On 22nd April, 2021 I predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine and so break its UN charter commitments and the promise it made in the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. So it was no surprise to me to see an armoured column snaking south towards Kiev ten months later. Apparently, when Russian forces invaded, the US intelligence community thought that Kyiv would fall within 2 weeks. We had all been led to believe that Russia’s greater manpower and larger defence (or should I say ‘offence’) budget would make this inevitable.
As we know now, that assessment was very wide of the mark. I am not going to delve into the response of the major western democracies other than to say that I stand by my initial view that military aid should be provided faster and without the restrictions that are stopping Ukraine from going onto the offence to expel Russia from its territory. This is the only way to shorten this war.
What I do want to do is reflect on what history tells us about where we are headed.
I want to look at this from the perspective of technology or innovation and of quantity versus quality because it seems to me that Russia has ‘lost the plot’ – it is fighting a 21st century war with 20th century technology and tactics. The reason many thought Russia would prevail quickly was because it assumed that whoever had the largest number of soldiers, tanks, artillery and missiles would win. It is, however a fallacy that has been disproved in so many ways for centuries past.
Following this logic, England with a much larger population would always win rugby matches against New Zealand. But in the 43 games played since 1905, England have only won 8 times. Likewise, in 1879, the 150 defenders of Rorke’s Drift would have been annihilated by the Zulu army of 3,000 to 4,000 warriors and in 499BC the Athenians would have been slaughtered by the numerically superior Persians at the Battle of Marathon.
I could go on ad infinitum on this trail. The point is that while quantity should succeed where all other factors are equivalent, that’s just the point; other factors are never equivalent.
There are four primary reasons why this is so. First, the will of homeland defenders versus foreign aggressors is a powerful weapon in itself. Second, some commanders/leaders are just better at devising strategy & tactics (and Russian society seems designed to stifle individual thought – the reason there is no effective officer corps). Third, it’s easier to manage logistics on defence that on offence – you have shorter lines of communication. Fourth, the impact of technology, or more accurately, innovation can be a game changer.
The use of innovation is particularly interesting and it is becoming even more so. We can see how Roman weapons and armour gave the Roman empire the advantage in battle, how the conquistadors used muskets and horses to defeat the Incas, how British ‘gunboat’ diplomacy built the Empire, how the Gatling gun helped the USA to in the Spanish-American war. All situations where better weapons nullified numerical advantage.
Innovation together with a will to win and superior leadership has been an evident key factor in Ukraine’s success against Russia. While Russia happily uses its soldiers as cannon fodder supplemented by massed artillery barrages to lay waste to the territory it is trying to capture, Ukraine has been demonstrating its ability to innovate and to deploy and focus its resources much more effectively.
Innovation in the use of drones is already changing the battlefield. In 2020, Azerbaijan used drones to achieve battlefield victories against Armenia after more than two decades of stalemate. Ukraine’s fleet of drones (many of them re-purposed low-cost commercial devices) have shown just how effective they can be. Yes, Russia is also deploying drones but the fact that it had to buy these in from Iran in response to Ukraine’s innovation demonstrates a lack of forethought and innovation in their own ranks. For example, in the Black Sea, Ukraine combined superior tactics with drones to attack Russian ships, even sinking a battleship, nullifying Russia’s overwhelming sea power and sending the Russian fleet retreating to get out of range.
Development of drone technology must surely lead to AI-powered, automated reconnaissance and attack ground and air robots. Swarms of drones controlled by an AI-powered master network drone could overwhelm traditional tank and infantry incursions. In my personal view, with its own ability to innovate and the technological advantages of the democratic West over Russia, the only thing restraining Ukraine’s ultimate victory is the willingness of the West to deploy its technological superiority.
The West’s reluctance seems to be driven by a misplaced caution with echoes of the ‘Appeasement’ debacle prior to WWII and a worry that Russia will go nuclear. I can’t understand either position. If MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) was a valid argument for decades it is still a valid argument today unless the finger on Russia’s nuclear button is that of a madman ready to die himself, which I don’t think is the position. In fact Putin appears to be desperate to keep living (recall meetings with him a looong way apart from everyone else?).
I can’t predict when this war will end or exactly how but I can’t see Russia winning. I also believe that Ukraine will recover territory overrun by Russia – including Crimea.
Wars speed up innovation. We saw tanks appear in WWI to break the trench warfare stalemate, we saw the atomic bomb bring war with Japan to a close. Technological innovation driven by faster and faster hardware and the accelerating march of AI technology is going to change, is changing, the battlefield.
Looking forward, the next phase is not going to be Russia vs the West. Russia has already lost that battle. It will be all about the direction that China takes. China has the resources and innovation skills to steal a march on the West and the question is a) will they and b) if so. what will they do with it? It is a troubling question because China is an autocracy and the norms that apply to democratic logic don’t necessarily apply here.
Whatever comes, the battlefield is going to be a very different place in years to come.
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