A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 2, 2022

Why the Intangibles Favor Ukraine Over Russia

Morale, resilience, leadership, determination, adaptability. 

None of them can be manufactured, but all can be applied to decisive effect. JL 

James Bruno reports in Dispatches From Exile, image Sergei Supinsky, BBC:

“The moral is to the physical as three is to one.” It is that intangible element cited by Napoleon - morale  - that will constitute the dealbreaker in this conflict. Successful generalship involves figuring out what to do, then getting people to do it. It has one foot in the intellectual realm of critical thinking and the other in the human world of management and leadership. It is thinking and doing. Sun Tzu, who, among many wise insights on war, said: “He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.”

What Sun Tzu, Moshe Dayan, Napoleon & General Zaluzhny Tell Us on How to Beat the Russians

In war college, we studied Sun Tzu, who, among many wise insights on war, said: “He who is prudent and lies in wait for an enemy who is not, will be victorious.”

The valiant Ukrainians are validating this axiom. President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pre-invasion downplaying of Russian intentions notwithstanding, his government’s years-long planning for a Russian attack, tempered by a prolonged “frozen conflict” in the country’s east, is paying off to the unwarranted surprise of just about everybody else. The Ukrainians stymied Russia’s attempt to seize Kiev and effect regime change. In a mere weeks of conflict, they have killed up to 15,000 Russian troops, including, amazingly, 10 generals and at least 20 colonels and either destroyed or seized thousands of Russian tanks and armored vehicles. Experts estimate that Russia’s military force has been degraded by about a third. Whole battalion tactical groups have been either destroyed or so diminished that they must be folded into intact units.

It is early yet in Round 2, if you will, of the battle as Russia has revised its strategy, concentrating on taking over the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine. But the Russians don’t appear to be off to a flying start. This from the Institute for the Study of War:

Russian precision strike capabilities will remain limited and unlikely to decisively affect the course of the war; open-source research organization Bellingcat reported on April 24 that Russia has likely used 70 percent of its total stockpile of precision missiles to date... Russian forces continue to make little progress in scattered, small-scale attacks in eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian forces are successfully halting Russian efforts to bypass Ukrainian defensive positions around Izyum, and Russian forces are struggling to complete even tactical encirclements.

And this revealing lament from a Russian soldier speaking by phone to a friend, intercepted by Ukrainian military intelligence:

That’s totally f*cked up! Our guys are simply killed in packs. I’ve never seen so many corpses. We left Chornobaivka. It’s a real hell there! So many of our guys have died there that you can’t even imagine. We’re f*cked here in a way that cannot be put into words. Who gives a f*ck about Kyiv? How do I get home? I’d like to at least survive here. When I saw how my friend was torn apart, I was vomiting for about half an hour. I’ve never felt so bad before.

Hardly indicative of high spirits and great morale. Another thing we learned in war college: “The moral is to the physical as three is to one,” Napoleon said. In other words, troops’ fighting spirit is key to the outcome of a battle. With motivated soldiers a commander can defeat a force three times the size of his own. Conversely, if your troops don’t believe in the mission and suffer from low morale, your chance of success on the battlefield is greatly reduced, if not doomed. The Ukrainians clearly beat the Russians in the fighting spirit category.

I don’t know if the National Defense University of Ukraine has the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War as a case study for its students, but Israel’s defense minister in that conflict, Moshe Dayan, had something prescient and very germane to offer the Ukrainians:

This is where I see the main danger – in Russian military intervention, in the ‘shock’ that is likely to occur in the country due to that… therefore I suggest that the IDF be truly prepared for this, both militarily and psychologically, be ready for the Russian threat that is coming not in words only.

Ever the forward-looking strategist, Dayan was anticipating actual Soviet military intervention. And, undaunted, he urged Israeli leaders to prepare for it, not only with armor and munitions, but also mentally. The morale element played a crucial role in that conflict. Israeli troops were highly motivated. They were fighting for their homes and families. The Arabs, on the other hand, were not so motivated, retreating and deserting in the thousands. As it was with the Israelis, it is with the Ukrainians.

Ukraine’s military chief General Valery Zaluzhny is anything but a charismatic showboat — as was the swashbuckling one-eyed Dayan. Shunning the limelight, he is a meat and potatoes career army officer who concentrates all his energies on defeating the enemy and keeping up the fighting spirit of his troops. Named to the top military post by President Zelensky last July, Zaluzhny embodies the new Ukrainian officer — innovative, independent-thinking, untethered by the rigid, hierarchical command methods of the old Soviet system, which Russia has retained. The Ukrainians’ battlefield successes owe themselves to delegated authority and the highly mobile hit-and-run tactics that have proven so effective against Russian forces. Zaluzhny has played a key part in this transformation since 2014 after Moscow seized Crimea. Training and conducting field exercises with NATO troops were instrumental in this effort.

Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine General Valery Zaluzhny:  "We know exactly what and for whom we are fighting" - Official site of the  Ukrainian Football Association

He embodies the values described by journalist Thomas E. Ricks in his book, The Generals: “Successful generalship involves first figuring out what to do, then getting people to do it. It has one foot in the intellectual realm of critical thinking and the other in the human world of management and leadership. It is thinking and doing.” Contrast this with his nemesis, Russian General Alexander Dvornikov, whose strategic doctrine centers on razing cities and butchering civilians.

Zaluzhny is given to terse one-or-two-liners when he speaks — “Ukrainians have forgotten to be afraid. Our goal is to win.” Self-effacing, the 48-year old appears to be very popular with his troops who have dubbed him “Залізний Незламний Залужний” - “Zaliznyy Nezlamnyy Zaluzhnyy,” an alliterative moniker meaning “Iron Unbreakable Zaluzhny.”

While I believe Moshe Dayan would praise Zaluzhny’s innovativeness and flexibility in blunting and bloodying a much larger enemy, a more apt conflict comparison with Ukraine today is that of Finland vs Russia of eight decades ago.

Finland & Ukraine Case Studies: Commonalities & Contrasts

Just after the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Joseph Stalin demanded that Finland agree to territorial exchanges that would cede 10 percent of its territory, including the entire Karelian peninsula. When Helsinki refused, Stalin invaded. But a Red Army officer corps decimated by purges, poor training and logistics, low Russian troop morale and an exceptionally harsh winter turned the Russian offensive into a bloody rout. Finland’s small army with only 32 tanks and barely 100 aircraft soundly turned back an invasion force of 450,000 with thousands of tanks and planes, more than four times its size.

Though greatly outnumbered in terms of men and matériel, the Finns, employing speed, mobility and economy of force, successfully deterred the Soviets. The latter regrouped, made improvements and launched a second multi-front attack. Through sheer preponderance of force and manpower, the Russians finally wore out the Finns, who had exhausted their supplies of weapons and munitions. Moscow suffered nearly 168,000 KIA and MIA vs Finland’s almost 26,000.

There are echoes of the Russo-Finnish Winter War in today’s Russo-Ukraine conflict. Giant Russia aggressing a small neighbor. Plagued by incompetent leadership, low supplies, poor coordination, inferior logistics and low morale, the Russians have failed in their initial objectives. Conversely, the plucky defenders out maneuver and outsmart the invader, inflicting massive casualties and material losses.

The key difference, however, is poor Finland was essentially left to its own devices. Neither the French and British Allies, nor (initially) Germany, nor their Scandinavian neighbors would help them. And America was still ensconced in its delusional isolationism. The unified European and NATO stance to provide massive aid to Ukraine, by contrast, should save that nation from Finland’s earlier fate.

But it is that intangible element cited by Napoleon — morale of the defenders — that will constitute the dealbreaker in this conflict. Can fighting spirit hold out against the overwhelming manpower, armor and air assets that Moscow undoubtedly will employ, as they did against the Finns?

Finland’s commander in chief in the Winter War, Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim, hit the nail on the head:

“Fortifications, artillery, foreign aid — will be of no value, unless the ordinary soldier knows that it is HE guarding his country.”

Mannerheim knew this. Dayan knew this. And Zelensky and Zaluzhny and some 40 million fellow Ukrainians know this. Putin does not. And that is why he will lose.


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