Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilisation follows Russia’s strategic and operational failures in Ukraine. It also confirms the Kremlin’s inability to think outside the box of its old doctrine. Moscow’s response remains the same as before – to overwhelm the enemy by sending in a bigger army.
Ukraine’s recent military successes in retaking large territories in the northeast (especially in the Kharkiv region) have been presented in the media as an “unexpected” development. Russian forces were probably “taken by surprise” at the beginning of September when the counteroffensive started. But Kyiv’s success was neither surprising, nor unforeseen.
A number of factors have been offered to explain Ukraine’s success on the battlefield, ranging from Russia’s corrupt armed forces, to Ukraine’s higher morale and fighting spirit, to the supply of weapons and intelligence by the west. And these are certainly part of the equation. But two other interrelated factors are often forgotten: Ukraine’s agile thinking and Russia’s continental mindset.
Russia’s continental mindset
Russia epitomises a continental strategic mindset that has demonstrated its limitations. A brief explanation: continental powers such as Russia and China traditionally command large land masses, which give them strategic depth – a large distance between any threat and the heart of a country’s power base (in Russia’s case, Moscow). But it also means they become obsessed with perceived threats on their borders. So they focus their strategy rigidly towards defending those land borders and, as we have seen with Putin’s war in Ukraine, increasing strategic depth as much as possible.
Continental powers are also usually overconfident in the quantity of troops and weapons over their quality. Weaponry and manpower becomes more important than doctrinal flexibility and they are consequently less able to adapt to changing circumstances. They have a tendency to misinterpret the qualitative strengths of their opponents (such as soldiers’ morale). And – importantly – they exhibit a lack of consideration for the maritime domain and the global supply chain.
For the past seven months, Russia has demonstrated similar weaknesses – a belief that the “new” borders they had imposed through conquest would endure, and a belief in the superiority of the Russian military based on sheer force of numbers.
Similarly, Russia’s obsolete military doctrines do not favour the use of air power (or – for that matter – naval power) to quickly and decisively size the initiative. Russia is also deficient when it comes to coordination between arms and joint operations. Then, when it was needed, Moscow was unable to adapt to changing circumstances, due to a bureaucratic and risk-averse military structure that prevents 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 because of the Kremlin’s insistence on using its navy as a mere arm of its army. Furthermore, Moscow’s initial lack of reaction to international sanctions (which proved efficient) results from a misunderstanding of the importance of the global maritime supply chain, from which Russia has been largely cut off.
Ukraine’s agile thinking
Ukraine’s agile thinking, meanwhile, originates in 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 defence policies. This includes agile (as opposed to static) thinking and making the most of the command of the global supply chain. With its gradual adoption of a western military way of thinking since 2014, Kyiv has benefited from a “transfer” of agility in the form of innovative strategic thinking.
Operationally, agile leaders are able to respond effectively, swiftly and in an original manner to tactical, operational, or strategic and systemic changes. For example – as the head of the Ukraine Forum at the UK international affairs think tank Chatham House, Orysia Lutsevych, wrote recently in The Guardian: Ukraine’s military commanders are “empowered to act independently” as opposed to Russia’s “rigid, hierarchical system, full of fear”.
Ukraine’s military commanders in the field have been willing and able to find original solutions – even if that has meant taking risks. The Kherson/Kharkiv ruse is a case in point, which illustrates Kyiv’s ability to coordinate air, land and maritime operations to produce strategic effects. This has given Kyiv the upper hand in the past weeks while Russia has been unable to adapt to the changing circumstances.
Into the autumn
Putin’s announcements attempt to address some of these concerns. To begin with, the partial mobilisation is a practical reaction to the recent losses in the Kharkiv region. Although new troops are unlikely to be effective any time soon, Moscow’s plan is to mount pressure on Ukraine’s defence of its borderlands. Kyiv’s ability to secure stronger positions in the Donbas and to push Russia further back will be affected.
But simply adding more troops will not address Russia’s long-term inability to adapt at a doctrinal and operational level. Moscow will continue to follow the same old strategy of trying to overwhelm the enemy with quantity rather than flexible initiatives.
Russia’s static mindset will also prevent Moscow from adapting 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. In response to Putin’s speech, China urged all parties to engage in dialogue, while India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi has warned that “now is not time for war”.
The latest escalation shows that Russia will plough on and pour more troops into the field – whether they are ready or not. But Moscow’s strategic mindset remains predictable, which could prove to be its Achilles’ heel.