“…..The dazzling victory in the 67 war…contributed to the building of a myth around the IDF( Israeli Defense Forces) and its personnel. The common expectations from the IDF were that any future war would be short with few casualties.” So spoke the Israeli Major General Avraham Adan a division commander in 1973. (The Arab-Israeli war: The Albatross of Decisive Victory, Leavenworth Papers, 1996 by George Gawrych. In this monograph Dr Gawrych spells out once more that the worst thing that can happen to an army– next to its total destruction like that of Germany and Japan in WWII—- is an easy victory. An easy victory brings hubris and a unwarranted feeling that all is well. Certainly the Israelis were guilty of this in the 1973 war based on then hapless performance of the well armed but ill trained Egyptians forces in 1967. Along with the massive Israeli intelligence failure, the main lesson I have always believed Israeli hubris and denigration of Egyptian capabilities to be the primary factor in the close run victory of the Israelis….. enabled by a massive American airlift of major weapon systems.
As an artillery man I wrote a paper on the poor use of artillery by the Israelis in the 1967 war. They depended on “flying artillery” in the 67 war and it worked very well as they had total air superiority after a short time. In the 1973 war the Egyptian air defense weapons supplied by the Russians decimated the ground support Israeli aircraft. Lesson: Be very careful when assuming your enemy will not improve.
The point here is that the easy Russian victory over the Ukrainians in 2014, and perhaps more importantly, the five day victory over the Georgians in 2008, as well as the high marks given the Russians in their operations in Syria has given the Russians an unwarranted high opinion off themselves.
The Georgian operations are particularly important in assessing the “underwhelming” Russian performance in the Ukraine war so far. The Georgian war was precipitated by the Russians supporting the breakaway entities of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia in 2008. As the Russians always do, they used nationalist, ethnic, and tribal factors to instigate dissidence and ultimately war against the Georgians. The Russians, in a preview of the Ukraine war, reacted to rumors and suggestions that Georgia was angling to join NATO. We, as with Ukraine, had made this a possibility and then when war loomed we kept urging Georgia to avoid provocations to Russia. As with Ukraine now, the reaction of United States to the actual war was tepid, and efforts to reach an understanding with Russia and not provoke them was considered paramount. On the other hand the Russians, by beating up the Georgians, were sending a clear message to Ukraine that any attempts to bring Ukraine into NATO would be dealt with in a similar way. It went unheeded for the same reason as the Israeli surprise in 1973.
The West, particularly the United States, was filled with hubris watching the Soviet Empire dissolve into multiple countries. In actions warned against by the great American ambassador to Russia, George Kennan, we kept pressing Western influence and military power into their “near Abroad,” Russia’s near neighbors, the Russian view was and is that we were encircling Russia with the ultimate objective of strangling it. The Russians, as I have shown in a previous post, have always been suspicious of the West and have never viewed themselves as part of it.
What can be learn from the Russian military operations in Georgia that apply to the Russian mess in the Ukraine? Yes:
Following the victory of the Russian forces there were a number of trenchant criticisms of the Russian performance by senior military personnel. They related that the Russian equipment was inferior to much of the American supplied armor and individual infantry equipment, especially night vision and body armor, lack or reactive tank armor, maintenance was poor, and that Russian tactics were WWII, strategy was unimaginative, command and control was poor. Probably the most glaring problem was the mediocre performance of the officer corps and the continuing lack of a truly professional Non-Commissioned Officer Corps. The higher living conditions of the Georgian troops found by the Russian troops when they entered Georgian bases was very humiliating. The living conditions of Russian troops were primitive by comparison and the soldiers were quite vocal about it.
See The Russian Military and the Georgian War (SSI) by Ariel Cohen and Robert E. Hamilton.
As a number of memoirs of former Russian soldiers attest the life of a Russian soldier was, and is, one of living in a jungle of criminals and barbarians. Subject to frequent beatings, robbery by criminal soldiers who rule the barracks, and officers who simply stand by and do nothing they were an army in name only. Desertions, soldiers doing deals with the enemy to avoid combat, selling weapons to their enemies, and general malfeasance characterized the Russian enlisted personnel system. See Svetlana Alexievich, ZinkyBoys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War and One Soldiers War by Arkandy Babchenko
Following the Georgian war, a number of “reforms” were instituted in the armed forces including a supposedly improved environment for soldiers and intense training for young officers, and up grade of equipment. The reform programs were seen by some as producing a new Russian army. The Russian military reform programs have been well and soberly analyzed by Aleksandr Golts, Military Reform and Militarism in Russia, and unduly praised by Andrei Martyanov Losing Military Supremacy: The Myopia of Military Supremacy. The latter book rightly criticizes the hubris of our leadership in assuming that we enjoy a comfortable advance over the Russians in military power but goes overboard in praising the Russian military advances. The Golt’s book makes it clear that although some needed reforms were carried out, essentially he writes, “Thus we can say military reform addressed strictly the military technological sphere of the manning and structure of the Armed Forces. It came to a halt at the moment the qualitative changes collided with the fundamental principles of Puti’s authoritarian state.” In my estimation from his book and many other readings, the most important element of an army, the human factor, has not essentially changed since WWII.
CAVEAT. Nothing written here should give anyone comfort that all is well in a possible armed confrontation with Russia. One must remember the debacle of the Russian attack on Finland in 1939. The German high command based much of their assessment of the Russian army on the Russian ineptness exhibited during the war….to their detriment.