Has maneuver warfare turned up in the conflict in Ukraine? Yes, and it has done so in ways that are instructive.
The original Russian campaign plan was classic maneuver warfare at the operational level. Stavka has focused on operational art since before World War II, indeed in some ways back into the Czarist period. But as I said in a previous column, the Russian army in Ukraine fell into a trap of its own making: its units could not deliver on the tactical level what the campaign plan required on the operational level. This is not unique to the Russians. In the First Persian Gulf War, the U.S. Army’s Seventh Corps could not move fast enough tactically to attain its operational objective, the encirclement of Iraq’s Republican Guard. In World War I, my favorite German general, Max Hoffman, said of the Austro-Hungarian chief of staff, Conrad von Hotzendorf, that his plans were operationally brilliant but his army could not execute them. That raises the question of whether a plan for an army that cannot do it is a good plan. I tend to think not.
On the Ukrainian side, the April 14 Wall Street Journal, in an article by Daniel Michaels titled “NATO Training Retooled Ukraine Army,” reported that:
NATO countries also helped Ukrainian military leaders adopt an approach called mission common, where higher ups set combat goals and devolve decision-making far down the chain of command, even to individual soldiers.
This is Auftragstaktik, one of the central components of maneuver warfare. I wonder just who in NATO the Ukrainians got it from? The U.S. Army is an unlikely source, since, though it may talk about Auftragstaktik, it does not do it. The translation as “mission command” suggests the British army was a source, since that is the term they use. The Bundeswehr is also a possibility, although I don’t think it was involved in training in Ukraine.
A more intriguing possibility is that Ukrainians have some ancestral memory of Auftragstaktik. Ukraine first received its independence from Germany in World War I, and hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fought for Germany in World War II. All is not forgotten. Some years ago, when speaking to the Balitic Defense College, I said, “Don’t model yourselves on the U.S. Army of today. Model yourselves on the Wehrmacht.” many of the students responded by saying, “sure. My grandfather fought in the Wehrmacht.” As disorienting as it may be to Americans, in much of central and eastern Europe, the Germans were the good guys since they were fighting the bad guys, the Bolsheviks. As the Russian mother of a friend of mine, who was in Riga when the Red Army arrived in 1940, said to me, “When the Germans came in 1941, it was liberation.”
As the Russians gear up for a new offensive in eastern Ukraine, maneuver warfare also has something to say to the Ukrainian high command: do not let your army get encircled.
From what I read in the newspapers, Ukraine has stationed most of its best units in the country’s east. Russian operational art dictates that the Russian goal must be to encircle those forces. From the Ukrainian perspective, the desire to defend every inch of ground is understandable. But it can also easily be fatal. If Ukraine must choose between giving up ground or having its mobile forces encircled, maneuver warfare theory says to pull those forces back, even if that means the Russians take Donetsk and Luhansk. Ground can always be re-taken, but Ukraine’s ability to reconstitute mobile forces is small. If they are lost because of the blunder of adopting a cordon defense, they are lost for good. At that point, Ukraine will have no capability of launching a counter-offensive and the war will be decided. (Maneuver warfare theory also points out that a counter-offensive is often more powerful than an offensive, because in the former the enemy will have few or no reserves. That’s what happened to the French in 1940.)
If Ukraine were to adopt a defense based on an operational level counter-attack, it could also make use of an ability it has demonstrated, namely to hold on to urban areas come hell or high water. Mariupol is only one example. By holding the cities and larger towns in areas where it hopes to counter-attack, it not only ties down large Russian forces, it also blocks the Russians from using the railways to resupply, because the tracks run through those urban areas. A defense based only on holding fortresses can do nothing but delay defeat, but a defense that combines holding fortresses with a strong mobile reserve can be powerful.
More lessons for maneuver warfare and many other things will undoubtedly flow from the war in Ukraine. Let’s hope one of them is not that nuclear war must be avoided at all cost.