A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 25, 2023

Ukraine's Key Lessons: Intangibles Like Morale And Leadership Beat Mass Tangibles

Just as in the world of business, intangibles like morale, planning and leadership have given Ukraine a significant advantage over Russian tangibles like lots of troops, dumb artillery and old tanks. JL

Stephen Fidler reports in the Wall Street Journal:

There is the tangible and there is the intangible. As boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Moscow overestimated its own capabilities and underestimated how much Ukrainian military capabilities had improved. Ukraine has also made better use of new commercial technologies. Ukrainian troops, convinced of their moral cause and knowing they were fighting for the survival of their families and country, beat Russian forces. Russian troops suffered poor leadership, badly maintained equipment, poor quality food and clothing. Precision and range in artillery beat lots of dumb artillery.

The war in Ukraine, now reaching the one-year mark, has reinforced some old lessons and suggested some new ones about what makes for battlefield success in the 21st century. 

Among its innovations, drones, some adapted from cheap commercial platforms, have been used for surveillance and delivering munitions more than in any previous conflict. They     

“Everybody can have an air force” now, said Eliot Cohen, a military historian and strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. 

Old platforms still play a role. Old-fashioned artillery systems have been relied on heavily by Moscow. “I think, as usual in the history of warfare, it’s not that one form of warfare is suddenly rendered obsolete. It takes a while,” said Mr. Cohen.

Precision and range in artillery clearly trumps volumes of dumb artillery. Ukraine’s battlefield success owes a lot to the incorporation of relatively few precise longer-range Western artillery systems, such as Himars, into its arsenal.


Tanks have also been fielded, renewing a debate about their utility. Western estimates suggest that Russia has lost more than 2,000 tanks, raising the question of whether they are simply too easy to hit with antitank weapons or whether the Russians have deployed them badly.

There are a host of unknowns. One big question is the role of space. Ukraine appears to be using intelligence from commercial and U.S. military satellites to guide its efforts, but its importance to the fight is hard to determine given the secrecy involved.


The war has gone through several phases. In the first, Ukrainian forces thwarted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s design for an early victory based on a lightning strike against Kyiv and a plan to overwhelm Ukrainian fighters over multiple fronts. 

Ukraine succeeded first in turning the Russians back from Kyiv and later in clearing them out from swaths of territory around Kharkiv and Kherson.

The setbacks led Russia to turn to grinding artillery assaults. It has also launched attacks across the country with missiles and drones aimed at electricity generation and other civilian targets, in contrast with Ukraine, which has focused almost exclusively on military targets. In recent months, movement of the front lines has slowed as both sides prepare for new offensives, Ukraine with the help of Western tanks and other armored vehicles expected to arrive in the country in coming weeks and months. 

Ukraine’s early successes confounded the widespread assessment of many Western military analysts who gave the country scant hope against what they believed was a superior Russian military that had been overhauled and modernized over the previous 15 years. 

“We overestimated Russian capability, and, frankly, how much Russia had changed,” said Gordon Davis, a retired U.S. Army major general who is now a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “We underestimated Ukrainian capability, their level of Western ambition, their resolve, capability and resilience.”

Recent fighting has shown patterns associated with World War I, with artillery exchanges over fairly static front lines around Bakhmut, and others more commonly associated with World War II, such as the rapid maneuver operations of Ukraine’s September advance in the northeast. 

One year in, Russian underperformance and Ukraine’s overperformance so far don’t tell us how the war ends. But Stephen Twitty, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant general and former deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, said, “We learned the Russian army isn’t 10-feet tall.”

The importance of morale to military success isn’t a new concept. More than two centuries ago, French emperor Napoleon said morale was three times as important as the manpower and equipment on the battlefield, in a remark sometimes translated as: “In war, moral power is to physical as three parts out of four.”

Ukrainian troops, convinced of their moral cause and knowing they were fighting for the survival of their families and their country, beat back Russian forces who were involved in what they were told was “a special military operation.” 

Russian troops suffered poor military leadership, badly maintained equipment and poor quality food and clothing. Morale also appeared to be hit later by the absorption of poorly trained reserves into combat units depleted by serious casualties.

Critically, Ukraine’s political leadership stayed intact and in place, with President Volodymyr Zelensky rallying the nation as well as galvanizing Western support.

For the most part, Ukraine’s political leadership, while laying out the goal of the survival of the Ukrainian state and its right to choose its own destiny, appears to have been content to let military commanders focus on military objectives. This has been in contrast with the Russians, where political goals such as a desire to show military success in the Ukrainian regions Moscow has claimed to be Russian have led to suboptimal military outcomes.

Russian forces’ treatment of Ukrainians has given them continuing incentives to fight for their lives and independence.

“If you know what you’re fighting for, that counts for a huge amount,” said Lt. Gen. Twitty.

Mr. Putin’s sure didn’t. This adage adapted from the Prussian military commander Helmuth von Moltke speaks to the obvious fact that the other side gets a say in the contest. Or as boxer Mike Tyson said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” 

“War can go off the rails very easily,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. This “goes back to the more normal situation of war, in which it’s very easy to screw it up. It’s very easy to make mistakes, for things to spiral out of control.”

Like external analysts, Moscow overestimated its own capabilities and underestimated how much Ukrainian military capabilities had improved since Russia first occupied Ukrainian territory in 2014. Mr. Putin failed to anticipate Western unity in backing Ukraine. And military planners sent in too small a force to take and occupy a country nearly the size of Texas.

Mr. O’Brien said he believed people had been fooled by U.S. military capabilities and its effectiveness in choreographing complex military operations. “They were given an unrealistic view of how war operates because of U.S. capabilities,” he said.

Despite U.S. operational successes, strategic success can be more elusive. And, as the American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan shows, it is usually easier to start a war than to finish it.

There is the tangible and there is the intangible. Early assessments of the war focused on things that could be counted—such as the numbers of tanks, warplanes and troops—and what the Russians said about the way they fight wars, their so-called military doctrine

But Russia didn’t exploit its superiority in weapons and equipment, didn’t follow its own doctrine or effectively combine forces to maximize impact. Its air force, superior in numbers and quality to that of Ukraine, hasn’t been able to establish dominance of the air and has played an unexpectedly small role in the conflict.  

“This war does show the limits of just looking at pieces of equipment, and looking at military doctrine as it’s articulated, rather than things such as organizational effectiveness and morale and will to fight and all that,” said Mr. Cohen of the CSIS.

That is partly because war is highly complex. Both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries have aspired to so-called combined arms warfare in which they try to orchestrate movement on the battlefield combining elements including armored vehicles such as tanks, infantry, artillery, air defense, engineering, communications and electronic warfare. 

“We’ve learned at the tactical level that combined arms is still crucial for successful high-intensity combat,” said Maj. Gen. Davis.

Ukraine has enjoyed the most success in combining these elements. Ben Barry, an expert in land warfare at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, said Kyiv had also “firmly demonstrated that both drones and counterdrone defenses are also part of combined arms.”

The Ukrainians, Mr. Cohen said, have shown two important, if less-measurable, qualities: the ability to adapt and the ability to move quickly. “You’re seeing that repeatedly demonstrated with the Ukrainians with their ability to incorporate all kinds of equipment that by normal peacetime standards, you would have thought that would take a very long time,” he said.

The Ukrainian military has been able to use dozens of types of disparate military equipment it has been given during the war by the West, many of which require separate training, and maintenance and logistics pipelines. It has also made better use of new commercial technologies.

Part of this success has come from Ukraine’s ability to devolve military decision-making down the chain of command to junior officers and noncommissioned officers in the field in contrast with the top-down direction of Russian forces, which has slowed decision making and made it harder for Russian forces to adapt to changing facts on the ground.  

Russia has also adapted, focusing its efforts on Donbas in eastern Ukraine and conducting two successful withdrawals from Kyiv and Kherson. It has also returned to the style of attrition warfare with little regard for casualties that it used in World War II.

Any successful offensive risks an army outpacing its supply lines and losing touch with support units further to the rear. That can deprive advanced units of vital supplies such as food, fuel and ammunition. Offense is thus, other things being equal, more difficult than defense.

Russia’s advance on Kyiv early in the war suffered just this problem as tanks stretched out on the road to the Ukrainian capital moved ahead of their logistics chain, cutting access to fuel and other supplies. Some Russian tanks were abandoned by their crews without fuel. 

Ukraine showed that offensives are possible, as when its forces routed Russian troops around Kharkiv in September. But that advance was facilitated by thin Russian defenses after Moscow moved forces away to defend against an offensive that Ukraine had telegraphed toward Kherson in the south. Ukraine did eventually prevail in November in Kherson. But Ukrainian progress was much slower and the eventual Russian withdrawal was much more orderly.

Russia’s forces are now defending a shorter front line than before these setbacks. Commercial satellite footage shows Russian forces have been building a network of antitank defenses, including dragons’ teeth and trenches, to thwart anticipated Ukrainian offensives. 

Moscow has also thrown men into the front, following an adage of the Soviet dictator Stalin that “Quantity has a quality all its own.” Poorly trained men have greater utility in defense than in the complexities of offensive operations. They are often sent forward to their deaths, say Ukrainian soldiers, in an effort by Russian officers to locate Ukrainian artillery.

Ukraine will be relying on new Western armored vehicles such as tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to make further progress, but it won’t be easy, and that same equipment may be needed if a Russian offensive punctures Ukraine’s lines. 

Since the advances early in the war, however, Russia has found significant forward movement difficult to achieve and Western analysts say it isn’t clear how the lesser-trained soldiers in the battlefield with poorer-quality equipment will be able to do much better.

In many ways, the conflict in Ukraine is the most visible in history, both to the outside world and to military commanders. That is thanks largely to newer technologies including drones that fly over the battlefield revealing enemy positions, and intelligence from commercial and military satellites. Even everyday smartphones are throwing light on the battlefield, creating a vast archive of so-called open-source intelligence on the conflict.

Ukraine may have better eyes on the battlefield. In a report last week, the IISS said space had been “an enabler” for Ukraine through external commercial and military support “while Russian limitations in the domain have become apparent.”

Overall, said Mr. O’Brien of St. Andrews, “There should be very few surprises” like the Battle of the Bulge, when the German military caught the Americans unaware in 1944.

“What we have now is an interesting war of very strong intelligence…You should have a pretty good idea about where units are. It’s the most visible battlefield that there’s been. I can’t think of anything that compares to it,” he said.

This transparency isn’t complete. Chaos often takes over when armies clash at the front, and Ukraine was able to mount a successful surprise offensive in pushing the Russians back from around Kharkiv. 

The consequence of the increased visibility, said Mr. Barry of the IISS, “may be that this more transparent battlefield means you’ve got to put more thought and more effort into operational security and deception.”


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