Last Friday, June 3, marked the 100th day of the war in Ukraine. The war has not gone well for Russia. It is turning into a protracted affair, with many known unknowns. Its eventual outcome—not only military and political but also economic and cultural—is uncertain. It is likely to result in a minus-sum game for Russia, Europe, and the U.S., and a net gain for China.
A hundred days can be a long time in warfare. This was the case even in the days when the horse-drawn carriage was the only available means of supplying armies in the field, evacuating the wounded, and moving heavy weaponry around. With the advent of railways—notably in Europe between 1866 and 1914—a short, decisive war lasting 100 days or less had become the norm.
The birth of the modern world at the Congress of Vienna coincided with the remarkable “Hundred Days” of 1815, starting with Napoleon’s escape from the island of Elba (March 20) and ending with the House of Bourbon restoration in Paris, on July 8, after the final battle at Waterloo. It was a fast-moving political and military drama worthy of the Bard and characteristic of the decisive action needed to win wars.
In the preceding decade, Napoleon had repeatedly achieved swift victories against respectable opponents. On Oct. 9, 1806, Prussia joined the Fourth Coalition against France. Only five days later, in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt, the Prussian army was comprehensively beaten. And on October 27, the mighty Prussia of Frederick the Great became Napoleon’s fiefdom as he rode triumphantly through the Brandenburg Gate at the head of his army.
On Apr. 10, 1809, the Habsburg Empire—apparently recovered from the 1805 rout at Austerlitz and fearful of Napoleon’s hegemony—attacked the French in Bavaria. Just five weeks later, Napoleon occupied Vienna. The campaign ended with his great victory at the battle of Wagram (July 5 – 6). Austria signed a humiliating peace a mere hundred days after initiating the hostilities.
Fast-forward to the industrial age: in the summer of 1866, the Kingdom of Prussia took one month and eight days to defeat the Austrian Empire—decisively so—in the eponymous Seven Weeks’ War (It used to be known, in the German lands and before 1945, as the Deutscher Bruderkrieg, or “German Brother-War,” but today it would be a grave offense in those same lands to imply that Germans and Austrians are “brothers.”) The victory ensured Prussia’s subsequent dominance over all of Germany.
The operations in the Franco-Prussian War started on Aug. 2, 1870. Emperor Napoleon III surrendered—with the bulk of his army—at Sedan on Sept. 2, exactly one month later. The war dragged on under the Paris-based Government of National Defense for another five months, but its outcome was no longer in any doubt.
The 20th century provides us with two important examples of military campaigns during which the first hundred days of fighting decided the shape of things to come, even though the final outcome was still some years away. Both are relevant to today’s situation in Ukraine.
Following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in September 1914, six weeks after “the lights started going out all over Europe,” the Kaiserreich could no longer win the war. Schlieffen’s grand strategic design—to smash France first and then focus on Russia—failed at the Marne. The plan’s execution caused Britain to join the fray (in response to the violation of Belgium’s neutrality), with fatal consequences for the Central Powers. A “normal,” swift European war in which the troops were told they’d be “home by Christmas” had become a global, unprecedentedly lethal struggle.
Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa against the USSR petered out at the gates of Moscow in early December 1941, but arguably it had failed already at the end of August—two months after its launch—when two Panzer corps were diverted south from the Moscow-bound Army Group Center to help Army Group South take Kiev. The result was an operational victory—including the biggest bag of prisoners in history—and a strategic failure, dooming the Third Reich to eventual defeat.
It is reasonable to aver, a hundred days after February 24, that the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine is a strategic failure. There are six key reasons for this conclusion:
- The term “special military operation” implied the expectation that the Russian endeavor would be completed swiftly and that President Putin’s clearly stated objectives, “demilitarization” and “denazification,” would be achieved by the engagement of relatively light forces. Two days later (Feb. 26), Putin all but confirmed this expectation by calling on the Ukrainian top brass to overthrow the Zelensky regime and negotiate the terms directly with the Russians. This directive was a massive miscalculation, most probably caused by faulty intelligence.
- The initial Russian attempt to advance simultaneously in five main directions—from Belarus towards Kiev in two columns, northern and northeastern; from the Crimea towards Kherson and Nikolaev; from the Donbas towards Mariupol; and from the Russian border towards Kharkov—was an abject failure. Apparently it was predicated upon the assumption that the Armed Forces of Ukraine would be in disarray following the initial wave of missile attacks on command posts, communications, and depots. The plan violated the central tenet of war planning: that a military operation must be directed towards a clearly defined, decisive, and attainable objective.
- The Russian military has performed indifferently at best. Imprecise chains of command and control have been aggravated by conflicting political demands. At the tactical level, armored columns have been sent, repeatedly, to advance along urban main roads unprotected by infantry, with dire results. The loss of at least 12 generals (along with an unknown number of their senior staff officers) demonstrates a major failure of communication protection. And contrary to the much-heralded “Plan B,” focusing on eastern Ukraine, there have been no major Russian advances and no pivotal battles.
- The Russian operation enabled the United States to impose firmer discipline on its European associates than the USSR had ever been able to impose on its satellites during the Cold War. Over the past three months the U.S. government has successfully goaded its vassal states (most notably Germany) to fall into line and to impose six packages of anti-Russian sanctions. These have been hugely detrimental to Europe’s economic and security interests, especially in the field of energy.
- An obsolete and harmful relic of the Cold War, NATO has been spectacularly revived. The pending inclusion of Sweden and Finland into the alliance would not have been possible without the Russian operation in Ukraine and its consequential effect on public opinion in the two traditionally neutral Scandinavian countries. Finland’s inclusion, especially, will aggravate the geostrategic position of Russia more seriously than any other single event since the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989.
- Russia’s grand-strategic options are increasingly limited and inevitably focused on closer ties with China. Beijing is the main benefactor of the resulting geopolitical adjustment. The CCP leadership, with Xi Jinping now permanently at the helm, is likely to treat Russia as a resource-rich but beleaguered junior supplicant rather than as an equal and respected partner.
Russia will survive the sanctions and may even prosper (offsetting some of the losses caused by having left gold and currency reserves in the West) by diverting oil and gas exports to Asia at ever-increasing prices. The ruble may remain strong and the economy more or less stable, but the Russian Federation will not be better off; it will not be more powerful and respected, in global terms, when it is all over.
It is still possible for Russia to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in Ukraine, either by advancing to the Dnieper River and taking the rest of the coast (Odessa and the northern Danube delta) or—less likely—by completing the current offensive in the east and refocusing on the capital, Kiev. Either scenario would require Vladimir Putin to declare general mobilization. He would have to tell the nation, in clear terms, that it is at war with the political West—led by the United States, using the Ukrainian military as their proxy—a war that Russia must not lose if it seeks to retain the great-power status and to safeguard its vulnerable western border.
On current form, Putin is unlikely to act decisively. He is a muddling middling manager, after all, as I have been saying for years, and not a statesman. He is apprehensive that a radical move of this kind would rapidly erode his support among the Russian people, most of whom still live and act as if the fighting in Ukraine is something that does not concern them personally.
Demanding an all-out national mobilization, declaring a state of emergency, and bringing all trained reservists to colors is the necessary (though not necessarily sufficient) precondition for a possible Russian success. President Putin’s unwillingness to take that risk reflects his personally functional but systemically dysfunctional decision-making pattern. In that respect, at least, he is not different from his colleagues and erstwhile partners in Washington D.C., Brussels, Berlin, Paris, London, and Rome.
Image: The gutted remains of cars lie along a road during heavy fighting at the front line in Severodonetsk, Luhansk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 8, 2022 (Oleksandr Ratushniak / Associated Press)