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Russia’s War in Ukraine: A Short Assessment from the Perspective of « Principle of War »

Dr. Murat Caliskan*

On February 24, 2022, Russia launched a large-scale operation against Ukraine. Russian forces attacked at four main axes, Kyiv axis from the North, Kharkiv axis from the Northeast, Donbas axis from the East and Crimea axis from the South. It seems to me that the main idea was to fix the bulk of Ukrainian defence forces at the east and northeast while enveloping Ukrainian forces from the South and capitulating from the North.

It is almost impossible to make a complete analysis of an ongoing war without access to the inner circle information. Yet, the operation that has been conducted so far provides necessary information to make a preliminary analysis. In the following paragraphs, I will present a short assessment of Russia’s operation in Ukraine according to the time-honoured principles of war at the operational level. The principles of war can be listed as: 1. Surprise, 2. Manoeuvre, 3. Objective, 4. Offensive, 5. Mass, 6. Economy of Forces, 7. Unity of Command, 8. Security, 9. Simplicity. Distilled from the history of warfare over a period of 2500 years, the « principles of war » serve as the guides in the art of warfare which a successful commander must consider in his planning and operating.

The Russian army was quite successful at applying the surprise principle, which requires to strike at a time or place or in a manner for which the enemy is unprepared. Despite the warnings of the US and UK for a large-scale operation a week before, few, including Russian security experts, predicted a large-scale operation particularly after Russia announced the recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk region. If exploited, surprise would enable Russian army to achieve success well out of proportion to the effort expended. But it was not exploited, as I will discuss later.

I found the Russian manoeuvre plan also quite successful. Supposedly, the bulk of Ukrainian defence was deployed at the eastern part of the country. A spontaneous attack from four directions was creative enough to make the Ukrainian Army hopeless. This would allow the Russian forces to fix the main Ukrainian forces at the East and Northeast while reaching the Capital quickly from the North, capitulating the Ukrainian Army and enveloping the main Ukrainian forces from the South. Although this is a good manoeuvre plan, I would suggest putting a time lapse between the Kyiv axis and other axes in order to distract Ukrainian forces attention first to the East and South so that the Kyiv axis could fulfil its task as the main attack forces.

There seems to be no problem with the principle of objective either. Russian army seems to have clearly defined and achievable goal. By capturing Kyiv at an earlier phase, Russia aimed to destroy the command and control of Ukrainian forces which would lead them to the loss of their will to fight. Meanwhile, enveloping forces were supposed to complete the destruction of Ukrainian forces.

In general, success in surprise and manoeuvre principles would compensate for the shortcomings in other aspects. The history is replete with examples of armies which won remarkable victories against larger armies as they successfully applied surprise and manoeuvre. However, the fact that the Russian Army hasn’t been able to achieve operational level goals so far signals that it has serious problems in employing other principles.

An army must always be offensive by seizing, holding and exploiting the initiative. The Russian Army seized the initiative by achieving surprise, but it could not neither maintain nor exploit the initiative that was seized at the beginning. The best evidence to the loss of initiative is the operational pause conducted by the Russian Army on February 26-27. It has been losing initiative because it cannot concentrate (mass) the effects of its combat power at the most advantageous place and time to produce decisive results. Although Kyiv is not far from Belarus border where they started their attack, they have never been able to concentrate sufficient forces in and around Kyiv to capitulate the Ukrainian Army. Or they haven’t had sufficient forces to encircle Ukrainian defence. This also shows that they failed to apply the principle of economy of forces which allows allocation of the maximum possible combat power on primary efforts.

Russian Army’s unity of command also seems to be seriously damaged. As we understand from the captured Russian soldiers, if it is true, they didn’t know their purpose, they didn’t even know why they were sent to Ukraine. This could be just a story that they had been instructed to tell when captured. However, it is hard to see a coordinated effort in each axis let alone in whole operational area either.

One of the principles that have been clearly disregarded by the Russian army is the security. The principle of security entails preventing enemy from acquiring unexpected advantage. The fact that Russian forces advance in unprotected small pieces have made them easy prey so far. On top of this, air superiority has not been achieved by Russia. This causes serious damage to the Russian forces.

It is difficult to decide whether the simplicity has been achieved by Russians. Although their objectives and manoeuvre plan do not seem to be the simplicist one, they are not that complicated either. However, whether Russians have complied with the principle of simplicity depends on how the Russian army converted the overall plan to clear and concise orders at lower levels, which is unknown to us yet.

Taken altogether, although Russia has been successful at applying the principles of surprise, manoeuvre, objective, they have failed at sticking to the principles of unity of command, mass, economy of forces, security and to some extent simplicity. This can be summarized as the following: Russia was good at thinking and planning, but not at executing and conducting. This suggests serious problems in the capabilities and basic tenets of operational war capability of the Russian Army.

Lastly, it is important to note that the correct application of the principles of war, though crucial, may not assure success if the human elements – morale, discipline, leadership – are lacking or are inferior to those of the enemy, as emphasized particularly by Clausewitz. The morale of Ukrainian forces seems to be much higher than Russian forces, which have an impact on the conduct of war as much as the principles of war do.

*Retired after 20 years of service in the turkish Army, Murat Caliskan received his PhD Degree from the Université Catholique de Louvain, in War Studies/International Relations. Currently studying Grand Strategy, Military Strategy, Contemporary Warfare, Hybrid Warfare, Peacekeeping Operations.

 – The views expressed in the content belong to the content creators and not the organization, its affiliates, or employees.

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