Those who follow the war in Ukraine, whichever side they support, say that the war is not going as expected. And that is true. I was taught decades ago that times have changed: the military officer will become nothing more than an official on a mission to use force, there will be no need for patriotism, no need for military tricks, everything will be according to the letter of the law, we will know who is an ‘innocent civilian’ and who is a ‘legitimate target’, and, after all, there will be no more wars of the kind that we have seen from the annals of history. After all, history itself is coming to an end.
Now we have a war in the most civilised Europe, a war with all the things that should not be there – disregard for the law, starting with international law and the right to life, violence, the destruction of the good and so on.
The politicians will explain why things didn’t go the way the politicians planned. If they realise they had planned badly. You know, every war ends with some kind of lament to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Politicians then tend to be concerned with peace treaties, theoreticians write conceptual works on the causes and consequences of war, and practitioners of warfare seriously analyse what worked well in a war, where the tactical as well as the technical mistakes were made. They are, in effect, starting to prepare for new wars. The current war in Ukraine will be a training ground for wars to come…
History shows that there is no such a thing as perfect warfare. It seems that once we had a perfect Macedonian phalanx, the once invincible Roman legion, the insurmountable stone fortresses, the fearsome “flying hussars” of the Republic of the Two Nations… was a long time ago. Not only new technologies are changing the way we wage war, but also the logic of warfare and the objectives to be achieved. The way we fight is also shaped by the deliberate choices of strategists.
Let’s look back at the last few centuries. Napoleon led a military campaign – an army that advanced into territory of the enemy, defeated the enemy army in a decisive (usually single) battle and… and that was it. Then there are political decisions. The symbol of World War I was the front line – the soldiers “living” in the trenches, sometimes “are waken up” to attack, sometimes forced to defend. World War II – tanks rolling through the fields and clusters of soldiers emerging from the trenches.
And then what? And then there were various legends. One of them said that the next war would be nuclear and the fate of the world would be decided in a matter of hours. Another legend said that after a nuclear war, all that would be left was to fight with sticks and stones. Of course, this is more popular media fiction. The history of wars has shown that the so-called conventional wars have not gone anywhere, but have been fought in very different ways. For example, most of the wars in Africa resemble armed rebellions, trenches and a front line appeared during the Iraq-Iran war, and the wars in Afghanistan or the former Yugoslavia were also different. Without going into details, I will say that, in the long run, for example, the helicopter and the so-called marines became the “technical face” of the US army, while in the case of the USSR/Russia, it was the tank and the soldiers, who are now known as the “little green men”. It has become a tradition to start military parades in Moscow with a model of a World War II era T-34 tank.
So, let’s talk about tanks. The Russians went to every Russian war with tanks and other armoured vehicles, often to places where tanks were of little use – Budapest, Prague, the mountain roads of Afghanistan, Tbilisi, Vilnius, Grozny… Here is just a short list. The Russian way of fighting (it would be too much of an honour to call it a tactic) has remained unchanged for more than six decades. It’s simple: a column of tanks, armoured vehicles and auxiliary equipment is sent from a military base or a troop concentration centre to drive to a specified location, then, after disembarking from the armoured vehicles, the tanks fire to take that location. It is the best and easiest way when there is no resistance, because who would resist such a powerful force. All sorts of aviation and artillery – auxiliary means. In the mountains or on narrow streets a tank is vulnerable and becomes a problem in itself, but does it matter. Russia without a tank is Russia without the power of war.
Now, if I asked you what is the most common “military image” that comes to your mind when you think of the war in Ukraine… I guess it would be the Russian tank that had been destroyed or was still on fire. It is certainly not a symbol of victory. Rather, it is an illustration of military disability. Tanks and other armoured vehicles are transformed into some kind of burning coffins from which you want to flee at the first opportunity.
As I write this text, the number of tanks lost by the Russian army has already reached four digits. Not because the Ukrainians have even more tanks. They have effective anti-tank weapons. Those Javelins in turn have already become the face of the Ukrainian army. A Javelin costs 10-12 times less than a tank, so if you hit even a few shots, the business pays off (if the Ukrainians are not boasting too much, they have an accuracy rate of over 80%).
Almost a couple of weeks before the outbreak of war, I watched a computer simulation of war – what would happen if the Russians attacked Ukraine with tanks and armoured vehicles, of which there are only so many passable roads…. 9 (not a mistake, not 99, but definitely 9). The simulation showed that if Ukraine fought back, the tanks would be slow, the war would be long, the casualties would be high, and the end would be far from certain. The computer seemed to know the specifics of the Russian tank army very well. It has remained unchanged for several decades. And it is good that it has not changed. It may not even be able to change, because changes require non-dogmatic thinking, and the Russian military academies are not characterised by such thinking.
If not tanks, then what? In the early days of the war, there was an attempt to do it the American way – attacking from the air and throwing paratroopers into the fray. A quick war. This plan failed (for a number of “unforeseen reasons”), so… nothing else was left just the ineffective tanks.
Of course, a big number of tanks and other armoured vehicles allows the Russian army to make some territorial gains, the Russians are still able to devastate Ukraine with missiles, they still dominate the sea (even though they are known to be embarrassingly sore there), and they still have a lot of artillery.
Today, the biggest complaint of Ukraine is the lack of artillery. They certainly do lack it. However, they really do not need the artillery the Russians use. You are probably not alone in having heard that the Russians usually start their attacks with what is known as artillery preparation. In a real war, this means firing heavily at enemy positions ‘wherever they happen to be’. This, supposedly, significantly weakens the defence line and demoralises the enemy. A method from the tactics of the world wars of the last century, which is not very effective nowadays, and unfortunately it is usually a demolition rather than a military victory. Ukrainian artillery is different. Its aim is to shoot low, without destroying, but to shoot accurately, using “smart” projectiles and drone reconnaissance. Ukrainians now lack namely such artillery. Its number is increasing, which is a good sign.
I mentioned drones. In this strange war of mechanical drones, Ukraine is winning significantly. It is not only the Turkish Bayraktars that are winning; it is the drones that are winning, the drones that are dropping small but accurate bombs, and the drone reconnaissance that is winning. It is true that the Russians have their own arsenal of drones, but it is much more modest. May 9 parade does not seem to have a drone presentation… after all, it’s not tanks. Maybe the tanks will be just burning?
There are many other strange things going on. The war over railways, bridges and flyovers shows that the seizure of territory and a kind of front line can happen in the 21st century. The Russians have even started digging trenches – near Kyiv and Donbas, even in the radioactive forest. Apparently they were preparing for World War I. Somewhere in the village an old lady was poisoning the Russians with homemade cakes. Like in the Middle Ages. For military experts designing future wars, there is much to think about, because the war is not going the way many people thought it would.
I have not written all this to prove that the Ukrainians will win with better weapons. They will win anyway.