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Vladimir Putin has failed to learn Stalin’s lessons

The Russian president wants his country to be feared and respected, but the failures of his military are increasingly clear.

By Lawrence Freedman

On 23 February 1942 Joseph Stalin, as People’s Commissar of Defence and Chairman of the State Defence Committee of the USSR, issued his “order of the day”. This was almost exactly 80 years before Vladimir Putin launched his war against Ukraine. Stalin’s order was addressed to “comrades, Red Army and Red Navy men, commanders and political workers, guerrillas-men and women”. Eight months earlier, he noted, “fascist Germany treacherously attacked our country, crudely violating a treaty of non-aggression”.

The enemy, he recalled, had “expected that at the very first blow the Red Army would be routed and would lose the ability to resist. But the enemy badly miscalculated.” Because of the suddenness of the attack, the “Red Army was forced to retreat and evacuate part of our territory”, but even as it did so, “it wore down the enemy forces and dealt them heavy blows”. Then, as the war progressed, it was able to refresh and gain in strength. In particular it “defeated the German fascist troops which threatened to encircle the Soviet capital”. With the initial German assaults blunted, a significant moment had arrived.

“Now the Germans no longer possess the military advantage which they had in the first months of the war by virtue of their treacherous and sudden attack. The momentum of unexpectedness and suddenness which constituted the reserve strength of the German fascist troops has been fully spent.”

This led to what Soviet propagandists soon claimed to be Stalin’s great contribution to strategic thought: “Thus, the inequality in the conditions under which the war is conducted, created by the suddenness of the German fascist attack, has been eliminated. Henceforward the issue of the war will not be decided by such a secondary factor as suddenness, but by such constantly operating factors as the strength of the rear, the morale of the army, the quantity and quality of the divisions, the armament of the army, the organisational abilities of the army commanders.”

As a Marxist-Leninist, Stalin sought to present war as a contest between competing socio-economic systems, which meant that their underlying strengths and weaknesses would eventually tell. This is why his list was topped by the “strength of the rear” and then the “morale of the army” before getting on to more basic military capabilities. Because these constantly operating factors would eventually determine the outcome of the war, other factors such as surprise could be dismissed as being of only temporary relevance. This had the additional advantage of letting him off the hook for failing to heed the many warnings he had been sent about an imminent German invasion.

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The eventual Soviet triumph allowed Stalin’s insight to be turned into a genius application of scientific thought that no general dared contradict. Only after his death in 1953 did Soviet military theorists at first tentatively and then more confidently point out that in the nuclear age it might be unwise to dismiss the significance of surprise, while also noting the formulaic nature of these permanent factors and the apparent lack of regard for the military art.

[See also: What is Putin’s next move?]

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Zelensky, Putin and the limits of surprise

Yet if one updates the language of Stalin’s order of the day and removes some of the bombast, it starts to resemble the description that the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky gave of his country’s strategic situation. Six months ago, Ukraine was caught out by a treacherous surprise attack and at first had to concede territory even as it struck the enemy with heavy blows. Zelensky also played down early warnings from the US and others of an imminent Russian attack. Fortunately, in 2022 as in 1941, the aggressor was unable to take full advantage of surprise. This was confirmed by Russia’s failure to take Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, as the Germans failed to take Moscow. As Russia’s offensive is now petering out, the initiative is steadily shifting to Ukraine, allowing its underlying strengths, and the superiority of its social system, to reshape the course of the war. Russian morale is poor. Many of its material advantages have been lost in frustrated offensives. It has problems with “the strength of the rear”.

Putin constantly invokes the Great Patriotic War (in reference to the Soviet Union’s battle against Nazi Germany in the Second World War) as a source of inspiration and guidance, and has presided over the partial rehabilitation of Stalin as a formidable leader, despite the terrors the latter unleashed. Putin regrets that Stalin is “excessively demonised”. One might therefore have expected the current Russian leader to be aware of the possibility that a surprise attack would not be as decisive as he hoped, and that once this war became a competition between two social systems – especially with his enemy backed by the West – his “special military operation” might not turn out so well. Putin’s initial optimism about the fragility of the Ukrainian society was reinforced by his spy agencies, who were anxious to please, even though their own furtive polling showed how few Ukrainians would see a Russian invasion as liberation. As a result, he repeated the folly of Hitler’s confident boast of 1941: “We have only to kick in the front door and the whole rotten Russian edifice will come tumbling down.”

[See also: What the murder of Darya Dugina means for Russia]

Putin might now also ponder his predecessor’s preoccupation with the “strength of the rear”. Prior to the war, and with a paranoid ruthlessness, Stalin employed relentless propaganda and political commissars to ensure ideological conformity in the Soviet army, while denunciations, mock trials, forced confessions and extensive purges prevented any opposition forming. His agents could act on the merest hint of treachery. The associated cull of senior military commanders was one reason for Hitler’s optimism about a likely Russian collapse. When the war came, Stalin knew enough about popular feeling to make this a war about the defence of the homeland and not communism (hence Great Patriotic War). In this, he was helped by the Nazi contempt for and brutality towards all Slavs, so Germany missed opportunities to divide and rule. Ukraine began this war united, but Russian brutality has confirmed its determination to defeat the aggression. Zelensky has no need to worry about popular support for the war effort.

It is Moscow that must worry about the “strength of the rear”, as doubts grow at home about the war and its consequences. As with so much else in Putin’s Russia, any impulse to emulate Stalin is compromised by the state’s own incompetence, corruption, internal rivalries and uncertainty about what the public really thinks. He has dealt forcefully for now with any potential opposition from technocrats and moderates – all silenced, imprisoned or exiled. One of the last prominent opposition figures, the former mayor of Yekaterinburg, Yevgeny Roizman, has been arrested for “discrediting the armed forces”. Putin’s problem is more with ultra-nationalists, who lament that their leader has had the right ideas but not the necessary ruthlessness to implement them. His reluctance to mobilise all of society and the economy for a cataclysmic war with not only Ukraine but its Nato backers has meant that they now see a wonderful opportunity to restore Russia’s greatness slipping away.

The assassination of Darya Dugina

One of these ultra-nationalists is Aleksandr Dugin, a prolific promoter of, to quote Mark Galeotti, “splenetic and mystical nationalism”, and known for his madcap geopolitical theories. Last Saturday (20 August) his daughter Darya, no mean propagandist in her own right, was blown up by a car bomb, triggering a surge of speculation about who was responsible and whether her father was really the target. The FSB, Russia’s main security agency and successor to the KGB, came up with a suitable culprit, Natalia Vovk, in no time at all – complete with the necessary connections to Estonia and Ukraine’s Azov Battalion (the FSB’s signifier of a Nazi). There was also a 12-year-old child that came with Vovk, but no actual connection to the killing, no theory about how the crime was perpetrated, and no apparent awareness of how incompetent it made the organisation look if a person it was apparently tracking so closely got away with a bold and complex murder, then escaped back home. The more that is known about Vovk the less the story adds up and the more suspicious the whole event becomes. Why would she travel with number plates from occupied Donetsk, which provided good cover, but also have Ukrainian and Kazakh plates, which would have attracted suspicion? (It was as if the FSB couldn’t decide who it wanted to blame.) If Vovk had been in Dugina’s apartment block, why not kill her there rather than rely on a car bomb?

One is reminded of the so-called plot that the FSB claimed to have uncovered in April: that Ukraine-backed neo-Nazis planned to kill the Russian TV host Vladimir Solovyov in Moscow. As evidence, they reported an improvised explosive device and a large variety of weapons, as well as Ukrainian passports and nationalist literature. Because there must never be any doubt about the sympathies of the would-be assassins, who clearly had no interest in covert operations, there was a picture of Hitler and a red T-shirt with a swastika. Most bizarre of all was the presence of three copies of The Sims video game, prompting speculation that the officer “staging” this scene misunderstood his orders to supply three mobile phone Sim cards – which might have some role in a car bomb. Lest there be any doubt about the authenticity of this plot, another video showed an inscription in an unidentified book that had been found, signed in Russian with the words “signature illegible” – possibly another instruction taken a little too literally.

There was no particular reason why Kyiv should target Dugin or Dugina, both marginal figures, but once blame was assigned to Ukraine there was a frenzy of demands for instant retribution. But these frenzies are now becoming routine. Russian TV has daily shows in which experts, including Solovyov, describe the terrible things that must be done – will be done – to Ukraine. The rhetoric is continually vicious and violent, as one Nato plot after another is described. One curiosity is that when Russia does do something vicious and violent, there are always indignant denials. Dugina was memorialised by her media friends by showing her report on how the atrocities committed by Russian troops at Bucha, Ukraine, were in fact another “false flag” operation – something Russians seem to have a persistent belief in.

It is possible that Dugina’s murder was another false flag. Last Tuesday (23 August) the headquarters of the pro-Russian Donetsk leadership was struck, without doing much harm, in what some see as an attempt to justify an attack on decision centres in Kyiv. There is a mindset in Moscow that believes pretexts are important; if one does not exist, then it must be manufactured. Yet, during this first six months of war, Russia has not appeared to need any excuses to attack residential areas and infrastructure. Ukraine was already bracing for more missile strikes as this was the only way left for Russia to mark six months of war, Ukraine’s Independence Day, and deal with its own general frustration with the state of the war. Even the Kremlin, however, might find it a bit excessive to escalate to a general war with Nato because of yet another politically motivated death in a country where such deaths are not uncommon.

Alternative suggestions for motive include Dugina being sacrificed to justify yet more repression at home. (The way the 1934 assassination of Stalin’s Politburo colleague Sergei Kirov triggered the purges.) It is possible that Dugin has fallen out with other powerful, shady figures in Moscow. It may even be that there is a dissident group adopting terror tactics. One claim, to be taken with a large pinch of salt, came from a hitherto unknown group, the National Republican Army (NRA), whose existence and activities was announced by a former Russian MP, Ilya Ponomarev, now living in Kyiv. The NRA’s manifesto declared Putin to be “a usurper of power and a war criminal who amended the constitution, unleashed a fratricidal war between the Slavic peoples and sent Russian soldiers to certain and senseless death”. Through Ponomarev, it claimed that it had mounted other partisan actions in the past and promised more for the future.

[See also: Suddenly, Ukraine is winning the war]

Instability at home

There have been unexplained acts of sabotage within Russia and Crimea that might have been executed by anti-Putin Russians, including up to a dozen attacks on military recruitment centres during the first months of the war. In addition, the Russians have been blaming traitors and saboteurs for embarrassing explosions in ammunition dumps and airfields inside Crimea and also the Belgorod oblast bordering Ukraine. In the face of these attacks, Russian propaganda is caught. Poor maintenance or local treachery is bad enough but even worse is acknowledging the ease with which Ukraine can now strike targets well behind the front lines, with Russian air defences apparently unable to stop them.

How this is being done has led to much speculation. Some believe that the damage might have been done by special forces using drones, which is what the Ukrainian military has suggested; others are convinced that Ukraine now has access to long-range missiles, possibly even the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) that can be fired from the Himars (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) platform provided by the Americans – although this has not been confirmed, and it was thought that the US had denied those weapons to Ukraine because they don’t want strikes deep into Russian territory.

[See also: Lithuania and Estonia call for Russian visas to expire early]

But the Americans have also made clear that they are not bothered about strikes against Russian assets in Crimea because this is illegally occupied territory. For Moscow, all these strikes are bad news. Not only because of the impact on their ability to defend the Black Sea area and their positions in southern Ukraine, but also because of the deeper political meaning of the attacks. In particular the demonstration that there can be no sanctuary in Crimea.

Let’s go back to how this war started. The threat that Putin claimed to justify the war was to the Donbas enclaves of Luhansk and Donetsk, but also to Crimea, especially if Ukraine, by being admitted to Nato, persuaded the whole alliance to back an offensive to take the Crimean peninsula back. But look at what has happened. Donbas has been devastated, largely by Russian artillery, while the military formations recruited from the Russian-occupied areas for the war, and which have done a disproportionate amount of the fighting, have been ill-prepared and ill-equipped and so suffered disproportionate casualties. In late June, UK intelligence suggested that more than half of the Donetsk militia had been killed. There have been reports that units from Luhansk are in a state of virtual mutiny: now that they can claim to control all of the Luhansk oblast, they do not want to go and fight for the Donetsk one. Unsurprisingly there is a shortage of new volunteers from these regions, so men in all occupied territories are starting to be press-ganged into service.

Moscow’s claims of imminent Ukrainian assaults against Crimea were fanciful prior to 24 February but are less so now. Recall the warnings about how any attempt by Kyiv to move against Crimea might be exactly the sort of move to trigger Russian escalation, even nuclear use. Yet the moves have taken place, not as a land offensive but against strategic targets. Because they have happened incrementally, with no red line dramatically crossed, and the Russians anxious to demonstrate that no serious damage has been done, they have yet to result in any escalation from the Russian side. The potential vulnerability of the road and rail Kerch bridges, built at great expense to provide a link between Russia and Crimea, is becoming a concern for Russia, especially given the evident limitations of its air defence systems. Russians who have been encouraged to see Crimea as a pleasant holiday destination were getting home as quickly as possible across them. Couple this with increased partisan activity behind the lines in Kherson and it soon becomes apparent that the “strength of the rear”, along with the “morale of the army”, Stalin’s two top priorities, cannot be guaranteed.

In the spirit of Stalin, Putin wants Russia to be feared and respected rather than belittled and derided. Increasingly, however, his propagandists are struggling to provide compelling images of Russian power, caught between their desire to avoid talking up Ukraine’s capabilities and their reluctance to admit to their own mistakes. They have spent months using the most lurid language to describe the great Russian victories to come, not only against Ukraine but all of Nato, and are now perplexed at the turn of events.

Take the example of Vladimir Solovyov, a vigorous supporter of Putin and his war, and the potential victim of the April assassination attempt as likely fabricated by the FSB. Just before this event, with reports of more Western weapons being sent to Ukraine he explained to his audience: “De facto we’re starting to wage war against Nato countries. We’ll be grinding up Nato’s war machine as well as citizens of Nato countries.” When this came, he added, “There will be no mercy.” More recently Solovyov has been more downbeat. He shared his dismay at the attacks in Crimea and in Belgorod as “some kind of surrealism”. He asked: “Are we fighting or what are we doing? Tough, cardinal measures must be taken. Every day we pay for half-measures with human lives.” Now, in the aftermath of the assassination of Darya Dugina he has continued with his theme of a coming “direct military confrontation” with Nato. Yet he no longer sounds so confident, speaking of “dereliction” and “complicity”, while insisting that the “time of being relaxed is over – it is over!” He reported that people involved in producing military equipment threw up their hands and told him there was no money. “Everyone is shifting responsibility to somebody else. What’s with shifting the blame? Do what you are told and if you can’t, shoot yourself!”

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to the New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his substack “Comment is Freed”.

[See also: The invasion of Ukraine altered warfare and geopolitics for ever]