Photo by Serhii Mykhalchuk/Global Images Ukraine
Artillery Row

Surprise in war

Ukraine shows that speed can be everything — but swiftness is born of careful planning

To the outsider, the Leader appeared an angry man. His body language was erratic, fits of temper frequent. Worse than his outbursts were the silences, when he looked at you, but said nothing. Hardly a week passed without an able professional being sacked, replaced by a young thruster. Ruthless loyalty counted more than experience. 

He had grown increasingly paranoid about his health. Indeed, in appearance he had aged rapidly, seemed less fit, more haggard. Medication and diet were in the hands of trusted physicians and chefs. Over the years, he had drifted into total isolation from society. The people with whom he had started his political journey receded further into the background, indeed no longer mattered. He never saw them. Bodyguards and the state security apparatus saw to that. Instead there was a leadership cult, to which even the church and judiciary were subservient. Any potential threat, intellectual, verbal, never mind physical, was identified, arrested and ruthlessly purged. With the prospects of incarceration in a remote camp or extermination, there was no credible opposition. All were too frightened or had fled abroad. It meant that the man at the top relied more than ever on a small coterie of sycophants, who told him whatever he wanted to hear.

When it came to military strategy, the political maestro thought himself a great general. For years he had outwitted those nations ranged against him, plundered their territory and frightened their peoples. All along, he had persuaded the rest of the world, through masterful propaganda, speeches, imagery and news media, that his forces possessed awesome power and were capable of beating the best. His generals, knowing they could be instantly sacked if they exhibited objections or any hint of independent thought, were utterly loyal. In return they received status, promotions beyond their dreams and medals.

The Battle of the Bulge shares every detail of Putin’s attack

Now, the man at the top sensed he was running out of time to finally tip the scales. A major land offensive was required — one that would scatter his military opponents and divide the coalition opposing him. An armoured force would be readied in great secrecy. Although leaks might occur, everything would be done to minimise the risks. Signals traffic, even using the most advanced ciphers, was minimised. Hand-delivered orders by officer couriers were used wherever possible. Reconnaissance in person of the ground was forbidden. Assault formations would assemble under cover of training exercises and only be told of their combat objectives at the last moment, literally hours beforehand. Some were unaware they were going into battle. 

The weather would play to the attackers’ advantage, with a campaign launched in the dead of winter, when the enemy was least awake or prepared. Special forces and airborne troops would spearhead the advance, with a series of coup de main strikes behind the lines, paralysing command centres, air bases and artillery headquarters, capturing leaders and cutting communications. Due to the very poor weather, air activity on both sides was expected to be minimal, putting extra pressure on the ground troops to attain their primary objectives in the first three days. The advancing columns would stick to main roads, for cross-country manoeuvre would lessen the momentum and shock. 

To add to these military principles, the attackers would bring terror with them. The chain of command let it be known that the usual rules of war were suspended. Some of their experienced troops had fought elsewhere and acquired a reputation for extreme cruelty and violence against civilians. This was a war against people, whose existence and very culture were under attack. Harmless folk, caught in the middle, were unable even to surrender before they were gunned down. Villages were to be burned, food looted, animals slaughtered, women violated, prisoners tortured and murdered. Amongst the assault troops were jailbirds, low life swept from prison cells, given combat postings and considered expendable. Behind them, internal security men would descend as vultures. 

Speed and surprise were everything. Bridges and fuel and food were to be captured along the line of advance, and slow-moving units like engineer and logistics troops with their equipment would be kept to a minimum. They would catch up later. The scene was set for a winter campaign that in the Leader’s mind would leave him undisputed master of the battlefield. He made his move and launched his forces in the small hours. That, as any secret policeman will tell you, is the time to pounce, when the human spirit is at its lowest ebb. 

The date was 24 February this year, objective Kyiv. It could equally have been 16 December 1944, objective Antwerp. This was the beginning of Operation Herbstnebel (Autumn Mist), Hitler’s codename for his Ardennes thrust, better known as the Battle of the Bulge. It shares every single detail of President Putin’s attack into the dripping woods and mud of Ukraine — right down to the three-day initial timetable, use of terror and criminals, counterproductive secrecy, sycophantic generals, delusional thinking of the leader and his isolation. Even the distances to the objectives of Antwerp and Kyiv were similar, around 150 miles. Both endeavours were acutely time-sensitive. Hitler wanted the assault launched in poor weather, which would ground the Allied air forces; and near to Christmas, when GIs would be off their guard. 

Festivals can often dictate military operations, as they did in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Egyptian and Syrian forces attacked Israel on 6 October, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Judaism’s most sacred moment. In both 1944 and 1973, the timing was to maximise the effect of shock and surprise. Soldiers’ minds, if not their bodies, would be elsewhere. There is some evidence that former Nazi officers advising the Arab armies in the 1950s and 60s had left templates of the Ardennes assault, in which they had taken part, for future use. Pages from this playbook were certainly employed in 1973. This year, Putin probably told the Chinese what he was about to do and was warned not to attack until after another festival, the Beijing Winter Olympics, had concluded on 20 February. So as not to embarrass a major ally, he complied and stormed into Ukraine four days later.

It is tempting to see more than mere parallels between the 1944 Ardennes attack and that on Ukraine earlier this year. The striking similarities undoubtedly owe something to President Putin’s obsession with the Great Patriotic War of 1941–45. He has personally directed that aspects of those glory days be rewritten. Now, Western historians such as Antony Beevor and Chris Bellamy are banned from the archives. The new state “interpretation” has shifted away from the “genius” of Stalin, or bravery of the people, to the professionalism and growing invincibility of the Red Army as an institution. 

Military surprise is a vital, yet fickle, friend

Sudden lightning strikes, like those against the Ardennes, Israel or Ukraine, work best when the recipient is off their guard — as the Americans found to their cost in another unpleasant December surprise at Pearl Harbor. Substitute air operations for the ones described on land, and you have the factors surrounding the 7 December 1941 Japanese attack in a nutshell. The British suffered similarly three days later with the loss of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse, off the east coast of present-day Malaysia. The Japanese success at Pearl Harbor had copied an earlier formula — that of the November 1940 raid on the Italian naval base of Taranto. In the world’s first assault of its kind, planned and revised several times since the pre-war Munich crisis of 1938, twenty-one Fleet Air Arm Swordfish biplanes of the Royal Navy damaged or crippled eight important Italian warships, all but two aircraft returning to their carrier, Illustrious

Military surprise is a vital, yet fickle, friend. It is a one-shot weapon and should only be employed for the right reason, where there is certain chance of success. If launched as a desperate throw of the dice, where obsessions with secrecy override the necessity of adequate military preparation and training, surprise will fail. Taranto and Pearl Harbor succeeded through months of patient rehearsal beforehand. Herbstnebel and the February invasion of Ukraine failed through lack of military drill and practice. 

In the case of the 1944 Ardennes assault, this failure was magnified because part of the battlefield had seen Hitler’s panzers attack in 1940, with great success over the same terrain. Some German tanks in 1944 followed the identical tracks a little known major-general named Rommel had used four years earlier. Here, the crucial differences between May ’40 and December ’44 were the weather, poor groundwork and preparedness, and a more alert opponent.

Just as Hitler misread the American-British-Canadian alliance’s fighting professionalism of 1944, this year Putin misunderstood Ukraine’s will to resist. Halso overlooked the West’s determination to support Kyiv, which it had been doing since 2014. In the aftermath of the Anglo-American ramshackle departure from Afghanistan of 2021, Putin was encouraged to see his NATO opponents as spineless and weak. Hitler surmised the US Army possessed less willpower than his National Socialist Wehrmacht. Like him and Stalin, Putin interprets war as a clash of will. 

We often talk of the five stages of reaction to cataclysmic occurrences, whether on or off the battlefield. Initially there is shock. The stupefaction that such a major catastrophe could take place. This is closely followed by disbelief that the last thing expected has in fact happened. Albrecht Graf von Roon, Prussian War Minister from 1859–73, once opined that “if the enemy has two possible courses of action, he will invariably choose the third”. Next comes pain, both at the individual and institutional levels, with the loss of comrades, relatives, ships or whole military units. Some are killed or disappear without trace, many more wounded and others become prisoners. Each sudden loss, taken without warning, is agony for their military buddies and next-of-kin.

The fourth stage is anger — that such a thing could be allowed to happen, that people and organisations were ill-prepared, unexpecting. Only afterwards comes the fifth stage of reflection, coupled with acceptance. This includes an understanding of the chain of events that led to the bolt from the blue, with hope that future measures will prevent a repeat. These stages apply equally to the aftermath of manmade and natural disasters like the Titanic striking an iceberg in April 1912, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, or the downing of Malaysia Airways flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine in July 2014. 

Anger breeds the belief that it was someone’s fault

The penultimate stage, anger, is the most difficult to comprehend and manage. Indeed, some people and institutions never move beyond their outrage, and thence the conspiracy theories flow. There is an allegation that the Titanic did not sink at all in 1912, and that the unfortunate liner was her sister ship, the Olympic, deliberately wrecked in an insurance scam. Misinformed speculation posits that President Roosevelt engineered or encouraged the Japanese attacks of December 1941, to bring America into World War Two. Likewise, at least one historian has claimed that Eisenhower deliberately left the Ardennes front vulnerable, sacrificing those defending it, to goad the Germans into attacking, so that he could crush them with his armoured reserves. 

The internet plays host to many who believe the 11 September attacks were staged by the American government, and there is much Russian propaganda circulating that Ukraine somehow engineered the shooting down of flight MH17, but blamed the Kremlin. The creeping territorial gains of Putin’s empire are also explained away as somehow caused by the West. Contrarian academics, such as John Mearsheimer, suggest that NATO or EU expansion was to blame, overlooking the fact that those countries which applied to join, did so precisely because they feared Russian expansion. There are economists in the West, such as Philip Pilkington, who have argued in The Critic that anti-Russian sanctions should cease because they hurt the instigators more than the recipients. Yet, one reason why the Russians are deploying an estimated 2,400 drones made in Iran is precisely because sanctions have closed down their own missile and drone manufacturing capabilities.

Anger breeds the belief that it was someone’s fault that Pearl Harbor, the Ardennes assault, Yom Kippur attack and 11 September took place. It was, indeed — the enemy was to blame. Cool heads rather than hot hearts are needed to recognise that if your opponent goes to great lengths to conceal their own moves, then it is not someone’s fault on your side if the aggressor achieves complete surprise. That is a basic principle of war.

I argued in Snow and Steel, my book on the Battle of the Bulge, that the real reason Hitler launched his Ardennes assault was political: to reassert control over the German war machine and his Reich. Ever since the Stauffenberg attempt on the Führer’s life of 20 July 1944, a shock neither he nor the Gestapo had foreseen, Hitler had withdrawn into himself. His ailments loomed large in his own mind, and with every day came news of military reverses in France, Russia, Poland and Italy. The Herbstnebel operation was designed as much to dominate domestic discontent and banish apathy and defeatism, as to trounce his military opponents in the field.

We can find an identical echo in the Argentinian military junta’s April 1982 decision to invade the British Falkland Islands. Aiming to divert attention from growing civil unrest and economic stagnation, the leaders in Buenos Aires used war to mobilise patriotism via a swift return of the Falklands. At the dawn of 2022, Vladimir Putin found himself in the same situation. The jailing of Alexei Navalny the previous year had led to mass protests across Russia. Watched by his 6 million YouTube subscribers, Navalny had documented claims about widespread corruption by Putin’s cronies. Thereafter, all non-state media was shut down and internal dissent crushed. 

It was partly to demonstrate his strong-man credentials, encouraged by extreme nationalist supporters, that Putin decided to seize the rest of Ukraine which had eluded his grasp since 2014. In the Third Reich and Argentina, a significant proportion of the state’s military resources were tied up in exterminating internal opposition. In the case of Russia today, more armed power remains allocated to policing the domestic population, than fighting abroad. Thus, we can say with certainty that Putin knows he is in trouble, politically weaker than before and now beholden to radical Russian nationalists, who previously were only on the fringes of decision making.

None of these observations rule out a Russian victory

The Russian forces currently fighting in Ukraine desperately need a radical transformation from top to bottom. History tells us that the Prussian Army was once in the same situation. After surprise setbacks at Saalfeld and Jena-Auerstedt in 1806, Prussia was militarily shattered, enabling Napoleon to occupy Berlin. Political cronyism, poor leadership and the distance between officers and men was identified as major causes of the setback. Reformers, including Clausewitz and Scharnhorst, soon established an officers school and a war academy, where advancement was based on education, not outside influence. Thereafter, as today in Germany, officers served first as NCOs before moving on to leadership and professional training. At the same time, all but two of Prussia’s 143 generals had been sacked by 1813. These and other measures resulted in a complete overhaul and a war-winning army within seven years.

It is difficult to envisage Vladimir Putin permitting such a free rein. The Russian autocrat is a policeman-turned politician who made his way to the top via shady business deals. He has crafted a system where nothing happens without his permission. He understands little of military affairs. Curiously, neither does his Minister of Defence, Sergei Shoigu. General of the Army with not a day in the armed services, holder of 27 medals and decorations, Shoigu is an old political associate of Putin’s. He shares his leader’s love of Russian military history, collects swords and daggers, and is one of the Silovarchs, the 20 or so yes-men who make up the Kremlin’s inner circle. As Defence Minister since November 2012, he is an old bruiser, an enforcer, which goes a long way to explaining Russia’s lacklustre military performance to date.

The only power that Putin and Shoigu really understand is that of the gangster’s intimidating muscle. They hope that by numbers and fear, they will overcome Ukraine. Yet already, casualties, economic sanctions and empty arsenals are fast eroding their ability to generate fresh combat power. There is little that partner nations, Iran included, can do to help. Belarus and Kazakhstan are reportedly lukewarm about further supporting Moscow. Russia’s army appears as an old boxer, pounding away at his opponent, Ukraine. Yet, Vlodymyr Zelensky’s forces better resemble a judo fighter, nimbler on his feet, attacking only when an opportunity arises, avoiding a face-to-face slog. Brain over brawn. Both sides know that the present rain of missiles on Ukraine’s power grid is to buy time. It will not be decisive in itself. Furthermore, the current rocket-and-drone blitz is akin to the German V-weapon attacks of 1944–45. Just as Britain’s defenders soon learned how to destroy these terror weapons, Kyiv’s missile men are downing up to 70 per cent of the devices, with increasing success every day. 

None of these observations rule out a Russian victory over Ukraine in 2023, but it is unlikely. The Kremlin has thrown away the element of surprise, desirable if not essential for military success. It cannot be repeated in the same context. The Red Army will learn and adapt, but it needs freedom to question its orthodoxies, rethink its doctrine and retrain its forces. It must acquire a modern view of leadership and man management, too, rather than merely issuing orders and expecting others blindly to follow. Without a cadre of Non Commissioned Officers, the professional glue of sergeants who hold together armies as diverse as those of America, Britain, Canada, France and Germany, it is difficult to see how the Russian dinosaur will change sufficiently to win. 

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