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Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, is well remembered for his virtually mystical performance on the battlefield. For 14 years he waged war against Rome and never lost an engagement - until the last one, the battle of Zama. And even then, his defeat was a direct result of the earlier betrayal by his ally of a decade - Masinissa. And even with a third of his army relatively inexperienced levies, he came close to winning that battle. But Hannibal had already lost. In fact, it can be readily argued that Hannibal lost 17 years earlier, when he attacked into Italy with the wrong strategy.
Hannibal made a tremendous error, long before the first sword was unsheathed: he fundamentally failed to understand his enemy - both the Romans and their allies. He failed to understand how Romans were committed to their city and their way of life, as were their allies. As a result, when he savaged the Roman army, they raised another. When he did it again, they raised a third… The idea that they would not fight was inconceivable to Romans of the Republic. For 17 years Rome endured. For a decade and half he roamed up and down the peninsula, and when any forces of any size at all showed themselves, they were defeated, badly. Yet he could never get the cities to surrender, nor did he have the means to conduct prolonged sieges.
Perhaps there was another strategy that might have yielded a victory. But Hannibal never tried it. Putin made the same mistake.
Why is a failure of strategy so “fatal?” Your chosen strategy determines not only what you are going to do to achieve your aims, but how many assets you are going to commit to do it. But, an error in strategy nearly always is marked my an incorrect assessment of the enemy people themselves. Thus, you fail to understand what needs to be done to beat the other guy. All war is a matter of will, of breaking the other’s will. If you don’t truly understand the other side, it’s doubtful you will ever devise a strategy that will break his will. You may kill him, but you probably won’t break his will.
The analogy with Putin is loose; neither Putin nor any of his generals are a modern-day Hannibal. But Putin did massively fail to understand who he was fighting.
Putin’s first - and greatest - error in this war was his failure to make an accurate assessment of Ukraine, and of the other forces that might or might not be “on the field.” He - and his staff - expected Ukraine to buckle quickly; he didn’t expect the Ukrainians to stand and fight, he didn’t think they would want to hold onto their country so fiercely. Nor did he understand that, despite the ambivalent words from various leaders in the West as to how they might respond, whether it was an invasion or simply a “minor incursion,” he failed to understand how quickly public opinion could turn, and how fast public opinion could force Western leaders to support Ukraine.
Russia’s failure to understand how rapidly opinion can change in the West was as dire a strategic miscalculation as Hannibal’s failure to understand how the citizens of Rome wanted to keep their republic - even at the cost of 5% or more of their population. Pundits said Americans were tired of foreign involvement; President Biden made a blasé comment just a week or so before the invasion that there might be no response if the Russian action was “just a limited incursion.” The planners who had Putin’s ear thought this was going to be a cake walk. That position changed within just a few short days.
Having failed to understand that Ukraine would resist, and having failed to understand that public option can move fast in the West, Putin soon found himself facing not Ukraine, but Ukraine backed by the US and Europe, not a single country of 35 million (41 million on paper, 35 million in the nation) versus Russia’s 147 million, not a county with a $150 billion GDP versus Russia’s $1.9 trillion GDP, but Ukraine with allies with 900 million people and a collective GDP of $44 trillion, far greater technology and intelligence than Russia, and a massive store of advanced, ready to use, weaponry.
Thus, the Putin approved plan not only failed to achieve its aims, it united the US and Europe in a common cause, and turned 95% of Ukrainians into rabid patriots.
Since then Putin and his generals have been trying to adapt, all of it well covered in the press and on line. They’ve tried to adopt new strategies several times, the first plan having failed; Russian forces withdrew from around Kiev and began what might be called a slow grind, a plodding, conservative tactic.
This was slowly working and you know what followed: Ukrainians amassed forces for an offensive (with massive support of the US and NATO), Russians responded quickly by flowing forces north of Kherson (despite bridges knocked out by HIMARS), the Ukrainians attacked east of Kharkiv - having identified weak points in the Russian lines (reportedly, per the New York Times, based on intelligence provided by the US), and then Putin’s new field commander withdrew from west of the Dnepr River, shortened up his lines, and began a more aggressive campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure.
Ukrainian battlefield success, despite the public fascination with HIMARS, is not because of some wonder weapon, but because of some fundamentals, to include: better intelligence, interior lines of communication, superior logistics, allocating their best troops against the weakest spot in the Russian line, a unified country whose citizens are committed and fighting for survival, and the supply of a huge amount of weaponry and other support from the US and the EU.
So, what next?
1) The Russians will launch another offensive - how that will play out will be almost completely dependent on how much ammunition the US / NATO can get to the Ukrainian front line. Ukraine will also launch another offensive. The supply of weapons - especially tanks - from the US and NATO will be the “keystone in the arch.”
2) The Russians are going to keep hitting the power grid and the Ukrainians are going to keep pressing for more offensive capability. Russia will fail to learn the lesson that every air force has failed to learn, as it was summed up by an old Navy F-4 guy who dropped a lot of bombs on North Vietnam: “Dropping bombs on people pisses them off.” I’m afraid that Ukraine will also not learn it; at some point someone is going pop off a round at the Kremlin and this war will probably escalate.
3) The Ukrainians are going to learn that victory on the battlefield doesn’t necessarily translate into strategic success; the GDP has shrunk by 1/3rd (and probably more - government statistics being what they are), and the population continues to shrink; 52 million in 1991, probably no more than 35 million today actually physically in country, may well be 30 million, and the damage estimate is nearing a $1 trillion.
So, can Ukraine win? Without substantial US and EU help, no. With it? Perhaps, for a while, assuming Russia doesn’t escalate the war into a nuclear engagement, which is probably a more likely outcome now than at any time in the past ten months. But we should also be wary of victory disease. The Russian army, particularly the one that has been through the last 10 months of fighting, is not one of incompetent and untrained Russian recruits led by drunk, utterly incompetent officers. If the Russian army were as bad as they have been painted (by a masterful Ukrainian InfoWar program), this war would have been over months ago. The Russians have learned, their weapons do work, and the troops have guts.
It’s also important to remember what a Ukrainian colonel said to me a few weeks ago: this war hasn’t been going on for 10 months, or nine years, it’s been going on for 400 years; win or lose, this problem will not go away.
I’ll close with two thoughts, the first which I wrote on February 28th:
The real “key take-away” of the first four days of fighting is that the Russians failed to make an accurate net assessment both of Ukraine and Ukrainians on one hand, and of their own capabilities on the other - tactical, operational, logistical, and technological - and as a result their overall strategy failed, that is, they picked the wrong strategy. Now they are trying to adjust tactics to make up for this strategic shortfall. In all likelihood they will fail, as the insurgency grinds on. Given the horrific net assessment from which the Russians formed their plan, it is probable that the Russians will switch to more heavy-handed tactics in order to force a conclusion. But, it is worth remembering the words of Field Marshal Helmut von Moltke the Elder: “Errors in tactics can be corrected in the next battle. Errors in strategy can only be corrected in the next war.”
I raise that for two reasons: the first is to emphasize that the Russians may have messed up, but they aren’t giving up. The second is to ask what is the US strategy and are we sure it’s based on a sound net assessment?
But the second take away is this: just because Russia loses, doesn’t mean Ukraine wins. And tactical success does not mean strategic success. Nor is tactical success additive to some magic point where it becomes strategic success. If it were, we would have won the Vietnam War, the Korean War, and the War in Afghanistan. Just because Ukraine, with vast help from the US and NATO, wins on the battlefield, they can still lose the war - even if Russia doesn’t win it. A steadily decreasing population for the last 30 years, a trend that looks to continue after the war, at best a sluggish economy even before the war, appalling losses - total civilian and military killed might be approaching 300,000. And the damage to the country as a whole is on the order of $1 trillion and climbing, as all the economic forecasts suggest several years of at best sluggish global economies.
And Russia will still be there when this war ends. As the colonel said: this war has in fact been going on for 400 years.
It’s not likely to end soon.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...