Two lessons from Napoleon:
- Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake. – Even if we could have, the US/Biden decided very early on we did not want to “stop this war.” The US is reaping tremendous benefit from that smart decision.
- A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon. -I am seeing a lot of commentary on “What Putin Wants” and not much about “What The Russian Army and People Will Go Along With.” Russia may not be a democracy, but Russians are humans who can vote with their feet. That is (hopefully) enough to bet on. Russian can’t keep this up for 6 months… army will fall apart before that.
1. “Never interfere with your enemy when he is making a mistake.” A lot of Americans (especially but not only right-leaning) have this idea that “We/Biden could have done more to stop this!!!” We could debate that but we’d be missing the point.
Biden and the US didn’t want to stop this. This is turning out even better than the US could have ever hoped for a week ago.
- Germany cranked up defense spending to 2% of GDP (something we’ve been pushing for over a decade). They have shut Nord Stream 2. Europe is shipping weapons and fighter jets(?!?) to Ukraine.
- “Everyone” is lining up against Russia. Even super-mercantile Singapore just jumped on the sanctions bandwagon and they NEVER sanction anyone.
- The Chinese are looking uncomfortable.
- The Russian people’s interests and Putin’s interests are diverging (see below).
None of the above is a “good” thing. And the Ukraine is paying a terrible price. But the “aha” moment for me a few weeks ago was that someone smart had given Biden some good advice. Biden deserves credit for taking that advice. If the Russians want to make a terrible mistake, go ahead and let them. It has worked out very well so far.
2). A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon. An army without morale is just a rabble. If they are motivated, they will fight for “nothing” (per the quote). The implied opposite is also true. If they aren’t motivated, they won’t fight.
Napoleon’s greatest military innovation was the “citizen army.” His troops actually believed in the cause they were fighting for (at least at the start). To understand what a big deal that was, you have to understand the old model.
You can’t seriously believe all those feudal peasants fought for their Dukes/Barons/Lords because they “cared?” So why did they fight and die? Because they had no choice.
Before Napoleon, roughly 1/4 to 1/3 of a European army was not available for actual combat. You would line up about 2/3 of your forces and tell them “advance!”. Then you’d turn to the other 1/3 – lined up BEHIND – and tell them “kill anyone who refuses to advance!” This is literally true. Given the choice between certain death and a chance of death, the feudal soldiers grudgingly trudged forward.
You can see echoes of this all the way to WW1. Why did officers on both sides only carry pistols? Because they were armed primarily to shoot their own men (if they refused to obey orders). Those brave boys going over the top were still just making that same choice – a chance of death vs. certain death.
The Russians kept this up through WW2. If you screwed up or pissed off the wrong officer, you were sent to a penal battalion. These were sent out as the first wave to “find” all the mines and “expose” the German machine guns/lines. They often weren’t even given rifles. Their choice was to walk forward or be shot. A lot of WW2 history glosses over this very well documented fact with a weird racial fiction that Russians were/are somehow more fanatical than the rest of us. Very few humans will sign up for even one “human wave attack” Almost no-one who’s done it once is signing up for another one. Unless they have no choice. Same goes for China in the Korean war etc…
Those days are now over. Even in Putin’s Russia. To get your army moving, it is “bits of ribbon” or nothing.
This brings us to the hapless Russian Army in the Ukraine. The video below shows a bunch of ordinary Ukrainians in a small village blockading an underpass to stop a Russian tank rolling through. Armed only with live-streaming cellphones. I have seen another video like it.
Yes, these are very brave (and very ordinary) Ukrainians. But that is not the point. Look at how the Russians in the tanks are reacting. They hesitate, They contemplate. The back and forth a bit. Then they turn around… They do not want to be there. They do not want to shoot at these people who look too much like friends and family.
Putin never made a case for war to the guys in the tanks.
Putin failed to make a plausible case for invasion to his own people (much less world opinion). The guys in the tanks thought they were there for “exercises.” One day they find themselves in Ukraine?!? Getting shot at and confronting human barricades?!? WTF?!?
Put yourself in the driver’s seat of a Russian tank right now. Even better, an un-armored Russian fuel tanker making the run from the border – truck drivers are rarely the cream of the crop in any army. What are you talking about with your seatmate and buddy? What are you talking about with family back home (to the extent you can talk to them at all)? WTF are we doing here!!!!!!!! These people are clearly not happy to see us and I have no beef with them! Pretty soon, you and your buddy are both packing a spare set of civilian clothes. Looking for that moment where you can slip off, change, and (hopefully) blend into the Ukrainian milieu.
Or put yourself in a tank unit. Temporarily surrounded by Ukrainians. You could organize a fighting breakout! Or you could organize a surrender. “We are surrounded! We fought bravely but all is lost!!! Wink Wink” With the term “surrounded by hostile Ukrainians” to be interpreted more and more widely as the weeks drag on. Pretty soon you are actively recruiting (in a shared language) for some “hostile Ukrainians” to “surround” you and get it over with.
No-one is actively refusing orders (they still shoot you for that). But no-one is pressing the attack. The point of the spear gets more and more blunt. The artillery will keep blasting and the bombs will fall for a while. But the defensive lines will get more porous and the artillery-men (who assume they are protected) will take casualties and demand more protection (taking troops from the attack). They will start melting away too. The pilots change change into civvies and bail, but they will fly higher and higher to avoid the missiles. In a few month, the Army will have “collectively “stopped” the war no matter what Putin says.
Putin can get more savage. Bigger bombardments. Deploy real thugs like his Chechen mercenaries. But the increasing atrocity will just speed the ordinary Russian soldier’s (and citizen’s) abandonment of Putin’s cause. When a bunch of Chechens get trapped and massacred (ps I am not 100% Certain of this report, but its a great example true or not), what Russian is going to jump into his tank to drive off and save them? How fast and how far is he likely to go? “Sir, we fought bravely but we could not break through! Wink Wink…”
The most important thing the Ukrainians can do is make sure the Russians know prisners will be treated kindly. Offer them passports! Putin may never surrender, but his Army will. Individual by individual. Russia may not be a Democracy, but people can still vote with their feet.