Kill yourself from other people’s mistakes. How the war in Ukraine repeats the wars of the past

After the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, many observers began to notice some obvious historical parallels. For example, Russia’s unpreparedness for protracted hostilities after the onset of cold weather reminded us of the disastrous Winter War between the USSR and Finland, and the current “Zaluzhny impasse” made us remember the “war of attrition” during the First World War. The Insider provides several historical analogies that allow us to better understand the logic of the development of the current conflict.

World War I: War of Attrition 1914–1918
The Russian-Ukrainian war is perhaps most often compared with the First World War – especially in the last year, when the fighting became protracted. Photographs of the defense of Bakhmut are compared with footage of the Battle of the Somme, Z-figures are re-publishing monographs about the tactics of the German assault troops that broke through the Entente front in 1918, and the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny reproaches Western partners for the fact that the supply of shells is incomparable with the scale of a hundred years ago, and says about a “positional stalemate” caused by new technologies “just like in the First World War” – only the role of machine guns and artillery has shifted to FPV drones and anti-tank systems.

All the great powers that entered the First World War expected to end it within a few months. However, plans for short-term maneuver battles did not survive the clash with new technologies, primarily machine guns and long-range artillery. As a result, this war became a textbook example of a battle of attrition, when the front moved very little for years, but the sides suffered heavy losses.

All participants in the war lacked artillery ammunition: the consumption exceeded all pre-war estimates. Countries were forced to hastily rebuild their economies on a war footing, which resulted in deprivation and hunger in the rear. The total nature of the fighting led to the fact that the population and armies of many participants actually refused to continue the war. The outcome of World War I redrew the map of Europe and laid the foundations for the next global conflict.

Konstantin Pakhalyuk, historian, expert on the First World War:
“Nobody thought that modern warfare could take on a positional character. And in this they are similar. To some extent, the current war is a war of attrition, just like the First World War. At least both sides think so. But still there is a fundamental difference. The First World War was a war of massive multi-million armies, a general war. The slogan “Everything for the front, everything for victory” appeared precisely then. Still, 600–700 thousand people who are at the front on the Russian side is, by the standards of the First World War, the scale of a relatively large operation. The largest battles of the First World War were a million on each side, 500–700 thousand. But these are separate battles in which not all mobilized troops took part.
If you are unable to break through the enemy’s defenses right away, then you can, for example, do as the Germans did in 1916: find some significant point in the enemy’s positional defense for which he will fight and will not leave from there. And then just ruin people there – both our own and the enemy. That is, the point is to kill more of his soldiers than our own. This is the pathos of the battle for Verdun.
Russia repeated the same strategy at Bakhmut. Only there was a slightly different logic: she was defeated, she needed to gather an army, she needed to prevent Ukraine from attacking. What are we doing? We hit Bakhmut, who occupies one of the significant points in the enemy’s defense, and simply begin to break through it. We will suffer losses, this is natural, but at the same time the enemy will suffer even more losses (or so we would like). In May 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin explained all these things quite clearly.

Russia repeated the strategy of the Battle of Verdun in 1916 at Bakhmut in 2022
What else brings these wars together? A moment of totality. A world war is not just a war with many participating countries. This is not only mass mobilization, but also the actual turning of the entire economy to military needs, which has erased the line between civilian and military. And although the current war is not all-out for Russia, radical supporters of the final solution to the “Ukrainian question” do not hide: the entire society and economy must switch to a war footing.
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, and in the fall organized robberies began according to the logic “we need to undermine the economic potential of the enemy.” And when in October 2022 Surovikin began to destroy the energy structure of Ukraine, he was guided by the same logic: to reduce production and cause a crisis in the development of the Ukrainian military-industrial complex.
The First World War exacerbated the internal problems of the Russian Empire. It was a country with great economic growth (unlike Putin’s Russia, by the way). And here Russia finds itself in a state of war. Mass army, “people’s war”, colossal battles – and failures, a positional front. And yes, many problems have worsened both then and now.

On the eve of the First World War, the Russian Empire, unlike Putin’s Russia, was a country with very large economic growth

In World War I, artillery accounted for 60% of all losses on both the Western Front and the Russian Front. Other types of weapons were used, such as chemical weapons and tanks, but artillery was and remains the key factor. For Ukraine today, the issue of artillery and shells is also key.

In the First World War, the number of guns, shells and the density of fire mattered, as well as range, which was important in defense. Issues of aiming accuracy played an important role – these were calculations, artillery skills and the quality of aerial reconnaissance. Today, rockets and now drones have changed a lot. Potentially, they can deliver precise strikes with minimal losses to civilian infrastructure, but this is in theory; practice has shown something completely different.

Today, much attention has been drawn to attacks on civilian infrastructure, headquarters, rear areas, and energy facilities. They talk a lot about morale and society, but something else is important: victory at the front is won by manpower (soldiers) and everything attached to it. You can shell Kyiv, hit individual command posts, but victory in the war is achieved by destroying the enemy’s manpower – this is a breakthrough, detection and extermination. Not targeted strikes or occupying spaces. Ukraine’s successes in August–October last year were precisely the destruction of enemy manpower.”

Winter War: Attack on Finland 1939
Current events in Ukraine are strongly reminiscent of what happened in 1939–1940 between the USSR and Finland, especially at the initial stage. In a piece for The Insider, historian Boris Sokolov described in detail how the invasion was conceived as a blitzkrieg, under the guise of self-defense, with the ultimate goal of installing a completely controlled puppet government – exactly the same as the attack on Ukraine in 2022.

The Soviet attack on Finland began in November 1939 with a provocation (allegedly organized by the Finnish side of the shelling of Red Army soldiers in the village of Mainila) and was accompanied by a propaganda campaign about mass support for the Soviet troops by the working people and peasants of Finland. The USSR government did not admit that it was waging war, and did not disdain the barbaric bombing of cities and infrastructure facilities – just like the Kremlin today.

Emil Kastehelmi, OSINT analyst and military historian:
“The Winter War of 1939–1940 and the current war in Ukraine can be compared in some ways, but in others they cannot be compared. On the one hand, in both cases the aggressor is an eastern dictatorship and the victim is a smaller democratic country. In both cases, the Western world sympathizes with the victim. On the other hand, Finland did not receive much foreign aid – only from Sweden. Kind words did not help destroy the enemy, either now or in 1939. Fortunately, Ukraine received more than just words. One of the features of both wars was that they were covered quite widely in the media. Public interest was high around the world.

Kind words did not help destroy the enemy either now or in 1939
The Red Army then suffered from Stalin’s purges, which reduced the number of experienced officers. However, this alone does not explain the problems. Soviet intelligence did not create a correct picture of Finland and its capabilities for the military leadership, or the military leadership did not take this information into account to a sufficient extent. The Soviet Union underestimated the political situation in Finland and its willingness to deal with difficulties. Soviet tactics often did not correspond to the operational situation. The Finns performed better even in difficult conditions, for example in snowy forests, in the wilderness. In addition, the Soviet Union often lacked logistical capabilities and equipment. France and Great Britain planned to send some troops to Finland via Norway, but this ultimately did not happen as the war ended.

In both wars we are talking about, the aggressor was ready to suffer heavy losses in order to achieve his goals. The current war also began with far-fetched and illegal claims. Both wars resulted in severe humanitarian problems. For example, more than 400 thousand Finns (every tenth citizen of the country) were forced to leave their homes during the Winter War. Both wars are also existential battles in which the future of a sovereign nation is at stake. After the attack, many countries began to view the Soviets very negatively, and the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations.”

In both wars, the aggressor was ready to suffer heavy losses in order to achieve his goals.

Operation Danube: Invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968
In 1968, the government in Czechoslovakia changed; supporters of democratization, equal relations with the USSR and building ties with the West came to power. Although they did not abandon the building of socialism, the Kremlin decided to use force to change the government in Prague to a more accommodating one. A significant group of Soviet and allied troops was concentrated near the borders of Czechoslovakia, comparable in number to the forces with which the Kremlin initially expected to take Kyiv: 250 thousand people, 2 thousand tanks, 800 aircraft. This was not much more than in the Armed Forces of Czechoslovakia – no one expected organized resistance.

On August 20, 1968, Soviet paratroopers secretly landed at Prague airport, captured it and ensured a massive movement of troops, who began to occupy government buildings with the support of military and intelligence services loyal to Moscow. As a result of an almost bloodless operation, it was possible to establish complete military control over the country in a matter of days, and subsequently change the political leadership and achieve a permanent military presence. In the most general terms, what happened can be described as “the NWO that could.”

As in the case of Operation Danube, in Ukraine in 2022 Russia launched an invasion with approximately 1:1 forces, focusing on the rapid capture of Gostomel Airport by paratroopers. The landing units were supposed to provide an air corridor for landing reinforcements and rapidly advancing to the center of Kyiv even before the bulk of the troops arrived from the territory of Belarus. Without waiting for the main forces to arrive, the paratroopers were supposed to take control of government buildings in Kyiv, arrest or force the political elite of Ukraine to flee the country.

Daniel Povolny, historian, author of the book “Operation Danube: The Bloody Response of the Warsaw Pact to the Prague Spring”:
“Can we say that during Operation Danube the Warsaw Pact troops did not expect to encounter resistance? Of course not. The soldiers were instructed that there were counter-revolutionaries in Czechoslovakia who would resist them, organize sabotage and ambushes. They also received instructions to occupy the military garrisons of the Czechoslovak People’s Army if the local soldiers did not treat them friendly. In addition, they received false information that NATO armies were about to cross or had already crossed the Czechoslovakian border. On the other hand, they were surprised by the scale of spontaneous resistance of the civilian population, since they believed that the majority of the population was on their side. From a military point of view, Operation Danube can be considered a full-fledged military invasion. Until 24 February 2022, it was also the largest military operation in Europe since the end of World War II.

Until February 24, 2022, Operation Danube was the largest military operation in Europe since World War II
A certain similarity between the Danube and the current war 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 strength, incorrect assumptions about the enemy, and poor intelligence supplied by the secret services. Part of this information was incorrectly analyzed and assessed, and part of it was deliberately adjusted to correspond to the views of the authorities on the situation. In both August 1968 and February 2022, logistics failed. Unlike 1968, in 2022 only one ally country provided its territory and logistical capabilities to Russian troops.

Russia now, as in 1968, has based its plan on overestimating its own strengths and incorrect assumptions about the enemy
The main differences are that in 1968 Czechoslovakia was part of the Soviet sphere of influence, so the Soviet army could use the military and civilian assets of its allies. Taking this into account, no one in the West provided us with any practical help at that time. The leadership of Czechoslovakia also decided not to “step over its shadow” and not give orders to defend the country. It only morally condemned the occupation as an act contrary to international law. This is also the fundamental difference between the further development of events in 1968 and 2022. Ukrainian political and state leaders decided to fight for the freedom of their homeland, and this was the main reason for the failure of the Russian army’s plan.”
Iran-Iraq War: stalemate at the front and missile attacks on cities in 1980–1988
The Iran-Iraq conflict is an example of how a war between equal opponents caught in an obvious stalemate can continue for years without any strategic purpose, simply because the opponents are not satisfied with its results. One of the bloodiest and most brutal wars of the second half of the 20th century ended in a “draw” – a truce was declared through the mediation of the UN, the parties did not achieve any territorial changes.

Moreover, both Iraqi and Iranian plans were Napoleonic. Saddam Hussein, having started the war, decided to take advantage of the weakening of his long-time regional enemy due to purges in the army after the recent Islamic Revolution, relying, among other things, on the uprising of fraternal Arabs in the province of Khuzestan. However, plans for an overturning mechanized invasion failed, after which the Iranian regime, instead of ending the war, decided to export the Islamic Revolution to enemy territory.

This war was compared to the First World War long before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Most of the front line remained virtually unchanged, with both sides digging trenches and stringing up barbed wire, Iraq using chemical weapons, and Iranian Islamist fanatics trying to overwhelm the enemy’s defenses with corpses: then this tactic was called a “human wave”, and now – “meat assaults”. At the same time, both sides sought to disrupt as much as possible the vital activity of the enemy’s rear and its foreign trade.

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

Ronan Mainprize, lecturer at the University of Warwick, MSc in International Security:
“The goals of both sides changed throughout the conflict depending on the strength of their positions. Initially, Iraq was the aggressor, and Iran only sought to stop its invasion. Iraq launched the attack due to fears of the spread of the Islamic Revolution, which could threaten the Ba’ath Party regime, and also with the aim of annexing the territory of Khuzestan, where the Arab majority lived.

After this failed, Iraq tried to negotiate a peace agreement, but Iran did not accept it. Then Iran itself went on the offensive, pushing back Iraqi troops and penetrating their territory. They tried to overthrow the secular government of Iraq and seize several Shiite shrines, but again they failed. Over the next few years, both sides launched various unsuccessful offensive operations.

Both sides sought victory for so long because winning the war was considered essential to the stability of their regimes and their internal legitimacy. Losing the war would probably mean a violent overthrow – so defeat was unthinkable for both Saddam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition, there was a long-standing, bitter dispute over various areas along the border, which stretched back to the First World War. Both sides sought places that they considered significant to their ideas of national identity, and the war thus took on an ethnic or religious character.

Saddam, Khomeini and other political and military leaders demonstrated strategic incompetence. Neither side had a well-thought-out plan to achieve their goals, believing that emotional rhetoric and “human wave” attacks were enough. The protracted nature of the conflict, defined by long trench lines and failed offensives, also required the potential winner to have a technological advantage to break the stalemate. This did not happen, and neither side was able to deliver a decisive blow.

Neither side ever broke the technological impasse and was unable to deliver a decisive blow
Attacks on civilians, infrastructure, and trade routes were important aspects of the conflict. What became known as the “war of the cities” involved large-scale attacks on numerous civilian targets and the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. Despite the widespread destruction of infrastructure and the enormous economic cost, attacks on cities were not particularly effective in reducing morale until the final years of the war. The “Tanker War” was perhaps more important as both sides sought to reduce oil exports flowing through the Strait of Hormuz.

Comparisons between conflicts are never perfect, and analogies must be drawn with caution. However, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has notable similarities with the Iran-Iraq War. Both conflicts were characterized by numerous offensive and counter-offensive operations that did not lead to decisive results, after which the conflicts became protracted, involving an extensive network of trenches and the active use of artillery. Both wars also involved large-scale attacks on civilians and energy infrastructure, with Russian actions reminiscent of the “War of the Cities” and the “Tanker War.”

Invasion of Iraq: Missile Strikes and Underestimation of the Enemy in 2003
The American attack on Iraq in 2003, which ended in a matter of weeks with the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, is considered by outside observers to be a model of lightning-fast mechanized operations. Air superiority and precision strikes against enemy military and infrastructure targets played a critical role in the successes of American and British troops. One might assume that the Russian command took at least some elements of this operation as a model.

The difference was that the Russians suffered significantly from target reconnaissance, coordination of aviation actions, and sometimes the accuracy of cruise and ballistic missiles. As a result, although Russian missile attacks caused serious damage to the Ukrainian Air Force and air defense systems, they could not be completely neutralized, and over time, Ukrainian airspace turned out to be closed to the Russian Aerospace Forces.

At the same time, relying on a rapid operation, the United States was not ready to counter irregular formations – fedayeen militias, who, despite the lack of heavy weapons, held large cities for a long time and attacked American supply columns on the road to Baghdad. In the same way, 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 problems (including an unsuccessful helicopter raid on the Iraqi Medina Division), the Americans still managed to achieve the goals of the campaign – due to technological superiority, as well as experience of both ground (Desert Storm) and air (bombing of Yugoslavia) operations. Russian troops in recent history have never had to plan and conduct campaigns of such a scale, which, along with the high moral qualities of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (especially in comparison with Saddam’s army), led to the collapse of the Russian “blitzkrieg”.

Frank Sobchak, chair of the Department of Irregular War Studies at the Institute of Modern Warfare at West Point:

“It is unlikely that the initial success of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 influenced Russia’s planning for a rapid invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Ultimately, although the invasion was successful in eliminating Saddam Hussein’s regime, the United States quickly became embroiled in counterinsurgency and then attempted to end a multifaceted and brutal civil war. Other states would be reluctant to repeat this experience since, by most accounts, the US invasion of Iraq ultimately led to Iran’s victory.

Apparently, the limited Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014 convinced Putin that he could get away with another invasion, led him to believe that he could “take another bite of the apple,” and the West again had virtually nothing won’t do it. A traditional military tactic is to attempt to capture the capital and seat of government to create a fait accompli of regime change and force the other country to sue for peace or capitulate.

The 2014 invasion of Ukraine and the limited Western response to it convinced Putin that he could get away with another war

During the invasion of Iraq, the US only temporarily achieved its goals. Although Hussein’s regime fell, America then faced years of insurgency. However, Iraq’s government and conventional army fell quickly as the Iraqi military was destroyed by the international coalition during the 1991 Gulf War, which the US called Operation Desert Storm. Almost the entire Iraqi air force was destroyed, as were most of the 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.”

Between that conflict and the 2003 war, Iraq was under international sanctions that prevented it from rearming. The pitiful and destroyed military forces that remained in the Gulf War were never allowed to rebuild. After Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, most of the country was not occupied, and there were no sanctions preventing the supply of weapons. The West was slow to supply weapons and help train the Ukrainian military, but did so over nearly a decade, which helped create the more professional and capable force that the Russians faced in their 2022 attack. The Ukrainian military also gained significant combat experience and knowledge of how to fight the Russians during the 2014–2022 period.
France, Germany and other allies urged the US not to invade Iraq because it would set a precedent for preventive wars. Moreover, these and other countries have preferred to have a UN Security Council resolution explicitly authorizing the use of force, as was the case in the 1991 Gulf War. Because the US rejected all of these requests, it damaged its relationships and international position with allies and rivals.
The final withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, coupled with the rise of Iranian influence, and then the final collapse of Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State in 2014, created an accurate feeling that the US had lost the war, further damaging its position in the world. This perception that the US has weakened has likely allowed Putin and other rival states to become more aggressive.”

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