Victor Davis Hanson
“I think I am not exaggerating when I say that the campaign against Russia has been won in fourteen days.”
General Franz Halder, June, 1941, Chief of Staff, Oberbefehlshaber des Heeres
Masters and commanders of history who have sworn that they have defeated an incompetent, disorganized, and corrupt Russian army are legion. For a time they seemed to have been correct. But there is a pattern to their encounters with the Russian army that is germane to the current Ukrainian offensive.
In 1707, Swedish King Charles XII appeared like he could successfully invade Russia in the manner that he had defeated Russian armies. But by 1709, he had wrecked the Swedish army against a numerically superior enemy that seemed to grow despite losing battles.
Napoleon won more battles than he lost in Russia, took, and burned Moscow—and destroyed his own French army in the process. The famous invasion chart of Charles Joseph Minard graphically demonstrated how his Grand Army shrunk each day it advanced further into Russia.
The 3.5 million-man Wehrmacht expeditionary force consistently crushed the Russian army for nearly two months following its invasion of June 22, 1944—killing nearly 3 million Russians. Such catastrophic losses would have broken any Western army.
But by December 1941, the Germans could no longer win the war in the east.
One might object that it is a truism that invading the vast landscape and enduring the harsh weather of Mother Russia is a prescription for disaster; yet Russian armies do poorly when they invade other countries and fight as aggressors outside of their homeland.
Yes and no.
Certainly, the preemptive Russian attack on Kyiv proved an utter disaster. Who can forget the scenes of last winter when sitting-duck, long columns of stalled Russian vehicles were picked off in shooting-gallery fashion by brave Ukrainian ad hoc units? But note saving Kyiv was the mere beginning not the end of the war.
Resilience and recovery from disasters are the historical trademarks of the Russian army. From May to September 1939, a Russian army under the soon to be heralded General Zhukov fought a large Japanese force on the Mongolian-Manchurian border. Despite the battle hardened and military ascendant imperial Japanese military, the Russians withstood every Japanese assault, and eventually destroyed 75 percent of Japanese forces.
On September 17, 1939, a duplicitous Soviet Russia invaded Poland from the west, under the agreements of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939.
The large Russian force hit a Polish army reeling from nearly three weeks of relentless hammering from a German invasion that had attacked from three directions. Although the belated advance of the Russian army was not especially impressive, its victory was foreordained.
The three-and-a-half month Finnish-Russian “Winter War” of 1939-40 is usually referenced as an example of the gritty heroism of the outnumbered Finnish army and the general ineptness of the invading Russian behemoth that outnumbered the heroic Finns by more than two to one. When the tattered Russian army finally ground down the Finns and forced them to negotiate, they had suffered nearly 400,000 casualties, perhaps five times Finnish losses.
The Russian invasion was poorly planned, inadequately supplied, incompetently led, and characterized by low morale. And yet the invasion was eventually mostly successful given the numerical and material advantages of Russia—and Moscow’s seeming indifference to its massive losses. Its trademark war of attrition eventually proved too costly for tiny Finland.
In the current Ukrainian war, over the last 16 months Russia has suffered unimaginable setbacks. It has lost more planes, helicopters, armored vehicles—and soldiers—than at any time since World War II. The morale in the Russian military is reportedly shot.
Westerners understandably gleefully watched the bizarre “coup’ staged by Yevgeny Prigozhin and his mercenary “Wagner Group,” in anticipation of some sort of civil war or forced abdication of Vladimir Putin. “Putin is finished” has been a mantra since February 2022.
In short, the Russian “special military operation” is a sorry Russian saga of self-inflicted wounds, abject ineptitude, and callous treatment of its own. So why then does Russia continue such wastage?
True, Russia can draw on well over three times the population as Ukraine, from a territory 30 times larger. In contrast, perhaps a quarter of Ukrainian’s prewar population has left the country, leaving a population of fewer than 30 million.
Westerners scoff at the anemic and hemorrhaging Russian economy—even before the war only half the size of California’s. Yet Russian GDP is nonetheless ten times greater than Ukraine’s.
Perhaps the key to the Russian enigma is a reductionist “Russia doesn’t care” about its massive losses that by now would have toppled any Western government that oversaw such senseless carnage.
Russian incompetent commanders certainly have wasted tens of thousands of young Russian lives. Russian medical care at the front is atrocious; becoming wounded is often synonoymous with a death sentence. Supplies of food and munitions are unreliable.
Somewhere between 150-200,000 Russian soldiers may have already died, been wounded, or captured. Russia may have lost nearly an astonishing 6,000 armored vehicles and nearly 200 aircraft.
And yet here we are with the Russian army entrenched on the borderlands, still in possession of 11 percent of Ukraine’s post-2014 territory.
In frenzied fashion, the desperate Russians have nearly finished a modern version of a Maginot Line of zigzagging interconnected trenches, reinforced concrete tank traps, minefields, artillery crossfire fields—all protected by mobile reserves and aircraft, missile, and drone support. They have awaited the vaunted “spring offensive” of Ukraine,” perhaps hoping to kill one Ukrainian for every two Russians they lose.
These ossified World-War-I-like fortifications are laughed off by Western analysts as an anachronistic multibillion-dollar blunder of static defense.
Yes, we smirk at such crude Russian obstinance. But increasingly now rare are the March and April triumphant boasts of Western generals, pundits, the media, and political officials that the long promised reckoning would unleash a Ukrainian armored Pattonesque romp through and around the blinkered Russians—and perhaps a Cannae entrapment that would swallow such calcified deployments and end the war outright.
After all, the U.S. and NATO have poured $200 billion into Ukraine’s increasingly state-of-the art war machine. Top Western advisors and intelligence officials daily advise Ukrainian generals.
Kyiv now spends more annually on defense than any other country except the U.S. and China. Its soldiers are perhaps more battle-hardened than any in NATO, its army better equipped than any Western military except the American.
Yet we still hear constant light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel escalatory revisionism.
We were once told that the U.S. should not supply Ukraine with state of the art 155mm artillery.
Likewise taboo were billion-dollar-plus Patriot antiaircraft missile batteries and the sophisticated M142 HIMARS rocket platforms. We hoarded these costly systems, and feared Russia might do something stupid once its soldiers and planes were shredded by such sophisticated American arms.
We were assured that shipping Abrams tanks would be unwise given similar fears of escalation.
F-16s? They too, we were told, were not needed, and might also earn a wild counter-response from Russia. All these munitions are now green-lighted.
Now we are to ship controversial cluster bombs. Again, all these weapons were demanded by Ukraine as the final tools that would supposedly help crack the clunky Russian army.
The latest once verboten escalation is the call up of U.S. reservists, “just in case” they are needed in Europe to ensure the supply and training of Ukrainians—or, alternatively, in theory to be ready to supplant U.S. combat troops that would be sent into Ukraine.
The recent agreement to ship cluster bombs, designed to shower entrenched Russian conscripts with “steel rain” jumped the proverbial shark.
Western leftists, previously known for their moral outrage over using such macabre weapons used on the modern battlefield—often by Western units fighting for their lives in the Middle East—were among the most vocal clamoring for such shipments, the most recent necessary antidote to the supposedly neanderthal Russian concrete and steel barriers. Will we soon see upscale houses in liberal communities with new lawn signs, “In this house, we believe in cluster bombs?”
Yes, the Ukrainians have far better equipment than does Russia. They have moral right on their side, and they continue to fight doggedly and heroically, despite mounting and ultimately unsustainable losses.
Yes, the Russian economy is in tatters.
Yes, Putin’s grip on power is in danger, given that his foolhardy invasion is destroying the reputation of the Russian military, solidifying NATO, and destroying a generation of Russian youth.
And yes, there is also a long Russian way of war.
Historically the Russian military is not preemptive but reactionary and sluggish. It was historically plagued by Czarist, Soviet, and oligarchic bureaucratic incompetence. It treats its soldiers as cannon fodder, and relies on sticks rather than carrots to mobilize its youth.
Yet the resilient Russian army is also dogged as it bends but rarely breaks—even if its tactics of pouring men and fire against the enemy are scripted and predictable. We laugh at the unimaginative Russian entrenchments, but we also accept that to breach them will require a cost in blood and treasure that Ukraine and its Western benefactors may not wish to pay, although Russia itself may well gladly pay that tab and more still.
Given Russian military history, it is stunning how confident Western military analysts have been in predicting not only that smaller Ukraine would expel neighboring Russians from what they grabbed in 2022, but also go on to recapture the borderlands and Crimea.
Their predictions assumed that catastrophic Russian losses, the dividends of Moscow’s stupidity and indifference, the amorality of the invasion, the evil of Putin, and the nobility of the new united NATO would all ensure Russian defeat.
Yet history would differ. It would answer that to win a war, proverbially long-suffering Russia must first almost lose it.
Unfortunately, this Verdun-like war is a long way from over.