In their article for the Armed Forces and Society journal, academics David V Gioe and Tony Manganello argue that the passage of time, more than any other factor, will influence the outcome of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Using historic examples to illustrate their hypothesis, they show that military planners who set strict timetables and objectives often become unstuck, as their carefully prepared plans run into the realities of war. They cite a number of examples of where delays and the passage of time have influenced military outcomes. These include:
· George Washington outwaiting the British as they tired of the expense of a protracted war;
· Napoleon’s (1812) and Hitler’s (1941) ill-conceived invasions of Russia;
· Germany’s mobilization during World War I being based on existing railway timetables;
· The collapse of US political will in Vietnam after a decade of mounting casualties;
· The unravelling of plans contained in the Pentagon’s briefing slides for the intervention in Iraq in 2003; and
· The Taliban outwaiting the US and its allies in Afghanistan.
Gioe quotes a Taliban leader captured in 2011 who told his US interrogators that they would ultimately lose because: “You have the watches. We have the time.” He was eventually proved right in Afghanistan and, so far, “having the time” is proving to be decisive so far in the war in Ukraine.
How did time affect Putin’s invasion?
In November 2022, the UK-based think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), produced an assessment of the invasion and reasons for its failings. It was based on leaked copies of Moscow’s planning documents, which concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plan initially looked sound in terms of the size, scope and proposed directions of attack.
The plan was to stun Ukraine’s military forces by the use of aggression, overwhelming firepower and speed of advance by, in Russian General Valery Gerasimov’s words, the “second most powerful army in the world.”
The plan was for conventional forces to seize Ukraine's nuclear and conventional power stations, airfields, water supplies, central bank and parliament, while Russian special services were tasked with executing the Ukrainian leadership and replacing them with a puppet government. This first phase was to be achieved within ten days. It was assumed that Ukrainian government officials would either be killed, captured or flee in the face of an incisive and violent advance by Russian forces.
That same aggressive posture, combined with implied nuclear blackmail through the seizure of Ukraine’s nuclear power stations, would be used to force concessions from the international community and preclude any outside interference. The plan called for the final subjugation of the population and annexation of the whole of Ukraine by August 2022.
Putin launched his invasion at what he assumed was the perfect time; the Beijing Olympics was over, which would have kept China on side, and the spring thaws were yet to begin, which would later turn Ukraine’s hard ground to mud. Putin’s generals had also provided him with supposedly textbook information on the rates of advance, ammunition needs, fuel, rations and other logistics.
In short, a Russian victory, based on the planned short, sharp strategy, was assured.
So, what went wrong?
The plan failed through a combination of hubris on behalf of the Kremlin, and Putin in particular – essentially it was his/their plan so nothing could go wrong. There was no “plan B” or, as RUSI put it, “there was no evidence in the Russian planning that anyone had asked what would occur if any of its key assumptions were wrong.”
Things began to go wrong from day one. The Kremlin, based on its intelligence services’ advice, had failed to understand how little support there would be for Moscow, both in the Russian speaking areas such as Donbas, and among the Ukrainian population at large.
Its military units underperformed drastically on the battlefield, primarily because most officials and military leaders at all levels, let alone ordinary soldiers, didn’t even know they were mounting an invasion until a few hours before they were ordered to cross the border.
As a result, Moscow’s forces were not properly equipped, were not psychologically prepared for heavy fighting, and were completely taken aback by the ferocity of the Ukrainian defenders. It was reported that many Russian soldiers faced Ukrainian forces with unloaded weapons.
The spring thaw came early and, as a result, much of Moscow’s invasion force could only move along asphalt roads. Who can forget the sight of the almost 60-kilometer traffic jam when Russian forces from ten separate tactical units converged on the paved streets leading to Kyiv because they couldn’t navigate the soft ground conditions.
What seemed like an endless double column of armored, logistical and other support vehicles, became literally a sitting target for the hit and run tactics employed initially by Ukrainian special forces teams, and later by territorial defense and regular forces, using anti-tank weapons to ambush the columns.
Every attack resulted in a drain on the invaders, both physically and psychologically. They ran out of fuel and struggled to maneuver their vehicles, enabling Ukrainian forces to pick off high value targets, such as tanks, almost at leisure. The advance ground to a halt and those that survived turned tail and returned from whence they had come.
Just as these convoys were setting themselves up for failure, an even greater tactical disaster further undermined Putin’s blitzkrieg strategy. In the early hours of the war on Feb. 24, 2022, a large formation of Russian Mi8 helicopters, escorted by Ka-52 attack helicopters, carrying a large force of Russian airborne troops, believed to be from the 11th and 31st Air Assault Brigades, arrived to secure the Antonov Airport in Hostomel, some 10 kilometers north-west of the capital.
This was intended to be a "coup de main." Once the airfield was taken, a fleet of Ilyushin Il-76 heavy transporters were then expected to bring in more troops and equipment to meet up with mechanized units advancing south from Belarus. It would then be a short sprint into the heart of the capital to decapitate Ukraine’s government and military command to secure the city.
Instead, the paratroopers were met by a ferocious counterattack from territorial forces supported by special forces, while the anticipated ground force reinforcements were held up on the mega traffic jam.
Over the next six days of intense fighting, something became apparent, which was to become even clearer in subsequent months. The Russian military, be they regular troops, conscripts, airborne troops, tank crews, mechanized infantry, artillery units, combat engineers or logisticians, were poorly led, poorly motivated, poorly trained and inadequately supplied. They lacked ammunition, fuel and rations (much of which had been lost through corruption at all levels) and were totally unprepared for, and inept at undertaking the missions they were tasked to complete.
How is time continuing to affect the progress of Putin’s war?
Ukraine has done far more than simply fail to collapse, which many commentators thought would be the most likely outcome of an attack by such a supposedly formidable Russian force.
The initial strong resistance by highly motivated Ukrainian ground forces, who believed they were fighting for their lives, their families and the very existence of their nation, has made the Russians pay severely for their haphazard and poorly resourced invasion. In spite of some initial success in the south and east of Ukraine, Russia has visibly underperformed in nearly all areas of its military action. Ukraine has not only won many of its military engagements but is also winning the propaganda and morale war.
The blocking of the Hostomel assault and the attacks on the columns coming south, not only prevented the rapid capture of the seat of power in Kyiv, but turned back a large proportion of Russian forces which, most importantly, gave Ukraine and its Western allies that most precious of weapons – TIME.
Time to mobilize troops. Time to mobilize Western support. Time to train new forces. Time to re-equip.
The valuable commodity of time resulted in the development of a far better, well-trained, well-equipped armed forces. This extra time galvanized external support in Europe and the US to impose punishing sanctions on the Russian economy and to provide military aid in the form of modern weapons, including game changing shoulder-launched anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, HIMARS, PATRIOT air defense systems, other modern anti-aircraft/missile systems, high performance attack drones, surveillance drones and so on.
Ukraine’s air defenses survived the initial Russian bombardment and has now been further reinforced by the delivery of modern anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems. These continue to deny Russia the clear air superiority that many see as a pre-requisite for success on the modern battlefield, and in recent months its attacks on civilian infrastructure and population centers.
Impatience is definitely not a virtue
By the autumn of 2022, with Ukraine having inflicted horrendous levels of casualties and equipment losses on Russian forces, the war entered a period that appeared to be a stalemate.
Putin could not accept this state of affairs and, rather than using this time to reset, in a continuation of the miscalculations that are, thus far, a feature of his so-called special military operation, he decided that a winter counteroffensive was necessary.
He therefore started a “partial mobilization” process in September 2002 to make up for losses and to reinforce the forces committed in Ukraine. This served to trigger the flight of several hundred thousand military-aged men from Russia to avoid being called up. Then, rather than using the time available to train up these newly conscripted personnel to at least an acceptable basic level of military aptitude, Putin chose to send them immediately to Ukraine.
These conscripts arrived with almost no training, minimal equipment and obsolete weapons and were expected to undertake Putin’s winter counteroffensive. His generals apparently still subscribed to Josef Stalin’s adage that “quantity has a quality of its own.” The number who swiftly returned to Russia – in body bags – disproved that yet again.
Although brutal fighting in areas such as Bakhmut, Donetsk region, continued well into May 2023, the general stalemate persists. While the bulk of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) were holding the line against the Russian army’s failing winter offensive in eastern and southern Ukraine, as many as a dozen new Ukrainian brigades were being formed.
Ukraine has used the time since then to prepare its new brigades for the highly anticipated counteroffensive, which it hopes will finally end the war in its favor. This has entailed receiving even more western weaponry, including main battle tanks such as the UK’s Challenger and Germany’s Leopard 1 and 2, as well as sending troops to those nations offering equipment for training in operating and maintaining the vehicles. Ukraine has built up an additional 12 brigades in preparation for its fightback.
Even as the manpower surge petered out, it was clear that Russia was incapable of renewing its weapons stockpiles at a sufficient rate, and that its armed forces had exhausted a large proportion of its weaponry. This was evidenced by the appearance of old battle tanks, the T-62 and T-54/55, that were better suited for display as museum pieces rather than 21st century weapons of war. It was also reported that Russia had tried to call on its rapidly shrinking list of allies, such as Iran and North Korea, for help in providing weapons and munitions. It seems that similar requests to China have, so far, been rebuffed.
Even Putin saw that, at least in the short term, time was no longer on his side; furthermore, that militarily there would be little opportunity to mount effective offensive actions. He therefore resorted to his tried and tested terror tactics. This focused on the use of dwindling stocks of cruise and ballistic missiles supplemented by Iranian-provided “kamikaze drones” and fighter bombers to once again attack population centers, particularly Kyiv, with more than 20 such barrages carried out in May alone.
This strategy largely failed because of Ukraine’s now comprehensive air defense network. Meanwhile, Putin’s ground forces have recently been adopting an increasingly defensive posture, creating multiple trench networks reinforced by minefields, “dragon’s teeth” vehicle obstacles, anti-tank ditches and fortified firing points.
At the same time, the propaganda campaign by Putin’s official (and unofficial) spokespersons has been trying to spin things in his favor through widespread disinformation. This includes that Russia’s disastrous military adventure is the result of a NATO-inspired existential threat, which many commentators fear will be used as justification for future escalation – even beyond the June 6 catastrophic Kakhovka Dam explosion. But there is evidence that increasing numbers of Russians are losing confidence in the story Putin is spinning, which becomes less credible day by day.
Despite Russia’s economy not having fallen off a cliff under the pressure of sanctions, primarily because Putin is still able to sell highly discounted oil and gas to China, India and other “friendly” nations, the medium to long term prognosis is not good. This is yet another area where time is proving not to be Putin’s friend – as was the weather in the autumn and winter which proved to be warmer than expected, allowing Europe to maintain its resistance to Putin’s energy weapon.
There are now signs of impending economic collapse in Russia, as one of the heaviest sanction regimes ever imposed continues to bite and may soon be intensified further. Putin claimed at the beginning of May that the economy was “confidently managing in the face of external challenges” and boasted that the ruble was “showing the best dynamics among all international currencies.”
This seems little more than a bluff, however. According to a leaked internal document published in mid-May, the Russian finance ministry is expecting a 12 per cent drop in GDP which would undo nearly a decade’s growth in Moscow’s economy.
How will time affect the progress of Putin’s War in the future?
It is not just the leaderships in Ukraine and Russia for whom the clock is ticking. Notwithstanding the totally unjustified invasion, many in the west are concerned that pledges by the US and UK, as well as NATO, the EU, Germany Poland and the Baltic States and others, to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, could wane. This is a particular risk should the war drag on for many more months or even years, especially for those nations that are less economically or politically stable.
Putin, under growing pressure from Russian economic, military and security elites, may opt for the “unthinkable,” and decide to end his “unwinnable” war with the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This would be devastating for Ukraine and increase the calls by some for a negotiated peace to avoid a catastrophe that the use of WMD would cause. Fears about what Putin could do if backed too far into a corner could result in a breakdown in Western unity.
Towards the end of 2022 there was a fear that the war could become a long, drawn-out war of attrition. However, as Ukraine has become much better equipped and trained on complex weaponry far faster than anticipated, that concern has somewhat reduced. Ukraine’s successes in the Kharkiv and Kherson regions have raised optimism that the counteroffensive – understood to now be underway – will succeed in defending and retaking sufficient territory to satisfy Kyiv and bring Putin to the negotiating table.
If the counteroffensive does not pan out as hoped, that may also undermine Western military and political support which, combined with Ukraine’s will to win, has been key to its success to date.
In addition, a new fly in the ointment has recently appeared that could upset the timetable for success – Donald Trump.
There are fears that Trump, who has historically been sympathetic towards Russia in general, and Putin in particular, would row back on US support if he was to be re-elected as US President. Moreover, much of the Republican base seems less disposed to continuing support to Ukraine. Comments such as: “We don't have ammunition for ourselves. We're giving away so much,” have caused alarm bells to ring in Kyiv and throughout NATO.
Some commentators are suggesting that Ukraine has until January 2025, when Trump would enter the White House should he win the presidency, to get the job done – as if Kyiv needed any more incentive than it already has. It remains to be seen if Trump’s dream of a second term could be thwarted by criminal charges relating to the plethora of top secret documents found at his Mar-a-Lago resort.
Who will actually “win” this war is anyone’s guess. Gioe and Manganello argue that each side faces a ticking clock with time affected by a whole host of internal and external pressures.
The bottom line, as nearly every military and political leader has learned over the centuries: “Time and tide wait for no man” – Geoffrey Chaucer.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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