Dr. Dave Johnson’s warning on brute force in Ukraine: “This is What the Russians Do”
Today’s guest post is by Dr. David E. Johnson, a retired Army colonel and a principal researcher at the RAND corporation. After reading his essay I am coming around to idea that the President’s $33 billion request for aid to the Ukraine may just be a down payment on what could be a costly, savage war of attrition in the months (years?) to come. I fear the suffering of the Ukrainian people is far from over.
Why? Dr. Johnson gives us his candid – and grim – perspective of the conflict. He warns that the popular Western view of Russian military shortcomings may be mistaken, and that the Russian army remains very dangerous. After failing to take Kiev and other cities, he believes they are now executing what he calls plan B. He explains:
“Plan B is to revert to what the Russians have always done when faced with a resolute adversary. They turn to fires delivered by cannons, rockets, missiles, and bombs.”
“The Russian Army has, in my view, been correctly described as an artillery army with tanks. They adhere to the maxim that artillery conquers and infantry occupies. My sense is that the Russians also understand their own Army better than we do and use it in a way that compensates for the deficiencies noted by western observers.”
“In short, the Russians rely on firepower.”
So what should we now expect? He tells us “[t]his is now a war of attrition, to which the traditional Russian approach of persistent brute force is highly suited.” Consequently, Dr. Johnson says:
“Unfortunately, I deeply fear that Russian reliance on brute force and the indiscriminate use of fire power will only get worse in Eastern Ukraine as the war continues.”
“Ukraine’s patrons have to understand these realities to understand what support the Ukrainians will require to enable them to persist in what is shaping up to be a grinding war of attrition.”
Dr. Johnson’s essay is a very sobering one. It’s also a timely reminder of the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu’s admonition: “There is no greater danger than underestimating your opponent.” I, and perhaps others, had been buoyed by Ukrainian success against Russian forces to the point of thinking that perhaps the conflict would be over sooner rather than later.
I still cling to that hope, but I now believe we must face the reality of the likelihood of a conflict that is long and bitter. My sense is that Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy understands this, and that is what fuels his relentless calls for heavy weapons, and more of them.
Still, we have to prepare ourselves for terrible scenes ahead. As Dave says:
It has been over 70 years since World War II and the West has forgotten what a high-intensity, large-scale war involves. The Russians have not. In wars for survival—as Putin is framing the war in Ukraine—there are few niceties, what we now view as humanitarian constraints.”
Dave’s essay adheres to the practice of the best analysts: he is telling us what we need to hear versus what we want to hear. You owe it to yourself to read Dave’s full essay.
This is What the Russians Do
David E. Johnson
The Russians are on their heels in the Ukraine war. The Ukrainian wolf, enabled by western intelligence and state-of-the-art weapons, e.g., Javelins, Switchblades, and Phoenix Ghosts, Gepards, et al., are inflicting enormous losses on the bumbling Russian bear. At least this is the story as it is being portrayed in the majority of the media coverage of the war. While this view may be true to some degree, the reporting is skewed by two critical factors.
Why We Believe the Russians Are Losing
First, the Ukrainians control the narrative about the war; reporters largely see what that are shown by their escorts inside Ukrainian territory. Furthermore, the Ukrainians have been exercising incredible operational security. One learns little from reporting about the actual state of the Ukrainian military.
What are the Ukrainian losses? What is the combat effectiveness of their forces? How long can they persist in a war of attrition in which they are vastly outnumbered? These, and a myriad of other questions remain largely obscured, while the flow from Ukrainian and other sources about Russian casualties, equipment losses, and setbacks is continuous.
Second, much of the evaluation by western analysts and pundits who are looked to for explanations of the military aspects of the war are seeing the conflict through western eyes. The military analysts, in particular, see the Russians as inept and unable to operate effectively—not like their own militaries.
These military experts attribute Russian failures to an inability to execute the complexities of combined arms operations and a forced reliance on non-precision weapons. Thus, the Russians are all about brute force, because they are incapable of executing the sophisticated western concepts that substitute precision for mass.
Thus, Russian failings in this regard are not because of their materiel. The Russians have sophisticated weapons and other capabilities. Analysts, almost self-congratulatory in many cases, point to the root cause of Russian difficulties in the Ukraine: despite their high technology kit, they are stymied, because these weapons are in the hands of poorly-trained, unmotivated conscript forces.
Furthermore, this flaw is made fatal by the absence of a competent western-like non-commissioned officer corps and corrupt, risk averse officers who are afraid to exercise initiative.
In essence, the Russian army that is bogged down in Ukraine is a repeat of the Soviet Army that was proven to not be ten-feet tall during their 1980s fiasco in Afghanistan. Here, again, western precision weapons—Stinger man-portable air defense systems, antitank weapons, and a constant flow of munitions—in the hands of U.S. trained and highly motivated Mujahedeen warriors—soundly defeated the Red Army.
Nevertheless, one should recall that the Soviets left Afghanistan in good order, driving home through the Salang Tunnel in 1989 with flags flying. Mohammed Najibullah’s puppet Afghan government in Kabul remained in power until 1992—until the Russians quit providing aid after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
This is the endgame that is not paid much attention to by U.S. observers, whose understanding of the Soviet involvement appears to derive largely from the movie Charlie Wilson’s War. On the other hand, the Afghan government the United States supported for some twenty years vanished within hours of the hasty U.S. departure from Kabul in August 2021.
Are the pundits missing something? What if something else is actually happening in Ukraine that we cannot see because of our narrow view of the war? How do we view the war through Russian eyes?
Persistence and Brute Force —A Lesson from the Highlands of Scotland
As I searched for a relevant visual and accessible metaphor to help us understand what might be going on in Ukraine, the movie Rob Roy eventually came to mind. The final fight scene in that film is a window into how western military concepts can interact with Russian brute force tactics. In that fight the foppish, but deadly, nobleman, Archibald Cunningham, is in a duel to the death with Robert “Rob” Roy MacGregor.
The supremely confident Cunningham, clearly a well-trained duelist, circles MacGregor, picking his moments to cut him with rapid, well-placed slashes with his rapier. MacGregor, clearly not trained to the level of Cunningham, is wounded multiple times. He is also clearly exhausted from fending off Cunningham’s nimble attacks with his unwieldy and heavy Scottish claymore. The claymore is clearly not a dueling weapon, more broadsword cleaver than rapier.
Cunningham finally closes in to deal one final fatal thrust. Although bloodied and near exhaustion, MacGregor grabs Cunningham’s blade, immobilizing the rapier. He then summons his remaining strength and cleaves the disbelieving Cunningham nearly in half with a single stroke of his claymore.
Russia is not a hero like the Rob Roy MacGregor portrayed in the movie, but their tactics are similar. Absent the sophistication that can be only practiced by trained, competent, and well-led forces they cannot be a Cunningham. Instead, the Russians are doggedly persistent and capable of wielding deadly brute force. They are not precise, but they are lethal.
Fire Instead of Finesse
My sense is that the Russians are fully aware of their tactical shortfalls. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry Callahan, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Furthermore, rather than a crushing defeat, the Russian’s failure to take Kyiv and decision to change course may not be what it seems. It is certainly not unprecedented. Perhaps the Russians attempted, as they did in Czechoslovakia (1968), Afghanistan (1979), Chechnya (1996,) and Crimea (2014) to execute a rapid coup de main operation with the expectation that the sudden appearance of the Red Army would cause resistance to collapse.
This is what happened in Czechoslovakia, the initial conquest of Afghanistan, and Crimea; it did not work out that way in Chechnya or Ukraine this go. In this current war, as in its past conflicts, Plan B is to revert to what the Russians have always done when faced with a resolute adversary. They turn to fires delivered by cannons, rockets, missiles, and bombs.
The Russian Army has, in my view, been correctly described as an artillery army with tanks. They adhere to the maxim that artillery conquers and infantry occupies. My sense is that the Russians also understand their own Army better than we do and use it in a way that compensates for the deficiencies noted by western observers.
In short, the Russians rely on firepower.
What We Should Expect From the Plodding Bear
If I am correct, then we should expect things to get only worse in Eastern Ukraine as the war continues. This is now a war of attrition, to which the traditional Russian approach of persistent brute force is highly suited.
It is also useful to remember that the Russian army has always been conscript-based without a strong NCO corps (as is, by the way, the highly respected Israeli army). Again, in the eyes of western observers, this why the Russians are incompetent and will lose. Somehow, however, the Russian army has always muddled through against almost all comers. It is not pretty to watch, but they persist and generally prevail in what they set out to do. If he were still alive, it would be interesting to ask Generalfeldmarschall Friedrich Paulus, the commander of the defeated German forces in Stalingrad (and the first field marshal in German history to surrender), his views about the inept Red Army.
An artillery projectile does not need anything but an elevation and a deflection to go where you want it to go. It does not care that it is not a precision munition or that it was fired by a conscript directed by inept sergeants and corrupt officers who do not exercise initiative. Nor does it care about the nature of the target. It just goes where sent and does its high explosive damage.
What Is Legal and What is Not
I am continually surprised during press engagements I have had over the past weeks (CBS, CSPAN, PBS, BBC, others) when journalists are shocked at the Russian employment of illegal weapons—thermobarics, cluster munitions, white phosphorous, mines, et al.
I first remind the reporters these weapons are legal, in the U.S. arsenal, and that we use them: Against military targets.
I also note that the fascination with special weapons is surprising to me, given that they are a minor instruments compared to the other weapons available to Putin in his symphony of horrors. Putin’s, percussion section, to extend the metaphor, is old fashioned, high explosive; precision in many cases is, “did you hit Mariupol?”
What is illegal is the indiscriminate use of any weapon against civilians. This, unfortunately, is something the Russians have historically and routinely practiced. The United States and its Allies did similar things during World War II with area bombing, aerial “interdiction” of anything that moved, and a practice during that war described to me by my father. He was a young paratrooper and told me that in the later months of the war in Germany, if a town was approached and your unit received fire, you backed off and visited hell on it with air and artillery. Then, the citizens generally surrendered, on occasion after “disabling” the fanatics trying to keep them fighting to the end.
It has been over 70 years since World War II and the West has forgotten what a high-intensity, large-scale war involves. The Russians have not. In wars for survival—as Putin is framing the war in Ukraine—there are few niceties, what we now view as humanitarian constraints.
We would be well served to recall the words of Union General William T. Sherman reflecting on the U.S. Civil War: “War is cruelty, and you cannot refine it.”
The Russian Way Is Not Our Way
This is what the Russians do and we should expect this from them in Ukraine. They have demonstrated how they operate historically, at least since the scorched earth policies depicted by Tolstoy in his novel Hadji Murat, set during the irregular warfare in Chechnya and the Caucasus in the 1850s.
Furthermore, the Russian practice of relying on indiscriminate firepower has continued in our times in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, the initial invasion of Eastern Ukraine, and now. We should not be surprised and, more importantly, if we ever face them in combat, we should be prepared for how they operate.
Do Not Trust the Russians
As an aside, the lack of trust by the Ukrainians about Russian promises to provide humanitarian corridors is likely due to them knowing what that meant in Chechnya. In the waning days of the battle for Grozny, rebel leaders were desperate to escape slaughter by the Russians.
A corrupt Russian intelligence appeared, for a price, to offer a safe way out. True or not, the Russians later explained that “Operation Wolf Hunt” was a carefully orchestrated plan to trick the Chechens into a deadly ambush. Olga Oliker describes the Russian account in Russia’s Chechen Wars:
An FSB [Federal Security Agency] agent, it appeared, had offered the beleaguered rebels a way out of Grozny in exchange for $100,000. Radio transmissions then convinced the guerrillas that Russian forces were moving from the west to the south, and a small group of rebels was allowed to successfully leave the city by the designated path. when the bulk of the rebel force prepared to follow, they found that the road was mined, that Russian soldiers were everywhere, and that dozens of helicopters were shooting at them from the sky. The Russians claimed that the rebels lost up to 1,700 personnel.
Similarly, one might also ask the surviving citizens of Aleppo about the definition the Russians and their Syrian partners have for precision and protecting civilians. Russian intervention and aid is what kept Assad in power while the West declared “redlines” and called for “no-fly zones.” All this while largely not understanding what enforcing these measures actually entail—direct combat against Russian and Syrian forces.
Once the stakes became apparent, the West backed off and the killing continued; and the West has been taken less seriously ever since. So much for the Responsibility to Protect doctrine proffered by Anne Marie Slaughter and others.
The Russians are ruthless in their pursuit of their objectives and we should expect that from them. Scolding them about “alleged” war crimes and threatening them with post-war legal jeopardy is pointless. I imagine Putin cannot help but be amused at this naiveté.
Russian armies have always operated this way, but somehow they managed to win ugly against almost all comers. It is not pretty to watch, but they generally prevail in what they set out to do.
Unfortunately, I deeply fear that Russian reliance on brute force and the indiscriminate use of fire power will only get worse in Eastern Ukraine as the war continues.
Ukraine’s patrons have to understand these realities to understand what support the Ukrainians will require to enable them to persist in what is shaping up to be a grinding war of attrition.
Victory is What Putin Says It Is
The real question in this war is what do the Russians want to accomplish? They have already gained much. Might the goal all along have been expanding and solidifying their control of the east and south, while weakening Ukraine? Taking Kyiv seemed a plumb ripe to be picked, until it proved not so. Then they moved on.
Finally, all the hand-wringing about what the Russians will try to accomplish to have a great victory for the May celebration misses the central point. Wherever the Russians are on that day, Putin will declare that moment a great victory. He controls the message and a great victory is whatever he says it is.
This, again, is what the Russians have always done and we should it expect it from them now.
 Diego Cordovez and Selig S. Harrison, Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal, New York:
Oxford University Press, 1995.
 William T. Sherman, The Memoirs of W.T. Sherman: All Volumes, Oxford: Acheron Press, 2012, p. 464.
 Olga Oliker, Russia’s Chechen Wars 1994-2000: Lessons from Urban Combat, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 2001, pp. 73-73.
About the author
David E. Johnson, Ph.D., is a retired Army colonel. He is a principal researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. From 2012-2014 he founded and directed the Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group for General Raymond T. Odierno.
The views expressed by guest authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of myself, the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University (see also here).
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