Fireside this week! Next week we’ll be diving into a series (I am imagining four parts) on pre-modern generalship (with a particular emphasis on the broader Mediterranean world in classical antiquity and the middle ages) and the ways that it was shaped by key constraints which are often removed in modern imaginings of command (particularly video games, but also films). I should also note, for those of you who are members of the ACOUP Senate that the next vote of the senate on what major topics I ought to look to address in the coming months is occurring now over on my Patreon. That vote will set some of the agenda after the generalship series is done.
For this week’s musing, I thought it might be useful to look back to late February and consider what I did and did not expect (mostly the latter) from the developments of the conflict in Ukraine. I think this kind of retrospective is valuable because it is important to reassess one’s priors and assumptions as events actually unfold rather than remaining trapped in the “current events reinforce everything I already believed” mode.
Fortunately for present-tense me, past-tense me stressed quite a bit of uncertainty. As Clausewitz notes (drink!) “No other human activity is so continuously or universally bound up with chance” as war and so that leads to a lot of uncertainty. I think it is an important skill as a historian to be able to signal uncertainty: there are some things about the past we do not know and other things which we can probably never know and being honest about that is crucial. Likewise, when trying to predict the course of future events, hard predictions (‘this will happen’) are almost always less useful than an experts sense of a range of likely outcomes.
That said I did make some basic predictions, so let’s assess them:
- The war will not end quickly or, more particularly, “Putin is likely to carry this war to its conclusion” and alternate centers of power which could compel him to stop early are not strong enough to do so. This, I think, has so far borne out.
- Then that “the balance of equipment and numbers suggests that Russian forces are very likely to win in the field” but that “it is increasingly clear that ‘swift Russian victory’ is also a rapidly vanishing possibility.” Complicated (and will be discussed more in a moment) but I think this was my biggest miss.
- Russia’s ability to actual control any territory it takes will be limited by the intense popular resistance, the difficulty of urban warfare and the limits of Russian resources. This has mostly held, I’d argue.
- The human toll is likely to be terrible because 1) Russian forces when they get stuck will attempt to level cities with artillery and 2) civilian supporters of the Ukrainian government who find themselves in Russian occupied territory will be targeted by Putin’s forces. Alas, both have come to pass.
In addition, I didn’t make a firm prediction, but I think it is clear reading my original post that I did not anticipate the speed and strength of western sanctions (I thought de-SWIFTing was unlikely, for instance); I expected something but not the scale of what we got. And while I did expect NATO to supply money, supplies and arms to Ukraine, I have been surprised here also by the immense scale and speed of supplies and the willingness of NATO states to shift from small arms to heavy equipment as Ukraine’s needs changed.
But clearly, as noted, the biggest miss here was that I expected Russian forces to win the initial battles, at least until the fighting shifted to heavily built-up urban areas. Should one comb through my Twitter, its fairly clear that I expected that Russian forces were likely to encircle Kharkiv and that the Russian advance would likely stall out in ground assaults and urban fighting in the largest cities on the Dnieper, particularly Kyiv, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro after which Russian forces would be in real trouble trying to hold the territory they’d taken. In contrast, Russian forces, though they were able to seize Kherson, never even encircled Kharkiv, much less any of the other major Dnieper cities; the Russian offensive culminated before the grinding house-to-house fighting of deep urban centers everywhere except Mariupol and Kherson. The expected Russian logistics failure happened but much earlier than expected, before serious efforts to seize those major cities could occur; Russian forces ran out of gas before I expected them to run out of combat power.
Once again, present-tense me has to thank past-tense me for noting the “small but non-zero chance that the balance of morale and ability surprises everyone and the Russian offensive fails” but clearly I underrated the probability of that outcome which has now largely (but not entirely) come to pass.
So what happened? By the time I wrote my explainer, it was already clear that Ukrainian resistance was not collapsing; instead most of the surprise here has been the failure of the Russian military to perform to expectations. At the start of the invasion, the Russian Armed Forces had a set of fairly clear advantages: they had more military equipment and much of it was newer. Russia’s tank fleet, for instance, was both notably larger but also consisted of more recent models of T-80s and T-90s, whereas a lot of Ukrainian units were still working with upgraded T-64s.1 Russia entered the conflict with around ten times as many aircraft (fixed wing and rotary) as Ukraine. All of which was the product of Russia having about ten times Ukraine’s defense budget.
So you can see why early predictions expected substantial Russian gains and imagined that the Russian advance would probably only ‘run out’ when it hit urban terrain that neutralized Russia’s advantage in armor, airpower and indirect fires. What turned out to be incorrect was the assumption that Russia could effectively leverage all of that potential combat power. Instead, Russian problems of execution were legion, from the unworkable operational design of the entire offensive (planning ambitious advances on no less than four different axes of advance, each of them under resourced for the job and lacking sufficient logistics) to failures to coordinate naval and air assets with the ground war effectively to tactical failures in combined arms leading to avoidable AFV losses to finally the failure to inform most of the army doing the invasion that they were doing an invasion meaning that none of the logistics challenges of doing an invasion were resolved ahead of time.
I should note here that just because Russian forces have been failing doesn’t mean they necessarily will continue to do so. The fighting has now shifted, for instance, to the Donbas region, which is much friendlier to Russian logistics, while at the same time Russian operations have become, by necessity, more methodical. The problem for Russia is that while they retain advantages in combat power, they are behind the curve in developing further capabilities; Putin must largely fight with the army he has whereas Ukraine is planning to grow its army considerably. At the same time, even once the balance shifts to Ukraine one should be cautious: Ukraine on the offensive will face many of the same problems Russia has in terms of dug-in opponents and the withering impact of fires on offensive maneuvers. ‘Violent, shifting stalemate’ seems the most likely outcome moving forward, which is still, it must be noted, a massive improvement for Ukraine over initial assumptions.
The whole fiasco (on the Russian side) has been a valuable reminder that a country doesn’t really know if its military will perform to expectations until it does. Surprises of this scale are fairly rare, but they do happen. There is already a lot of discussion in the security studies space about how western observers managed to so severely overrate Russian capabilities, but I think on the balance this sort of error is understandable and even, in an odd sense, desirable. When assessing a potential adversary, you have to assume their ‘kit’ – not merely the equipment itself, but the doctrine, decision-making and command systems – are going to basically work. Western observers knew Russian doctrine and they knew Russia’s on-paper capabilities and so ran the numbers assuming Russia would execute its doctrine with that equipment and those troops and concluded that if Russia followed its playbook, they’d win in the field (and then lose in the occupation); it was that consensus that I followed because it seemed reasonable. I too could look at what we knew and conclude that, assuming Russian forces functioned more or less like their doctrine told them to, they ought to be able to make major gains.
Again, as errors go, that’s the error you’d rather make, compared to assuming that your opponents will simply fail to execute their doctrine and fall apart. That’s the error that Putin and his generals made and it is not hard to conclude that right now it is a lot more comfortable to be a mildly embarrassed western policy analyst than it is to be Putin or worse yet one of Russia’s ::checks notes:: nine dead generals. Likewise, predictions before the First Gulf War were fairly dire and pessimistic, which turned out to be a better place to be than the overly rosy and optimistic predictions prior to the second War in Iraq.
Nevertheless it is a potent reminder of the inherent unpredictability of war, especially for armies that are untested in a particular kind of warfare. I hope that lesson is being absorbed in the Pentagon and the various capitals of NATO right now, given that no NATO military has really had to operate in contested air environments or facing enemy fires superiority in a long time, although the core backbone of NATO are probably some of the most tested modern militaries in the world by virtue of the long GWOT. I also hope that lesson is being properly absorbed in Beijing; the People’s Liberation Army is one of the least tested armies in the world. If put the test, it might work as expected or it might surprise everyone with failure, as Russia’s armed forces have. That ought to be a humbling caution both for the United States as it seeks to compete with China in the Pacific (‘What if all of their kit works to everyone’s surprise, the way ours did in 1991?’) and for China doing much the same (‘what if it turns out that our authoritarian, corrupt and information-suppressing regime has the same military performance problems as Putin’s authoritarian, corrupt and information-suppressing regime?’).
Would that all the tigers remained on paper, but alas we do not live in that world.
On to the Recommendations:
If you are trying to follow the War in Ukraine, I strongly suggest watching the War on the Rocks podcasts for the times they bring in Michael Kofman. Kofman is a real expert in the Russian military (he also has a Twitter feed which is a source of good analysis as well; Rob Lee, another actual expert on the Russian military is also worth following there) rather than one of the many, many ‘experts’ that the media mints out of journalists or retired military officers any time one of these crises occurs. His analysis is worth listening to, especially because it often tempers both the optimism and pessimism of the moment.
And on the subject of podcasts, I realized with some confusion this week that I have never gotten around to recommending The Partial Historians: Ancient Roman History Podcast run by Dr. Fiona Radford and Dr. Peta Greenfield. It is fantastic. Though they have a lot of episodes covering quite a bit of Roman history, the main course of the podcast is the “From the Founding of the City” series which walks through the history of the Rome in chronological order, contrasting our various textual sources at each stage of its development. It’s a very thorough approach, which means that so far they’re only in the fifth century (but a little further each month!) but at the same time that’s a real virtue since they’re covering a period – particularly the Early Republic – which tends to get very little attention but is obviously foundational and important (albeit complicated by issues with our sources, as they discuss). Check it out!
Last week, I participated in a panel on “The Gamification of War” set up and chaired by Matthew Gibson (PhD Candidate in History at UNC-Chapel Hill) and hosted by the Carolina Public Humanities. We had both a traditional panel, and also a series of interview videos with each participant, including me on the topic, all of which are hosted online at Carolina Public Humanities’ Youtube channel. The panel discussion touched on a lot of good elements, though I wish in retrospect we had picked either table-top wargaming or computer wargaming and stuck to that narrower focus. Nevertheless it was a good discussion (and the interviews are more focused as well) and hopefully worth a listen!
Meanwhile, AGreatDivorce continues his progress adding audio versions of my posts here, this time with all six parts of the series on “Iron, How Did They Make It?” which you can find now as part of the ‘How Did They Make It‘ combined playlist.
Friend and colleague Joshua Tait did a long podcast over at the Niskanen Center on the history of ideological conservatism in America. Josh wrote his dissertation on exactly this question of how the conservative movement was shaped intellectually as it grew to be such a force in American politics (and why it was in some ways peculiar, as conservative movements go). I think it is an important topic for the obvious reason that the governing philosophy of one of the two largest political parties in the world’s most powerful country is going to be important to understand. In particular, Josh notes that catastrophism was always a feature of this ideology and had the potential to poison its ability to govern effectively, a facet which seems dominant in the ideological mix of the movement right now.
For this week’s book recommendation, I’m going to recommend K. B. Neuschel, Living By the Sword: Weapons and Material Culture in France and Britain, 600-1600 (2020) which I had the good fortune to pick up at this year’s meeting of the Society for Military History. The book follows its title: it is a look at the roles that swords played in the medieval cultures of France and Britain through the Middle Ages and into the Early Modern periods. The book is organized with four chapters, each covering a particular era (Early/High/Late medieval and the 16th century), along with a solid foundation introduction (“What do Swords Mean?”) and a brief conclusion.
What I find particularly valuable in this book is its focus on swords as real objects; there is absolutely an attention to swords as literary devices or symbols but that discussion remains grounded in swords as real things people interacted with in their daily lives. There is a real risk in taking a purely literary approach to the physical elements of everyday medieval life in that the words of the text of something like Beowulf can end up detached for the modern scholar from the physical reality of, say, a sword (or a meadhall, or a ring – any physical thing with symbolic import in the narrative) in a way that it simply couldn’t be so detached for a medieval reader/listener for whom these were very real, very practical objects they encountered regularly. Instead, Neuschel also brings in as evidence swords in inventory lists, burial deposits and actual surviving exemplars to try to illustrate a more complete picture of the changing cultural, social and economic import of these objects.
That said, I should be clear what the book is not. This is not a typological study (if you want that, the works of Ewart Oakeshott are of course there for you) nor is it a discussion of how swords were wielded in battle (for which one might consult some of the surviving medieval fencing treatises). That isn’t a criticism of Neuschel’s book: as noted, Oakeshott already wrote those books and there was no need for Neuschel to rewrite them; this is simply a book with a different scope and topic. Nevertheless, I very much like that Neuschel remains keenly aware throughout of the purpose of at least some swords – excepting display pieces (which figure prominently in the inventories she studies) – as personal defense weapons or battlefield tools. This is a book that does not lose sight of the fact that swords were, at their core, practical objects even if elites occasionally made impractical versions of them for prestige or display purposes. And Neuschel need not make the case (she does anyway) that the social import of swords is also worth studying because of course it is.
The volume is well-written and eminently readable; the lay reader will have no trouble here. It also packs a lot of detail for its c. 200 pages (including full scholarly end-notes and bibliography). Of course at that length and given the book’s scope, what Neuschel offers is mostly an overview of the topic (though not without delving deeply into key specific examples). It has a number of black-and-white images (particularly of surviving swords) along with a few color images (mostly of period artwork involving swords); one cannot complain about a lack of illustration but I did find myself wishing, given the topic, that the publisher had sprung for maybe a few pages of full-color plates in the center to show off a lot of the swords discussed in their full glory. Overall the book is a great starting point for someone looking to get a handle on the various functions swords could play in a society: as literary symbols, political iconography, visual indicators of wealth and power and of course as practical everyday weapons.