Leadership: History Repeats Itself In Ukraine


December 7, 2022: The Ukraine War was another example of “those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”. The Ukrainians learned from the past, particularly after 2014 when Russia seized Crimea and parts of two eastern Ukrainian provinces (the Donbas). Ukraine immediately wanted to improve its military capabilities and turned to NATO members, especially adjacent formerly Soviet occupied countries that were now free and had joined NATO. This turn to the West (NATO and the European Union), rather than Russia, led Russia to accuse Ukraine of becoming a tool for the West and a scheme to use NATO to weaken and ultimately destroy Russia. In fact, NATO was formed to defend member nations against Russian aggression. This was a centuries-old policy which Russia interpreted as defending Russia by absorbing or simply occupying potential enemies. The Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 because half the Soviet population refused to be part of the Soviet Union any more. Those left were mainly ethnic Russians now living in the Russian Federation. Some Russians believed that the Soviet Union dissolved because of a NATO scheme to undermine the economy and loyalty of about half the citizens of the Soviet Union. This conspiracy theory grew in popularity as the Russian economy declined while NATO member nations prospered.

Until 2014 there were many Ukrainians who agreed with Russia that NATO was evil and determined to weaken its eastern neighbors. Those Ukrainians became pro-NATO after 2014 because the neighboring NATO members had warned that Russia was liable to attack Ukraine. Most Ukrainians believed Russia would observe a 1990s agreement with Ukraine where Russia promised to never seize any Ukrainian territory while Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it had inherited after the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia did renege on its solemn promises in 2014 and Ukrainians noticed that Russia was also returning to its police state ways inside Russia. All media was state-owned and a growing portion of the economy was state-controlled. Russia also revived another Soviet bad habit when it failed to implement effective military reforms.

After 2014 Ukraine asked for and received more economic and military assistance from NATO countries. Ukraine also continued to do business with Russia, trading Russian oil and natural gas in exchange for Ukrainian manufactured products, including key components for Russian warships and aircraft. At the same time Ukraine was reforming its economy to make it stronger and doing the same to its armed forces. NATO members made a convincing case that their military practices had always been more effective than Russian ones. This was the case in terms of weapons, training, leadership and tactics. During the Cold War Russia seemed to agree with this assessment and never went to war with NATO. Russia was involved in very few military actions during the Cold War. When other nations went to war equipped with Russian weapons, and using Russian doctrine and tactics, they tended to lose. Russia blamed that on the quality of the foreign troops using Russian weapons. By 2014 there had been many of these situations. This explained why Russia preferred to use special operations troops and Russian soldiers pretending to be Ukrainians to take Crimea and parts of Donbas.

It wasn’t until 2022 that NATO-type forces fought the Russians. In this case the Ukrainians were now seeking NATO membership while using NATO weapons, tactics and training methods to soundly defeat the Russian invaders. NATO saw this as proof that NATO military developments in the 1980s had reached the point where a Russian invasion of Europe was unlikely to succeed. NATO forces had developed the capability to effectively counter-attack while also defending against Russian attacks. Officially the Soviets refused to believe this. But inside the Stavka (Russian military staff and headquarters) there was a growing belief that NATO had developed into a more powerful force than Russian troops could handle. The Cold War ended before that could be demonstrated.

Then came 2022 and the matter was settled. NATO had been more practical and effective in how they armed, equipped and trained their forces. After 1991 there were many Russian military leaders who advocated adopting more effective Western military practices. Many Russian military leaders agreed but acceptance of Western practices was rare. When the 2022 war, occurred it was soon clear how widespread and devastating these failures were against a close-enough to NATO standards medium-size enemy.

The Russians had reformed their weapons, military organization, leadership and training since the 1990s. Russia had adopted many Western designs for weapons and equipment but the Russian versions were adequate at best and usually inferior. This was not obvious until facing a foe equipped with the real thing. This occurred in Ukraine, where even Russian weapons performed more effectively when used by the better trained, organized and led Ukrainians. This was something the Israelis demonstrated frequently during the Cold War when they used captured Russian weapons more effectively than their Arab opponents. Russia blamed the Arabs more than they noted the superior training and leadership of the Israelis.

Russian tactics, training and leadership had not changed much since the Cold War, despite multiple reform efforts after 1991. For example, NATO used “mission orders” in combat. Senior commanders gave subordinates mission objectives and then expected the subordinate commanders to work out solutions to whatever obstacles they encountered. Russia was still using the same Soviet-era centralized command and control. This worked in World War II when the Russians had superiority in numbers of troops, weapons and ammunition. Those victories came at a very high cost in personnel and weapons. Russia attributed this to the fact that “quantity has a quality of its own”. This is true to a certain extent but in the last two years of World War II Russia had a growing number of combat-proven officers and NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Such was not the case during the Cold War and by the 1960s Russian generals were complaining that their troops were less capable because Russian training was unable to regenerate this wartime experience. NCOs were once more eliminated after World War II and the number of officers expanded to make up for the loss of NCOs.

Western forces developed more realistic training and personnel methods and in the 1980s and early 1990s demonstrated that their approach was effective. Western nations were also more effective at testing and improving their weapons. This was also demonstrated in 2022. Ukraine adopted the Western approach not just to spite the Russians, but because their NATO neighbors (Poland, the Baltic states and Romania) had already made the switch and agreed that NATO practices and standers were superior to Russia’s. NATO’s were also more expensive and some new NATO members were still using conscription. The British went all-volunteer in the 1950s and the United States did so in the 1970s. After 1991 most NATO nations ended conscription. Even with conscription, Western nations developed better training methods than the Russians ever did. It helped that the West still maintained a large and experienced force of NCOs. Russia tried to do that but had limited success because there were so many other problems with military service in Russia. Without a lot of NCOs, Russia had no way of quickly replacing heavy officer losses by promoting able NCOs to officer rank.

The Ukrainian quickly adopted Western tactical, organizational and training methods and this gave Ukrainian forces a substantial edge in defeating the 2022 invasion. Now the better trained, led and equipped Ukrainian forces are continuing their offensive to clear all of Ukraine of Russian forces. This offensive has been underway since late August and the Russians have not found a way to stop it.




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