Since day one of the war in Ukraine, military theorist Martin van Creveld has been analyzing the problems facing Russia. He recognized Putin’s supposed retreats as the deceptions that they are. But the current situation is even more complex than it appears.
As far as we can tell, the situation in Ukraine is above all else chaotic. We first heard reports that Russian troops were advancing on every front, then Ukrainian forces reported success after success, claiming to be slowing down and in some places even halting the invader's advance.
Cities are reported to be occupied, then we hear they are still disputed. Convoys are halted for many days, but no one knows why. Some reports claim the Russians are running out of reinforcements, while others say they have only deployed three-quarters of their troops so far. Moscow says it will shift its focus from Kyiv to eastern Ukraine, but then we see that the capital is still under intense assault.
Both sides accuse each other of war crimes and reporting losses that are obviously underestimates, unreliable and unbelievable. A maternity ward has been shelled, although it’s not clear whether this was a deliberate target or, as it euphemistically called, “collateral damage.”
Some reports say Western sanctions against Russia are working, while others say they are a mere nuisance that can be overcome with help from China. Some say Putin is winning on all fronts, while others say he has overreached, and is desperately searching for a way out. Putin is ill. Putin is crazy. Putin will soon be replaced, but no one knows by whom.
The greatest lie of all
Millions of messages are being sent, intercepted, recorded, decoded, saved and analyzed by all forms of artificial intelligence available. Some are even being falsified. And to make matters worse, alongside this deluge of words, there is a flood of images. Both sides are publishing countless photographs, clips and videos to support their claims. (And that doesn’t even take into account the millions of images published in the media.) It’s impossible to tell who took most of the pictures, let alone where, when or why.
Even more confusingly, the two armies’ uniforms and equipment look remarkably similar, so it’s often difficult to distinguish between them. We see a broken-down vehicle or a building in ruins, but can’t tell who destroyed them. Bodies lie in the streets, but we can’t identify who has been killed or by whom. In short: the claim that pictures don’t lie, as Hitler’s propaganda minister Goebbels liked to say, isn’t true. It is perhaps the greatest lie of all.
One problem is the illusion that we are capable of interpreting what we see in an unbiased manner
The sheer volume of information is greater now, but in principle this is nothing new. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote The Art of War in 500 BC, said that all military leaders rely on deception and that the fastest and best way to conquer an enemy (with the least bloodshed) is to trick him. Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, who published On War in the 1830s, said that in times of war, nearly all news is either contradictory, false or both.
Napoleon, neither a theorist nor an author, but one of the greatest military leaders of all time, believed that making sense of the chaos was a task worthy of such geniuses as Isaac Newton or Leonhard Euler. He was a master of deception – a talent that he showed not only on the battlefield, but also around the card table.
A Russian tank in the streets of Mariupol
The information problem
The sophisticated technology available to today’s military leaders has not done away with the problem. Quite the opposite – in some ways, it has made things more difficult, partly because of the sheer volume of information pouring in from decision-makers, soldiers, the secret services and individuals. Let me give you an example. In 1991, as the U.S. Marine Corps was preparing to invade Kuwait, their leaders had 1.5 million satellite images of the terrain available – as well as other sources of information that it would take too long to list here.
There were so many images that they were practically useless – they simply did not have the necessary manpower, expertise and time to make use of them. As new information was constantly coming in, the task of analyzing it would have been literally never-ending. Developments in artificial intelligence have addressed some of these issues, but definitely not all.
Another problem is the illusion that we are capable of interpreting what we see in a realistic, unbiased manner. That is far from the case. Our minds are influenced by fear, euphoria, hope, desperation, disappointment and thousands of other feelings.
The chaos of war affects the aggressor as much as the invaded country
What we see is often not dependent on the relevant information, but on who we are – our upbringing, education and prejudices. No two people, no two organizations, are the same or see the world in the same way. This means that even when we have all the information we need, it is difficult, often impossible, to see things from the enemy’s perspective and guess their intentions.
History and Russia's fate
Thirdly, in times of war, all of these problems are exacerbated by what Clausewitz calls “stress.” Nothing is more stressful than war. For someone who hasn’t lived through a conflict, the mental toll it takes is unimaginable: the constant danger to life and limb, whether your own or others’, as well as the fate of entire countries and populations hanging in the balance.
These stresses are so great that they make even the bravest and most resilient act strangely – if not all the time, then at least sometimes. In such circumstances, it is (as Napoleon said) no wonder that false information proliferates. Some people see armies where there are none; others don’t see the armies that are right under their noses.
One final point, which it seems to me analysts have so far disregarded. It is true that, all other things being equal, the chaos of war affects the aggressor as much as the invaded country. But creating order out of chaos – the task of the aggressor – is far more difficult than the opposite. The Russians have no hope of winning unless they can force a rebellious population to become orderly and obedient. The chaos may well help the defending country. The Israelis in Lebanon, the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq all tried to achieve this, and all ultimately failed.
Ukraine is a large country, with borders that are difficult to close and millions of capable and highly motivated people. The likelihood is that Russia will fail here as well.
*Martin van Creveld was born in Rotterdam in 1946 and is Emeritus Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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