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POLITICS

Lessons unlearned: Drawing parallels between the Ukraine war and historical military campaigns

After the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many observers began to notice some obvious historical parallels. Russia's lack of preparation for protracted hostilities after the onset of winter was compared to the Soviet Union’s failed Winter War with Finland, while the current “Zaluzhnyi stalemate” appears to echo the war of attrition during World War I. Here are several historical examples that may shed some light on the logic behind the current conflict.

Content
  • World War I: The war of attrition in 1914-1918

  • The Winter War: The attack on Finland in 1939

  • Operation Danube: The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968

  • The Iran-Iraq War: A stalemate on the front lines and rocket attacks on cities in 1980-1988

  • The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: Missile strikes and underestimating the enemy in 2003

World War I: The war of attrition in 1914-1918

The Russian-Ukrainian war is perhaps most often compared to World War I — this has become especially true in the last year, when the fighting became protracted. Photographs of the defense of Bakhmut are being compared to the Battle of the Somme and Russian pro-war activists are reprinting books detailing tactics that helped the German Army break through the Entente front in 1918. The Ukrainian army’s Commander-in-chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, is also criticizing the West for the insufficient supply of shells compared to a century ago, describing a “positional stalemate” caused by new technologies — “just like in World War I.” The roles of WWI-era machine guns and artillery have evolved, however, and are now manifested in FPV drones and anti-tank systems.

Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Shell craters on the outskirts of Bakhmut, January 7, 2023
Shell craters on the outskirts of Bakhmut, January 7, 2023
Maxar Technologies

All the great powers that entered the First World War expected to end it in a matter of months. But plans for rapid combat failed to cope with new technologies — especially machine guns and long-range artillery. As a result, the war became a textbook example of a battle of attrition, with the front barely moving for years and heavy casualties on both sides.

Ammunition was in short supply for all sides throughout the war, and its consumption exceeded any forecasts made before it. Countries were forced to hastily rebuild their economies on a war footing, resulting in hardship and famine in the rear. The all-out (or “total”) nature of the fighting meant that multiple populations and armies effectively refused to continue the war. The outcome of WWI redrew the map of Europe and laid the foundations for the next global conflict.

Konstantin Pakhalyuk, Russian historian, expert on the First World War:

“Nobody thought that modern warfare could become positional. And to that extent they are similar. In a way, the current war is a war of attrition, just like the First World War. At least both sides think so. But there is a fundamental difference. The First World War was a war of massive, multimillion-dollar armies, a total war. The [Russian] slogan ‘Everything for the front, everything for victory’ [the slogan ‘Vse dlya fronta, vse dlya pobedy’ was used by Soviet propaganda during WWII and is well-known to this day — translator’s note] appeared during that time. After all, 600-700 thousand people from the Russian side were at the front - this is the scale of a relatively large operation by the standards of the First World War. The biggest battles of the First World War were fought with a million or 500-700 thousand men on each side. But these were separate battles, not involving all the mobilized troops.
If you can't break through the enemy's defenses all at once, you can do what the Germans did in 1916, for example: find a key point in the enemy's defenses that they’ll fight for without leaving. And then you dig in and start taking people out — both your own and those of the enemy. That is: the point is to kill more of their soldiers than your own. This is the tragedy of the Battle of Verdun.
The Russians repeated the same strategy at Bakhmut. Only the logic was slightly different: it had been defeated, it needed to gather its army, it needed Ukraine not to attack. So what you do [in that situation]? You hit Bakhmut, one of the most important points in the enemy's defenses, and just start to break through. You’ll suffer losses, of course, but the enemy will suffer even more [losses] (well, at least that’s what you’d want). Yevgeny Prigozhin explained all this quite clearly in May 2023.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Russia repeated the strategy of the Battle for Verdun in 1916 at Bakhmut in 2022
What brings these wars closer together? The moment of totality. A world war is not just a war with many participating countries. It's not just about mass mobilization. It's about the entire economy being converted to military needs. It erases the civil-military boundary. And although the current war is not a total war for Russia, radical supporters of the “final solution” to the “Ukrainian question” aren’t hiding that they want the whole society and economy to switch to military tracks.
Total war leads to a change in attitude towards the civilian population in the occupied territories. In the summer of 1914, Russian troops in East Prussia were still trying to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants — by fall, organized robberies began, based on the logic that “we have to undermine the enemy's economic potentia.” And in October 2022, when [General Sergei] Surovikin began destroying Ukraine's energy infrastructure, he was guided by the same logic of reducing production and creating a crisis for the Ukrainian military-industrial complex.
The First World War exacerbated the internal problems of the Russian Empire. It was a country with a great deal of economic growth (unlike Putin's Russia). And then Russia finds itself in a state of war. A massive army, a “people's war,” colossal battles — and failures — a positional front. And yes, many problems escalated both then and now.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

On the eve of World War I, the Russian Empire, unlike Putin's Russia, was a country with a great deal of economic growth
In the First World War, artillery accounted for 60% of all casualties on both the Western and Russian fronts. Other weapons such as chemical weapons and tanks were used, but artillery was and is the key factor. For Ukraine today, the issue of artillery and shells is also key.
In World War I, it was the number of guns, shells and fire density that mattered, as well as range, which is important for defense. There was also the question of accuracy — that [depends on] the calculations, the skill of the artillerymen and the quality of aerial reconnaissance. Today, missiles and now drones have changed a lot. They can potentially deliver precision strikes with minimal damage to civilian infrastructure, but that’s in theory — practice has shown the opposite.
A lot of attention is now being paid to hitting civilian infrastructure, headquarters, rear areas, energy facilities. Much is said on morale and society, but the important thing is this: victory at the front is won with manpower (soldiers) and everything that goes with them. You can bombard Kiev, you can hit individual command centres, but victory in war is achieved through the destruction of the enemy's life force — [you] break through, detect and destroy. [You don’t] do targeted strikes and occupy territory. Ukraine's successes in August and October of last year were achieved precisely by destroying the enemy's living force.”

The Winter War: The attack on Finland in 1939

The current events in Ukraine, especially in the early stages, bear a strong resemblance to what happened between the USSR and Finland in 1939-1940. In an article for The Insider in April last year (available in Russian here), historian Boris Sokolov detailed how the invasion was conceived as a blitzkrieg, under the guise of self-defense, with the ultimate goal of installing a fully controlled puppet government — just like the attack on Ukraine in 2022.

Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

A Russian BMP hit and abandoned near Sviatohirsk, November 21, 2023
A Russian BMP hit and abandoned near Sviatohirsk, November 21, 2023
Anatolii Stepanov / AFP

The Soviet attack on Finland began in November 1939 with a provocation — an allegedly organized Finnish shelling of Red Army soldiers in the village of Mainila — and was accompanied by a propaganda campaign about the massive support for the Soviet troops by the working people and peasants of Finland. The Soviet government did not officially recognize that it was at war and had no qualms about the barbaric bombing of cities and infrastructure. Just as the Kremlin does today.

Emil Kastehelmi, OSINT-analyst and military historian:

“These two wars are and are not comparable. In both cases, the aggressor is the eastern dictatorship, and the defender is a smaller democratic country. In both cases, the Western world sympathizes with the defender.
However, one of the many differences can be the Western actions. Finland did not receive large amounts of foreign help, except from Sweden. Finland would have needed more weapons and ammo, but it was not provided. Kind words don't help in destroying the enemy now or back in 1939. Gladly Ukraine has received more than just words. One feature of both wars was that they were rather extensively covered in the media. Public interest was high globally.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Kind words don't help in destroying the enemy now or back in 1939
The Red Army had suffered from Stalin's purges, which limited the number of experienced officers in the service. However, this solely does not explain the problems. Soviet intelligence did not create a proper picture of Finland or its capabilities for the military leadership, or the military leadership did not take the information into account sufficiently. The Soviet Union underestimated the Finnish political situation and their willingness to fight against the odds. In many places, the tactics of the Soviet Union were not suitable for the operating environment. Instead, the Finns were able to operate better even in difficult conditions, like in snowy forests in the wilderness. The Soviet Union's logistical capabilities and equipment were also often lacking. Also pure incompetence was a factor that also affected negatively on the soldiers abilities to succeed.
In both wars, the aggressor was ready to take heavy losses in order to achieve its goals. The war also began with fabricated and illegitimate claims. Both wars also inflicted heavy humanitarian problems — over 400 000 Finns had to relocate from their homes during the Winter war. It was over 10% of the whole population. Both wars are also existential battles, in which the whole future of a sovereign nation is threatened. Many countries viewed the Soviets very negatively after the attack, and the Soviet Union got kicked out of the League of Nations.”
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

In both wars, the aggressor was ready to take heavy losses in order to achieve its goals

Operation Danube: The invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968

In 1968, the government in Czechoslovakia changed, and those in power wanted to democratize, establish equal relations with the USSR and build ties with the West. Although they did not give up on socialism, the Kremlin decided to use force to depose the new government and replace it with a more malleable one. Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces pulled up to Czechoslovakia's borders, comparable in size to the forces the Kremlin originally hoped to use to take Kyiv: 250,000 men, 2,000 tanks, and 800 aircraft. This was not much more than the Czechoslovak armed forces, as no one had expected organized resistance.

On August 20, 1968, Soviet paratroopers secretly landed at Prague airport, seized it and arranged for a mass transfer of troops, who began to occupy government buildings with the support of military and special services loyal to Moscow. This practically bloodless operation enabled them to establish full military control over the country within a few days, followed by a change of political leadership and a permanent military presence. In the most general terms, what happened then can be described as “the ‘special military operation’ that could.”

Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

A destroyed An-225 Mriya plane at Hostomel airport, April 3, 2022
A destroyed An-225 Mriya plane at Hostomel airport, April 3, 2022
Gleb Garanich / Reuters

As in the case of Operation Danube, Russia launched the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 with a roughly 1:1 ratio of forces, stressing the rapid capture of Hostomel airport by paratroopers. The paratroopers were to provide an air corridor for the landing of reinforcements and a rapid advance into the center of Kyiv before the main body of troops could arrive from Belarus. Without waiting for the main force to arrive, the paratroopers were to take control of Kyiv’s government buildings and arrest or force the Ukrainian political elite to flee the country.

Daniel Povolný, historian, author of 'Operation Danube. The bloody response of the Warsaw Pact to the Prague Spring of 1968':

“Is it possible to say that during Operation Danube the Warsaw Pact forces did not expect to encounter resistance? Certainly not. The soldiers were instructed that there were counter-revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia who would resist, sabotage and ambush them, so they should be careful. They also had instructions to occupy military garrisons of the Czechoslovak People's Army if our soldiers didn´t treat them in a friendly manner. In addition, they received false information that NATO armies were about to cross, or had already crossed, the Czechoslovak border.
On the other hand, however, they were surprised by the extent of the spontaneous resistance of the civilian population, as they believed that the majority of the public was on their side. From a military point of view Operation Danube can be considered a full-fledged military invasion. By 24 February 2022, it was also the largest military operation in Europe since the end of World War II.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Before February 24, 2022, Operation Danube was the largest military operation in Europe since the end of World War II
A certain similarity [between Operation Danube and the invasion of Ukraine] can be seen precisely in the preparation of the plan, which was developed in 1968 by the Soviet army and now by its successor, the Russian army. Both plans were based on overestimation of one's own forces, wrong assumptions about the adversary, and bad intelligence supplied by the secret services. In part, those informations ware incorrectly analyzed and evaluated, and in part, it was deliberately adjusted to match the superiors' views on the situation. In both August 1968 and February 2022, logistical security also failed to some extent. In 2022, however, it was a significantly bigger failure. Unlike in 1968, only one allied country provided its territory and logistical capabilities to the Russian army in 2022.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Russia's plan in 2022, like in 1968, was based on the overestimation of its own forces and wrong assumptions about the adversary
The main differences are, that in 1968 Czechoslovakia belonged to the Soviet bloc, the Soviet sphere of influence, so the Soviet army could use the military and civilian assets of its allies. Given this, no one from the West has given us any practical help. The Czechoslovak political and state leadership also decided not to «step over their shadow» and issue an order to defend the country. It only morally condemned the occupation as an act contrary to international law. This is also the fundamental difference between further developments in 1968 and 2022. Ukrainian political and state leaders decided to fight for the freedom of their homeland, and this is the main reason why the plan of the Russian army failed.”

The Iran-Iraq War: A stalemate on the front lines and rocket attacks on cities in 1980-1988

The conflict between Iran and Iraq is an example of how a war between evenly matched opponents can go on for years without any strategic purpose, simply because the opponents are not satisfied with the outcome. One of the bloodiest and fiercest wars of the second half of the 20th century ended in a “draw” — a UN-brokered ceasefire was declared and the parties did not achieve any territorial changes.

Both Iraq and Iran's plans were Napoleonic. Saddam Hussein, who started the war, decided to take advantage of his long-time regional adversary's weakness following the purges in the army after the recent Islamic revolution. He hoped, among other things, for an uprising of brotherly Arabs in the province of Khuzestan. But plans for a mechanized invasion failed, and instead of ending the war, the Iranian regime decided to export the Islamic Revolution to enemy territory.

Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Fighting near Mar'inka in the Donetsk Region, March 2023
Fighting near Mar'inka in the Donetsk Region, March 2023
The New York Times

This war was being compared to the First World War long before Russia invaded Ukraine. Most of the front line remained virtually unchanged, with both sides digging trenches and pulling barbed wire, Iraq using chemical weapons, and Iranian Islamist fanatics trying to pile corpses on the enemy's defenses: a tactic then called “human waves” and now called “meat storms” [мясные штурмы in Russian— translator’s note]. Both sides also sought to maximize the disruption of the enemy's hinterland and foreign trade.

Iran and Iraq exchanged rocket attacks on cities, and a real hunt for tankers began in the Persian Gulf. Despite his methods of warfare, Saddam Hussein received military equipment both from his long-time partner, the USSR, and from NATO bloc countries that feared Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. Iran, in turn, set up “parallel imports” wherever it could, including buying artillery shells from China that later ended up in the Russian-Ukrainian war.

Ronan Mainprize, Guest Teacher at the London School of Economics' Department of International History, PhD candidate in Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick:

“Both sides' goals changed throughout the course of the conflict depending on the strength of their positions. Iraq initially was the aggressor, with Iran only seeking to stop their invasion. Iraq launched their assault due to fears over the spread of Islamic revolutions that would threaten the Ba’ath regime and they also sought to annex the Arab-majority Khuzestan territory.
After this failed, Iraq attempted to fashion a peace deal, but Iran did not accept. Iran then went on the offensive themselves, pushing back Iraqi forces and reaching into their territory. They were attempting to overthrow the Ba’ath party and capture several Shiite holy sites, but again this failed. Both sides then launched various unsuccessful offensives over the next few years.
Both sides sought victory for such a long time because winning the war was perceived to be essential to their regimes’ existential security and their domestic legitimacy. Losing the war would possibly have meant their governments would have been forcibly overthrown – defeat was therefore inconceivable to both Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. But there was also a longstanding, embittered dispute over various locations along the border that had been present since before the days of the First World War. Both sides coveted places that were seen as significant to their ideas of national identity, and the war thus took on an ethnic or religious character. This led both sides to continue fighting even when suing for peace would have been the more ‘rational’ option.
There was a lot of strategic incompetence on the part of Saddam, Khomeini, and the other political and military leaders. Neither side had a sound plan for how to achieve their objectives, believing emotional rhetoric and human wave attacks would suffice. The attritional nature of the conflict, defined by long trench lines and failed offensives, also required the potential victor to achieve a technological advantage to break the deadlock – this did not happen, and neither side was able to strike a decisive blow.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

Neither side achieved technological advantage to break the deadlock and wasn't able to strike a decisive blow
Strikes against civilians, infrastructure, and trade routes were important aspects of the conflict. What became known as the ‘War of the Cities’ involved extensive strikes on numerous civilian locations and the use of chemical weapons by Iraq which led to the deaths of thousands of people.
Despite the widespread destruction of their infrastructure and the huge economic costs involved, attacks against cities weren’t particularly effective for degrading population morale until the final years of the war. The ‘Tanker War’ was arguably more important, as both sides sought to strangle the others’ oil exports that left through the Strait of Hormuz.
Comparisons between conflicts are never absolutely perfect, and analogising should be done with caution to avoid myopic thinking. But Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine does share notable characteristics with the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s on both tactical strategic levels. Firstly, both conflicts have been defined by numerous offensives and counteroffensives that have not been able to achieve decisive results, with the conflicts thereafter becoming attritional in character and including extensive trench networks and the heavy use of artillery. Both wars also have included extensive strikes against civilians and energy infrastructure, with Russia’s assault being reminiscent of the ‘War of the Cities’ and the ‘Tanker War.’”

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: Missile strikes and underestimating the enemy in 2003

The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq («Operation Iraqi Freedom»), which toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in a matter of weeks, has been hailed by outside observers as a model of lightning-fast mechanized operations. Air superiority and precision strikes against enemy military and infrastructure facilities played a crucial role in the U.S. and British forces’ success. It is reasonable to assume that at least some elements of this operation were emulated by the Russian command.

What was different was that Russia's targeting, coordination of air operations, and sometimes the accuracy of cruise and ballistic rockets, were severely compromised. Although Russian missile strikes caused serious damage to the Ukrainian air force and air defenses, they could not be completely neutralized. The Russian Air Force was eventually completely barred from entering Ukrainian airspace.

Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

A destroyed Russian tank column in the Sumy region of Ukraine, March 7, 2022
A destroyed Russian tank column in the Sumy region of Ukraine, March 7, 2022
Irina Rybakova / Reuters

Meanwhile, the U.S., relying on quick action, had not been prepared to counter Iraqi irregulars, the Fedayeen, who, despite their lack of heavy weapons, held major cities for long periods and attacked U.S. supply convoys on the road to Baghdad. Similarly, the Russian command did not take into account the factor of the Ukrainian Territorial Defense Forces, which played an important role in the defense of settlements in the Sumy, Chernihiv and Kyiv regions and attacked Russian logistics.

Despite all the setbacks (including a botched helicopter raid on Iraq's Medina Division), the Americans managed to achieve the campaign's objectives, thanks to their technological superiority and experience in both ground (Operation Desert Storm) and air (Operation Noble Anvil as part of the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia). The Russian army has not had to plan and execute a campaign of similar scale in recent history, and that, together with the high morale of the Ukrainian forces (especially compared to Saddam's army), contributed to the failure of Russia’s attempted “blitzkrieg.”

Col. (Ret.) Frank Sobchak, PhD, Chair of Irregular Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute, U.S. Military Academy at West Point:

“It is unlikely that the initial success of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq influenced the Russian planning for a rapid invasion of Ukraine in 2022. After all, while the rapid invasion was successful in dismantling the regime of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. quickly became embroiled in fighting a determined insurgency, followed by attempting to stamp out a multi-side and brutal civil war. It is not something that other states would want to repeat, as by most assessments the U.S. invasion of Iraq ultimately only resulted in a victory for Iran.
In all likelihood, the 2014 invasion of Ukraine, in which Russia seized Crimea and much of the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, and the West’s limited response to that invasion and violation of international law and the 1994 Budapest Accords convinced Putin that he could get away with another invasion. In effect, the West’s response made him believe he could ‘take another bite at the apple’ and the West would again do little to nothing. It is traditional military tactics to try to seize a capital and the seat of government to create a fait accompli of regime change and force another nation to sue for peace or surrender, so targeting Kyiv is standard tactics.
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

The 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the West’s limited response convinced Putin that he could get away with another invasion
The U.S. only temporarily achieved its objectives [in Iraq]. While the regime of Saddam fell, the U.S. faced years of insurgency afterwards. That said. the government and conventional army in Iraq fell quickly, because the Iraqi conventional military had been devastated by the international coalition during the 1991 Gulf War, called Operation Desert Storm by the U.S. Nearly all of Iraq’s Air Force was destroyed as well as most of its tanks. As one American General said, 'Iraq went from the fourth-largest army in the world to the second-largest army in Iraq in 100 hours.'
In the years between that conflict and the 2003 Iraq War, Iraq was under international sanctions that prevented it from rearming. The paltry and ruined military that remained after the Gulf War was never allowed to rebuild. After the 2014 Russian invasion of Ukraine, most of the country was not occupied and there were no sanctions blocking the delivery of arms. While the West slowly rearmed and helped train the Ukrainian military, it was able to do so over nearly a decade, helping to create a more professional and capable force that the Russians faced when they attacked again in 2022. The Ukrainian military also gained considerable combat experience and knowledge of how to fight the Russians during the 2014-2022 period during both the 2014 invasion and the years before the 2022 invasion as the Donbas front saw sporadic but bitter fighting.
A number of allies, principally France and Germany, but also others, had urged the U.S. to not invade Iraq as it would set a new precedent in international relations about preventive wars. In addition, those and others preferred to have a U.N. Security Council resolution that clearly authorized the use of force, as had been in place for the 1991 Gulf War. Because the U.S. rebuffed all those requests, it damaged its relations and international position with allies and rivals. The eventual withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, coupled with increased Iranian influence and then the eventual collapse of Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State (ISIS/Da’ish) in 2014 created an accurate perception that the U.S. had lost the war, further damaging the U.S. standing in the world. That sense, that the U.S. had been weakened, likely helped embolden Putin and other rival states to be more aggressive.”
Special military operation

“Special military operation” is a euphemism widely used by the Kremlin and Russian propaganda to refer to the invasion of Ukraine.

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