Leadership: The Same But Different


February 23, 2023: In Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian forces are using very different tactics. While Russia started the war by invading Ukraine, the Ukrainians have been winning by using different tactics and better leadership in general. These differences have led to Russia suffering more combat deaths in the last year than they suffered in all the wars and conflicts their troops were involved in since the end of World War II in 1945.

The original plan was to make a massive attack from many directions on an unprepared Ukraine. That failed in a spectacular fashion because the Ukrainians were prepared, more prepared than the invading Russians. It was more a case of the Russians being unprepared. Ukrainian war preparations were no secret and Russian intel (FSB and GRU) had lots of people inside Ukraine observing and reporting back to the Russian government. These reports were accurate but, by the time they reached senior leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, they had been modified to give Putin what he wanted to hear. Putin believed the Ukrainians were incapable of organizing an effective resistance, that his planned massive land and air attack would paralyze and demoralize them, and that his forces could then take control of the country in a matter of days. A year later Russian military operations are still crippled by similar delusions which probably only Putin believes, with any senior dissenters reported as suffering fatal falls from windows.

Russia had a hard time accepting the fact that the Ukrainians were better trained, armed and led. They have two primary problems with their military. The most obvious is continued use of Soviet-style planning and command. Plans are created to be followed precisely by subordinates who make no deviations without orders from above. This works if you use overwhelming force against a foe who does not react in an unanticipated fashion (which Hitler conveniently ordered many times and is one of the reasons for this Russian military style). It did not work against the more flexible Ukrainians, who were using planning methods and tactics developed in the West and proven effective many times during and after World War II.

The Russians recognized the different planning and leadership concepts used in the West but did not believe they were suitable for Russian troops. In part, this was a cultural thing. Russians believed that they performed best under the control of a powerful leader. Vladimir Putin presented himself as that kind of leader. Some Putin associates noted that this traditional approach was not working and that the Ukrainians and Russians and many shared cultural behaviors and that Russians ought to be able to do what the Ukrainians were doing. This sort of thinking was not acceptable to Putin so Russian failures in combat continue.

The other problem is corruption. The Ukrainian leader, Volodymir Zelensky got himself elected president in 2019 by promising to go after corruption. That he did, and still does, because there was a lot of it in Ukraine and even more in Russia where there is more tolerance for corruption. Zelensky’s anti-corruption efforts accelerated after the Russians invaded a year ago because suddenly the country was receiving billions of dollars in military and economic aid a month and corruption, unlike in Russia, was publicized and foreign donors were discouraged from giving, or giving more, if they found that a lot of the aid was stolen. Initially most of the aid was weapons and those went straight to the troops. But any less specialized supplies could be diverted by corrupt officials for personal profit, and often was. Zelensky was most zealous with officials he worked closely with and it soon became known that if you wanted a senior job in the government, you’d better be clean. Unlike Russia, Ukraine has free media, which was encouraged to go looking for corrupt practices and report on them. This turned thousands of Ukrainians into sources for stories the journalists were looking for. Zelensky responded to these news reports, even if the stories disrupted a larger anti-corruption investigation. The very wealthy (the oligarchs) who had backed Zelensky’s first election campaign thought this gave them some immunity from the anti-corruption efforts. Early on Zelensky hesitated going after some major donors but that soon changed when it became clear that tolerating corruption by anyone close to him hurt all his anti-corruption efforts.

Improvements in Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts are measured by Transparency International, an organization that began compiling and publishing corruption scores for all the world’s nations in the 1990s and by 1999 was regularly monitoring most of the world’s nations. This was made possible by the end of the Cold War in 1991. With the collapse of most communist nations, it was possible to gather data on corruption from just about every country. For countries providing foreign aid or active in international trade and manufacturing, the Transparency International reports were extremely useful. It was the same for countries seeking to reduce corruption and attract for foreign business or foreign aid.

It’s no coincidence that the least corrupt nations are the most successful. The most corrupt nations (currently Yemen, Venezuela, South Sudan, Syria and Somalia) are the poorest and often mired in civil war or chronic violence. The least corrupt nations (currently Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Norway and Singapore) are peaceful and prosperous. Zelensky and most Ukrainians recognize that and also realized that Ukrainian efforts to join the EU (European Union) and NATO depend on reducing corruption. So does the amount of foreign aid and investment Ukraine receives after the war to rebuild its economy. Zelensky offers all this as a worthy goal that will be made possible by reducing corruption in Ukraine.

In the 1990s Russia and Ukraine were both found to be quite corrupt. The 1999 Transparency International report had Ukraine at 75 out of 99 nations while Russia was worse at 82nd place. Corruption was a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union and most other communist states. Even after adopting democracy, it was difficult to reduce corruption. Democracy and free media did not survive in Russia and were gone by 2000 as Vladimir Putin sought to take Russia back to its Soviet ways. Ukraine had to struggle to hang onto its democracy and free press, which Putin and his neo-Soviets were out to sabotage as part of their plan to rebuild the Soviet Union. None of the regions of the Soviet Union that went independent in 1991 were receptive to Putin’s empire revival project. That became quite obvious when he invaded Ukraine.

The greater incidence of corruption in Russia made it difficult to recruit or even conscript more troops. In contrast Ukraine had about a million regular and reserve troops a year after the invasion began. In Russia, corruption in the recruitment and training process is common and discourages new soldiers from fighting. Desertion in the combat zone is also common. Those who don’t desert face almost certain death or injury making “advance or be shot right here” unsupported frontal attacks on well prepared and determined Ukrainian defenders. The Russian plan is to keep the war going for as long as it takes and wear the Ukrainians and their NATO supporters d0wn. The Russian people are suffering most from all this and Putin believes the Russian people will put up with this because Russians are like this. This ignores the growing number of Russians trying to get out of Russia or staying and sabotaging the war effort.

The Ukraine War is between two very different views of how the world works. The “strong man” cult still has its supporters worldwide. Some have traveled to Russia and joined a combat unit of foreigners. This force, with several hundred men, is far smaller than the Ukrainian version, which has over 20,000 foreign volunteers.

What China learns from this is that the ancient military wisdom of Sun Tzu covered this possibility and advised concentrating on weakening your enemy by corrupting key enemy leaders with bribes, blackmail or whatever worked. This takes longer and even the Russians tried this against Ukraine for years, but ran out of patience and attacked. That’s always a bad idea when the victim is prepared and more determined to prevail.




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