Have We Forgotten the Russian Way of War?

Victor Davis Hanson
American Greatness

“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.

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39 thoughts on “Have We Forgotten the Russian Way of War?”

  1. Wow. So disappointing. Like I have said before stick to your analysis of the US. You know nothing about what is going on in the Ukraine.

  2. This is NOT a comment. You may have a typo/wrong date in this paragraph

    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.


  3. Nowhere else can one get such a clear headed assessment of Russia and their Ukraine invasion. Far too many pundits on the Left and Right as well as western Leftists are ignorant of history.

  4. Steve Astrachan

    Very well said but did not go into the potential for nuclear escalation which is arguably consistent with Russian military doctrine. Let’s have a cease fire and negotiated settlement to end the bloodshed and prevent the escalation to catastrophe. Such a settlement may not be perfect but it is better than the alternatives.

  5. Professor Hanson you were remiss in specifically not mentioning the Battle of Stalingrad where orders were given by Stalin to resist at all costs, and blocking detachments were instituted to ensure his orders were steadfastly enforced.
    I believe the Russian loss in that specific battle alone was 750,000

  6. Great article, as usual. What you didn’t mention is that for Russia to lose Ukraine, would be like the US losing Virginia. Virginia tried that once, and some 600,000 men died.

  7. There is no doubt that as world power Russia must have access to the Atlantic with a warm water port. The Crimea has been that port for a century and there is not a square metor of Ukraine that has not been soaked in Russian blood over many centuries. Putin stated clearly that Russia will not tolerate Ukraine membership in NATO, yet here we are denying both necessities to Russia. The must be a negotiated end to this stupidity with give and take by both sides. Ukraine is not worth WWIII.

  8. Another thorough, accurate and balanced historical analysis by Hanson.

    As an amateur historian, I have read a lot about Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s disastrous invasion of the USSR. The loss of life on both sides was appalling.

    The Wermacht routed the Soviet Army but then the tide turned. The German military lost control of the air. Long supply lines hindered re-supply. The once powerful German invasion force ran low on fuel and ammunition. As we all know, the Red Army, supplied by the USA, destroyed the German army.

    Defeat can follow victory. A victorious army needs humility.

  9. It is sad that we should accept less than complete victory because Russia is so inhumane to others and even their own precious people.

  10. Predicting outcomes in war is difficult. Be careful about trusting predictions you hear.

    For example, in one of his State of the Union addresses, President Obama said that Syria’s Assad would be toppled. It was just a matter of time, he said.

    Of course President Obama’s confident prediction was wrong. Assad is still in power. Obama is gone.

  11. Marsh Noblitt

    Always amazed at hearing the wisdom, of Victor Davis Hanson. He has such a grasp on the world events, especially what’s happening in Ukraine and Russia.

  12. Dear Dr. Hanson:
    Another fact of history over the last 50 to 60 years is that Mr. Biden has been and continues to be wrong about everything! Whatever he says or does, do the absolute opposite and you are certain of success. Follow what he says and does, failure is just as certain. Just wish Americans could see it rather than our enemies!

  13. In most cases I would not question VDH’s history lessons. They are as informative as they are precise. This article is (IMO) the exception. The war in Ukraine does not fit into the context of either stoic defence of mother Russia or a clumsy foreign war. I was searching for the right context and opened the link to “Remembering Stalingrad 75 Years Later” from VDH on November 9, 2017. In Dr Hanson’s words from that article
    We rightly see Putin as an aggressive autocrat. But millions of Russians view Ukraine and the Crimea as sacred, blood-soaked Russian ground.

    With that as a filter, the USA sponsored coup in Ukraine and the West’s actions in brining NATO to Russia’s frontier the current situation makes more sense to me.


  14. James (seenitbefore)

    When in command of the facts, Dr Hanson’s analysis is always worth reading; when spewing the ISW / CIA propaganda he reads like an idiot. Even the Pentagon has admitted that the Russians have run a superior economy of force that killed Ukrainians 7 to 1 and destroyed 80+ % of its armor, and standoff weapons systems and all its air support (leaked Classified briefing documents) . The initial push south from Belerus froze 25% of Ukraine forces while Russian seized 4 states in a matter of days, even though outnumbered. It is sad to see Dr. Hanson so misinformed when there are hundreds of OSINT sources from the rest of the world that give a far more accurate picture. He is obviously drinking tea prepared by Condi Rice. Maybe he can write on book on this in 10 years, after Russia has won, NATO is gone and our economy is in tatters and the facts are known. The only parallel to WWII here is the, like the failure of German Intelligence to estimate the Russian ground force capacity, our Intelligence community totally underestimated Russian capabilities on all levels and American will soon pay a big price and maybe get a wake-up call.

  15. Hopefully, it will end, at least that provided by the USA in 16 months, once cooler and better heads are elected here. Once Biden, Blinken, the obese Austin, and the nonwarrior, fat Milley are gone; once the unethical and immoral are no longer in charge here, common sense might return there.
    It’ll be over in 16 months.

    It would be advisable to not ask Austin and Milley to oversee the withdrawal.

  16. Steve Astrachan

    We should also understand that Russian military doctrine of unlimited losses can also involve a nuclear component. Let’s hope for a negotiated settlement before the conflict escalates to the unimaginable. Such a settlement may not be perfect, but the world is not perfect. The alternative may be far worse.

  17. Shirley B Gohner

    Strange times… The US is “all in” with one of the most corrupt countries in Europe. The same one that Biden threatened to withhold a billion $ loan guarantee from if they didn’t fire a prosecutor investigating corruption.

  18. Yes, it surely is a long way from over. And that is exactly how our D.C. ruling class – – on both sides of the aisle – – likes it. Human collateral is a small price to pay when there is money to made prolonging the war as long as possible.

  19. Love VDH, but it appears there’s a typo:

    But by December 1941, the Germans could no longer win the war in the east.

  20. Dieter Schultz

    “Unfortunately, this Verdun-like war is a long way from over.”

    That is definitely a possibility but while the Ukrainians may not have the capability to forcefully expel the Russians from their country, a forceful expulsion is not the only way that Ukraine can get Russia to quit the battlefield.

    Creating the conditions under which the Russians lose the will to continue fighting in Ukraine, even without massive loses, is one of those ways.

    I’m sure that the historians reading this could identify historical precedents around a still strong army, although maybe not at its peak strength, deciding to quit the field of battle before its strength is exhausted.

    The way may go on for a long time, maybe even years, but it could also end far sooner than that and have that happen without a massive defeat of Russia’s invading army.

  21. George Sanders

    The Russians have their own way of fighting wars. In WWII the Soviet infantry would walk through minefields, and retreating Russian soldiers were oftentimes shot by Russian police units. The casualty rates in the Russian army in WWI and WWII were horrendous. NATO is making a mistake when it believes the Russians will react to military set-backs the same way the west would.

    Further, we have not had a major war between two armies equipped with modern weapons in a long time. Assuming modern tanks can breakthrough any defense is not supported or rebutted by recent history. In the Gulf War I and Gulf War II, the US was not fighting a modern army with comparable equipment. The current war in Ukraine, seems to suggest that the balance between the offense and defense is closer than expected.

    The current Ukrainian offensive is going into its second month, and has not achieved as strategic breakthrough anywhere on the front. In WWI and WWII , an offensive that was not successful in the initial weeks typically failed. An army can maintain offensive operations for only so long. Casualties of men, NCOs, and officers will weaken the attacking units over time and degrade their combat effectiveness. Much of the current commentary also ignores the fact that if the offensive slows down, the defender will have time to build new defensive lines. In WWI, by the time an attacker penetrated two trench lines, new trench lines were already built behind those lines.

  22. Very interesting review on how Russia has fought war in the past, and how they could follow this same pattern now.

  23. Hi Victor
    I enjoy reading your informative articles but those dealing with Ukraine seem to be in stark contrast to Colonel Douglas Macgregor’s who I follow on YouTube. His statistics on Ukraine’s losses are in the order of what you quote for Russia. Another view from Larry Johnson about these losses seems to agree with MacGregor( around 10 to 1 in Russia’s favour ).
    How can we reconcile the difference.
    Best regards Bob

  24. There is a significant difference between Russia (and USSR) of old and its modern version. Those were empires, while XXI century Russia is not. The unlimited resources human and industrial resources are no longer accessible without Ukraine. Russia is a cripple, still dreaming about her former might and glory. The game is over.

  25. Carbonpositive

    The Russian army is like an epidemic, anyone should be able to see what war with them will be like based on historical precedent. The outcome will always be the same. Only Russians have been able to defeat “Russia.”

  26. Travis Chittom

    Thank you for a great article and I hope people in Congress will read it but I doubt they read anything other then the funny papers. There is one thing I would disagree with and that is your casualty counting. Look at German intel, the only thing we do well over here now a days, and you can see that Ukraine is being bled white. Or look at the videos at Hindustan Times for another point of view. The Ukrainians can’t even get through the first line of defence and are just running around in circles and ending up in minefields while Russian gunners open up on them. Most media outlets are now saying the Russian have lost 47,000 dead and three times that wounded while even the Europeans have been admiting that Ukraine has lost well over 100,000 and possibly as many as 300,000 dead. It is a minor issue and anyway I hope more people read this article because the Empire is at an end and floundering and it looks like 1914 but with a lot less enthusiasm only this time there are atomic weapons.

  27. I’m not familiar with the battle of Verdun, but it seems our leaders may not be familiar with Russia.


    Although I rarely disagree with Mr. Hansen, the War in this Ukraine is more bioweapon related along with human trafficking, orgah harvesting & funnelling our tax dollars to those who hate America.. Always follow the money from the Deep State & how the CIA has been involved in many coups. The 2014 coup in the Ukraine had the DS resuming control of that region that was Pro-Nazi after the war. This is not a fight against Russia but against our own government who through the DS allies created bioweapons to destroy a targeted portion of the population. Reading RFK Jr book & noting his recent statements about targeted genocide. In the States the red ones were the target replacing those murdered with illegals.

  29. Bohdan O. Gerulak

    Any historical analogies in trying to describe the specifics of this war are meaningless without full realization that the Russian invading force as part of their war operational plans has been systematically conducting pre-medieval methods of total annihilation by means of torture, rape, mass murder of men, women and children, and the removal and turning large segments of the Ukrainian population into a state unlike that of slavery of the past and transporting them to the new Gulags. But the most heinous medieval crime in this 21st century is the Russian State-sponsored mass abduction and stealing of the Ukrainian children and transporting them to Russia as spoils of war. This is a horrible reality right now for Ukrainians and parents who lost their children. And that is why the Russian State must be punished by total defeat so the children may return. Any historians or ‘pundits’ should include this horror into their speculations and analyses of the Russian invasion.

  30. Michael Schmitt

    “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.” Should the date in this sentence be June 22, 1941?

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