Monday, April 4, 2022

Coercive Diplomacy Gone Wrong

Joe Biden said Russia was "bent on violence from the start," but James Siebens asks if may be that wasn't so. Maybe the best explanation for Russia's strange invasion is that the buildup was intended as a threat, and the actual invasion was only ordered in frustration after the threat failed to have its desire effect:

Putin’s failure to win concessions through intimidation alone meant that he had to either demobilize his forces or follow through on the tacit threat to invade. The first several days of the invasion demonstrated Russia’s lack of preparedness for “Plan B,” and the initial intention to achieve its aims without large-scale combat. Instead, Putin appears to have hoped for a rapid coup de main by attacking the Ukrainian capital and decapitating the government, apparently relying more on a Ukrainian mutiny and the psychological impact of a sudden attack than on force of arms. He sought to attack Kyiv with a relatively small number of unseasoned and unsupported mechanized forces, and little more than a few hundred paratroopers.

On Feb. 24, a few dozen Russian helicopters and at least 100 airborne forces attacked the Gostomel airfield outside Kyiv, and three helicopters were allegedly shot down. Ukrainian forces led a counterattack to retake the airfield, and after an intense battle, Russian forces eventually secured an airfield that was damaged beyond use. Paratroopers were also sent to capture Kharkiv, along with some light armored vehicles and infantry formations, but without adequate support they were quickly overwhelmed and captured. Russian light vehicles assaulting Kyiv shared a similar fate.

This delusional opening attack, and the apparent lack of preparation for major combat operations across the theater afterwards, evinces a lack of serious consideration of an invasion plan beforehand. Considering the evidence that Russian forces failed to adequately account for the significant practical challenges of equipment maintenance, command and control, operational security, reconnaissance, and intelligence, Russia’s initial invasion verged on lackadaisical. This likely indicates an overconfident expectation that Ukraine would quickly capitulate when faced with an invasion and that Russia would achieve its political goals without serious fighting. While the military capabilities assembled in plain view over the past year ensured that Putin would have the option of invading Ukraine, and persuaded some that he intended to do so, it is difficult to explain away the evident lack of serious planning and preparation for actually executing such a major operation. Attacking Ukraine with less than 200,000 troops may have seemed feasible, but it strains credulity that any military leaders would have agreed to order and execute a major invasion and occupation without having planned for combined-arms support and logistical sustainment beyond the first few days. Instead, the conduct of Russia’s invasion indicates a half-cocked effort to make Ukraine flinch, the culmination of a failed strategy of coercion, rather than a calculated plan for conquest.

In February I said that it looked like a bluff to me, so I was certainly surprised when the invasion actually happened. But US intelligence, which seems to have been nearly perfect in those days, reported that Putin had ordered the invasion weeks before, and various Putin regime figures and surrogates had been predicting the invasion since November. Maybe there was a concerted program of mixed messages to make the threat real while keeping options open. But the result, from the Russian perspective, probably shows that more people within the military should have known more about the plan much earlier on.


Shadow said...

Whether planned or a last minute decision, military performance was pathetic, and I think that is what we should focus on. Why? No one predicted this kind of incompetence. How is this possible? It's as if nothing changed since the 40s. The Russian army was a plodding, tank-centric army then, and it still is. It even rapes, tortures, and pillages the same way. The Ukrainians and the Javelins hit the mark, totally. Yet, Russia may still win like they did before -- quantity over quality.


We are sending two different messages to China. One is we don't want to engage a nuclear power directly. The other is our weapon systems are something to fear. Stuck in the middle of those two messages is Taiwan.

David said...

If Putin's strategy was a bluff, he must have been very frustrated by Zelensky's response, which was not so much to call the bluff overtly, as to deny that the threat was happening. This was a sort of bluff-calling that kept the moral onus on Putin. I'm not sure this was a "strategy" on Zelensky's part; he may simply have chosen it as better than either surrendering to threats or calling the bluff by mobilizing. In any case, keeping the obvious moral high ground has been of inestimable help to Ukraine, both internally and externally.

David said...


There's certainly plenty to debate in assessing the Red Army's performance in WWII. Suffice it to say there are plenty of good scholars who argue the Red Army from 1943 on was a match in performance to the Wehrmacht, and not "plodding" or relying only on numbers. Numbers obviously played a role, but weren't the whole story. In any case, virtually all successful armies in the European theater of WWII were arguably tank-centric. Properly supported tanks are still essential weapons for many, many circumstances, and have been an important part of Ukrainian tactics too. See Reports of the obsolescence of tanks as such are premature, as they were after the Yom Kippur War.

The Russian army's poor quality at present IMHO probably more than anything reflects the kleptocratic ethos of Russia's elites and the political bargain Putin has made with them. Their biggest failure is the lack of an overall command for the campaign, which I'm told may especially reflect the political weakness of Putin's minister of defense.

G. Verloren said...

The West has a longstanding problem of overestimating Russia's capabilities and foresight - we've been consistently doing it since the Cold War.

We were stunned by their MiG-25 fighter jets, wondering what sort of secret Soviet super-alloys they were made out of, assuming they were just inherently superior to Western airframes - and then later we found out that they were just made out of steel, which is virtually unheard of for combat aircraft because it's just so damn heavy.

We looked at the massive engines on the things and simply assumed they must be ridiculously fast planes - but in fact, they mostly just had to compensate for the extra weight of the steel construction, and when the engines were pushed to high speeds the turbines would actually start to melt and fuse to their housings, which would predictably lead to planes falling out of the sky.

We thought the Soviet economy was a powerhouse, far stronger than it actually was. We thought their technology was cutting edge, when in reality they were simply willing to cut corners and brute force solutions. We thought Soviet olympic athletes were genetically modified or given super-serums to grant them superhuman capabilities. We thought the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan would be a quick and decisive victory over a defenseless foe. We were dumbfounded by the sudden collapse of the USSR. Et cetera, et cetera. Over and over, we wildly overestimated them.

And we're still doing it today. As are the Russians themselves. They are very, very, very good at projecting an air competence, even when they are totally lacking in it. And we keep falling for their bluffs and tricks, never quite learning better.

Shadow said...

@ David,

My point wasn't that a plodding, tank-centric army was wrong for WWII. My point was that such a model is wrong for the 21st century. I'm also not arguing that tanks are obsolete, although they soon could be given continued improvements in laser-guided and other types of smart missile systems. They may still have tactical value, but that is not how the Russians used them, I don't think. They seem too be using them the same way they did in WWII.


It's not that we overrated their capabilities. IIRC, for some time now most people have been saying the Russian army isn't a conventional war threat to the U.S. military. It's that our estimates weren't even in the ballpark. Not even in the ballpark next to the ballpark. For them to lose as many people and assets as they diid before switching strategies and tactics boggles the mind.

G. Verloren said...


Except our estimates shouldn't have been so inaccurate, because this is exactly how Russia has operated for literal centuries. Corruption and incompetence have been the hallmarks of the Russian military since the time of the Tsars.

Russia has historically relied very heavily on raw manpower to win wars, often against technologically superior foes. Their historical ability (and willingness) to simply keep throwing corpses into the war machine until their enemies became too exhausted to continue the fight has served them incredibly well - but at a monstrous human cost which they can no longer afford to pay in the present day. At the start of WW1, the Russians had six million men ready to deploy. At the end of WW2, they had nearly twelve million men in service, and had already expended some twenty six million lives over the course of the war. Those numbers are utterly unthinkable in the modern day.

Without that tide of blood to drown their enemies, the Russians are reduced to just another mediocre military power, dangerous primarily because of their unpredictability and the reserve threat of their nuclear arsenal. They like to project an overpowering aura of invincibility, but it's all an act - an old and familiar one that we should have stopped falling for a long time ago.

Anonymous said...


David said...


Then what is the truth? Tell me.