In 1962, Barbara Tuchman wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Guns of August. The book tells the story of the first weeks of World War I, and in particular how assumptions and alliances that were supposed to make sure that such a war could not happen, turned into a house of cards that guaranteed a continent-spanning catastrophe.
The fifth chapter of that classic text is called “The Russian Steam Roller,” and it focuses on the assumptions that Europe made about the key role Russia would play in preventing, or ending, any war. “The Russian colossus exercised a spell upon Europe,” wrote Tuchman. The perception of Russia’s size and might gave the French reassurance that the Germans would not dare to attack them. And perversely made the Germans anxious to attack quickly and conquer France before that “steam roller” could sweep them from the east.
“Although the defects of the Russian army were notorious, although the Russian winter, not the Russian army had turned back Napoleon from Moscow, although it had been defeated on its own soil by the French and British in Crimea, although the Turks in 1877 had outfought it at the siege of Plevna, although the Japanese had outfought it in Manchuria, a myth of its invincibility prevailed. The savage cavalry charge of yelling Cossacks was such a fixture in European minds that newspaper artists in August 1914, were able to draw it in stirring detail without having been within a thousand miles of the Russian front.”
Everyone knew that in Russia’s last engagement against Japan, that army’s performance had been nothing short of abysmal, and despite bringing huge numbers to the field, it has been simply taken apart in battle. Even so, “The army’s efforts to purge incompetence and corruption since the war with Japan were believed to have brought improvement.”
Does any of that sound familiar? In much more recent writing (as in this Twitter thread posted earlier today), University of Chicago foreign policy professor Paul Poast picks up the theme.
“Many are surprised by the poor performance of Russia’s military in Ukraine,” writes Poast. “But let’s be honest: when it comes to fighting wars, Russia has always — to use the formal term — ‘stunk’.”
Poast cites one of histories most famous infographics to show how Russia’s victory against Napoleon is really one of cold weather and distance reducing a force to a shadow.
He points out that even in the Russo-Finnish “Winter War” of 1939, Russia “won” the conflict by simply piling on the bodies. giving up between five and seven soldiers for every one lost by Finland. The ratio of losses when it came to tanks and aircraft were even worse.
Let’s look at what that least Pulitzery of sources, Wikipedia, has to say about the Winter War.
“The Soviets made several demands, including that Finland cede substantial border territories … Most sources conclude that the Soviet Union had intended to conquer all of Finland, and [establish a] puppet Finnish Communist government.”
Instead, Russia settled for those small border territories after four months of fighting, in which it’s total casualties were 168,000 killed, 207,000 wounded, and 5,600 captured. Of the Russian wounded, over 61,000 suffered from frostbite.
Russia demanded territory, then made a move to capture the whole nation, then suffered extraordinary casualties before signing onto a deal for a chunk of territory roughly the size of it’s initial demands. The only reason Russia was able to get even that much was that … there was no organized opposition to assist Finland. Busy fretting over Germany, Europe and the U.S. watched from the sidelines. Meanwhile, it was Russia’s miserable performance that convinced Hitler to turn on them and attack. Because he forgot that Napoleon thing, about all the distance and cold.
As Poast points out, even Russia’s wars on Chechen separatists, largely ignored by the West, were anything but romps. Russia genuinely lost the first of these wars, and before reducing Chechnya to rubble in the second, Russia suffered 160,000 casualties. Poast produces this graph, looking not so much at “wins” but at casualties.
In half the wars that Russia has participated in, Russia lost more people than anyone else, regardless of the number of participants. Whether fighting someone head to head, or as one of several nations in a more extended conflict, Russia “won” the contest for losing more of its own.
With all the pundits talking about the war now turning into a “war of attrition,” this is what that really means.
“The Russian military essentially uses an ‘attrition model,’” writes Poast. “Keep take losses until the other side quits, is destroyed, or, if the fighting goes long enough, Russia itself decides to stop fighting.”
Russia has not changed these tactics in two centuries. Its miserably equipped, miserably led army wins conflicts not by defeating enemies on the battlefield, but by being willing to keep taking losses long after there is no rational way of achieving anything that makes sense as “victory” in a sense of value for the lives and cost expended. It’s a model that’s made possible by an almost unbroken of autocratic rule that makes it possible to feed intolerable numbers into the meat grinder without political consequences.
Right now, the Ukrainian government sets Russia’s casualties at over 40,000 after a month, with 15,500 killed. That’s actually less than the rate at which Russia burned through its troops in the Winter War. For Ukraine, the losses are around 1,300 killed, and 5,000 wounded. Russia will take those odds. And if feeding the new crop of spring conscripts into the mix elevates the ratio to 15:1 or 20:1, they’ll do that, too.
The only way to stop it is to stop the war is to stop Russia’s ability to use the artillery, missiles, and bombs it uses to savage Ukrainian civilians. And to do that, Ukraine needs a steady resupply from the West — the one thing Finland did not have in 1940.
The official White House position is now, “The President’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region. He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.” But if Putin wants to understand it in some other way … that seems okay, as well.
According to regional governor Vitaliy Kim, Russian troops appear to have abandoned their previous checkpoints around Mykolaiv oblast and pulled back to the area of Kherson. Ukrainian forces have been within a few miles of the city for just under a day now, but it’s not clear when they’ll try to retake what has been Russia’s biggest prize of the war.