There is only one route forward
Professor Edward Luttwak is a strategist and historian known for his works on grand strategy, geoeconomics, military history, and international relations.
August 10, 2023
Whenever Russian missiles strike a Ukrainian city, or Kyiv’s drones target a building in Moscow, the attacks are inevitably followed by the sort of media coverage worthy of a Blitz raid. Yet generating headlines is just about their only achievement: precision missiles cannot deliver much explosive, and drones even less. As for their great accuracy, it is only effective when valuable targets can be identified — something which is hard to do except against tanks on the battlefield and warships floating on open water.
Against buildings, small missile warheads and puny drone charges can certainly inflict damage, but not of any real consequence. And this is a key aspect of the entire war, especially when compared to the last great conflict on the European continent.
From March 1942, the RAF’s Bomber Command was flying Lancaster bombers with a typical individual bombload of 6,400kg, so that the first Lancaster raid to feature 400 bombers dropped 2,560 metric tons — more than the total tonnage dropped on Ukraine by Russian cruise missiles since the war started. True, British night bombing was notoriously inaccurate and much criticised in the aftermath. But by 1945, cities such as Hamburg and Cologne were burnt out, while others including Berlin were devastated. Nothing equivalent has happened to Kyiv, nor could it, because Russia only has a small strategic bomber force while Ukraine has none. All the military drones now operational across the globe cannot deliver as much explosive as the Bomber Command could drop in a couple of nights.
Thus the first serious war of the third millennium must be fought on the ground — quite a comedown from the “post-kinetic” cyber and information warfare that had been confidently predicted by both Western and Russian generals. This is a war that must be fought by sheer, grinding, attrition, just like the First World War on the Western Front, with almost none of the “manoeuvre warfare” exploits that made celebrities of Guderian, Rommel, Patton and Rokossovsky in the Second World War, and Arik Sharon in 1967 and 1973.
All those masters of war won disproportionate victories with surprise offensives. Arriving in fast-moving columns, their forces greatly outnumbered and overwhelmed a specific sector, while the bulk of the enemy, distributed across an entire front, could not intervene in time.
In other words, “manoeuvre warfare” depends entirely on surprise. Even in the Second World War, there was reliable aerial photography, so that pre-battle concentrations of tanks, trucks and artillery tractors could not escape detection as they gathered over a period of weeks. But once the offensive columns moved, it was hard to keep them under observation, let alone predict their destination. Photography was impeded by night, clouds and enemy fighters, leaving more than enough uncertainty to deceive enemies with decoys, simulated radio traffic, and the false tales of double agents.
This is how it came to be that on D-Day, 6 June 1944, the strongest German Panzer columns ended up being massed behind Calais to face Patton’s fictional First United States Army Group, while the Allies were landing in Normandy 230 miles away. Douglas MacArthur’s Inchon landings in September 1950, which nullified a string of North Korean victories in the preceding months, likewise achieved total surprise by very elaborately simulating a landing at Kunsan, 100 miles to the south.
None of this could happen now. The Americans, Russians and other military powers have observation satellites equipped with synthetic-aperture radars, capable of revealing single tanks, let alone any large grouping of forces, regardless of visibility, while their returns are refreshed often enough to detect troop movements in hours if not in minutes. Any other information drawn from intercepts, aerial reconnaissance or ground observation merely supplements this reliable intelligence. It is enough to make the battlefield transparent and operational surprise impossible, killing off the manoeuvre warfare that can win battles quickly and without mounds of casualties.
In early summer, when the Ukrainians deployed the precious “operational reserve” they had built up, there was no great mystery as to what they would do with it: attack somewhere south of Zaporizhzhia and fight their way down to the Black Sea. This would cut off all the east-west roads and rail lines that supply the Russian forces strung out to the west below the Dnipro river. It would set the stage for a great victory, with Putin forced to choose between continuing the war or negotiating a cease-fire to rescue his stranded troops.
There were three possible vectors for the offensive. First, Kyiv could launch a straight assault on Melitopol, which would involve an ambitious penetration offensive over 90-miles deep. Alternatively, it could aim for Berdyans’k with a 125-mile offensive that would cut off more Russians and take more territory. Or, even more daringly, it could march the full 150 miles to Mariupol, a movement that would have to be Napoleonic in speed and concentration to reach the Black Sea shore before the Russians could counter.
None of those options has proved to be workable. While the Ukrainians were training and deploying, the Russians south of the Dnipro were digging trench lines shielded by minefields that stretch roughly 625 miles — 185 miles longer than the Western Front at its greatest extent. Napoleon called this style of linear defence a “cordon”, a thick rope made of infantry to hold the enemy along a long front. And, in his own time, he rightly explained why cordons were the stupidest way of defending a front: the enemy would arrive in columns and easily cut through the few troops holding the particular sector they attacked.
But once again the transparent battlefield has changed everything. Watching the Ukrainians advance in real time, the Russians could send their forces to intercept them in equal if not greater numbers. And even if the numbers were equal, the combat would be unequal because the Russians would be shielded by their minefields and by their trenches.
It was also unfortunate that the Ukrainians had greatly overestimated the combat value of the huge 66-ton Leopard tanks they had asked for, begged for, and finally practically demanded from the Germans. The Leopard is comparable to the US M1 and Israeli Merkava IV (all three have some 60 tons of layered armour and high-velocity 120mm guns). But it lacks one thing that the M1 and Merkava both rely on when facing the Russian-equipped forces: Trophy, an Israeli active defence with radar to detect incoming anti-tank missiles, and miniature guns to smash their warheads.
The Germans are acquiring the device but insisted on testing it themselves, delaying its shipment to Ukraine. Without Trophy’s protection, the Leopards fell prey to Russian tank-hunters armed with Kornet anti-tank missiles. While much simpler, less versatile and much cheaper than the US Javelin, the Kornet is all too effective with its double warhead that defeats reactive armour. When Ukraine’s long-awaited offensive started, it demonstrated this most unfortunately, with the destruction of some of the precious Leopards that were supposed to lead the way.
One might have hoped for a better outcome from the geo-economic confrontation between the heavily-sanctioned Russian economy and the much richer Western coalition that supports Ukraine — especially because things started so well. Early fears that Germany and Italy would not tolerate the loss of their Russian markets and Russian natural gas supplies proved unfounded. Instead of defections, the coalition that economically supports Ukraine has expanded across Europe and now includes Japan and even South Korea, which sent a token $150 million this year.
But initial hopes that Russia could be seriously pressured, perhaps all the way to the negotiating table, by stalling both their oil exports and their imports of Western goods soon faded. Unlike China, Russia is self-sufficient in both food and fuel, and can manufacture all it needs, except for micro-processors and other high-tech items that are easily smuggled.
Turkey, while ostensibly a close American ally, is still the transit point for many high-technology exports to Russia, and Turkey’s traders and traffickers have plenty of competition in other countries. As for the Russian economy, the news is gloomy but not gloomy enough. A meagre 1.5% growth will be achieved this year, but that still exceeds the German growth rate (which is expected to be zero). Russia’s inflation rate of 3.3% is also around half the Euro average. The war will not end because of Russia’s economic capitulation.
There is, then, only one route forward: to fight the war in earnest, as befits a struggle of national liberation. Ukraine’s population has declined but still exceeds 30 million, so that the total number in uniform could be as much as 3 million (Israel’s 10% ratio in 1948) or at least 2 million (Finland’s reservists as a percentage of the population). With those troops, Ukraine could win its battles and liberate its territory in the same way as most of Europe’s wars of independence — by gruelling, attritional warfare.