Can Liddell Hart's 'indirect approach' survive in Ukraine? Punsara Amarasinghe considers Ukrainian resistance against Russian war strategy.

Date01 September 2023
AuthorAmarasinghe, Punsara

The 19th-century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz's belief in the supremacy of great battles as the key factor in war, which echoed till the outbreak of the First World War, was vehemently rejected by British military thinker Sir Basil Liddell Hart in his classic text Strategy. After reviewing dozens of examples from the decisive wars in global history from Scipio Africanus to the 1916 Battle of the Somme, Liddell Hart argued that the path to victory in war lay in striking where the enemy was least expecting. Despite criticism of Liddell Hart for twisting historical examples, his famous military strategic dictum, called the 'indirect approach', seems to have been successfully applied by Ukraine in its resistance to Russia's invasion in February 2022.

Since the outbreak of the war Russian troops have been flabbergasted by the Ukrainians' military resistance on the battlefield. Whereas Russia has concentrated on launching heavy attacks against military and political targets, the Ukrainians, in contrast, have opted to apply more sophisticated methods. These have ranged from striking with their own hand-held missiles to targeting Russian supply lines, actions which have at last begun to have detrimental effects on the Russian war effort. Various reasons thwarted Russia's attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, by a coup de main. Geography and technology played their part, but it was Ukraine's use of the 'indirect approach' that played the key role in allowing Kyiv to avoid a debacle. In similar fashion to First World War generals, the Russian high command, it is clear, anticipated that a conventional war campaign would bring a rapid and crushing victory over Ukraine.

From the Russian perspective, the invasion of Ukraine was a timely and necessary response to the perceived danger of Ukraine becoming a NATO member--long a concern of Moscow. In his commentary to the Modern War Institute at West Point, Dutch military infantry officer Marnix Provoost described Russian war strategy in Ukraine as a mechanism that is flexible, opportunistic and subjective, focusing primarily on the perception of the Russian people that victory justifies the cost of the war.

In Russia, the invasion of Ukraine was depicted as a special military operation. It was designed to install a pro-Russian puppet regime in Kyiv by a lightning action. But Ukraine foiled this plan with its indirect approach, which ultimately compelled the Russians to fight a...

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