When it comes to the 404 War, if you only listen to the American side through the mouthpieces of the Pentaloons and the State Department, you will come away with the distinct impression that the US military does not take the Russian military at all seriously. The argument seems to be that Russia is bogged down in Banderastan, unable to make serious progress, incapable of winning, and running out of everything that matters.
Never mind that every single prediction of Russian failure has, itself, failed to come to pass. The Russians are achieving their goals in a precise, methodical, and fearfully effective manner – all you have to do is look at Russian or Ukrainian Telegram channels to see the butcher’s bill that the Russians have stacked up against the Ukrops.
And it seems that some warfighters, at least, in the US military are paying attention to a military that is plainly far more effective than the Fruit-Salad Brigade are willing to let on.
A Rundown of Recent Events
Let us first remind ourselves briefly of what Russia has accomplished.
Russia now controls over 25% of Ukraine’s former territory. If you think like an American, who sees territory and land gains as the key metric for success in war, then this doesn’t sound very impressive – until you overlay Ukraine’s geographical area on a map of Texas, and you realise that Ukraine is about the size of the Lone Star state. And then you realise that the Russians – note that I use “Russians” to denote regular Russian forces, LDNR militias, Rosgvardiya national guard units, and Wagner PMC, altogether – are fighting continuously along a 1,600Km-long line of contact. (That’s a THOUSAND MILES in those silly Imperial units that Americans still insist on using.)
The Russians have an altogether different unit of measure. They think in terms of how much of the enemy’s equipment they have destroyed, and how many of their men they have killed, and in terms of kill ratios. This is why, whenever Gen. Igor Konashenkov gives his daily updates (in Russian), he lists how much equipment and how many men the Russian forces have eliminated. For the Russians, the destruction of armies, not the capture of cities, is what they care about.
We must always keep in mind that the Russian General Staff are keen students of the Art of War. As I have pointed out before, they know their Clausewitz, and the Russians are waging a methodical, precise, extremely potent form of war that is directly in line with their belief that attrition and annihilation of the enemy are key to success. (I will come back to this, it is assuredly not my original insight.)
The Russians have essentially destroyed the best that the Ukrainians have to throw into battle. Ukraine is becomingly increasingly desperate to plug ever-greater gaps in its defensive lines. Despite all of its braggadocio and bluster, it has NEVER, not ONCE, managed to stage any sort of substantial counteroffensive, and has never posed a significant threat to Russian supply lines since April.
The inescapable fact of this war is that Ukraine isn’t just losing. It has LOST.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine may mark the start of a new cold war, a “long twilight struggle” comparable to the one that ended with the collapse of the Soviet Empire more than three decades ago. If that is the case, then we will face an adversary who, while drawing much value from the Soviet military tradition, has been liberated from both the brutality inherent in the legacy of Lenin and the blinders imposed by Marxism. What would be even worse, we may find ourselves fighting discpiles of John R. Boyd.— “Marinus”
All of this seems to have caught the attention of a chap named “Marinus”, who wrote a genuinely superb piece for the Marine Corps Gazette. As I understand it, this is not an official publication of the Corps itself, but is rather an independent journal which publishes articles written by current and “former” Marines. (Keeping in mind the usual caveat that “there is no such thing as a former Marine”, etc.)
In this piece, titled, “Manoeuvrist Paper No. 22, Part II: The Mental and Moral Realms“, this “Marinus” gentleman analyses the, in truth highly successful, Russian campaign through the lens of manoeuvre warfare theory, as articulated by Col. John Boyd and taught to the Marine Corps in the 1980s under the leadership of Commandant Al Gray and others.
This paper has created quite a stir, because it treats the Russian way of war with deep respect, and shows great appreciation for their style of doing things. Inevitably, quite a lot of the Hoholand Uber Alles crowd got very pissy and demanded it be taken down or deleted or cancelled, somehow, because BADTHINK.
Those who actually bothered to read the paper, though, understood quite well the points that “Marinus” tried to make:
- The Russians have made extremely effective use of armoured raids to bypass Ukrainian strong points and keep their enemies off balance and guessing;
- They have combined raid warfare with attrition warfare to grab and hold territory, not for the sake of land alone, but to shape the battlefield in a way that suits them, maximising their strengths and targeting Ukraine’s weaknesses;
- Unlike the West, the Russians have always regarded artillery as the “God of War’ (that’s literally what they call it – Артиллерия, Бог Войны) and have deployed it to staggering effect in Mariupol’ and other engagements;
- In so doing, the Russians have resolved an apparent paradox between “manoeuvre warfare” and “attrition warfare” that has existed since the earliest days of thought on the subject;
- Russian use of precision-guided munitions (PGMs) and other advanced technologies have allowed them to bridge the apparent gap between these two modes of operations, and show that they truly understand war at a level that the West does not;
The article concludes with the, highly prophetic, statement noted above. It is superb and I recommend it to anyone interested in such things.
Who is Marinus?
There has been intense speculation as to the precise identity of “Marinus”. I have seen several arguments that he is none other than LtGen. Paul K. Van Riper. I stress that this is SPECULATIVE – nobody knows who he really is. But, if it IS LtGen Van Riper, then it’s worth keeping in mind who that guy is, so that you can put the article written above in proper context.
And who exactly is this man? He’s the guy who spanked the US Navy’s “Blue Force” in the Millennium Challenge 2002 so hard that, had it been a real war, the US would have lost 20,000 casualties in about ten minutes, plus a Nimitz-class supercarrier and 18 other support ships:
In 2002, the U.S. military tapped Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper to lead the red opposing forces of the most expensive, expansive military exercise in history. He was put in command of an inferior Middle Eastern-inspired military force. His mission was to go against the full might of the American armed forces. In the first two days, he sank an entire carrier battle group.
The exercise was called Millennium Challenge 2002. It was designed by the Joint Forces Command over the course of two years. It had 13,500 participants, numerous live and simulated training sites, and was supposed to pit an Iran-like Middle Eastern country against the U.S. military, which would be fielding advanced technology it didn’t plan to implement until five years later.
The war game would begin with a forced-entry exercise that included the 82nd Airborne and the 1st Marine Division.
When the Blue Forces issued a surrender ultimatum, Van Riper, commanding the Red Forces, turned them down. Since the Bush Doctrine of the period included preemptive strikes against perceived enemies, Van Riper knew the Blue Forces would be cominfor [sic] him. And they did.
But the three-star general didn’t spend 41 years in the Marine Corps by being timid. As soon as the Navy was beyond the point of no return, he hit them and hit them hard. Missiles from land-based units, civilian boats, and low-flying planes tore through the fleet as explosive-ladened [sic] speedboats decimated the Navy using suicide tactics. His code to initiate the attack was a coded message sent from the minarets of mosques at the call to prayer.
The butthurt, as you can imagine, was WELL over 9,000. Here’s the guy who pulled off this world-class exercise in ownage and asskickery, pictured with so much fruit-salad on his chest that the floor under him probably had to be reinforced to avoid collapsing from the sheer tonnage of achievements.
What did the exercise organisers do in response? Did they say, “Egad, sir! You have taught us a valuable lesson! We tip our hats to you, sir!” and act like gentlemen?
Oh, my poor dear silly boys… OF COURSE NOT!!!
No, they decided to invalidate the entire thing, because reasons, including something about how “no actual enemy would ever use those kinds of tactics”, or some such nonsense. “Those tactics” involved very unusual uses of both high-tech communications, and adaptive low-tech solutions to enemy targeting of those high-tech comms.
In the end, the Navy “respawned” the entire fleet, like it was some sort of HALO Slayer Deathmatch, and rewrote the entire thing to ensure that Blue Team won and Red Team couldn’t do anything but curse and shake their fists at the sky.
(You can read a somewhat less histrionic account of the exercise here – it’s a good read and worth the time, which essentially comes to the same conclusion, that Van Riper kicked Blue Team’s ass and they got really pissy about it.)
Squaring the Manoeuvre Circle
Put simply, whether it is Van Riper who wrote the article or not, the fact remains that it was written by someone who knows and understands manoeuvre warfare theory in the “old-school” manner that the Marines did, back in the day.
But this begs a few questions.
First, what IS manoeuvre warfare, really?
Second, what are the problems with the theory?
Third, are the Russians actually fighting a manoeuvre-based campaign, given that they are literally shelling the Ukrops to pieces and then sending in, basically, cleanup crews?
The most basic explanation of manoeuvre theory comes down to something like the one explicated by William S. Lind and others in their “generational” approach to warfare. Essentially, it comes down to this:
- 1st Gen War: massed formations of infantry smashing into each other until one side or the other is ground down to non-functionality;
- 2nd Gen War: massed formations of artillery blasting everything to pieces and then sending in the infantry – summarised by the French saying, “the artillery invades, the infantry occupies”;
- 3rd Gen War: rapid manoeuvring around enemy positions, probing attacks and raids to figure out where the enemy is weak, keep him off balance, then find an opening, penetrate deep into his logistical tail and rear operating areas with armour, and then roll him up as his forces begin to panic and collapse and run;
The problem here is that the “manoeuvre approach” is, at first glance, at least, entirely antithetical to the “artillery-based approach”. If you try to fit the Russian approach to the 404 War into a “pure 2GW” or “pure 3GW” box, you run into serious issues. Their way of fighting will not fit into either box.
This brings us to some of the well-known problems with many of the arguments made by Manoeuvre Theorists. Our own LTC Tom Kratman explained some of these shortcomings in a piece written some years ago called “Indirectly Mistaken Decision Cycles“, which I have read and commented upon before.
In that article, in the process of commenting upon the shortcomings of applying the classical manoeuvre warfare paradigm to a series of campaigns that supposedly illustrate the use of such thinking in real live-fire situations, LTC Kratman states the following about the US Army’s own understanding of the conceptual factors that determine victory:
Speaking of attrition— eventually— the US Armed Forces, and most of our allies, recognize nine Principles of War: Mass, Objective, Security, Surprise, Maneuver, Offensive, Unity of Effort (aka Unity of Command), Simplicity, and Economy of Force. I think there are at least three more: Attrition, Annihilation (which is a Russian Principle of War), and Geometry (or Shape).
You can condense it all down into the simple (if not particularly elegant) acronym, MOSSMOUSE – or, if you want to go full banana, MOSSMOUSEAAG (which sounds like a rodent went through a very unfortunate accident followed by a heart attack). And if you pay real attention to what the Russians are doing, you will see very quickly that they excel at almost ALL of these areas – except “Mass“.
The Russians and their allies have routinely fought the 404 War with a roughly 3-to-1 disadvantage in manpower, and at some points up to TEN-TO-ONE. That is to say, when the Russian regular army built up its forces along Ukraine’s then-border, they had somewhere between 150K and 200K troops, in total, plus about 50K LDNR militias, and perhaps another 20K or so Rosgvardiya troops, primarily Chechens at the time.
That is a total force of maybe about 250K – of which only about 20% were actual line or mechanised offensive infantry in any given engagement. And they were up against at least 200K Ukrainians, plus tens of thousands of neo-Nazis in the nationalist brigades, plus tens of thousands in the territorial defence force (national guard), and hundreds of thousands of reservists.
How, then, have the Russians managed to outwit and outfight an enemy anywhere from three to ten times its size, while managing somehow to employ both manoeuvre and attrition warfare at the same time? It should be impossible.
Resolving a Misunderstanding
One answer may be found in a rather interesting piece by Maj. Amos C. Fox, writing in 2017 for what I think is the US Army Armour School. In it, he notes that positional (manoeuvre) and attrition warfare are not mutually contradictory – you do not have to take an “either-or” approach, and any attempt to reduce things down to such a dichotomy is very foolish, because none such exists. Instead, he argues that doctrinal flexibility is key to success – that is, switching between different modes of fighting depending on the needs of the situation:
The interchange among maneuver, positional and attrition warfare is predominately driven by the desired effect – in situations where tempo is the goal, maneuver is the preferred method; in situations where overwhelming firepower is required, attrition is the preferred method; and in situations where an advantageous position is sought, or an enemy must be pulled from its current position to one of the attacking force’s choosing, positional warfare is employed. Yet it must also be understood that this trade-off depends on more than just the object but also on the conditions: environmental, enemy-focused, friendly focused and internally focused.
He goes on to list a number of factors in which one style of fighting over another might be preferred. And he notes that it is entirely possible for an army to shape the battlefield starting with attrition warfare, transitioning into position warfare, and ending with manoeuvre warfare.
This is exactly what we observe the Russians doing in the 404 War right now.
Russian Operational Doctrine in 404
The pattern of Russian warfighting in Ukraine is extremely clear at this point. Their operational doctrine is very predictable, and yet nearly impossible to counter. It goes something like this:
- Hit the enemy with overwhelming amounts of artillery to pin their infantry down and inflict devastating losses, both physical and psychological;
- Conduct deep strikes against the enemy’s logistics tail to stop him from being resupplied with munitions, men, and supplies, thereby paralysing him and further reducing his ability and will to fight;
- Conduct positional battles to capture advantageous territory and strong points, thereby moving your artillery closer while preserving your own forces;
- Once the enemy’s forces have been whittled down by attrition, manoeuvre around him to encircle him, cut off all lines of retreat, and boil him alive in a cauldron;
That last is, I think, a uniquely Russian way of doing things. It is fearfully effective, as the Wehrmacht found out repeatedly in WWII, and as the Ukrops are finding out now. Like the Wehrmacht before them, the hohols have gotten to the point where, when faced with an incipient cauldron forming around their troops, those troops now prefer to cut and run, rather than going through another Mariupol’ Situation.
Conclusion – A Uniquely Russian Solution
As “Marinus” pointed out in his piece, the Russians have figured out a very effective way to balance and bridge attrition and manoeuvre warfare by using position warfare and combining it with their exceptional capabilities in modern combined arms warfare. They are fighting what they call a “special military operation” not just for the purpose of killing and destroying the Ukrainian military – they’ve actually done that, pretty much, at this point – but also to subject their own warfighting doctrines to the sternest possible test.
They started out their SMO with a mad scramble to pin down forces in Kiev, with the hope of forcing the Zelensky regime to shit their pants and sue for peace. That didn’t work, because the Americans and Brits intervened and told the hohols that they would supply them with endless weapons and money to keep the fight going.
That pinning manoeuvre was risky, and the Russians paid dearly in blood for it. But they knew that going in. They also used it to buy them time in the south, wherein they took Kherson and Melitopol’ almost without a fight, and then surrounded Mariupol’ and conquered it outright while destroying most of the Azov Brigade’s fighting power. All the while, the bulk of Ukraine’s forces stayed stuck in the north and west, unable to figure out what to do and where to go.
Once that part of the campaign was done, they withdrew their troops from the north on Ukraine, and then settled into a grinding attrition campaign at the strategic level, while openly encouraging positional and manoeuvre battles at the tactical level. By this process, they have inflicted HORRENDOUS casualties on the hohols – I reckon the Ukrainian military dead amount to somewhere around 100K dead, and at least three times that wounded beyond any hope of recovery, plus over 10,000 prisoners and God only knows how many who have deserted or refuse to fight.
The attrition warfare part of their campaign is wrapping up. Once Donbass is cleansed and liberated, which I suspect will happen within weeks, if not days, then the Russians will be operating on terrain that is flat, open, and highly favourable for rapid massed-armour movements west of the Dniepr, toward Nikolaev and Odessa. It will also be much easier for them to take Zaporozh’ye and Kharkov once the majority of Ukrainian forces are destroyed in and around Donbass.
The outcome of this war was not in doubt beyond Week 2 of the SMO. But one thing is for sure:
Never again can the West think of the Russians as an unsophisticated “brute-force” military that only thinks in terms of throwing bodies at a problem. This wasn’t even true of their fighting tactics in WWII, beyond a point – it assuredly is not true now. The West can rail all it likes against Russian “barbarism” and “cruelty” – neither of which is at all true, by the way, given the extreme care that Russians have shown with respect to civilian casualties, and their willingness to absorb nasty attacks against their own civilians without retaliating in kind.
Nor can the West ignore the very real and obvious fact that Russia’s economy is VASTLY larger than they imagined. You simply cannot maintain a war effort of this kind without a massively powerful industrial sector – and we ALL underestimated it, including people like me who have actually lived in Russia. This is the world’s commodities superpower, and the West needs to wake up to this fact, FAST, and stop pissing it off. Not only is Russia’s industrial capacity for warfighting greater than that of the ENTIRE combined West at this point, but it also has a multi-generational technological lead in several key areas, including high supersonic and hypersonic PGMs, short- and long-range artillery, and integrated stealth-detecting air defence.
But, if the West does not take seriously the tremendous advances made by the Russians in warfighting technology, doctrine, skills, organisation, logistics, and capabilities, and above all does not take seriously the fact that the Russians LEARN FROM THEIR MISTAKES in ways that American and European militaries very self-evidently do not…
Then a shooting war with Russia, which the West very stupidly keeps threatening, will turn into a MASSACRE for the Western powers.