Russia knows the drill because Nazi Germany used it against them between June and December 1941. Blitzkrieg,” or “lightening warfare,” is the idea that speed, mechanized infantry, air dominance, and surprise can deliver a fast victory at low cost by catching an enemy off guard, advancing, regrouping, or repeating. Russia is trying it in Ukraine – and failing badly.
Ironically, Ukraine is doing intuitively what Russia did in WWII to stop the Germans, stopping the enemy by using the equivalent of asymmetric warfare, misdirection, amateur explosive devices, roving snipers, defensive weapons, well-positioned obstructions, and spontaneous engineering. See, e.g., Operation Barbarossa.
The double irony is that Russia’s boasts about a modern military seem more empty than full, like their scuttled tanks. The Russians are fumbling, getting bogged down, losing ground – or not quickly gaining it – in the face of highly motivated Ukrainians. See, e.g., Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova: The Russian Blitzkrieg Was Not Successful; Putin escalates the war on Ukraine as blitzkrieg calculations fail.
As global support for Ukraine grows, morally and materially, the whole story Russia has told, the whole lie that Ukraine or NATO was preparing to attack, becomes a farce. War, the assault begins to look, even if eventually successful in grabbing land, increasingly like “David and Goliath,” with the Russian Goliath stumbling, and caught off guard by Ukrainian “blitz-defense.”
Put differently, as you look at the map of Ukraine, Russia should have been in key cities within hours if the planning, intelligence, operations, and supply lines had been prepared, and they certainly seemed to be obsessed with planning – throughout the Biden Administration’s tenure.
But no, the assault has foundered. In the north, even by the end of a week, Kyiv – Ukraine’s gemstone city – was not in Russian control, nor was city number two, Kharkiv. Attempts at encirclement were almost amateur, incomplete, held by lack of fuel, and mysterious inability to operate at night, along with many other errors.
Meantime, Ivanki to the north should have been taken before Kyiv and yet held its own as the week progressed. To the south, Chernihiv and – very close to the Russian border – Mariupol should have fallen easily. Kherson appears to have fallen, Odesa is fighting. But confirming control of any of these cities is hard, and Russia has stumbled badly in the attempt.
What else is surprising? Air dominance was supposed to be easy for the Russians, and – remembering WWII and other conflicts – airpower is critical for “lightning warfare” to work. With the combination of manned and unmanned systems, sustainable command and control, and sheer grit, Ukraine has denied Russia that component of the battlespace.
Then go to cyber, and ask – why and how is it possible that Russia, which many imagined consummate at targeted cyberattacks, has not been able to decisively end the internal communications that have allowed Ukraine to keep resisting? No obvious answer emerges, except that they spluttered.
Then think about the strategic downside to not winning fast. If this story continues much longer without some level of decisive end, a capitulation by the Ukrainian citizens, as well as government, and a sense that the mass engagement is in retreat, the story just gets worse and worse for Russia.
Beyond not taking the ground needed fast, they begin sliding sideways, losing greater and greater international support, losing sympathy, losing hope of any credible storyline to justify the immoral, brutal, almost medieval assault on a peaceful, contiguous nation. They start to look more like WWII Germany than post-Soviet Russia, which accelerates economic, diplomatic, and political losses.
Back in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other parts of Russia, all this is not playing well. The Russian people – most of whom are Christian, decent, and have no interest in becoming WWII Germany – are not happy.
Here is another Putin miscalculation. If the population becomes as hard to hold as world opinion, the world begins to change in ways that are increasingly unpredictable for him. If the Army becomes disillusioned, distressed, and demoralized and begins to hear their views reflected in protests around the country, where might that lead? The answer is unknown, but a question worth asking.
Finally, the idea of acting fast and winning has more than immediate implications. If you say you will hit the basket, net, or goal line – and then miss badly in warfare – your credibility sinks fast. This moral, economic, diplomatic, and now military misstep will affect perceptions of Russia’s preparedness, well beyond Putin’s own loss of personal credibility.
This conflict is far from over and may evolve into an extended, expensive, and politically disastrous decision for Putin – if it has not already. But the bigger point is that Russia’s status in the world is fast eroding. The lightning warfare idea worked in WWII for their adversary, but Russia is bogged down, losing ground.