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English-Speaking Pundits and the Russo-Ukrainian War
The War in Ukraine (2014-2022)
As I live within a bowshot of a railroad crossing, the screech of metal wheels on metal rails frequently reminds me of one of the many things that so many Anglophone commentators get wrong about the war in Ukraine. Coming from places afflicted with (hat tip to Arlo Guthrie) “the disappearing railroad blues,” these writers find it hard to imagine the degree to which Russian soldiers exploit the ability of the iron horse to move vast numbers of hundred-pound artillery shells. This blindspot, in turn, causes them to place far too much importance on means of movement, such as ships and trucks, that play second fiddle in the logistical symphony that supplies Russian forces in the field.
Tales of soldiers stealing pickles from convenience stores spark thoughts of another mistake that English-speaking critics have made with respect to the Russian supply system. Wise generals, from Alexander the Great to Francisco Franco, have long deployed vast quantities of food along with their armies. Nonetheless, the enduring fondness of English-speaking soldiers for bully beef, tinned biscuits, and other meals-ready-to-eat sets them apart from most other fighting men, past or present. To put things another way, we should not have been surprised that, when organizing an invasion of one of the great food-producing countries of our planet, Russian logisticians preferred the dispatch of fuel and ammunition to the delivery of items that could have been found in every bodega along the line of march.
Anglophone analysts also drew the wrong conclusions from reports of the loss, in battle, of Russian general officers. Such casualties, they argued, stemmed from an absence of trust. That is, Russian generals were killed because, lacking confidence in the competence of colonels, captains, and corporals, they felt obliged to exercise close supervision over forces engaged in combat.
The participation of generals in firefights, however, need not reflect an absence of faith in the fidelity and abilities of subordinates. Indeed, the “original gangsters” of “trust tactics” often recommended that the general officers commanding formations lead from the front. I suspect, moreover, that Russian leaders also understood that seeing a general die a soldier’s death usually exercises a positive influence on the morale of his subordinates. (“Say what you will about old General Strelkov, but he never asked us to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself.”)
Finally, few who made much of the battle deaths of Russian general officers seem to have been aware that the Russian forces that crossed into Ukraine on 24 February 2022 were organized in a way that provided them with an extraordinarily high proportion of fighting generals. That is, when a peacetime formation formed a battalion tactical group, the general in charge of that organization usually took command of the unit it spawned. Thus, rather than having one general for every four or five battalions, the Russian forces of the first few months of the “special military operation” had five or six flag-rank officers for every four or five battalions.
While we are on the subject of battalion tactical groups, I should address the widespread presumption that the movements of Russian forces in northern Ukraine in February and March of 2022 were necessarily aimed at the capture of Kyiv. While this operation might, indeed, have been designed to do to the Ukrainian capital what the Germans did to Warsaw in 1939, it is also possible that it served more modest goals. Imagining such purposes, however, would require the casting of nets much wider than those employed by most members of the English-speaking commentariat.
To put things another way, the creators of the Anglophone literature on the current war in Ukraine view that great event through two painfully narrow lenses. One of these, formed by conventional accounts of the recent experience of English-speaking armies, limits the types of martial maneuvers they can imagine. The other owes much to the many melodramas made by the most influential American film-maker of the past half-century.
Thanks to this poverty of paradigms, war bloggers who write in the language of Shakespeare frequently fail to imagine such things as a grand sweep in the style of nineteenth-century cavalry, a strategy of attrition, and an adversary who thinks like an eighteenth century monarch. Instead, they assume that every day is D-Day, every offensive a strike at the heart of the Death Star, and every opponent a cross between Darth Vader and Amon Goeth.
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