In the 1980s, I taught military history, strategy and tactics at the Air Force Academy. In preparing future Air Force leaders, we analyzed the success of various wars using three criteria: Society/Leadership; organization/planning; and technology/employment. We have used a pyramid to illustrate that all three areas are needed to contribute to the outcome of a successful war. We would then look at a war and categorize it into these areas to determine its success. So maybe a month after the start of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, we might be able to assign some initial ratings.
• Leadership — In this conflict, we can see that Russian President Putin represents the traditional authoritarian leader who directs the war, with little input from others and society at large.
A useful analogy to this is Hitler’s 1941 campaign against the Soviet Union. Hitler made all the calls and pushed the German army deep into the Russian countryside. These leaders – Putin and Hitler – used faulty assumptions to start their campaigns, mainly that it would be a quick victory. The campaigns stagnated because their leaders did not fully understand the conditions their armies would face on the ground.
So if my cadets were to grade Putin on leadership, I think they would give him a C-.
• Organization/planning — This second area is just as important. No matter how good the blueprints are, they are often useless once the fight begins.
The best example of failed war planning is the First World War. All belligerents had war plans that governed their actions. Like a well-oiled machine, each shot set armies in motion. On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated. Austria-Hungary declares war on Serbia; Germany invades Luxembourg and Belgium; France invades Alsace; British forces arrived in France; Austria-Hungary invades Russia. And in September, all the great nations were at war. The conflict will bog down on the western front for four bloody years.
The assumptions of the conflict and its execution were flawed because they did not take into account an important factor: “the fog of war”. No matter how good the plan, it should change depending on events. Putin’s plan was thwarted because he did not believe the Ukrainian people would rise up and check his advance. Coupled with the fact that this was not a quick victory, the army’s logistical support would crumble. Finally, he had not anticipated the strong reaction led by the United States and NATO to this attack.
The overall grade for the war planning aspect is D-.
• Technology — This is the base of the pyramid. For wars to succeed, available technology must be used effectively.
Stuck on the ground, Putin has now resorted to terror bombing as Hitler did in 1940 with Britain. In addition to military targets, the bombardments hit areas of political importance and civilians. In 1940 it failed as the British rose to the challenge and Nazi tactics significantly altered American opinion. Prior to the air battle, many Americans accepted that Britain could not survive. They were wrong.
Today, it might seem that the same argument prevails, at least in Putin’s mind. But this bombardment only strengthened the resolve of the Ukrainian people, as it did in 1940 with the British. Terrorist bombings are a tactic of last resort; it means that the leader did not effectively employ his other means of warfare and technology. If Putin wins, it will be a Pyrrhic victory that will have destroyed his war machine and his country. So again, at best, a C-.
• Globally — Putin is blinded by his ambition. Like so many before him, he lost sight of his purpose. His blood runs, as it was often said of generals in the 19th century, and instead of effectively employing all three aspects of warfare, he will continue, even if the result is disastrous. His overall grade from my “cadets” — D+.
In closing, I quote Sun Tzu, born in 544 BC. AD, Chinese general, military strategist and renowned author of “The Art of War”, the first military treatise. He emphasizes how important it is to really “know your enemy” and to use intellect rather than brute force as much as possible.
To Putin, Sun Tzu might have said, “Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win.”
John E. Norvell is a frequent contributor to the editorial section of The Times. He is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Vietnam air combat veteran, former assistant professor of military history at the Air Force Academy, and alumni director of Hobart. He has written for the Washington Post and several historical newspapers and journals across the country. Graduated in 1966 from Hobart College, he lives in Canandaigua