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Conventional Warfare Meets Wishful Thinking
Reality-Based Theory Conquers Abstract Theory in Ukraine
“He did not see in the outcome of that war the least proof of the incorrectness of his theory. On the contrary, to his mind, the departures from his theory were the only cause of the whole failure…Pfuel was one of those theorists who so love their theory that they forget the purpose of the theory—its application in practice; in his love for theory, he hated everything practical and did not want to know about it. He was even glad of failure, because failure, proceeding from departures from theory in practice, only proved to him the correctness of his theory.”
- Leo Tolstoy [War and Peace, III.1.X]
Since the Russia-Ukraine war began, I’ve broadly considered the situation to be that NATO had used Ukraine as a sacrificial pawn on the imperial chessboard. However, after reading the following incredible Twitter thread, I am left wondering if they genuinely believed this all would work and Ukraine would achieve an assured and decisive victory, of course, greatly harming Russia in the process.
I will be going through this tweet by tweet, but I still think its useful to begin with a short summary of his broader point. Basically, he posits that NATO, not having been in a serious symmetrical war in 75 years, became attached to untested theories, and spent the last 8 years building a series of useless fortifications which Russia was able to destroy and capture through century-old tactics. It makes a lot of sense, especially if you know how modern “experts” work, such as their insane covid policies which had no basis in reality, or believing sanctions would stop Russia despite an enormous breadth of empirical evidence demonstrating sanctions don’t work.
There was never any reason to believe Russia would run out of munitions, or that they would behave stupidly, and they have 3 times Ukraine’s population- though did invade with a relatively small force. It appears all “experts” have become as Tolstoy once described German military theorists:
“Pfuel was one of those hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured men as only Germans can be, and precisely because only Germans can be self-assured on the basis of an abstract idea—science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth.” [War and Peace, III.1.X]
Or, as the thread puts it:
This reminds me of the famous sinking of the HMS Victoria, where a major British warship ran into another doing maneuvers in the Eastern Mediterranean and the ship sank causing the deaths of 358 sailors. At the time, it had been 78 years since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the last time the British Navy had actually fought other ships [and, indeed, for us it is 77 years since the end of WW2, the last time the US fought a full war against a major mechanized army.] In this time, the navy had grown rigid, as there were few opportunities to demonstrate competence under fire and determine who were the talented leaders who would make quality captains. One, Tryon, was trying to innovate and test new theories of naval flagging, and simply rammed another ship by mistake [incidentally, the ramming shouldn’t have been enough to sink the ship, either; the British didn’t know their fleet had that vulnerability, and rams had recently been classified as “obsolete.”]
The point is, the problem with going through your Pax _____ is that innovation and initiative suffer while you deal with maintaining your influence against much weaker opponents, instead of fighting anyone who genuinely challenges the full strength of your military capabilities [despite that empires generally lose colonial brush wars during these periods.] Basically, imperial hubris takes over, and the leadership and intellectual classes begin to believe their schemes will always work no matter how much evidence to the contrary accumulates.
This part I would contest, because though it’s true that the Soviets suffered and caused far more casualties, the American-led invasion of Europe was hugely important in defeating the Axis Powers in Europe. There’s something to the fact that the Americans were a fresh army and economy, where as the Germans were worn down from years of warfare; however, that also means that the Germans had a huge amount of experience as they faced inexperienced troops. The Americans absolutely did defeat the Germans at symmetrical warfare in the theaters where they fought them. However, it’s accurate that the American military essentially considers its gear and tactics to be inherently superior at warfare despite losing wars to peasants and goat-herders.
Yes, though they did thoroughly destroy a conventional military in the First Gulf War, the US has absolutely not fought the sort of conflict Russia and Ukraine are in against a conventional army since Korea, where they accepted a ceasefire instead of victory.
I discussed this regarding military adventurers earlier in the war. The US and NATO have dropped a huge number of bombs but have never experienced real airstrikes or artillery strikes; no one in service of Western countries has, or at least, had before volunteering for Ukraine. That said, even not playing modern first person shooters, I can tell you that in Battlefield 2 you absolutely did experience air and artillery strikes, but not like this:
It’s not a stretch to say that America’s military bureaucrats are unlikely to be imagining their equipment facing this kind of barrage, as they have not been fighting anyone who can threaten their artillery from a distance, nor who can properly defend against their air superiority.
This basically describes how our entire government functions, which is famously always declaring war on random things and then drastically losing: poverty, crime, drugs, terrorism, covid. There is no reason to believe the actual military would not function the same way, as it seems to be a society wide epidemic of hubristic incompetence. The basic cycle is:
Identify or invent problem
Set impossible goals
Receive untested academic plan based on unproven theories/models
Transfer vast wealth and freedom from public to corporations to achieve goals using expensive new technology
Fail [probably make problem worse]
Learn nothing, return to #2
Its a good racket if you’re on the profitable side of it.
I don’t think they have, because we live in a society that never learns anything. But as I detailed previously, they are absolutely preparing the public for catastrophic narrative collapse, with even Foreign Affairs- ran by the Council on Foreign Relations- acknowledging that Ukrainian victory is “implausible” and that diplomacy needs to be accepted. There is no reason to believe this collapsing empire will actually learn anything that changes its behavior, the corruption and hubris are too far along.
This is one of the most common historical uses of cavalry, which are much less effective in pitched battle than is commonly believed. The drones and advanced artillery targeting are a modern innovation, but this is still an example of Russia relying on the most ancient tactics to harry their enemy and determine strength and positions. Besides providing artillery targeting, these skirmishes reduce your own troops’ fear and increase their morale. Machiavelli writes,
“Wise commanders are compelled, before engaging in battle, to show their troops, through small skirmishes, what the enemy is like, so that by beginning to know and deal with the enemy, the troops will lose the terror that their fame and reputation have provoked in them. It is extremely important for a commander to do this. In fact, there is almost a necessity within it that constraints you to do to this, since you seem to be moving toward certain defeat unless first, through small trials, you have eliminated the terror among your troops that your enemy’s reputation had placed in their hearts.” [Discourses, III.37]
Further, if you do not engage in skirmishes your enemy gains contempt for you. In this situation, with the artillery-heavy strategy, the skirmishes further portend brutal artillery barrages, and thus frighten and destabilize your enemy. Granted, the Russians probably don’t have some sort of deep-seated fear of the ferocity of the Ukrainian military, but many have limited combat experience and further are facing NATO’s weapons and tactics, which have been purported to be formidable. These small engagements are of great advantage to an invading army.
MLRS are the mobile missiles shown in the above video. As you can see, Russia is using these, as well as other weapons, in massive numbers against fixed positions. In the vast open fields of Ukraine, there are few places to hide, and no good way to hold fortifications. Russia’s entire combat strength is designed for this terrain.
Brutal, but it makes it clear why this strategy involves slow, reliable progress and widespread destruction.
I can’t speak for this kill ratio, but its hard to imagine that this style of fighting wouldn’t result in massively higher Ukrainian casualties- and now Ukraine has admitted to losing 100-200 soldiers a day, as well as having 500 wounded daily. Ukraine has its own artillery, of course [much NATO supplied at this point] but Reuters is reporting that Ukrainian artillery is outnumbered 8 to 1. Further, for all of Ukraine’s insistence on receiving advanced artillery weapons, artillery is not particularly useful for the defense of fortifications. As Machiavelli writes,
“Wherever a large body of men can go with force, artillery cannot stop them…the defender of a small city…who finds his walls leveled to the ground, lacks space with embankments and trenches to which he can retreat, and has no choice but to rely upon artillery, will quickly lose.”
- [Discourses, II.17]
The long range and precision of modern artillery somewhat changes this formulation in that can be shot from well behind the fortifications but this also means it can be destroyed by other artillery well behind the fortifications. It should have been obvious that no amount of artillery would ever save Ukraine’s position, but no one at NATO appears to have imagined Russia would use conventional tactics.
The outcome of this war was not a foregone conclusion, though personally I assumed Ukraine’s military would collapse simply because of the corrupt and ramshackle nature of Ukraine as a country, but they always had a chance if they chose to fight. Russia launched this so-called “special military operation” with troop numbers that would generally be considered horribly insufficient to capture some or all of Ukraine [of course, Russia has not stated clear goals, so what they ever intended to accomplish remains highly speculative.] Still, it very much doesn’t appear that any of Ukraine’s strategy was intelligently targeted at the threat it actually faces.
The evil/incompetence matrix is one of the most challenging things when judging governments. They are generally both, but one rarely knows how much of which and if there are intentional evil designs of just a mess of chaos, and further it is hard to know if schemes are meant to work or “fail.” As I said in the beginning, I had been assuming NATO led Ukraine down a “primrose path,” baiting a war to bleed Russia while knowing Ukraine had no chance. However, Schryver makes a strong argument here that NATO thought this would all work. Russia simply didn’t invade with the numbers to defeat an army of this size, so why it is going this incredibly poorly for Ukraine when the US has spent as much money as the first five years of the Afghanistan War cost in sending them military aid in just under 5 months must be a matter of strategy. Even if they didn’t think Ukraine could win but only could bog down Russia, that goal is still not being accomplished, thus far, as evidenced by Russia’s complete capture of the Lugansk Oblast.
Though for the mismanaged citizenry of the West, times seem very turbulent, for the military leadership, until the Russia-Ukraine war things had been quite stable, leading to a situation where talentless hacks hold a lot of power. As Machiavelli writes,
“Excellent men in corrupt republics (especially in tranquil times) are considered enemies, both out of envy or other ambitions, the people follow either a man who is judged to be good by common self-deception or someone put forward by men who are more likely to desire special favours than the common good. Later, in adverse times, this deception is revealed, and out of necessity the people turn to those who in tranquil times were almost forgotten.” - [Discourses, II.22]
This is what should happen, following catastrophic narrative collapse, but it never seems to. Either way, due to the stability of the military industrial complex, men who will claim fancy gear can win any war are empowered despite being completely incompetent, because it keeps the corrupt funds flowing. Thus, they all became deluded about Russia’s actual military capabilities, because there was a financial incentive to say it would be easy with the right [extremely expensive] equipment.
Alternately, Russia is on its first/second generation of post-Soviet leaders, men who pulled the country out of utter devastation, and times that required competence. It’s the basic “strong men create good times” cycle, with us on “weak men create hard times” and Russia on “hard times create strong men.” [That meme has a much stronger basis in history than many claim.]
It’s unclear why they thought anyone would behave that way, especially given how reliant the US military is on armed drones in warfare- the “NATO braintrust” also bombs the shit out of everything in warfare. Regardless, they should have easily understood what impact artillery would have on these fortifications, as Machiavelli writes,
“If fortresses ever were useless, they are especially so in our own times against artillery, the destructive power of which makes small locations, where it is impractical to retreat behind embankments, impossible to defend.” - [Discourses, II.24]
Bear in mind, Machiavelli is talking about early 16th century artillery. NATO choosing this strategy is especially strange because Russia has preferred brutal artillery for centuries; the geography of their sphere of influence is ideal for it. Granted, in the public imagination, we do think of them throwing waves and waves of infantry at Napoleon and Hitler, but to the extent that is accurate it was out of desperate necessity during an invasion, not a chosen military strategy. Even if the foreign policy hacks are correct about some things, it should have been obvious that if Russia’s initial plan of attack went poorly they would resort to relying on overwhelming artillery superiority. If anything, the defense strategy should have been based on knowing Russia would ultimately use these tactics. “Bomb the shit out of it and then move in” is not exactly rocket science [well, I suppose designing machines which launch missiles is inherently rocket science, but you get the idea.]
Further, there are serious problems with the premise of fortifications themselves. Whether they are aimed at your own subjects or at a foreign invader they tend to be more harmful than helpful. In this case, Ukraine considers the breakaway regions of Donbass and Lugansk to be their subjects, and they are well aware that the Russian-speaking citizens in the regions they held before the war do not support their regime. Machiavelli writes,
“I would say that where a principality or a republic fears its subjects and he possibility of their rebellion, such a fear must arise first of all from the hatred that its subjects harbour for it, hatred for its evil conduct; this evil conduct arises either from the belief that it can hold its subjects with force, or from the lack of prudence of the one who governs them…the bad treatment causing their hatred derives in good measure from the fact that such a ruler or such a republic possesses fortresses, which, when this is true, are far more harmful than useful.” - [Discourses, II.24]
Clearly, with the laws attacking Russian language and culture, the government of Ukraine knows it has this perception in these regions, and that the region can only be held from its own [erstwhile] subjects by military force. What’s more,fortifications make a convenient target for the enemy to attack,
“In times of war they are completely useless, because they are assaulted both by the enemy and by your subjects, nor is it possible to offer resistance to both one and the other…It is not fortresses, but, rather, the will of the people that maintains rulers in their position of power.” - [Discourses, II.24.]
It was, in the first place, a major mistake to make these fortifications to hold eastern Ukraine, instead of simultaneously working on building quality infantry and repairing relations with the inhabitants of the region. In my view, a lot of the arguments you hear from the pro-Ukraine side are actually quite strong arguments that Ukraine governing ethnic Russians is not working out, but Ukraine seems to still care a great deal about the land on which these ethnic Russians live [Russia does too, of course, hence the parties being at war.]
I can’t really verify the accuracy of this, but if true, the residents are directing Russian forces to the places the Ukrainians have holed up:
If this is accurate, then Ukraine is fundamentally dealing with an insurgency and an invading army at the same time- in what is ostensibly their own territory. This is often the cost of holding an unwilling population with your fortifications.
This part is another one it is hard to get a read on. They really played up the desperation early on, and deluded those men about the nobility of the struggle, but I didn’t see anyone claim it would be easy. The bigger issue was that those men had never defended against a conventional army and don’t seem to have conceptualized what they would face. I remain skeptical that the empire managers thought this would “work”, in terms of delivering victory, but they certainly hoped that it would go in such a way that it hurt Russia more than NATO, and it pretty clearly has not worked in that sense.
This aspect truly confounds me. I have written about Russia’s self-sufficiency extensively and it would take incredible incompetence for anyone to believe Russia didn’t have sufficient weapons stockpiles and the industrial capacity to rapidly make more. We are talking about a country that has been at relative peace for decades and is a major arms exporter. The idea that you could bleed Russia this way was always a non-starter, and though their war in Afghanistan hurt the USSR, the real reason for its fall was communism’s failure to provide good living standards and a loss of public faith in the system . As I’ve mentioned before, Russia has essentially unlimited grain, metal, fuel, and men which can come from within Russia. They can only be militarily defeated in the sense of being overthrown or reduced by fighting them within Russia where their supplies can actually be cut off.
I’m highly skeptical that anyone near the top genuinely believed that Russia would rapidly run out of munitions, but the sheer incompetence of our ruling class never ceases to exceed my expectations. Still, they for some reason let that narrative go out despite that they must have certainly known it would ultimately make them look like a bunch of assholes yet again.
Still extremely difficult to read the evil/incompetent matrix here, especially as even if this worked it would have been a sort of evil plan, insofar as its causing another country to have to fight a brutal war to defend its own soil.
This brings me back to Emperor Alexander’s advisor Pfuel,
“He had science—the theory of the oblique movement, which he deduced from the history of the wars of Frederick the Great—and everything he came across in contemporary military history seemed to him senselessness, barbarism, grotesque clashes in which so many mistakes were made on both sides that these wars could not be called wars: they did not fit the theory, and could not serve as material for science.”
- [War and Peace, III.1.X]
I believe the same thing is going on with the US military advisors and World War II, where they think that the US and UK fighting Germany on the Western Front is the only war in which both sides performed well enough to teach valuable lessons. This is especially strange as Russia performed well in its brief symmetrical conflict with Georgia and its asymmetrical intervention in Syria. All Russia-watchers should have been aware that Russian soldiers were brave and disciplined and that their equipment performed well. On top of which, Russian military hardware is used all over the world: that it functions properly is a known quantity.
As with covid- which has the basic transmissibility traits as any cold or flu in history- it appears the “expert” class just invented the idea that the situation was unprecedented then acted recklessly and with extreme hubris upon invented theories. The fact that Machiavelli writing 500 years ago can, from ancient examples, show what is wrong with these strategies demonstrates just how severe is their blindness to past example and faith in their theories.
On top of this, despite that they have spent years convincing the public that Putin is the mastermind behind every event that doesn’t go how the ruling cabal wants, when it serves their purposes they are happy to believe- or at least claim- that his administration is completely incompetent. Machiavelli writes,
“A commander of armies must not trust an error that is committed by the enemy in an obvious way; there will always be some form of deceit behind it, since it is not reasonable for men to be so incautious. But the desire to win often blinds the minds of men, so that they see nothing but what seems to suit their purpose.” - [Discourses, III.48]
Though there have been many cartoonish stories of Russian failure, the most clear example of this is that people are still acting as if Russia intended to take Kiev in the initial invasion, and was simply turned back in an epic failure. This was reasonable to believe at the time, but it seems clear now that the intention was to distract and terrify Ukraine while Russia concentrated forces on the east and south. Its understandable that the Ukrainians felt compelled to defend their capitol, but there has seemingly been no acknowledgement that Russia used that as a ruse- despite that this tells one quite a lot about Russia’s goals. Discovering that the attack on Kiev was a ruse does not appear to have changed Ukraine’s strategy, but only given them unmerited hopes in defensive tactics which do not actually work.
Indeed, and now daily we see major publications acknowledging that Ukraine is being defeated, and often further stating that no amount of weapons shipments can change that.
The extent to which the West can control the world through fear is rapidly collapsing from this fiasco, and it having been in decline already surely greatly influenced Russia’s decision to invade. The truly unsustainable amounts of money which have been dumped into this have gone into a furnace [or more likely washing machine] in a mass waste of Western resources. And for it, nothing but shame has been brought upon us. The Western leadership class is simply far too addicted to spending as a measure of quality, and underfunds the genuinely useful parts of their militaries, as I discussed in my article about Turkiye.
Russia’s arsenal is designed against US weapons, some of which have been around since the US armed the Mujaheddin. Russia’s superior jamming technology has been a well-known liability in a major conflict for years. From the time the first person wore copper to safeguard his valuable copper, there has been a push and pull between offensive and defensive military equipment. While various things may take an enemy by surprise and briefly unbalance warfare, it always settles on the most useful thing being an infantry soldier with a weapon. It was sheer insanity to not assume Russia was broadly prepared to be on the receiving end of US weapons and to think that they would somehow be a game changer for Ukraine [granted, the HIMARS seem to be effective for now, but Russia is allegedly getting Iranian clone-predator drones to counter them…and the HIMARS have no special defenses, they’re just hard to locate because their range is long enough they’ve moved a decent distance before you notice the missile.] Ukraine’s superior infantry numbers were its main advantage, but they avoided amassing troops and attacking Russia’s artillery positions.
Once again with Pfuel:
“He was even glad of failure, because failure, proceeding from departures from theory in practice, only proved to him the correctness of his theory.”
- [War and Peace, III.1.X]
This is the mindset of the modern “expert” class. The reality, which any history-based military theorist or leader knows, is that war is terribly variable and unpredictable, and in conventional warfare you have to rely on fortune, courage, and ultimately large battles. Ukraine needed to look at this not as an exercise in holding territory, but in destroying an invading army- the territory they would have been able to get back whenever the invader was gone. But, instead, they had some idea about how things should go and stuck with it in the face of overwhelming failure.
Just in the two week since this was written the narrative has shifted a great deal. As ever, we are left with the problem of not knowing if they believe their own propaganda, but we can be sure that they should know better. In a way their trick here is clever, because they’re destabilizing the public view by constantly saying Ukraine is in a desperate situation and simultaneously saying Russia is being destroyed and humiliated. Thus, with this mixed messaging they can convince the public to support the maximum amount of aid while also convincing the public it is necessary.
In a way it is but in another way it isn’t. There are only a handful of countries in the world with anywhere near the military capacity to do what Russia is doing. However, the Fall of Kabul demonstrates that NATO tactics and support cannot ultimately hold land against light irregular forces either. That said, the US intimidation factor had limited impact on nuclear powers anyway, and primarily applies to third world countries which can be brutally bombed with impunity, and that factor still wholly exists and has not been weakened by this.
It increasingly looks like a US security guarantee is worth very little, which makes Finland and Sweden rushing into NATO all the more confounding. Perhaps Finland and Sweden did or still do believe that this would go better than it has, but given what is happening in Ukraine it seems that armed neutrality is a far better security arrangement than throwing in with NATO
On top of this, they essentially destroyed their own economic powers with their insane sanctions regime they had so much faith in at the beginning of all of this. It should have been extremely obvious that the BRICS nations had the resources to mimic all of the anachronistic legacies of colonialism the Western cabal was using to control the world’s financial system, and now its obvious to most that the West is more reliant on the “resource based economies” of developing nations than developing nations are on the Western “service sectors” which they have used for financial services; sanctions are doing more harm than good to Western interests. Further, not being able to get the support of the governments which rule at least 50% of the global population tarnishes the idea that they lead a so-called “international community.”
On top of all of this, while the US refuses to engage in diplomacy, Turkiye’s evenhanded approach is producing results to humanitarian problems, meaning the US will be seen as a less useful partner in solving the world’s diplomatic disputes.
What’s more, the US carrier fleet is obsolete against China’s “Carrier Killer” anti-carrier ballistic missile, which can strike Guam and out-ranges the planes that carriers carry. There is no coming back from that, because it is like the cannon meeting the castle, and it takes us back to the disciplined and brave infantryman with a weapon in his hand being the deciding factor in war. Like many, it seems to me that it will simply be a matter of time before China takes Taiwan, now that the US lacks the energy or drive to defend it. [As a point of interest, I literally don’t care if the CCP controls Taiwan except insofar as it risks a world war.]
The more the US and NATO resist the emergence of a multipolar world, the worse it will be for them and by extension for us, their subjects, as evidenced by the massive waste of treasure in Ukraine while Western economies collapse. This is made worse by the fact that the kind of theory-obsessed incompetence that is driving the failure in Ukraine has pervaded all institutions in our society. Hopefully, as Machiavelli said, when the lies become exposed it will force a situation where the competent gain power, but I’m not holding out hope, because their schemes always fail, and our empire managers only get ever more incompetent while we become poorer and less free.
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