Why Putin's Eastern Blitz Is Failing

Women walk past a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol.
Women walk past a destroyed apartment building in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic, eastern Ukraine, Monday, May 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov)

Gary Anderson retired as chief of staff of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. From 2003 to 2005, he served as a special adviser to the deputy secretary of defense.

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Military analysts who believed that Russia's shift of its main invasion effort to eastern and southern Ukraine would allow the Russians to switch to the kind of massed mobile warfare that would favor them have been proven wrong. 

They believed that the more open terrain of the east would favor Russian massed armor formations. Instead, the Russian drive is devolving into a slog. Western intelligence points to various reasons for this: They include poor training, abysmal leadership, over-centralized command, horrible communications security, and lack of air superiority. 

All of these are contributing factors, but the key problem is cities. The Russians are poor at urban warfare, and the Ukrainians, who excel at it, have again forced the Russians to think urban. 

Since the American Civil War and the Wars of German Unification, conventional warfare thinking has been dominated by the notion that the destruction of the enemy's army is the key strategic objective. The theory is that once an enemy's army has been destroyed, his cities become war prizes. The highest form of military art from 1865 to 1945 was the double envelopment resulting in the destruction or capture of the opponent's main field force by maneuver. 

When that failed -- as it did in the von Schlieffen Plan of 1914 -- campaigns degenerated into attritional bloodbaths. The approach of mass maneuver became the doctrine of virtually every major Western army, but it has been particularly true of the Soviet/Russian model. That approach assumed that the enemy's combat power was also based on a mass conventional mechanized/motorized force. 

    Contrary to popular belief, the great Russian victory at Stalingrad was not a triumph of Russian urban combat skill. Adolf Hitler violated German doctrine by making the city a political objective because it was named for Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Although holding the city was a prestige point for Stalin as well, Russian defense of the urban center was merely one element of their strategy, as it fixed the German 6th Army in place while Marshal Georgy Zhukov engineered one of the great double envelopments of military history -- trapping the Germans in the kind of cauldron battle, or Kesselschlacht, that they had perfected earlier in the war. Since that time, Stalingrad has become the model for Russian doctrine.

    Unfortunately for Putin's ambitions, the Ukrainians adopted a more decentralized approach that denied the Russians a large target that could be overwhelmed by mass and maneuver. Whether one describes it as a hybrid or unconventional approach, the Ukrainians used the urban terrain around cities such as Kiev and Kharkiv to force the Russians into urban combat for which they were not prepared by inclination or training. 

    That is the primary reason why the Russian General Staff switched its focus of effort to the east, but the Ukrainians have made it clear that they will not play the Russian game. The east still has cities, and that is where Kiev's military is again forcing them to fight. Long-term control of any part of Ukraine requires control of the population, and most of the population lives in towns and cities. The Russians understand that they cannot afford to turn every city and town into a Mariupol. 

    If the eastern and southern fronts turn into a stalemate like World War I, with towns and cities being traded like chess pieces, it may provide both the Ukrainians and Russians an off-ramp. The Russians clearly desire to occupy as much of the east and the south as they can and then hold rigged elections to give a veneer of legitimacy to their conquest. Not only are the Ukrainians holding their own, but they are beginning to take back some towns. 

    Worse for the Russians, their original advantage in men and armor has degraded. The British now believe that the ratio is getting closer to 1:1, with NATO nations backfilling Kiev's forces with tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery. 

    Short of using nuclear weapons -- which would likely prove counterproductive -- Moscow would be smart to try to hold onto its gains in a negotiated peace. If that peace results in internationally supervised local referendums, some areas will probably vote to go Russian, giving Moscow something to show for its efforts. Kiev would be well advised to get rid of these cancers of its body politic.

    Mr. Putin lost his war in the first weeks. Worse, he has lost the world's respect for himself and for Russian arms. If he doesn't come out with something to show, he may lose his job as well.

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