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Is Putin Stuck in the Past with Military Strategy?

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tags: military history, Russia, Ukraine



Antony Beevor is the author of Stalingrad and other books on military history.

Otto von Bismarck once said that only a fool learns from his own mistakes. “I learn from other people’s,” the 19th-century German chancellor said. Astonishingly, the Russian army is repeating the past mistakes of its Soviet predecessor. In April 1945, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, under intense pressure from Stalin, sent his tank armies into Berlin without infantry support. Vladimir Putin’s forces not only made the same error; they even copied the way their forebears had attached odd bits of iron—including bed frames—to their tanks’ turrets in the hopes that the added metal would detonate anti-tank weapons prematurely. This did not save the Russian tanks. It simply increased their profile and attracted Ukrainian tank-hunting parties, just as the Soviet tanks in Berlin had drawn groups of Hitler Youth and SS, who attacked them with Panzerfausts.

The Russian president’s distorted obsession with history, especially with the “Great Patriotic War” against Germany, has skewed his political rhetoric with bizarre self-contradictions. It has clearly affected his military approach. Tanks were a great symbol of strength during the Second World War. That Putin can still see them that way defies belief. The vehicles have proved to be profoundly vulnerable to drones and anti-tank weapons in recent conflicts in Libya and elsewhere; Azerbaijan’s ability to destroy Armenian tanks easily was essential to its 2020 victory in the Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Yet Putin seems to have learned as little as he has forgotten. In August 1968, the Warsaw Pact forces entering Czechoslovakia were told by their political officers that they would be welcomed as liberators. They found themselves cursed, out of fuel, and hungry. Morale was shattered. Putin’s control of domestic media can hide the truth from most of the Russian population, but his conscripts, forced now to sign new contracts to turn them into volunteers, are all too aware of the reality.

His treatment of his own people is as pitiless as his treatment of his enemies. The army even brought a mobile crematorium to Ukraine to dispose of Russian casualties in order to reduce the body-bag count going home. Putin’s Soviet predecessors had a similar disregard for their troops’ feelings. In 1945, the Red Army faced a number of mutinies. Frequently treated with contempt by officers and political departments, soldiers were ordered out at night into no-man’s-land not to retrieve the bodies of fallen comrades, but to strip them of their uniforms for reuse by replacement troops.

Another old pattern repeating itself in Ukraine is the Russian army’s reliance on heavy guns. In World War II, the Red Army bragged about the power of its artillery, which it called “the god of war.” In the Berlin operation, Zhukov’s artillery fired more than 3 million shells, destroying more of the city than the Allies’ strategic air offensive had. The Soviets used Katyusha rocket launchers, which German troops nicknamed “Stalin’s organ” for their howling sound, to kill any remaining defenders. While Putin’s conventional artillery smashes Ukrainian buildings open in the same old way to eliminate potential sniper positions, thermobaric ordnance—the devastating “vacuum bombs” that create a fireball that sucks the oxygen away from their targets—takes the place of the old Katyushas.

The Russians’ destruction of Grozny and Aleppo had already revealed how little their urban-conflict doctrine, unlike that of Western armed forces, has evolved since World War II. The international coalition that reclaimed the cities of Raqqa and Mosul from the Islamic State demonstrated a far more targeted approach, sealing off each city and then clearing it sector by sector.

Read entire article at The Atlantic

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