Why the Russian plan to invade Ukraine seemed "logical" and why it broke down

August 31, 2022
  • Ivan Grek
Over the six months of the Russia-Ukraine war, the idea has faded that Russia's military strategy can be pinned on Putin’s ill health or bad moods. Ivan Grek analyzes the plan behind Russia's invasion and argues that it was logical. But there is one caveat.
Russian checkpoint in the Kyiv region, March 2022. Source: Wiki Commons
To say that Russia running over Ukraine within a week was impossible is wrong. US military experts modeled that as a negative scenario, citing the massive buying off of Ukrainian elites, the potential flight of Zelensky and hundreds of thousands of Russian soldiers breaking Ukraine's will to resist. As a Washington Post investigation shows, the US political leadership also assumed that Russia’s military operation in Ukraine would be quick.

Also wrong is the assertion that Russia expected Ukrainian cities to “greet its army with flowers.” The absence of such expectations follows from the fact that in the first weeks of the war the Russian army not only didn’t plan to enter cities (excluding strategic points like Kherson and Mariupol) but also didn’t try to blockade them. In addition, the Russian army didn’t consider it necessary to psychologically prepare its own soldiers and sacrificed organized logistics for the sake of the speed, as a result of which entire columns of equipment stood stuck on Ukrainian roads without fuel. Yet in all this there was a rational design.

Russian propaganda isn’t lying when it calls the invasion of Ukraine a “special military operation,” as the plan of the Russian army clearly fits into the theoretical framework of similar operational and strategic actions.

Why special military operations are needed

The purpose of special military operations is to crush the will to resist. They are a favorite pastime of superpowers, which seek to impose their policy by military-political means. The suppression of the Prague Spring by the Warsaw Pact in 1968, the assault on the palace of Afghan leader Amin by Soviet special forces in 1979, the US invasion of Grenada in 1983 and the operation to invade Iraq in 2003 (the operation itself, not the occupation) are vivid examples of swift victories and political capitulation by the enemy.

The force necessary to suppress the enemy's will to mobilize and resist directly depends on the quality of the enemy's elites, the development of its institutions, the mood of the population and diplomatic integration with the rest of the world. To assess the force needed, the aggressor country must conduct exceptionally high-quality intelligence and construct its plans in accordance with the worst-case scenario so that the enemy can’t start defensive actions and lays down his arms. A special military operation typically relies either on the concept of total military domination and a narrowly focused invasion by vastly superior forces, or on the doctrine of shock and awe, which implies maximum psychological pressure with a minimal military contingent.
"Both total domination and shock and awe are based on different objectives. The former seeks to neutralize the military power of the enemy, while the latter aims to eliminate the centers of decision-making and demoralize the population."
In both cases, the attacking side relies on a well-trained contingent. In the concept of total domination, it must greatly outnumber the enemy troops, while shock and awe allows for the numerical superiority of the enemy but demands overwhelming technological superiority.

Both doctrines assume that objectives will be completed in the shortest possible time frames. However, with total domination, the attacking side can afford to draw the conflict out and suppress the enemy in direct clashes, while such a slowdown under shock and awe leads to failure. The latter concept is based on the fact that the enemy must be defeated while a peacetime consciousness persists. Total domination can be achieved even after the attacked country starts mobilizing.

In both cases, special military operations begin with the neutralization of enemy strongholds, key infrastructure and decision-making centers. If the population is able to organize resistance, the attacking country might use massive bombardments of both military and civilian targets, leaving the population without water, electricity, communications and other things from normal life and thereby creating a feeling of abandonment and loneliness. For that feeling to be all-encompassing, the attacking side should cut off the attacked country from allies or international support.

In the case of total domination, the attacking side might put forward direct security threats to any allies of the enemy, while with shock and awe a similar effect is achieved through information warfare and stigmatization of the enemy. Creating a pervasive feeling of loneliness is especially important for the shock and awe doctrine, which seeks to give the enemy the impression that defeat is inevitable.

In summary, the concept of total superiority assumes that limited strikes against key targets and a blitzkrieg will force the enemy to lay down his arms while also taking into account the likelihood that enemy troops will need to be defeated in combat. Meanwhile, the positive scenario under the shock and awe doctrine is victory without hostilities at all, while the negative scenario entails concentrated strikes on all important objects in the shortest possible time frames that will make the enemy believe nothing will be left of her country.
Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning Soviet tank in Prague, 1968. Source: Wiki Commons
Model for the attack on Ukraine

In a European state allied with Moscow, events once took place that brought people to power who were thought to have weakened the influence of the Kremlin and opened up a hypothetical opportunity for the country to turn to NATO. It was the Prague Spring in 1968. The Soviet Union was aware that the reforms of Alexander Dubcek and a liberalization of the political system would mean a loss of control over Czechoslovakia, which could fall into the Western sphere of influence, starting the process of the collapse of the entire Socialist Bloc.

The Kremlin tried to remedy the situation through behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Czechoslovak leadership, but in vain. On March 23, 1968, a council of Socialist Bloc communist parties was held and Dubcek was openly criticized, yet the reforms of the Prague Spring were still not rolled back.

On May 4, Brezhnev again met with Dubcek and again failed to achieve a breakthrough. On May 8, Moscow decided to carry out a special military operation named Danube and scheduled it for August 21, 1968.

In 1968, special military operations hadn’t yet become an army doctrine, but in the literature the actions of the USSR are said to have foreshadowed the emergence of the concept of shock and awe, which was formulated in 1996. During the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the concept was widely discussed in the press.

The development of a plan to neutralize key political sites was entrusted to the airborne troops led by General Vasily Margelov. He was given a clear political goal: change the regime in Prague without repeating the bloody events of 1956 in Hungary. The main objectives were identified as: capture the country's control centers and key infrastructure, replace the government with leaders loyal to Moscow as fast as possible. It was recommended to recruit or disarm Czechoslovak troops. Only in response was shooting allowed.

What are the similarities between Moscow's operation and the shock and awe doctrine formulated almost three decades later?

First, the USSR relied on breaking down the potential for resistance by striking political centers. On August 20, 1968, Soviet paratroopers secretly landed at and captured the Prague airport, enabling a massive landing of troops, which began to occupy government buildings amid support from military and special services people loyal to Moscow. Dubcek and his associates were arrested and taken to Moscow, while power was taken by people from among the party leaders of Czechoslovakia whom the Kremlin could trust.

Second, the USSR organized a diplomatic blockade of Czechoslovakia and a campaign to demoralize the population. Czechoslovakia's allies were the Warsaw Pact countries – they all turned against Dubcek and sent troops to participate in Operation Danube.
"Even East Germany, which was considered 'indecent' to call on for armed support following World War II, took part in the operation."
Thus, Czechoslovakia found itself diplomatically isolated, the Warsaw Pact countries having turned their backs on it and threatened to start World War III in the event of a NATO intervention. The KGB smeared the leaders of the Prague Spring and organized provocations designed to serve as a basis for the arrest of the Czechoslovak elite and discredit them in the eyes of the population. In May 1968, the KGB sent more than 20 coverts to Prague, who joined reformist groups and laid a wide foundation on which to discredit them, putting out false information, organizing weapons caches and creating fake documents pointing to a US connection to the Prague Spring’s leaders. Simultaneously, troops kept entering Czechoslovakia from all sides, while the heads of large cities were arrested, which created an atmosphere of hopelessness among citizens.

Third, Moscow had decided to launch an invasion with a contingent comparable in size to the army of Czechoslovakia (250,000 people, 2,000 tanks, 800 aircraft), which would have been insufficient if the operation had led to clashes.

A conventional military invasion assumes a ratio of troops from 3:1 to 6:1 in favor of the attacker, meaning the Warsaw Pact countries had precisely a special operation in mind. During the operation, Moscow gradually doubled the number of troops. Such a significant concentration of forces was due to the fact that they had to perform many police functions, suppressing protests and holding captured sites without resorting to bombing.

Operation Danube was concluded in a day, leaving no chance for Czechoslovakia to mobilize. The resistance of the Czechoslovak population manifested itself in civil protests, which were suppressed by the Warsaw Pact forces. About 100 people died on each side. Overall, Operation Danube is an example of a successful special military operation that gave Moscow control over Prague for another 20 years. Why was Moscow unable to repeat that success in Ukraine?
Destroyed Russian BMP during the special military operation in Grozny, January 1995. Source: Wiki Commons
How was the attack on Ukraine planned? A hypothesis

Based on its positive experience in Czechoslovakia and later failure of its shock and awe operation in Chechnya, theoretically Russia had the potential to pull off a successful rapid campaign in Ukraine. Paradoxically, its theoretical chances of victory were undermined by an inadequate theoretical basis for the operation.

The military doctrine developed under Putin doesn’t mention the concept of a special military operation. It uses the concept of "local war," which involves limited military and political actions, though that is where its similarity with a special military operation ends. The absence of a special military operation in the Putin military doctrine suggests that Russia didn’t provide the appropriate theoretical and practical training for its troops, logistics for its special forces, or coordination in the activities of intelligence, the army and public relations and political strategists. Nor was its strategic political planning up to par.
"Apparently, the invasion of Ukraine was planned in accordance with the theory of shock and awe but based on the doctrine of local war, which kept a swift victory out of reach."
In line with the theory, Moscow adequately reasoned that the local population wouldn’t offer significant resistance to the military administration (e.g. Kherson, Henichesk, Melitopol) but also wouldn’t greet the Russian army with flowers. This reasoning formed the core of the original plan that involved actions bypassing almost all cities.

Intentionally or unintentionally, the Russian military has spent years creating the image of itself as among the most powerful in the world, second only to the US. Perhaps this was supposed to help quell Ukraine’s will to resist. The Russian army has held many brand events like the so-called tank biathlon, produced custom-made high-tech weapons like the Armata tank and Kalibr missiles, and advertised its victories in Syria.

All this image building created expectations for at least the battlefield defeat of Ukraine in the first days of the war. Note that early on the image really worked, and both Russia and Ukraine believed in a swift victory for Moscow.

As in the case of Operation Danube, Russia launched a 1:1 military invasion, emphasizing the rapid capture of the Gostomel airport by paratroopers. The paratroopers were supposed to ensure an air corridor for reinforcements to land by the time the main troops came from the territory of Belarus. Linking up with the main units, the paratroopers could take control of Bankovskaya Street, arresting or forcing the Ukrainian political elite to flee the country.

Departing from the Soviet experience, Russia adopted the tactics of mass bombing of military installations used by coalition forces during the shock and awe operation in Iraq in 2003. Back then, the strike force was a third the size of the Iraqi army, but this ratio was compensated by 1,000-2,000 daily air sorties, which basically destroyed Iraqi infrastructure within three weeks. Widespread, intense bombing of Iraqi military and infrastructure sites generated a feeling of horror among the local population and made them feel that resistance was pointless. The intensity of Russia’s actions in Ukraine pale in comparison (5,722 sorties as of June 2 and 3,500 missiles as of August 22), though it is likely that the total number of strikes on Ukrainian infrastructure already exceeds the 29,200 bombs and missiles that the US army used in Iraq.

Since the Russian doctrine of local war doesn’t involve information and psychological warfare, Russia completely failed in this part of the operation. Shock and awe requires cornering the enemy in a diplomatic and informational blockade. In 1968, all the Warsaw Pact countries opposed Czechoslovakia, and in 2003 the US presented Saddam Hussein as a rogue in the eyes of the world community and managed to assemble a coalition of Western countries.

In the Russia-Ukraine war, it was the aggressor, not the attacked, who turned out diplomatically isolated. All Kremlin propaganda was aimed at the domestic audience and intended to contain public discontent. The Russian offensive in Ukraine had no propaganda support abroad. In other words, the Kremlin didn’t even try to “shake a vial” in front of the UN, as Colin Powell did before the start of the US operation in Iraq, trying to convince the international community that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

An important reason for the failure of the political component was the fact that Russia didn’t announce to the enemy what the goal of its military campaign was: what demands Russia made on Ukraine and on what conditions a truce could be reached. In the Soviet Union, the invasion of Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan was presented as a response to a “request for help” – it was assumed that when internal forces loyal to Moscow came to power, the operation would end. In Iraq, the coalition forces aimed to establish control over the supposed weapons of mass destruction, which also involved seizing power. If a demand that a country's government relinquish power is at least understandable, then a demand for "denazification" will trigger anger mixed with bewilderment. Still, “denazification” was just one of several goals of the special military operation, none of which was clearly articulated. This meant that it was impossible to answer the question of what the Ukrainians needed to do to end the war.

In 2001, Putin summed up the tragedy of the Kursk submarine as "it drowned." The same can be said about the "special military operation" in Ukraine, which failed the moment that Russian troops retreated from outside Kyiv, despite the fact that the Ukrainian capital was seemingly the top objective of the entire campaign. The Russian military and political leadership developed an invasion plan for a special military operation without having a working military doctrine for such an operation. Thus, the actions of the military and political blocs went uncoordinated, which is why the Russian government still had $350 bln of reserves in Western assets at the beginning of the war, why Russian Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya comes up with ways to justify the invasion seemingly on the fly, why the numerous Kremlin agents in Ukraine didn’t even try to undermine the situation from the inside. The soldiers sent to Ukraine didn’t know until the last moment that they would have to fight a real war, the goals of which remain unclear to this day.
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