morale by properly training replacements for the rigors of real combat, which they did not expect when the invasion began. Consequently, the Ukrainians have nothing to lose by going over to the offensive in the hopes of forcing a Russian disintegration. Even if the offensive fails, they will be no worse off than if they had remained on the defensive in the first place. If it succeeds in ejecting all or most Russian forces from Ukrainian soil, the Kyiv government will be in a much better bargaining position than if it remains on the defensive.

If his army collapses, the worst that could happen is that a panicked Putin uses tactical nuclear or chemical weapons. If he uses tactical nukes, he will quickly find that the threat of such weapons is much more useful as a deterrent than in practice. The highly distributed nature of the Ukrainian army will make it very hard to do effective targeting, and the Russians will make "no go" zones, poisoned with the remnants of their weapons of mass destruction, in areas that they might want to use in the future. As both sides found during World War I, chemical weapons only make a bad situation more unpleasant.

Although Putin's stature and reputation are much diminished, President Joe Biden and the other leaders of NATO still appear to reluctant to supply Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy with the Polish aircraft, long-range air defense systems, and the quantity of munitions that the Ukrainians would need to launch a truly effective counteroffensive. That is a shame, as it would be a worthwhile attempt to allow Ukraine to win decisively and quickly.

As fighter pilots like to say: "No guts, no glory."

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