Maybe Putin is Just Bad at War?
Occam's razor says yes
Training as a KGB lawyer was a great way to get to the top in Yuri Andropov’s Soviet Union. As the USSR broke up, a KGB lawyer was exactly the right person to grasp power in a chaotic environment, and no one appreciated this gesture more than the exhausted Russian people. It is seldom remarked that the KGB was also one of the few organizations in the Soviet Union that understood western economies at all, so it is not surprising that Vladimir Putin embraced globalization with fair success.
However, a KGB lawyer is not trained to command armies. This was fine as long as the enemy was small and weak, like Chechnya or Georgia. It made little difference when Putin launched his surprise attack into the Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014. This time, however, Ukrainians have had years to prepare with few illusions about the intentions of their neighbor, and they are fighting with advanced weapons. Russian forces needed an entire week to claim a major city, Kherson, after encountering far more resistance than anticipated. Despite an overwhelming force advantage, the Russian Army is experiencing very high casualties and material losses — a rate of attrition that only stands to get worse the further they get, even while more and more western weaponry flows into the country. Putin might ‘win’ this war only to make an enemy out of his own shattered army.
It didn’t have to be this way, of course. Putin could have made better choices in the last 23 years. Here are FIVE changes that might have saved thousands of Russian lives and reduced the length of this war:
1 - Putin could have made some new maps. Russians are still using Cold War-era maps of Ukraine to navigate. It is hard to overstate just how amazing that is. Cartography is basic to modern soldiering and history is replete with consequences for getting lost on the march. Napoleon III lost a defensive war on his own soil by marching out with old, incomplete, or otherwise useless maps; the German maps were better in 1870, and so their reconnaissance was much better. Ukraine has changed a great deal since Soviet mapmakers surveyed it, while the Russians are the ones in unfamiliar territory. A complete update of map files would have not been as expensive as a fancy hypersonic missile program — and far more useful in real military operations.
2 - Putin could have bought new radios. In the long view of history, Russians have been pretty awful at communications security (COMSEC) staff work, and this has even rubbed off on their clients. Germans destroyed a Russian army at Tannenberg in 1914 because no one in the stavka (general staff) had distributed code books. A Russian-made North Korean army destroyed itself against UN forces at Pusan in 1950 because poor radio communication security gave away their dispositions, movements, and intentions. So you might expect Putin, who fancies himself a historian, to be aware of this problem, and see that it got fixed. The cost would have been about the same as what a single Russian oligarch pays for a house in Miami. Yet the Russian Army is using radio sets not very different from the ones they had in the 1960s. Single channel tactical radios are easy to triangulate (locate), easier to decrypt, and laughably easy to jam; this is why Ukrainian civilians are practicing electronic warfare, and civilian hobbyists worldwide are uploading audio files of Russian combat communications to tweet about them. Your Nokia phone was more secure than that 20 years ago. Russians have scrambled to find alternatives, but your average walkie talkie has no encryption, while any phone or text traffic that passes through a Ukrainian cell tower should be considered compromised just as a matter of course. All of this has to make Russian officers claustrophobic and risk-averse, which explains the glacial pace of those massive columns moving towards urban centers.
3 - Putin could have promoted competent commanders. Every army needs its bureaucrats to function, but also needs many more of the sort of combat leaders who challenge systems. For example, George C. Marshall was the sort of man who could bring mortal enemies into a room and still get a consensus. He was a key figure in America’s Second World War success because he could overcome contentious disagreements and organize the war at home, whereas George S. Patton was an abrasive man who won the battles overseas. To have an effective army, you need a few Marshalls and as many Pattons as you can get. However, Russia is an authoritarian state, and one thing such states always seem to do is favor the Marshalls over the Pattons, probably because they are more adept at reading the room and pleasing the potentate. From listening to analysts with a view into the intelligence, I have come to a preliminary conclusion that all the Pattons have been hollowed out of Putin’s officer corps, and that Russian Marshall-types are better-trained at kissing his ass than fighting their forces.
4 - Putin could have targeted the Ukrainian Air Force first. How basic is this? Has Putin never watched the United States of America invade a country before? I am sure he was alive in 1991 and 2003. Surely he understands that, as long as Ukraine maintains air superiority over any part of the country, he cannot conquer it? American generals refused to send large forces into Kuwait or Iraq until Saddam’s air force was completely suppressed. I will refrain from doing too much analysis here, but I want to mention two major factors: first, Ukrainians seem to have developed superb electronic warfare and air defense capabilities. They are playing havoc with Russian planes that still lack internal GPS radio navigation systems (sense a theme here?). Which brings me to my second factor:
5 - Putin could have set aside his ego. The leader of Russia thought he could drive straight to Kyiv without firing a shot, since everyone would surrender to the might of his leadership. High on his own supply, Putin did not plan a “shock and awe” campaign of any kind. So rather than a stunning display of firepower at the beginning to soften major resistance and impose air superiority, the bombardment of Ukraine started out fitful, then piecemeal, only becoming very significant after the unexpected setbacks of the first 72 hours. Until Day 5, Putin apologists in the West actually sang his praises for avoiding civilian casualties. Those voices are silent now, however, because it was not Putin being a nice guy. It was magical thinking.
Occam’s razor says that the simplest explanation for something is the most likely one. We have a very simple explanation for the way things have gone thus far for the Russian Army: their leader is not an eleventy-dimensional chess master at all. Putin is bad at preparing and planning for a real war, but very, very good at getting Russians killed while he chases the dragon of restoring the Soviet state.
This post has been updated to correct the city of Kherson.