There has been a growing assessment in the press that the Ukrainian counter-offensive is not going as fast as had been expected or hoped.
I have been looking back to look forward.
The Scottish Wars of Independence at the end of the 13th century and beginning of the 14th were a conflict between England, the most powerful army of the time in Europe, and an outmanned Scottish force led by a charismatic, brave and brilliant strategist and tactician, Robert the Bruce and his lieutenants. They and their men were also fighting for their homeland against invaders. Echoes of Ukraine, n’est ce pas? In the end, after more than a decade, the Scots won the war and firmly established Scotland’s independence with the expulsion of all English forces and a treaty. The Bruce chose to fight his battles on grounds of his own choosing, making the land fight for him to overcome numbers and England’s better technology. There are many similar examples elsewhere, Garibaldi in Italy, Castro in Cuba to name just two.
Are there any parallels to be drawn with Ukraine’s struggle to repel the invading Russian forces?
When I lived in Nashville, many years ago, the minister at my church was a Reverend Perry Biddle – I’ve never forgotten him, which is perhaps why I was drawn to an interesting article by his namesake on the nature of this conflict (Back in the Trenches by Stephen Biddle – see August 11th 2023, Foreign Affairs).
Biddle provides a thoughtful analysis of the evolution of war since Napoleonic times through WWI and WWII up to the current day. His observation is that despite pundits forecasting a radical change in the nature of conflict with the application of new technologies (remotely operated drones, space-based surveillance, precision weapons, hypersonic missiles, handheld jammers, artificial intelligence, networked communications etc.), we have not seen much change in reality. Indeed, if pictures from the front these days were in black and white, a casual observer might assume that they came from the Boer War or the first World War trenches in Flanders. All that’s missing is a poppy or two.
With statistics, he shows that defensive adaptations have dramatically dampened the effect of new technology. The battle to bring newer technology to counter new technology is the repeat of a never-ending cycle. Besides innovative use of existing technology to counter enemy technological advances (on the part of both Ukraine and Russia) and the deployment of superior technologies (e.g. HIMARS), a significant factor has also been a change in the commanders’ concentration of troops.
In the nineteenth century, as we all have seen in films such as Gettysburg and Waterloo, armies typically massed their forces to pour volleys of fire into massed ranks. Biddle describes how these armies deployed approximately 2,500 to 25,000 troops per square mile. By 1918, this had fallen by a factor of ten, by 1945, another factor of ten. By the Gulf War, Napoleon’s army at Waterloo would have been spread over an area about 3,000 times as large as the one the French army occupied 130 years’ earlier.
Such tactics either make it uneconomic to target a couple of soldiers with a $200,000 missile or make it difficult to find them as, like the Bruce, commanders use the land to shelter or hide their troops (the exception has been the ‘meat-grinder’ approach of the Russians at Bakhmut where they seem to have placed little value on human life or on the need to build the morale of their troops).
Russia has also tried, unsuccessfully, to break Ukrainian morale by shelling civilians. Attacking civilians didn’t work in Bruce’s time, or Garibaldi’s or in the Boer War or WWI or WWII – it won’t work now in Ukraine but it will tragically ‘waste’ not just innocent lives but also billions of rubles that could have been deployed against combat participants.
My conclusion is that unless there are defensive mistakes; for example, unless the defensive position is poorly constructed or commanded, we should expect to see a continuing battle of incremental advances eerily similar to WWI rather than rapid break-throughs. I expect Ukraine to maintain the upper hand so long as the US and Europe continue to recognise the critical need to support them, not just for the sake of democracy in Ukraine but also for their own democracies to survive, however I can’t help but despair because Russia, with its history and culture should be a valued, progressive partner in a modern, peaceful coalition of enlightened peoples throughout the western world.
Unless and until there is a realisation in Russia that continuing this war is sucking the lifeblood out of the nation, I think we must settle down for a long, drawn-out conflict that will take years to resolve (ultimately in Ukraine’s favour, leaving Russia a shattered shadow of what it once aspired to be).
I hope I’m wrong. The horrors of war are a stain on humanity. But I do think that we need to adjust to this new incremental normal and reset expectations.