Russian President Vladimir Putin is betting that the war in Ukraine will drag on for years and that Russia can outlast the attention span of the West, says professor Peter Roberts in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Vazha Tavberidze. Roberts is a senior associate fellow at the U.K.-based Royal United Services Institute, a think tank focused on defense and security. The West's preferred way of fighting today – massive overwhelming force meant to achieve a quick victory – is not working in Ukraine, argues Roberts. For Ukraine, much will depend on the country's ability to step up its own military production, with its Western partners playing a role.
A destroyed Russian tank. Image Ukrainian Ministry of Defence.
By Vazha Tavberidze
How much has the Western way of war evolved since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022? What has been learned?
'It's an interesting question. The Western way of war is a concept that many people have held to be fixed, that it was about maneuver, that it was about expeditionary warfare, about high technology, that it was about speed and tempo, air power, precision. And I think that's an idea that held sway through most of the Western powers since probably the 1980s.
But if we look back to 2003, 2004, that was probably the high point and the end of that concept. Thereafter came a series of very difficult engagements for the West, a series of lessons which they could, should have, perhaps some of them did learn, about the idea that maneuver, time, and speed didn't necessarily work that way, particularly with the enduring campaigns they experienced over 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And one thing I think that Ukraine has brought out very strongly is the return to conventional high-end warfare that, in a sense, was largely forgotten after Korea and Vietnam: long, protracted, grizzly fighting.
The idea that it could be fast was a very selective approach from the West that said: Hey, we can make wars happen swiftly, quickly, and with good ends. And Ukraine has prompted many Western allies and their militaries to say: Oh, we need to go back to an industrialized scale of readiness and preparation, of training of manpower, of capabilities. And not to forget some of those conventional arms that many in the West wanted to sacrifice, so that they could invest in cyberspace and all that new technology that was thought to be battle-winning, but really hasn't delivered.'
So, the old saying that the boys will be home by Christmas is now further from the truth than ever?
'It is. And I think there's a real dilemma in Western militaries because they are geared and prepared to fight short, sharp wars, high technology wars. And they're also facing this dilemma that that's not how the enemies are fighting. And I think the fact that the enemy gets a vote has largely been forgotten in Western military mindsets.'
Was it because the odds were so much in the West's favor?
'Absolutely. And although the odds were always in the West's favor, you could see these lessons coming out in Iraq and Afghanistan.
So, this idea that the Western way of war, as they envisaged it for 30 years, could endure and would still succeed was deeply flawed and problematic. And yet very few people accepted that. There were huge amounts of denial, and there still is denial.
For all the announcements after Ukraine that Germany would rearm, that the U.K. would invest more money, you see very few states living up to it. Poland perhaps; Sweden; certainly the Baltic states; but very few of the big [European military] powerhouses – the U.K., France, and Germany – have lived up to the political rhetoric straight after Ukraine.
And I think that therein lies one of the key problems: they can't seem to convince their populations or themselves that they're at a moment where they need to really invest.'
A Ukrainian soldier inspects a downed Russian Shahed drone. Image Telegram.
The combined arms maneuver was widely advocated prior to the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Yet we saw little of this and, in fact, Ukraine's commander in chief of its armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhniy, pointed that out in a recent interview with The Economist and admitted the war is at a stalemate. Why?
'The combined arms maneuver is only a way of fighting, right? It means that instead of fighting as dismounted infantry or just an artillery battle you fight with all the arms together: engineering, artillery, infantry, plus airpower and long-range strike initiatives. The difference is that the West expected to use maneuver far more; to move forces around the battlefield to attack an enemy's will and cohesion to fight. And Ukraine did that on several occasions. The Ukrainian general staff did a brilliant job of attacking Russian command and control. They did an excellent job of severing supply lines and of attacking their deep areas. And that's where we saw success in the counteroffensive late last year.
But – and this is the reality – the problem is that it requires a very good understanding of ones adversary – which Ukraine has – but I'm not sure the rest of the West does. And secondly, the geometry, the geography of a country that allows you to be able to do so. Now, while the battle lines in Ukraine are enormous – you know, hundreds, thousands of kilometers long – the reality is that it is not the type of ground that allows you to use that kind of maneuver warfare to punch through with an armored fist and then to make huge gains.
It's back to the World War I sort of movements going to and fro
The mountains, the rivers, the weather, the farmland, hedgerows, all prevent that kind of maneuver. And then there's the fact that Russia has done a very good job of building defensive arrangements that prevent a breakthrough, which means that you are now fighting for ground as General Zaluzhniy said, 100 yards at a time. It's back to the World War I sort of movements going to and fro.
That's not to say that advances can't be made, that you can't defeat the adversary. It just means that we go back to a timeline the West doesn't like, which is a long, slow, grinding, unpleasant time frame full of death and destruction with bloody battlefields. But it's a really difficult thing conceptually for many Westerners to get their heads round. They want a single punch with an armored fist to break through fences, break out the other side, and then spread out and defeat the Russians. And that's a very traditional Western approach. I just don't see that there is a way to make that happen right now.'
I've seen that described as Hollywood-like warfare. How fair is that in the description?
'Well, Hollywood popularized it, I think there's a romanticized notion that this is what can happen on every battlefield. The reality is it can happen and has happened on battlefields. The Germans used it very well in the blitzkrieg and in the Ardennes Forest (during World War II). And the same way the Americans have used it very successfully in World War II, and indeed going through to 2003. I mean, there's lots of examples where it works, but it depends on having a number of things in place to make it work. And the Ukrainian battlefields don't have the geography that allows that kind of warfare to happen.
So, I think, in a sense, there was an expectation for a Hollywood war: a fast, quick win using this methodology. I just don't think that the context of the war has allowed it to happen for a whole variety of reasons. But the number one reason is geography. The Ukrainian General Staff have been pretty clear about this. They have been under huge pressure, not just from their own politicians and society, which one would expect, but also from the West to make some kind of amazing breakthrough, as if this was suddenly possible.