Putin Doesn’t Realize How Much Warfare Has Changed
The Russian president’s obsession with World War II is hindering his invasion of Ukraine.
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 victoryin 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 crematoriumto 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.
Putin’s army is clearly not the Red Army, just as Putin’s Russia is not the Soviet Union. Institutional corruption across the government has affected everything, even with officers profiting off of the sale of spare parts and ignoring logistic support in favor of prestige projects. While Ukrainian defenders are destroying Cold War–era Russian T-72 tanks like ducks in a row, the Russian priority has been to reserve enough money to pay for the next generation of high-tech Armata tanks. Yet the Armata can still do little more than trundle across Red Square in Victory Day parades every May 9 to impress the crowds and foreign media. On the battlefield, it would suffer exactly the same fate as the T-72s.
Elite units, paratroopers, and Spetsnaz special forces still exist within the Russian military, but they can achieve little on their own in the chaos of bad command and control. The lack of foresight involved in the introduction of the Russian army’s new Era encrypted-communications systemwould have been much harder to believe in the more rigorous Soviet days, when such mistakes were severely punished. Supposedly secure, it relies on 3G towers—which Russia destroyed when it invaded Ukraine. Because the system is simply not working, Russian officers have to communicate in open speech by cellphone, as gleeful Ukrainian volunteers listen in.
The 2008 invasion of Georgia, which dealt a setback to the small former Soviet republic but revealed incompetence and weakness on Russia’s part, led to plans to reequip and reform Putin’s armed forces. Those efforts have manifestly failed. This says a good deal about the lack of idealism, probity, and sense of duty within his regime. How this can change at such a late and crucial stage in the Ukraine invasion is very hard to see.
At Stalingrad in late 1942, the Red Army surprised itself and the world with a sudden turnaround, and there are indications that Putin’s forces are adjusting their tactics and preparing two major strategic envelopments, around Kyiv and in eastern Ukraine. An almost Stalinist determination to right the Russian military—backed by the execution of deserters and failing officers—could well extend the conflict in a bloodbath of relentless, grinding destruction.
Against all prewar expectations, though, a Russian military collapse also looks possible. A complete disintegration of morale could lead to a humiliating withdrawal, a potentially devastating result of Putin’s inability to part with the Soviet past.
This report originally appeared in The Atlantic on March 24, 2022.