Image: Aljazeera News/Institute for the Study of War
Since the start of Putin’s War (2022-?), speculation about the Russian way of war has been rife. These speculations show how far Russia, once the target of searching strategic analysis, had fallen into redundancy. Prior to the war, global media was unperturbed by Putin’s sabre rattling over the Ukraine, as most pundits assumed it would soon be resolved through diplomacy. Putin’s invasion dropped like a nuclear bomb. In bewilderment, ‘experts’ grappled to find explanations. Too many projected analogies of old wars, for example the Soviet-Finnish Winter War (1939/40), to claim they thought they knew what was happening. Once the limits of history were exhausted, the analogies turned into a lottery. None of this was based on rational analysis. As the speculations failed to comply with events, the Russians multiplied the confusion by refusing to play the game of ‘western war’. One month into the war and the ‘experts’ appear none the wiser.
Two days into the war, it was clear the Russian way of war was not following any western patterns of war. On 27 February, I posted observations on Twitter: there was an absence of a Schwerpunkt – centre of gravity, few indications of mobile anti-aircraft units close to the front, Ukrainian communications were operative, the Russians had ‘sprinkled’ forces across the frontier, they were stretching and reducing Ukrainian strategic responses, there was a growing confusion in western reports between street-fighting or irregular warfare, there was an increase in heavy bombardments and rising civilian casualties/refugees. Among these points were those classical tell-tale signs from Russian history of the maskirovka (deception), with some post-1945 intervention style activity, and a replay of the destruction imposed on Grozny/Aleppo. In a Tweet on 3 March 2022, I suggested the Russian’s had adopted an Anaconda plan to devour the Ukraine. The indications to base that opinion were: grinding/flattening terrain, heavy shelling regardless of war crimes accusations, the absence of the expected insurgency, growing fear in the west of nuclear weapons, and beginnings of long-war. Putin had taken the strategic initiative from the west and the Ukraine.
An Anaconda Plan was devised by General Winfield Scott of the US Army during the American Civil War. Scott’s plan was aimed at strangling the Rebel economy and the ability to resupply its war-making from its erstwhile support in Britain. Once the stranglehold tightened, the Rebels’ cause stuttered, and the invasions by Generals Grant and Sherman defeated the Rebel armies. In 1914/18, the British imposed a naval blockade against Imperial Germany. Putin’s Anaconda Plan is very different and mirrors the way the snake consumes its prey - slow digestion, crushing suffocation and relentless action through the body.
Putin’s Anaconda Plan
The first phase in the Russian plan saw multiple assaults aimed at establishing lodgements. The grand maskirovka had begun. These assaults formed a rough horseshoe shape, across an extremely long frontline, and set in a westerly direction. This was an indication of classical Russian thinking applied to over-stretch the opponent across a long front. Initially this appeared to reflect the Red Army assaults across the Dnipro River in 1943, but in actuality it was replicating the pre-Bagration moves of 1944. The aim then was to force the Germans to commit reserves in attrition warfare across a long front.
The second phase began the ‘nibbling’ away attrition. There was still no identifiable Schwerpunkt because forming the lodgements into larger battle area remained the primary mission. The emergence of supporting fire illustrated how important the lodgements were in Russian thinking. The need to build larger or extended areas is about preparing for future aggressive and offensive operations. As the lodgements joined the scale of shelling increased to protect them. At that point ‘experts’ misread the signs and focused upon the roads, the mud and the tyres of Russian vehicles. Contrary to myth, the Russians had always used roads, long before the Soviet days. The Russians could get bogged down in war, but opponents were also bogged down and unable to take advantage. There was a discussion about failing Russian leadership and capability, the impact of weak logistics, but those discussions have been increasingly cast aside as the scale of operations continued to escalate.
A third phase was identified with the opening of the ‘annhilation bombardments’ forcing the Ukrainian Army to fight multiple local battles and protect civilians. This also represents a mix of the classical and the modern doctrines. Forces on the ground prod and prod until they meet concerted resistance. This forces the opponent to commit more reserves into the battle. The logic of attrition kicks-in as reserves melt, leaving overwhelming superiority in places designated for offensive operations. The attrition, however, is also being directed at Ukrainian cities and civilians. This was point when Putin declared all disregard for war crimes and indirectly announced his plans to destroy the Ukraine.
The fourth phase has seen the gradual rolling of offensive activity across the entire horseshoe front, all prodding for weaknesses. This has been most visible in the south Ukraine. The modern Russian Way of War was then unleashed, with the wholesale flattening of villages, towns and the cities. The ‘annhilation bombardment’ has included massive displays of multiple launch weapons, self-propelled howitzers and towed artillery firing from long distances at pre-planned grid-reference. This is the inverse application of classical Russian warfare gradually being orchestrated into a crescendo of war with mechanised genocide.
The fifth phase is the deliberate confusion in regards to humanitarian efforts. Corridors for refugees perpetually coming under fire, while increasing devastation has pushed refugee numbers towards 10 million and rising. This conforms to Putin’s terror - driving refugees toward the west to spread fear and trepidation.
Long term, Putin’s War is building towards multiple offensives, with an approximate start date of 22 June 2022. A logical assumption since he plays to history. In my opinion there will be 2/3 offensives – (1) Kyiv/Belarus area, (2) from the east pushing towards the Dniepr River, and (3) from the south towards Uman. If they reach Uman, Russia will dominate the central Ukrainian landmass.