By Thomas L. Friedman © 2022 The New York Times
As Vladimir Putin embarks on his plan B — a massive military operation to try to grab at least a small bite of eastern Ukraine to justify his misbegotten war — I thought: Who could give him the best advice right now? I settled on one of America’s premier teachers of grand strategy, John Arquilla, who recently retired as a distinguished professor of defense analysis at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School. When I called Arquilla and asked him what he’d tell Putin today, he didn’t hesitate: “I would say, ‘Make peace, you fool.’”
This is also known as the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.
Arquilla did not pluck his phrasing from thin air. After the D-Day landings on Normandy on June 6, 1944, it became quickly obvious that the Germans could not contain the Allies’ beachhead. So after a German counterattack near Caen failed on July 1, the top German commander on that front, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, phoned Berlin to report the debacle to the army chief of staff, Wilhelm Keitel, who then asked him, “What shall we do?” — to which von Rundstedt famously replied, “Make peace, you fools! What else can you do?”
The next day, von Rundstedt was removed — not unlike what Putin has just done, bringing in a new senior general, one who helped crush the opposition movement in Syria with unrestrained brutality — to run phase two of his war. This did not work for the Germans, and without making any predictions, Arquilla explained why he believed that Putin’s army, too, could meet very stiff resistance from the undermanned and underarmed Ukrainians in this new phase.
It starts, he argued, with all that is new in this Ukraine-Russia war: “In many respects, this war is our era’s Spanish Civil War. In that war, many weapons — like Stuka dive bombers and Panzer tanks — were tested out by the Germans, and the allies learned things as well, before World War II. The same is being done in Ukraine when it comes to next-generation warfare.”
Arquilla recently published a book on next-gen warfare, “Bitskrieg: The New Challenge of Cyberwarfare.”
“In that book, I outlined the three new rules of war, all of which I am seeing being employed by the Ukrainians,” he explained. “The first is that many and small beats large and heavy. The Ukrainians are operating in squad-level units armed with smart weapons, and these are able to disrupt far larger formations and attack slow-moving, loud helicopters and such. So even though they’re outnumbered by the Russians, the Ukrainians have many, many more units of action — usually between eight and 10 soldiers in size.”
Arquilla said that these small Ukrainian units armed with precision-guided smart weapons like killer drones, anti-aircraft weapons and light anti-tank weapons “can take out the Russians’ much larger and more heavily armed tank units.”
The second rule of modern warfare playing out in Ukraine, he said, “is that finding always beats flanking. If you can locate the enemy first, you can take him out. And especially if the enemy is made up of a few large units, like a 40-mile-long convoy of tanks and armored personnel carriers, you’re going to hammer the hell out of them with your small squads, without having to outflank them with an equal-sized force.”
I asked Arquilla why the Ukrainians are so good at finding. (I assume they are getting some reconnaissance help from NATO.)
“The Ukrainians are making very good use of small drones, particularly those Turkish drones, which are tremendous,” said Arquilla. But it’s their human sensors — the informal Ukrainian observer corps — that are devastating the Russians. Grandmas with iPhones can trump satellites.
“The Ukrainian observer corps is made up of babushkas and kids and anyone else who has got a smartphone,” he said. “And they’ve been calling in the locations of where the Russian units are and where they’re moving. And so the Ukrainian forces have this big edge in finding the Russians in this big country, and that is giving their small units with smart weapons” real-time, actionable intelligence.
The third rule of new-age warfare playing out in Ukraine, said Arquilla, is that “swarming always beats surging.” He explained: “War is not just a numbers game anymore. You don’t need big numbers to swarm the opponent with a lot of small smart weapons. I am sure you’ve seen some of the videos of these Russian tanks and columns, where suddenly one tank gets taken out at the front and then another at the rear, so the Russians can’t maneuver, and then they just get picked off.”
Since this is the next phase of warfare and the Russians are not stupid, they will surely adjust in phase two, no?
The Russians will continue to use some massive bombardments, Arquilla argued, “and they’ll be even less restrained about doing so in eastern Ukraine than they have been in its western territory. But rubble makes conquest harder. Recall Stalingrad.” The Nazis bombed Stalingrad, Russia, into the Stone Age in World War II but then had to try to move through the rubble in small units to secure it and could not do so.
So look for the Russians to adjust some tactics. “The Russians have shown an ability to learn and adapt,” said Arquilla. “In the first winter war against the Finns — 1939 to 1940 — the same sort of thing happened to the Russians when they first invaded Finland. They got clobbered by the Finns using these small-team tactics. The Russians then fell back, they reorganized, and then they came back in a little smarter way and eventually overwhelmed the opponent. My understanding is that the Russians have actually been activating more of their naval infantry units, which are used to operating in smaller teams.” So expect them to be more infantry-heavy and less tank-heavy in the next phase.
That said, he added, the Ukrainians “still should have the edge in terms of the finding issue, and they’re already habituated to operating in these very small units. The Russians are much more centralized. One of the reasons they’ve had so many generals get killed is that at the tactical level, they don’t have people who are empowered to make those quick decisions in a firefight; only general officers can, so they had to come down close to the front and do things that lieutenants and sergeants in the American military routinely do.”
One of the more intriguing aspects of the conflict in Ukraine is the apparent lack of cyberwarfare from Russia. “The Russians did employ cyberspace-based attack tools to disrupt Ukrainian command and control, yet it had little overall effect because of the very decentralized operations of Ukraine’s regular and militia defense forces,” explained Arquilla.
At the same time, the Russians appear loath to launch a big cyberattack against infrastructure in the United States and against the other NATO countries aiding Ukraine, out of a fear that doing so now would enable NATO to learn about Russia’s most advanced cybertools and build defenses against them. Russia needs to save its cyberweapons for a big war with the West. So, observed Arquilla, “it may be that when it comes to strategic cyberwarfare, the prospect on all sides of facing mutual assured disruption may actually produce a kind of cyberdeterrence.”
As for Russia’s vaunted air superiority, said Arquilla, “we have already seen how vulnerable their jets and helicopters are to Stingers. This won’t change in the next phase of the war.”
In sum, said Arquilla, “I am not saying that the Russians are going to be driven out of eastern Ukraine. I am trying to answer the question: Why have the Ukrainians done so very well? And it’s because they have applied all these new rules of modern warfare.”
And since they will surely continue to do so, it augurs a long, terrible, mutually destructive new round of warfare in which neither side is likely to be able to administer a knockout blow. After that, who knows?
I still hope Putin the fool will eventually seek a dirty, face-saving deal, involving a Russian withdrawal, some kind of independent status for the more pro-Russian eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and no Ukrainian membership in NATO but giving Ukraine a green light to join the European Union, along with security guarantees against another Russian invasion.
May it happen soon.
“The longer the fighting goes on, the tougher the Ukrainian resistance — thanks to the ways of war they are pioneering — the more the risk of escalation grows,” said Arquilla. “But Putin has cowed Russian civil society into submission. And the Russian military, so embarrassed by their relatively poor performance, is unlikely to turn on him. Thus, he probably thinks he’s not under time pressure to de-escalate.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how little wars become big wars.
“I recently reread Barbara Tuchman’s ‘The Guns of August’” — about how the great powers stumbled into World War I — said Arquilla. “It’s a cautionary tale that remains relevant.”