Did Russia’s General Staff Miss Warnings of a Hard Campaign in Ukraine?

Conspiracy of silence: Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with his Security Council. Image: kremlin.ru / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

The existence of warnings from former high-ranking military officers prior to the invasion draws into question the idea that Russian generals had not considered the prospect of the operation turning difficult.

Myth has always played a role in the development of war narratives, stemming from confusion and chaos on the battlefield, the sparsity of reliable sources and – in many cases – deliberate efforts to mislead. The risk of confusing myth with actual analysis of events as war unfolds motivates historians and military analysts to be cautious and meticulous in their approach to sifting the claims and counterclaims generated by competing war narratives. In Russia’s war against Ukraine ordered by President Vladimir Putin on 24 February 2022, an imperceptible myth has developed surrounding the political-military underestimation of the level of resistance to the invasion by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, appearing in various forms in an effort to ‘explain’ the poor performance of the Russian military.

This is predicated upon the assertion that in the pre-war operational planning by Russia’s General Staff, an assumption was made or forced upon them that the war would result in rapid victory: Russian soldiers would be welcomed with flowers, bread and salt. In short, the war would be easy and relatively brief. While this has gained traction and credibility in many quarters, it is a bold assertion to say that Russia’s General Staff was unaware or simply missed the possibility that the campaign in Ukraine might prove to be long and hard. Did the General Staff ignore or miss pre-war warnings that the conflict would be far from easy? Does any evidence exist to the contrary?

Assessing such questions is made problematic by the official Russian General Staff silence on anything detailed pertaining to the war in Ukraine. However, in the pre-war phase, evidence of warnings directed at those in such positions emerged within the Russian military media. On 3 February, an article appeared questioning the whole idea of an easy victory: Prognozy krovozhadnykh politologov (Predictions of bloodthirsty political scientists). Its author, Colonel (Retd) Mikhail Khodarenok, the military correspondent with Gazeta.ru, provided considerable credibility to its argument. Khodarenok graduated from the Minsk Higher Engineering Anti-Aircraft School in 1976 and the Military Command Academy of Air Defense in 1986, before holding various postings in Soviet air defence. In the 1990s he was an officer in the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff, and he graduated from the General Staff Academy in 1998. Since his retirement from service, Khodarenok has written extensively as a defence journalist. His article warning of the risks of the coming war in Ukraine was published in the particularly reputable Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye (Independent Military Review) – which is widely read by senior General Staff officers – rather than Khodarenok’s more usual platform on Gazeta.ru.

Putin’s flawed decision-making likely resulted not only from badly crafted intelligence, but also from his largely successful previous experience of using military force

Khodarenok’s article slammed ‘enthusiastic hawks and hasty cuckoos’ for claiming that war in Ukraine could be an easy rollover victory, similar to the successful seizure of Crimea in 2014. The author noted that commentaries in the Russian media had contended a rapid victory would be secured, since no one in Ukraine would defend the regime. Khodarenok dismissed this: ‘To assert that no one in Ukraine will defend the regime signifies practically a complete lack of knowledge about the military-political situation and moods of the broad masses in the neighbouring state. And the degree of hatred (which, as is well-known, is the most effective fuel for armed conflict) in the neighbouring republic toward Moscow is plainly underestimated’. He also noted how Moscow had quietly set aside its Novorossiya project in 2014 after it encountered widespread opposition among the local Ukrainian population.

Khodarenok subsequently turned to the predictions of a knock-out blow against Ukraine based on the massive use of airpower and artillery strikes. He questioned the assumption that combat operations in Ukraine would be conducted in conditions of air superiority, noting that the enemy lacked airpower in Afghanistan (1979–89) and in operations in Chechnya (1994–96, 1999–2009), whereas Ukraine possessed an air force and air defences. Khodarenok also warned of ‘massive assistance’ from the collective West in the event of war, accompanied by ‘the most varied types of arms and military equipment and large-volume supplies of all kinds of materiel,’ even adding ‘that some reincarnated lend-lease in the form and likeness of the Second World War from the US and countries of the North Atlantic alliance will begin. Even the flow of volunteers from the West, of which there could be very many, cannot be excluded’. Moreover, the author noted that the brevity of the conflict forecast by ‘hawks’ and ‘cuckoos’ was highly unlikely: ‘Armed struggle in large Ukrainian cities is generally poorly suited to forecasting. It is commonly known that a big city is the best battlefield for the weak and less well-equipped side of an armed conflict’.

Khodarenok’s warnings were by no means isolated. On 6 February, Colonel-General (Retd) Leonid Ivashov, Professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations and former head of the Main Directorate for International Military Cooperation of the Russian defence ministry, addressed the All-Russian Officers' Assembly. Ivashov was candidly outspoken against the coming war: ‘Attempts to “love” the Russian Federation and its leadership through an ultimatum and threats of force are senseless and extremely dangerous’, he warned. He said the use of force against Ukraine would ‘call into question the existence of Russia itself as a state’, ‘forever make Russians and Ukrainians mortal enemies’, and result in ‘heavy losses on both sides’ with likely ‘heavy sanctions’ and Russia becoming ‘a pariah of the world community’.

Any suggestion that the General Staff had not considered the potential risks of embarking upon a large-scale war against Ukraine is not supported by the existence of warnings from senior military officers prior to the invasion

These comments reflected Ivashov’s open letter addressed to Putin on 28 January, published on the organisation’s website on 31 January. In this letter, Ivashov predicted that ‘there will be thousands (tens of thousands) of dead young, healthy guys on one side and on the other, which will certainly affect the future demographic situation in our dying countries’. Warning against the war, he appealed to the leadership to reverse such intentions: ‘The president, the government and the ministry of defence cannot fail to understand such consequences’, he observed. Ivashov called on Russia’s political leadership to abandon plans to attack Ukraine, arguing that such a conflict could imperil the Russian state and possibly risk war with NATO.

Yet, this failure to understand such foreseeable consequences lies in Putin’s miscalculation of the risks involved and the parameters required for adequate operational design. Putin’s flawed decision-making likely resulted not only from badly crafted intelligence – especially from the FSB – but also from his largely successful previous experience of using military force. This predisposed him to underestimate the military of a country lacking – in his view – legitimate statehood or nationhood, and was further compounded by his failure to recognise that the war in Ukraine would be fought on a scale way beyond his experience – or that of his senior generals. Moreover, Putin’s belief in his own political adroitness may have conditioned his formulation of a war cast merely as a ‘special operation’. Credible warnings of the likely difficulties of the ensuing conflict were thus brushed aside, with the result that the Commander-in-Chief sent to war a military that was hobbled in its early days by numerous operational blunders. Accustomed to using military power with the precision of a scalpel, Putin conceived of a war in Ukraine as employing a sledgehammer, only with a light touch.

While there is little doubt that Russia’s political-military leadership committed the fundamental misjudgment of underestimating the enemy, any suggestion that the General Staff had not considered the potential risks of embarking upon a large-scale war against Ukraine is not supported by the existence of the warnings from Khodarenok and Ivashov. While neither were in any sense insiders involved in the decision-making and operational planning, such warnings were most likely known to the General Staff. The reasons for the ensuing debacle in the execution of Russian war planning – especially in the opening weeks of the war – are most likely multidimensional rather than monocausal. The near-catastrophic underestimation of the enemy did not depend upon a lack of knowledge or data; if the difficult and long campaign in Ukraine could be accurately foreseen by such outsiders as Khodarenok and Ivashov, it must surely have been considered at classified level internally by the General Staff among the wide-ranging permutations of its operational planning. In any case, in the context of the ongoing ‘special military operation’ and the draconian laws inhibiting open discussion in the public domain concerning pertinent operational details, Russian sources will remain decidedly quiet on such issues, allowing plenty of scope for speculation and war myths to take root.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Roger N McDermott

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