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Putin’s massive miscalculation: He never understood the failure of Rumsfeld's “shock and awe”

"the analogy to Donald Rumsfeld, whose three-month debacle in Iraq turned into a trillion dollar, decade-long boondoggle, is probably apt."

… Putin is making the same mistake as Khrushchev did with JFK

The analogies that are coming in today are puzzling to the leader of the second-leading nuclear power in the world. One has him compared with Nikita Khrushchev, others to Donald Rumsfeld, both major losers on an international stage.

The truth is that Vladimir Putin, once thought to be a military genius, may be brought down by a country with much less firepower, but with much more to fight for in this excursion.

The analogy to “shock and awe” has not been one repeated in the American media, but it should be. And the Russian leader should have had a Plan B when his attack in Ukraine failed.

He did not.

So, the analogy to Donald Rumsfeld, whose three-month debacle in Iraq turned into a trillion dollar, decade-long boondoggle, is probably apt.

Whether Putin survives of becomes the next Khrushchev is another question.

The reality is that the Russians were not prepared for a prolonged war against Ukraine, and they had no idea that the economic consequences would be as severe as they have been.

So, what was “shock and awe”?

The failed doctrine

In the 1990s, after the neocons realized that George H.W. Bush’s foray with Saddam Hussein had failed in Gulf War I, the “shock and awe” concept became the mantra for defeating Iraq.

It did not work then, and the 21st Century version in the Ukraine is not either,

… Shock and Awe—introduced by a 1996 study aimed at Pentagon insiders—took it to higher levels. Shock and Awe meant an attack so massive and sudden that the enemy would be stunned, confused, overwhelmed, and paralyzed.

Harlan K. Ullman, principal architect of the concept, explained to the Long Island Newsday in February, “What we want to do is to create in the minds of the Iraqi leadership, and their soldiers, this Shock and Awe, so they are intimidated, made to feel so impotent, so helplesJohn s, that they have no choice but to do what we want them to do, so the smartest thing is to say, ‘This is hopeless. We quit.’ ”

John T. Correll, “What happened to Shock and Awe?”

Air Force Magazine, November 1, 2003

The result in Iraq was a complete failure. The war ended about ten years later as the U.S. left with its tail between its legs, although the regime had fallen.

While the Iraqi regime fell apart and Hussein was captured, the war was lost — just as Putin has failed in Ukraine.

Rumsfeld was eventually fired.

What was Putin’s miscalculation?

The error made by Russia in Ukraine was similar to that of the U.S. architects in Iraq. The underestimated the will of their opponents. In addition, both the U.S. and the Russians failed to discern what happens when people in a country with much less firepower are defending their homeland. That was evident from the outset in Ukraine with the battle of Chornobaivka,

On February 27, a few days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Russian forces launched an operation to seize the Chornobaivka airfield near Kherson on the Black Sea coast. Kherson was the first Ukrainian city the Russians managed to occupy, and since it was also close to Russia’s Crimean stronghold, the airfield would be important for the next stage of the offensive. But things did not go according to plan. The same day the Russians took over the airfield, Ukrainian forces began counterattacking with armed drones and soon struck the helicopters that were flying in supplies from Crimea.

In early March, according to Ukrainian defense sources, Ukrainian soldiers made a devastating night raid on the airstrip, destroying a fleet of 30 Russian military helicopters. About a week later, Ukrainian forces destroyed another seven. By May 2, Ukraine had made 18 separate attacks on the airfield, which, according to Kyiv, had eliminated not only dozens of helicopters but also ammunition depots, two Russian generals, and nearly an entire Russian battalion. Yet throughout these attacks, Russian forces continued to move in equipment and materiel with helicopters. Lacking both a coherent strategy for defending the airstrip and a viable alternative base, the Russians simply stuck to their original orders, with disastrous results.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the Chornobaivka battle as a symbol of the incompetence of Russia’s commanders, who were driving “their people to slaughter.” In fact, there were numerous similar examples from the first weeks of the invasion.

Lawrence Freedman, “Why War Fails: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine and the

Limits of Military Power,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2022

Putin did not try the “shock and awe” firepower campaign, but he made the same mistake with huge numbers. He believed, as George W. Bush and Rumsfeld did in 2003, that their sheer firepower would result is a short, decisive victory.

Both were wrong.

Occupations often fail — as Bush/Rummy learned

When Putin started to invade his neighbor earlier this year, his “shock and awe” was measured not in firepower but in overwhelming numbers.

It has not worked, just as the Rumsfeld debacle in Iraq turned into a morass and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s had,

In the weeks leading up to the February 24 invasion, Western leaders and analysts and the international press were naturally fixated on the overwhelming forces that Russian President Vladimir Putin was amassing on Ukraine’s borders. As many as 190,000 Russian troops were poised to invade the country. Organized into as many as 120 battalion tactical groups, each had armor and artillery and was backed by superior air support. Few imagined that Ukrainian forces could hold out for very long against the Russian steamroller.

The main question about the Russian plans was whether they included sufficient forces to occupy such a large country after the battle was won. But the estimates had failed to account for the many elements that factor into a true measure of military capabilities.

Military power is not only about a nation’s armaments and the skill with which they are used. It must take into account the resources of the enemy, as well as the contributions from allies and friends, whether in the form of practical assistance or direct interventions. And although military strength is often measured in firepower, by counting inventories of arms and the size of armies, navies, and air forces, much depends on the quality of the equipment, how well it has been maintained, and on the training and motivation of the personnel using it.

Lawrence Freedman, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2022

Training and motivation? The fact is that Russia had not prepared effectively for this incursion, just as the U.S. had not prepared for the occupation of Iraq. And this demonstrates the problems with an autocracy, which is similar to the powers that Bush tried to exert post-9/11 during Iraq,

Russia’s problems with command in Ukraine are less a consequence of military philosophy than of current political leadership. In autocratic systems such as Russia’s, officials and officers must think twice before challenging superiors. Life is easiest when they act on the leader’s wishes without question.

Dictators can certainly make bold decisions on war, but these are far more likely to be based on their own ill-informed assumptions and are unlikely to have been challenged in a careful decision-making process. Dictators tend to surround themselves with like-minded advisers and to prize loyalty above competence in their senior military commanders.

Lawrence Freedman, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2022

Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, along with the other neocons, made “their own ill-informed assumptions,” and as a result, Iraq is now an ally of Iran — a horrible miscalculation.

Will this decision and execution destroy Putin?

Much has been made about Putin’s health and how he may have made this move as his “Last Hurrah.” If so, it brings back the shock and awe that Khrushchev felt he had in dealing with President John F. Kennedy.

Putin and Khrushchev made the same mistakes: JFK was a tough young buck that the Soviet leader underestimated, and so is the youthful JFK of the 21st Century, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Whether or not this brings down Putin depends upon where the Russians are in six months. Their economy is in shambles, and the people and the military in Russia are upset.

It comes down to a horrible miscalculation in Ukraine,

But this leads to the fourth condition. The ability to act effectively at any level of command requires a commitment to the mission and an understanding of its political purpose. These elements were lacking on the Russian side because of the way Putin launched his war: the enemy the Russian forces had been led to expect was not the one they faced, and the Ukrainian population was not, contrary to what they had been told, inclined to be liberated. The more futile the fight, the lower the morale and the weaker the discipline of those fighting.

In these circumstances, local initiative can simply lead to desertion or looting. By contrast, the Ukrainians were defending their territory against an enemy intent on destroying their land. There was an asymmetry of motivation that influenced the fighting from the start. Which takes us back to the folly of Putin’s original decision. It is hard to command forces to act in support of a delusion.

Lawrence Freedman, Foreign Affairs, July/August 2022

Putin has been a student of political power, not a student of history. That is one of the reasons that he is stuck in a morass like America was in Iraq — and everyone knows what happened to Rumsfeld, who has is now referred to historically as a war criminal.

Whether or not he becomes the next Soviet leader, albeit under the Russian mantra, to be deposed will be interesting. The truth is that Putin has completely underestimated Zelensky, and it could be a fatal mistake.

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