An Echo in Ukraine
What the leaked intelligence on the war does and does not tell us
By Thomas M. Gregg
At National Review Online, Jim Geraghty has a piece on the recent leak of classified documents that has official Washington in such a tizzy. His focus is on a US intelligence estimate that throws cold water on the idea that the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive will achieve much—perhaps only modest territorial gains. Supposedly, the Ukrainians are having trouble generating the requisite forces. Geraghty calls this a “grim assessment.”
“Modest territorial gains” sound pretty good, though, when one recalls the conventional wisdom of February 2022, which predicted a swift and crushing Russian victory. But that’s war for you: Most of the time, nobody has the slightest idea what’s going to happen. Even in these days of high-tech surveillance, the fog of war persists. You may be able to make a reasonably accurate count of the planes, tanks, guns, and troops on each side. Predicting what happens when the opposing forces meet on the field of battle, however, requires more art than science.
A large chapter in the history of war covers intelligence estimates that proved wrong—often disastrously so—not to mention outright failures to see or assess what was happening on the other side of the hill. Some well-known examples:
Despite considerable evidence that war was imminent, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor hit the US government like a bolt from the blue. The possibility of such an attack was not seriously considered, even though the Japanese had done just that in 1904, crippling the Russian Far East Fleet at the beginning of the Russo-Japanese War. Tsar Nicholas II was incredulous when he got that news, having been assured by his ministers that Japan would not commence hostilities without a formal declaration of war. Thirty-four years later, the US government was similarly surprised and shocked.
In the autumn of 1944, Allied intelligence failed properly to assess the German buildup of forces in the West, supposing it to be preparation for a defense of the Rhine River line. But in fact, it was the prelude to a major German offensive through the supposedly impassable, hence lightly defended, Belgian Ardennes—the same sector through which the panzers had struck with such devastating effect in May 1940. In 1944, the Germans once again achieved complete surprise and though their attack was blunted and turned back, Allied victory came at an unnecessarily high price.
In the closing days of the Cold War, Western intelligence agencies were caught by surprise when the USSR, that supposedly formidable superpower, fell rapidly to pieces. The signs of growing decay and decline, obvious enough in retrospect, were somehow missed. The excuse has been offered that the opacity of the Soviet state and society made it difficult to arrive at an accurate assessment. Given that the USSR was the top target of the US and other Western intelligence agencies for nearly fifty years, this alibi seems inadequate.
Still, the intelligence estimate cited by Geraghty may be correct, at least as far as it goes. It’s quite possible that the Ukrainians are finding it difficult to assemble sufficient forces for a major offensive. But the conclusions to be drawn from such an estimate are less obvious than may be supposed. The sufficiency or otherwise of available forces is a relative value, dependent on terrain, weather, enemy strength and dispositions, and other factors. All of these can to some extent be quantified. Less easy to estimate are intangible factors such as enemy intentions, leadership, and morale.
Since the beginning of the present war, much stress has been placed on Russia’s numerical superiority—a superiority of manpower, weapons and resources. This was, so to speak, an informal intelligence estimate, and it persists despite repeated Russian defeats and setbacks. Surely, the thinking goes, at the end of the day the big battalions must prevail. (See here for my fuller discussion of attrition as strategy.)
Often in the past the big battalions have prevailed—but not always. In September 1940, the Italian Army launched an offensive from Libya whose objective was the destruction of the British Army in North Africa and the occupation of Egypt. On paper, the Italians’ margin of superiority was crushing. They had available some fifteen infantry divisions plus armored and motorized units, while the British Western Desert force embodied just one armored division and one, later two, infantry divisions. But in a campaign lasting less than three month (December 1940-February 1941) the British scored a complete victory, smashing the Italian armies and overrunning much of Libya. In that campaign the intangible factors, not the material ones, determined the outcome.
Ukraine’s ability to muster the forces and resources necessary for a counteroffensive is but one factor in the operational calculus of the present war. It is, to be sure, a factor of prime importance—also one that can be estimated with reasonable accuracy. A similarly reasonable estimate can be made of the forces and resources available to the Russians. Much harder to estimate are the intangible factors—the state of training and morale on both sides, their ability to mobilize their resources, and their ability to deploy, command and control their forces in combat.
Such intangible factors are notoriously difficult to assess. During both world wars there were widespread ideas on the Allied side that German soldiers constituted a faceless mass, savagely disciplined, robotic in action. Given the nature of the societies the German Army served—the Imperial Reich and the Third Reich—this notion seemed plausible enough. But the reality was quite different. In World War II, the German Army’s battlefield performance was far superior to that of the armies of the Western Allies and the USSR. The historian Max Hastings has observed that while the German high command and senior leadership were not much better than their allied counterparts, at the level of the division and below German leadership was superb. And the sheer tactical proficiency of the German Army was a considerable shock to American soldiers when they met the Germans in battle for the first time, in Tunisia.
So there’s probably less than meets the eye to the “grim assessment” cited by Jim Geraghty—and cheered, to their shame, by the natcons who oppose American support for Ukraine. Those people have greeted the intelligence leak with delight, claiming that its revelations regarding Ukraine vindicate their position. Of course, if their position possessed any validity the Russians would long ago have staged their victory parade through Kyiv. As it is, the Russian Army is bogged down all along the fighting front, and is currently engaged in a dismal, inch-by-inch slogging match to capture the city of Bakhmut.
It may not be literally true that history repeats itself—that would be too convenient. But history does sometimes produce an echo. The battle for Bakhmut echoes an earlier battle that took place in that part of the world, for a city then called Stalingrad. In those days, the titanic struggle between Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union narrowed down to a vicious fight, street by street, house by house, for a city that had become a symbol. And it culminated in a counterstroke by the Red Army that changed the course of the war.
Intelligence agencies are, after all, bureaucracies. Like Shakespeare’s Caesar, they tend to be deaf in one ear: alert to the rustle of paperwork and the daily news cycle, but unable to catch the echo.
Thomas M. Gregg is a retired advertising copywriter and US Army Vietnam veteran with a combined 28 years of active and reserve service. He’s the author of The Double: Twelve Stories and a Poem and A Cold Day in August: Thirteen Tales of Criminality Most Foul. Read more by Thomas M. Gregg at Un-Woke in Indiana, where this essay was first published.