This story had me scratching my head and picking through memories of history books I read years ago.
Concern is mounting over the movements of a huge column of Russian military vehicles outside Kyiv, amid a lack of fresh information about its position and the threat it poses.
While a US defence official suggested it appeared to have “stalled”, there was also speculation that an estimated 15,000 troops attached to it may be regrouping, and potentially waiting for logistical supplies before an assault on Kyiv.
The column is clearly identifiable and locatable on commercial satellite systems. In principle, that means that any modern artillery within about 20 miles of the column could obliterate it and a significant number of the troops that comprise it.
When I read Cavalie Mercer’s accounts of the Waterloo campaign, and Marbot’s memoirs, one of the things that really jumped out at me is the sheer amount of space that a significant military force requires for its maneuvers. Two interesting things have happened: armies keep getting bigger, which means that it takes more road space for them to move through, but it also takes longer. Dan Carlin gives a mind-blowing account of the German troops moving through Belgium in WWI: a small town experienced an unending, uninterrupted, river of German troops moving at high speed through the town for 3 days. Imagine the Russian column above, 40km long, and how long it’d take just to get it moving. Each row of vehicles has to be fired up and ready, watching the vehicles in front of them, and waiting for them to pull away – then, they start rolling and the vehicles behind them put it in gear, and the next and the next. Carlin points out that logistics and road usage were art forms that the German army had developed to a high degree; everyone else was still stuck in the Napoleonic mode, in which everyone marched toward their destination and re-deployed when (or if) they got there. In the Napoleonic mode (or the US Civil War mode, if you prefer) units maneuvered as wads of people moving toward a destination, masked from direct contact with enemy forces by clouds of light cavalry outriders that served as both concealment and as a sensor-web looking for the enemy.
You’ve probably already figured this out, but there were two great changes to warfare after WWI: radio and aviation. The old model of light cavalry screens no longer applies – an airplane (or a satellite) can find an enemy maneuver element in realtime. And, of course, a radio can quickly communicate contact size, orientation, and direction – surprise is still possible, but it’s harder. Surprise is a strategic issue more than a tactical one; at the tactical scale maneuver elements ought not experience surprise unless their reconnaissance webs have been disrupted, in which case they’re not really a maneuver element anymore; they’re blind lunch-meat waiting for someone to put them on bread and add mayonnaise, i.e.: artillery or air strikes.
There’s another form of nightmare that a column can experience: the classic ambush. We don’t know who invented it but it goes back to Roman times at least. You’ve got a large serpent of men, cursing and sweating and marching along some trail, and suddenly they are attacked at the head of the column, and the rear. The object is not really (at this point) to “win” a battle – it’s to stop the column from maneuvering as such, and encourage the body of the column to, well, there’s really nothing very good to do. The column can’t disintegrate and people start moving in all directions, because they’re almost certainly going to walk into secondary ambushes set up along the sides and length of the column; then, there’s real trouble. The column can’t exactly keep going, either, and there’s a natural human tendency to go to ground and fight back. I talked about this with my Vietnam-era friend, Sazz, and he said that small bodies of troops knew that if they got hit at the front and read simultaneously, they had a matter of a few minutes to punch out of the entire situation as fast as they could, so they could re-assemble on new chosen ground. Also, if your patrol came under fire you could be fairly sure that jumping into the safety of the ditch on either side of the road (admittedly an attractive option) meant that you were almost certainly jumping into a ditch laced with landmines, or covered with a machine-gun positioned so that it could walk up the line of the ditch. He lived through an ambush like that, and felt he got off lightly, with only an AK round in the neck.
This is all sort of “academic military theory” it’s such a well-known topic. And, there are two incidents that are generally cited as absolutely awful examples of what can happen to troops in a column, that are dropped to reduced speed by attacks at the head and tail. One is the “Highway of Death” in Kuwait (1st Gulf War) in which US artillery and A-10 strike/support planes strafed and shelled an Iraqi force to pieces as it tried, moving slower and slower, to get back to Iraq. The Iraqis quickly learned that the force composition against them was nothing they’d ever be able to see or talk to, so there was nobody to surrender to, thus they didn’t even have the vague hope that someone on the other side would respect the laws of ‘civilized warfare’ and accept their surrender. The other example is one in which nobody involved had any intention of doing anything remotely like ‘civilized’ so it didn’t matter: it was fight or die and since there was nobody to fight, die was the only option: the Battle of Raate Road. During the Winter War, in which Russia attacked Finland (1939) the Finns found the Russians strung out in a long column on a road that woods, ravines, and deep snow on both sides. In strategic terms, it may as well have been a tunnel. The Finns were outnumbered but it didn’t matter, because they didn’t have to engage with the entire Russian column – they could just grind the head and the tail to a halt and, then what?
Then, the Finns – who were capable of moving cross-country in the snow – cut the Russian column in the middle, and set up ambushes at the middle, and mined the road. The Russians weren’t stupid, and did the best they could to regain initiative but really the battle had been lost the moment before it started. On the other hand, the Finns had lost before the war started – Russia VS Finland is one of those “Bambi VS Godzilla” scenarios no matter how plucky the Finns were.
I’m not sure how much of a point I have, here, it’s just a bunch of thoughts that I have been having. They’re not particularly organized (maybe you can’t tell, but I often spend months thinking over the stuff I post, and I’m not usually trying to write about cutting edge news because I don’t think it gives enough time to really think about it) – anyhow, did the Russians manage to not learn anything from the Winter War, or Afghanistan? It seems to me that the “great big column of light armored vehicles with minimal air cover and no apparent anti-aircraft capability” is straight out of the waning days of WWII. It certainly does not reflect what we’ve learned about modern battlefields.
I sincerely hope that NATO (or anyone else, except the Ukrainians) does not send in a screaming wave of artillery and aircraft, and cost the Russians a major military disaster. Because that could trigger WWWIII, for real. If Putin’s forces were to suffer a horrific defeat due to command incompetence, that could actually end his career, and he strikes me as the kind of person who’d rather see the world burn than have to suck it up and admit he failed. There’s another aspect to all of that, which I have teased repeatedly, which is that I think Putin knows that the US has been preparing for a 1st strike knockout nuclear war. I don’t think that there’s a secret cabal in Washington, rubbing their hands together and cackling (except John Bolton, hopefully in a padded room somewhere) but I don’t think US nuclear strategy has changed fundamentally from when Curtis LeMay said glibly that he never planned to stand a Soviet strike and always assumed that he’d pre-empt any attack that looked like it was about to happen. I wonder if, right now, US submarines are moving to within cruise missile range, instead of intercontinental ballistic missile range. Our lords and masters, over here, are the same kind of nasty pieces of shit who unnecessarily nuked two Japanese cities (to show the Soviets what’s what) and I’m not confident that they wouldn’t summon up a great deal of deep regret and wipe Russia off the map, if Russia looks like it’s actually getting ready to do anything more than bluster.
A world after a nuclear war will be a terrible place. The science behind nuclear winter, crop failure, and fallout is incontrovertible. But what if the gamesmen at RAND corporation have quietly concluded that the new, more precise variable-yield warheads can be delivered accurately enough to ‘decapitate’ Russia? They’d argue that mutual assured destruction (MAD) may not apply, and unilateral destruction of a massive number of people is, well, the lesser of two evils. After Waterloo, Wellington supposedly observed that the only thing worse than a battle won was a battle lost. Personally, I don’t believe that a military aristocrat like Wellington actually felt that sort of remorse – he could not have been as effective a battlefield commander as he was unless he was able to detach himself from feeling much about what his troops were experiencing. He was, I am saying, a cold-blooded bastard – and we’ve still got a few of those skulking around, today. I’d actually almost support the US raising the banner of global hegemon, if I thought that the US would actually try to run the world peacefully, democratically, and honorably; maybe do a little bit about climate change and cut back the nuclear arsenal – that kind of thing. It could be that a last horrific spasm of warfare could move humankind past this stage in our development, and on to the next. But I simply cannot be optimistic about that, at all. After all, the US’ moves to contain Russia (which are one of the many causes of the current war in Ukraine) and China, are not being made in the interest of humanity as a whole. To be blunt: it looks like it’s just dick-waving.
I’ve been remarkably unimpressed with the US foreign policy establishment. After all, you have to be pretty incompetent – insanely incompetent – to let John Bolton and David Frum (let alone Shaun Hannity!) anywhere near the levers of power. It’s been weird to watch the media try to claim that Putin’s a genius, or Obama’s a genius, or whatever, when it’s impossible to see the situation as anything other than remarkable incompetence and inability to learn from mistakes in the recent past. I know we’re all supposed to be very impressed with the plucky Ukrainians, but they don’t seem to me to be doing such a great job defending themselves. Apparently they still have some air assets and a lot of antitank weapons, but where is the artillery? For that matter, it sounds like they actually had months in which to prepare; it would have been a good idea to have buried some IED traps and distributed military explosives, instead of teaching people how to make pathetic molotov cocktails. Anyone who has studied how Russia goes to war would have expected columns of armor and trucks, air dominance, and huge artillery bombardments. It seems to me that Putin actually was not really trying to start a war so much as that he hoped he could shove Ukraine really hard and they’d fold. Maybe Ukraine expected to get shoved so hard they folded, too.
It’s a great big mess all around; it seems as though nobody’s learned a damn thing from recent history so now we’ve got a lot of high-level anger among the rulers of the world, and none of them have the sense to pour piss out of a boot if the instructions were printed on the bottom. If there’s one thing that gives me optimism, right now, it’s that England and France are not really world powers, anymore, and we don’t have to take seriously the feeble gyrations of Macron and Johnson. The horror.
I still think it’s not likely that this will trigger WWIII, but a lot of people are going to get killed and in the long run the lines on the map won’t move very much and in a few decades things will change again; all the costs paid will be footnotes.