Vladimir Putin’s announcement of partial mobilization follows Russia’s strategic and operational failure in Ukraine. It also confirms the Kremlin’s inability to think outside its old doctrinal box. Moscow’s response remains the same – to send in a large army to defeat the enemy.
Ukraine’s recent military successes in recapturing large swathes of territory in the northeast (especially in the Kharkiv region) have been presented in the media as “unexpected” developments. Russian forces may “Taken by surpriseWhen the counter-offensive began in early September. But Kiev’s success was neither surprising nor unexpected.
A number of factors have been offered to explain Ukraine’s success on the battlefield, from Russia’s corrupt armed forces to Ukraine’s high morale and fighting spirit, to the West’s supply of weapons and intelligence. And this is certainly part of the equation. But two other interrelated factors are often forgotten: Ukraine’s agile thinking and Russia’s continental mentality.
Continental mentality of Russia
Russia epitomizes a continental strategic mindset that has shown its limits. Brief explanation: Continental powers such as Russia and China traditionally command large land masses, which gives them strategic depth—the greater distance between any threat and the country’s power base (in Russia’s case, Moscow). But it also means they become obsessed with the dangers they see on their borders. So they focus their strategy strictly on defending those land borders and, as we’ve seen with Putin’s war in Ukraine, increasing strategic depth as much as possible.
Continental powers are generally overconfident in their quality of troops and weapons. Weapons and manpower become more important than doctrinal flexibility and are consequently less able to adapt to changing circumstances. They have a tendency to misinterpret the qualitative strengths (such as the morale of soldiers) of their opponents. And – importantly – they show a lack of consideration for the maritime domain and the global supply chain.
For the past seven months, Russia has shown the same weaknesses – a belief that the “new” borders they imposed by conquest would endure, and a belief in the superiority of the Russian military based on sheer force of numbers.
Similarly, Russia’s outdated military doctrine does not favor the use of air power (or – for that matter – naval power) to quickly and decisively measure the initiative. Russia is also deficient when it comes to coordination between weapons and joint operations. Then, when it needed to, Moscow was unable to adapt to changing circumstances because of a bureaucratic and risk-averse military structure that prevented flexibility.
Moscow has also been “sea blind” – unable to use its initial control of the northwestern Black Sea to achieve any land-based strategic objectives. This is due to the Kremlin’s insistence on using its navy as just one arm of its army. Moreover, Moscow’s initial lack of response to international sanctions (which proved effective) stems from a misunderstanding of the importance of the global maritime supply chain, from which Russia is largely isolated.
Ukraine’s agile thinking
Ukraine’s agile thinking, meanwhile, stems from the country’s adoption of Western maritime ideas. According to naval historian Andrew Lambert, maritime culture and values go hand in hand with fluid foreign and defense policies. This includes thinking agile (as opposed to static) and making the most of global supply chain mandates. With its gradual adoption of Western military thinking since 2014, Kiev has benefited from a “transfer” of agility in the form of innovative strategic thinking.
Operationally, agile leaders are able to respond to strategic, operational, or strategic and systemic changes effectively, quickly, and radically. For example – as head of the Ukraine Forum at UK international affairs think tank Chatham House, Orysia Lutsevich recently wrote in The Guardian: Ukraine’s military commanders are “empowered to act independently” in opposition to Russia’s “rigid, hierarchical system, absolute”. out of fear”.
Ukraine’s military commanders in the field are ready and able to find original solutions – even if that means taking risks. Kherson/Kharkiv Rus is a case in point, illustrating Kiev’s ability to coordinate air, land and sea operations to produce strategic effects. This has given Kiev the upper hand in recent weeks while Russia has been unable to adapt to changing circumstances.
Putin’s announcements attempt to address some of these concerns. Initially, the partial mobilization is a pragmatic response to recent losses in the Kharkiv region. However, there are new soldiers Not likely to be effective Anytime soon, Moscow plans to increase pressure on Ukraine’s defense of its borders. Kiev’s ability to gain a foothold in Donbas and push Russia further back will be affected.
But simply adding more troops will not address Russia’s long-term inability to adapt at the doctrinal and operational levels. Moscow will continue to follow the same old strategy of trying to overwhelm the enemy with mass rather than flexible initiative.
Russia’s stagnant mindset will also prevent Moscow from adopting its diplomatic strategy that focuses on portraying Ukraine and the West as neo-imperial agents. India and to some extent China are increasingly unimpressed by Russia’s strategy. China urged in response to Putin’s speech All parties to join the conversation, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned that “now is not the time for war”.
The latest escalation suggests Russia will plow on and pour more troops into the fray — whether it’s ready or not. But Moscow’s strategic mindset is predictable, which may prove to be its Achilles heel.