Defeat Doctrine and the Last Resort to Madness
What if Ukraine Wins?
Open source analysts are reporting that Ukraine has successfully trapped a Russian army northwest of Kyiv. Made possible by deft use of regional flood controls, this would be the greatest defeat of Russian arms in over a century, if true. Russia skeptics are triumphant already; indeed Francis Fukuyama is practically crowing. “Putin will not survive the defeat of his army. He gets support because he is perceived to be a strongman,” Fukuyama writes. “What does he have to offer once he demonstrates incompetence and is stripped of his coercive power?” True enough, but hold the parade. A few notes are in order.
1 - Hydrological warfare techniques. Ukraine understood their own Rasputitsa (spring wet season) better than Vladimir Putin. Using their flood control infrastructure, Ukraine has reportedly cut off and encircled Russian formations with mud. Trapped in these mottis, units can be destroyed by lighter forces through efficient application of firepower. Belgians flooded their own fields to stop a German army in Flanders in 1914. A strategy like the one being discussed in Ukraine requires long-term planning by a central state apparatus in cooperation with civil and military authority. Given the force mix I have observed thus far in Ukrainian hands, it is evident that cooperative and creative thinking has gone into streamlined defensive tactical organization. Allies, official or not, were key to making grand strategies succeed in the field.
2 - Ukraine is the Belgium of all Europe. There are a number of ways in which this conflict resonates with the First World War, and I won’t go into them all in this post. I only note that Putin’s invasion has galvanized Europe in ways I had thought impossible because Ukraine was seen as neutral. Putin’s fake news campaign to make Ukraine out as an aggressive fascist dictatorship points to just how innocent Ukraine is. Blame for the war lies entirely with the Russian autocrat who cannot let go. Attacking this dynamic is now a focus of Putin’s media platforms, but I doubt anyone new is being fooled. On the contrary, Russia is more isolated than ever, just as invading Belgium cut Germany off from global trade and made victory a material impossibility over time.
3 - Ukraine just needs help enforcing their own no-fly zone. So far, the Ukrainian Air Force has succeeded in keeping the western half of the country an operational sanctuary. Combat flights in contested airspace have maintained air superiority and Russian aircraft are being attrited at much higher rates as a result. Radars, which are easily the most vulnerable part of any air defense plan, are needed most desperately, with familiar missile systems second. These platforms force Russian aircraft to fly at low altitude, where abundant shoulder-fired munitions are wasting Russian tactical air power. The bombing campaign against cities this week has resulted in lost bombers, each more damaging to Russia than the target it was sent to strike. Ukraine wins the air war every day just by continuing to not lose.
4 - Ukraine will never stop resisting. Putin imagined that Ukraine was not real to Ukrainians. If anything, his invasion has galvanized a nation into being. Morale remains very high in Ukraine, though civilian casualties continue to mount. As destructive as these attacks are, they are insufficient for destroying the will to resist in Ukraine. To be sure, Ukrainians need many things, such as antiaircraft missiles and radars. These are far easier to mobilize in Ukraine than a Russian army, however. As the defender, Ukraine has enough depth to continue resisting Russian advances and inflicting costly local defeats for as long as it takes to win the war. Russians have not made it to Kyiv yet, and as of this writing I see no reason to think they ever will. Firepower will not be enough to make Ukraine stop fighting. President Zelenskyy is practically taunting Putin to come and get him in the urban rabbit-warren of Kyiv where his tanks can be destroyed by the thousands. Killing Russians is the national sport right now. There will be no performative defeat to salve any egos at the Kremlin.
5 - Desperate regimes are the most dangerous. Reiterating a point made here before, the possibility that NATO forces might actually defeat a Soviet attack with conventional armies gave Cold War planners their worst nightmares. President Zelenskyy expressed worry today that in accusing Ukraine of having chemical weapons, Putin may be projecting his own plans to use them against Ukraine. A resort to nuclear or chemical warfare in the face of defeat is exactly the scenario that Gen. Sir John Winthrop Hackett envisaged in his bestselling 1979 wargame report. Only 1980s kids will remember Twilight: 2000, a role playing game also premised on desperate Soviets popping off nukes to prevent defeat. Will Vladimir Putin and his clique allow defeat to happen in Ukraine? Will they settle for some sort of pretend-victory along lines of control? What would American and NATO response to Russian use of chemical or nuclear warfare against Ukrainian cities be? That is the weekend punditry discussion we need right now. Defeat has a history of making the grandest egos contemplate options that had been unthinkable.
6 - Putin has already used chemical weapons in Syria. Bashar al-Assad first used chemical weapons (CW) in Homs during 2012 as defeat loomed in the Arab Spring. Terrified of further democratic revolutions, Putin gave a free hand to Assad, inheritor of a Russia-Syria CW development program going back decades. Syrian sarin gas is a refined Russian formulation. No other actor in the Syrian theater has ever been identified as having sarin production capacity. Nevertheless, a well-funded and fashionable media clique of the American left continues to deny that the world’s most brutal regimes would ever contemplate such a horrific act. Vladimir Putin’s GRU has carried out chemical attacks on civilians abroad. Perhaps the only thing preventing it right now is a shortage of chemical warfare equipment among Russian forces in Ukraine. The moment such items begin to appear on muddy Russian soldiers, NATO must respond unambiguously — and the world must contemplate what to do about a new, 21st-Century, real-time holocaust denial industry.