As a recently retired U.S. Army Infantry Colonel, I have followed the war in Ukraine intently. During my 30-year career, I was able to experience the various levels of command, starting with the tactical (as a platoon leader and company commander), then on to operational (as a Major and Lt. Colonel), and finally strategic (including as a Distinguished graduate, Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College). I am going to offer my thoughts about strategic and operational level issues first, and then critical observations of the tactical operations and what’s really happening on the ground.
First, as time has moved forward since the start of the invasion at the end of February, we have seen notable weaknesses in the Russian military. This has been surprising, considering Russia poured an excessive percentage of its GDP into defense spending—at around 4.3% —totaling over $60 billion. This defense spending dwarfed Ukraine. Russia has the highest defense spending (as share of GDP) among the world’s major industrial powers. In comparison, Germany spends only 1.4% and China spends only 1.7%.
Additionally, the Russian military was seemingly experienced, as it had deployed operationally over the last two decades in various locations outside Russia, like Chechnya, Georgia, Crimea, the Donbass, and Syria. Russia has drastically underperformed in Ukraine, compared to what most intelligence assessments of Russian conventional military capability had assumed. Despite denials, Russia led the invasion with its most capable forces and equipment and yet failed. In particular, we have learned of the Russian military’s inability to conduct proper logistics off railheads, continue secure communications, and operate combined arms maneuvers.
The last point is important. ‘Combined arms’ means using different arms, such as infantry and artillery, synchronized together in operations. It takes a great deal of training and ability to exercise combined arms maneuvers, and the Russians failed at it.
The true Russian aims of the ‘special operation’ were clear and have failed to materialize. Putin wanted the complete seizure of the country to install a puppet government. Putin’s declaration of the invasion: “for this, we will strive for the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine.” And to the Ukrainian military, Putin said:
I urge you to immediately lay down your weapons and go home. All servicemen of the Ukrainian army who fulfil this demand will be able to freely leave the combat zone.
Russia’s invasion came on multiple fronts and included amassing forces to seize the capital, Kyiv. However, this invasion quickly sputtered, in particular, the advance from Belarus to Kyiv. Many Russian armored vehicles ran out of fuel, got stuck in the mud, or were destroyed by Ukrainian infantry and drones. The only seeming successes were near Crimea and Donbass, where the Russian logistical lines were quite short.
The numerically smaller Ukrainian ‘David’ stumped the behemoth Russian ‘Goliath’ at the start of the operation. To take a prime example, while Russia lost a conservatively estimated 274 tanks in the early weeks, the Ukrainians actually gained in number of tanks due to the capture of Russian tanks. According to Forbes, “Ukraine has lost at least 74 tanks… But Ukraine has captured at least 117 Russian tanks.”
Due to the reverses, Russia had to ‘reframe’ its stated aims. According to Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate:
The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbass.
To demilitarize and denazify Ukraine has become the “liberation of Donbass.” This shows an operational culmination of the originally stated aims involving all of Ukraine.
Despite the success of Ukraine, the war is unique and a challenge NATO has not experienced in decades. Since World War II, the only previous examples remotely similar to the Ukraine invasion were the Soviet incursions into Hungary in 1956 and then Czechoslovakia in 1968. Those invasions involved the Soviets (primarily Russians) putting down popular uprisings against satellite Soviet-aligned communist governments. In both cases, NATO chose to stay out of those conflicts due to the risk of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. There were appeals from the uprisings to the United States and NATO allies for support, but Eisenhower in 1956, then Johnson in 1968, decided to only offer statements condemning the Soviets.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the United States has not had to face the credible potential of nuclear war while engaged in military operations. The United States and NATO allies used military force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991, NATO used Air Forces against Serbia in 1999, and then NATO forces fought in Iraq and Afghanistan after 9-11. In none of those operations did NATO have to consider nuclear war. NATO was able to make ultimatums and plan ‘regime change’ unhindered by existential consequences.
The invasion of Ukraine brings back the Cold War nuclear calculus in strategy and gives cause to limit NATO’s direct involvement and help end the war. Most estimates put Russia’s nuclear arsenal beyond 6,200, which is more than the U.S. arsenal by almost a thousand. The arsenals of other nuclear powers are in the low hundreds or less (China, for example, has around 300). Russia has developed and successfully tested nuclear-capable, hypersonic missiles. These missiles travel at 10-20 times the speed of sound while varying glide paths, and are therefore likely beyond our anti-missile defense capabilities. We wouldn’t be able to stop a number of nuclear missiles.
Putin has made clear his willingness to escalate up to and including nuclear exchange if Russia is threatened directly or his regime is at risk from the outside.
At the operational level, while Russian forces gave up their attempts to force a Ukrainian capitulation at Kyiv, Russian leaders have resorted to massive artillery and missile strikes against civilian targets to make gains in Eastern Ukraine. They have switched from ground maneuvers to rolling artillery barrages to make slow gains at a lower cost in lives. They have moved to the strategy of attrition warfare, knowing their manpower and resource advantage over Ukraine’s. At the same time, Russia has resorted to terror strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure as winter approaches. Russia has also conveyed nuclear threats against both Ukraine and NATO to curtail aid to Ukraine and keep NATO out.
NATO needs to remain wise about the nuclear threat and have patience with the current support it provides. Concurrently, NATO should focus far more of its efforts on leveraging China to stop supporting Russia. China should be held responsible for coordinating this invasion with Putin and continuing its support of him. If Putin didn’t have China’s backing and consent, he could not have invaded. He could not continue without Xi.
NATO must accept that the war will not end in ‘regime change’ of Putin (outside of internal developments out of our control); frankly, Putin’s replacement may be much worse. Ukraine must have a secure port at Odessa as it must have access to the Black Sea to remain a viable nation: this means Ukrainian control of Kherson and those surrounding areas. NATO should be working with Ukraine in leading to a peace agreement while supporting forces in the field.
Additionally, NATO must be careful not to lose unity by stigmatizing partners who may differ on the level of support for sanctions. NATO could break apart by not remaining sensitive to what the people in NATO face this winter.
To leave the strategic and operational levels, I want to offer an important observation at the tactical level, something critical to understanding Ukrainian success against superior Russian forces. I am referring to the Ukrainian use of the ‘mission command’ style of leadership. This is the true ‘secret sauce’ of what’s been happening on the ground in Ukraine these many months.
Let me explain mission command and how it’s distinctive.
The U.S. Army defines mission command as the “exercise of authority and direction by the commander using mission orders to enable disciplined initiative within the commander’s intent to empower agile and adaptive leaders.” Mission command goes beyond the formal types of orders and requires a supportive environment of freedom and trust between leaders and subordinates when orders are delivered. With mission command, commanders provide subordinates with the envisioned end state, but allow lower leaders the freedom of initiative to achieve the end state, even when deviating from the methods of the order.
The book Mission Command: The Who, What, When, When, and How: An Anthology offers the following for why mission command works and what it encompasses:
In the chaos and uncertainty of modern war, our troops must be empowered to make decisions, take the initiative, and lead boldly. This is Mission Command: a command culture, leadership style, and operating concept.
The antithesis of mission command is ‘top down’ command, in which the environment of trust and freedom is not required, and commanders do not seek nor desire the initiative of subordinates. The Soviet Union operated this way, and the Russian Army has continued it. ‘Top down’ is the norm for repressive societies which cannot risk allowing subordinates the freedom of initiative. Noted military author Fred Kaplan put it well about the Russian command style:
The Russian army—like the Soviet army before it— … has always had a top-down command structure, which forbids junior officers from taking the initiative (hence the calamitous breakdowns when things didn’t go exactly as planned and the killings of several Russian generals who had to rush to the frontlines to take control).
Since 2014, due both to NATO training and to the unique aspects of the very decentralized war in the Ukrainian Donbass region, Ukraine has developed a high level of mission command. In describing Ukrainian General Valeriy Zaluzhnyy, who commands the Ukrainian Army, and his subordinate junior leaders, Politico offered this valuable insight:
Zaluzhnyy epitomizes a new generation of Ukrainian officers who cut their teeth in the grinding eight-year war in Donbas and, when not on the front, deployed to training ranges across Europe to drill with NATO forces—experiences that have sanded off many of the authoritarian edges produced by decades of rigid Soviet military training. That collaboration with NATO has molded a group of professional-minded officers that aspired to Western standards and helped build a decentralized, empowered, more agile way of warfare than the Russian model, which has floundered in the Ukrainian mud.
Retired Army Colonel Liam Collins presciently noted about the Ukrainian transformation to mission command that Ukrainian soldiers
were the ones burned from the experience and [who] realized ‘hey, we can’t have everything go to the general before we make a decision, cultural change at the battalion level on down, an entire generation understood how to lead, and I think the generals understood that it worked.
Zaluzhnyy said of the contrast between his generation’s experience with top-down command and the new generation:
These are completely different people — not like us when we were lieutenants. These are new sprouts that will completely change the army in five years. … New sergeants. These are not scapegoats, as in the Russian army, for example, but real helpers who will soon replace officers.
Ironically, America and other NATO partners started teaching the Ukrainians about mission command around seven years ago. Ukrainians were able to put it into practice fighting in the decentralized environment of the Donbas over these years to perfect it. We are now learning how mission command can work on the ground, and so therefore are learning from the Ukrainians who we can fight—and win—on our future battlefield.
The coming weeks and (potentially) months could be tough. The people of Ukraine will face continued lashing with attacks against civilian infrastructure by a frustrated Vladimir Putin. The blowback effects of sanctions will be felt by many people in NATO. NATO needs to remain wise and persistent, while Ukraine needs to continue success with mission command. At some point, NATO will need to take the lead in pushing toward a fair, just, and lasting resolution.