One of my intellectual interests is the study of fighting cultures—Asian (in all of its varieties), Arab (same), European (same), North American, Israeli and, more broadly, Maori, Zulu, Greek, Roman and Persian back in the day. I do not consider myself a warfare expert but I have garnered enough knowledge on a range of conventional, unconventional, regular, irregular, nuclear and hybrid warfare to be more or less conversant in them. The “warrior culture” is wide-spread and yet varied and distinctive in many societies.
In a recent exchange with my friend, journalist Jon Stephenson, we traded views on why the Russians are torturing, murdering, raping and pillaging in occupied areas of the Ukraine. This is what I wrote him, which I have fleshed out in light of our back and forth:
Many fighting cultures incorporate brutality into the warfare mix and the Russians are one of them. Their attitude is that “if we cannot have it, then no one can,” and they destroy everything that they can as they retreat. Part of that is literally destroying people and communities as a warning and reminder of what they are capable of. If we remember that Russia invaded Ukraine under the pretext of “de-Nazification” but which in fact was an attempt at cultural genocide (removing vestiges of indigenous Ukrainian culture and replacing them with Russian culture, something that includes forced repatriation of civilians from the Ukraine into Russia) and regime change (which failed), then the destruction left behind retreating Russian forces becomes more understandable even if utterly indefensible.
Add into this dark alchemy the Russian use of non-Slavic troops from Central and East Asia to prosecute a large part of the war (exploiting age-old ethnic hatreds), to which have been added convicts, poorly trained conscripts, Chechens and mercenaries such as those from the Wagner Group (run by a close ally of Putin), and the genocidal revenge impulse is strong amongst the retreating Russians. Absent strong command and control discipline and worse yet if their behavior is condoned by Russian military commanders, then atrocities against Ukranian civilians will continue and even increase as the defeat approaches.
Trouble is, brutalization is a losing strategy. It does not achieve military strategic objectives either on the offensive or when in retreat. It reveals a military organization to be an ill-disciplined criminal mob. Moreover, prosecution for atrocities is more likely today than ever before because, for example, war crimes investigations are better today than before. There is more video evidence and scientific forensics. Accused perpetrators in lower ranks can cut deals in order to blame superiors. As atrocities and the futility of pursuing victory in a losing war of opportunity are revealed, even homeland support for the war wanes.
The proof of this in Russia is in the reaction of potential conscripts to Putin’s recent call up (who voted with their feet by crossing borders into neighboring states in droves) and in the increasingly angry debates in the government controlled media (and behind the scenes in Putin’s political circles). Saddling (at least some units in) the Russian military with the title “war criminals” does not auger well for force cohesion and domestic political-military relations the longer the conflict drags on. Those not implicated in atrocities and war crimes will want to distance themselves from those who are. Finger-pointing and blame-gaming will increase as the futility and foolishness of the invasion is fully revealed.
Plus, the morale of the Ukrainians only hardens in the wake of atrocities, which is especially important in Russian speaking parts of Ukraine where the Russians thought that they would find support, only to find out that being an ethnic Russian or Russian speaking Ukrainian does not mean that one wants to be Russian. In turn, that realization has made Russian occupiers all the more prone to atrocities because they believe that they have been betrayed by what should have been ethnic kin. In a sense, the Russians are treating large parts of the non-supportive Russian speaking population in Eastern and Southern Ukraine as if they were opponents in a civil war (which have often been described as the “dirtiest” of wars because they involve relatives pitted against each other for material or political reasons).
That, and the counterproductive nature of the Russian air campaign targeting Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, is almost ensuring eventual Russian retreat, if not defeat. As the strategist Robert Pape has noted, air campaigns that seek to terrorize civilian populations such as the fire-bombing of Dresden and Tokyo did not result in German or Japanese military surrender. Air raids on London during the Blitz just annoyed Britons, emboldened Churchill and steeled their collective resistance to German aggression.
In fact, successful “punishment” air campaigns that seek to destroy civilian morale and support for continuing war efforts are the exception to the rule. The nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “successful” not in that they killed many civilians and undermined the Japanese population’s will to fight, but because they demonstrated that there was no strategic defense against them, especially when a US ground invasion force was being assembled over the horizon that could follow up on the nuclear air-based “hammer” with the conventional “anvil” of ground assaults. The logic behind the Japanese surrender was a military calculus, not a result of a loss of civilian moral support.
In the Ukraine, the Ukrainians have the advantage on the ground and Russian air strikes on their civilian infrastructure have had some physical effect (including a loss of 30 percent of its electricity generation capacity) but have not undermined the morale of the population. There Russian anvil is in retreat, and its hammer has a ball-pean rather than a sledge effect.
For now the strategic race is into winter: can the Ukrainians roll back the Russians sufficiently by January or can the Russians hold on until then in order to see if energy shortages cause domestic unrest in the EU that fractures the anti-Russian coalition? There have already been anti-energy price demonstrations in the Czech Republic, Germany, Belgium and France; the new Italian government is full of pro-Russian right-wingers (including Silvio Berlusconi) who want to side with Putin; Hungary refuses to cooperate with NATO; Serbia is just another version of Belarus; and various motley crews of lefties and righties throughout Europe want NATO out of the Ukraine support business.
Putin is relying on those deepening fractures for long-term strategic success. He and his advisors believe that Western democracy is a weak and dying form of socio-political organization, irreversibly softened by material comforts (such as cheap energy from Russia) and post-modern debates about gender and sexual identity, racism, indigenous rights and other “woke” divisions that undermine consensus and homogeneity in national outlook (this belief is shared by many Right-thinking Westerners, which explains their support for Putin’s project). He and his advisors believe that if they can hold the line in Ukraine until the deepest days of the European winter, then resolve within the EU and NATO will crack as politicians see electoral dangers in public discomfort and increased civil society resistance to ongoing sacrifices tied to supporting Ukraine’s war effort.
He may or may not be right. He has miscalculated along these lines before, during the planning for an initial days of the invasion when he thought that NATO would prove to be a paper tiger and succumb to his threats by not intervening on behalf of Ukraine even in a support role. He was wrong then and he could well be wrong now, but that is the logic that is underlining the Russian strategic outlook at the moment.
We shall see what scenario pans out. Ukraine needs to press its advantages while it can, which means now. If it cannot push the Russians back to their borders in the next couple of months, then it must demonstrate to its NATO PLUS support base that it has the will and wherewithal to engage in a protracted conflict that will result in the destruction of the Russian military—or at least its ground forces—as an effective fighting force against a peer competitor. That includes being able to lay siege to Crimea as well as recover occupied territory in the East.
Such a demonstration will have as much if not more of an impact in Moscow as it will in Brussels and Washington because Putin’s generals fully understand that they have a lot of motherland territory to defend, especially in the Far East where tactical alliances today may not mean much in the future if Russian forces are too debilitated to offer effective defense against opposing land forces seeking resource-focused territorial gains. Add to that the range of ethnic groups represented in Russia’s Far East and their cross-border ties to people in the “Stans” and even China, and the cohesiveness of Russian land forces in the event of a military conflict in that theatre is seriously open to question. Brutality will not solve the confrontation in their favour.
In summation. Brutality is an integral part of Russian fighting culture. It may work against opposing forces when defending the motherland but, even if conducted by air and on the ground, it does not work as an intimidation, warning and/or deterrent tactic when pursuing an expeditionary war of opportunity against a smaller but determined adversary fighting on its own territory with the support of other great and medium powers. In fact, it could well hasten defeat.
Advantage (today): Ukraine.