Alex Lo
SCMP Columnist
My Take
by Alex Lo
My Take
by Alex Lo

Why the Ukrainian blitzkrieg tanked in latest counteroffensive

  • Controversial US political scientist John Mearsheimer argues the much-touted counter-attack against Russia was doomed from the start

Ask a war buff about blitzkrieg, or lightning war, and you won’t be able to shut him up. There are few living souls writing today in the English language who can claim greater authority on the subject than John Mearsheimer, one of the world’s most famous political scientists and when it comes to the war in Ukraine, also among the most controversial.

It’s not surprising, then, that in his latest lengthy take titled, “Bound to Lose: Ukraine’s 2023 Counteroffensive”, published in Substack, the University of Chicago professor applies his expertise on blitzkrieg to analysing the failure of the latest Ukrainian counteroffensive.

His views on the Russian invasion are well-known and intensely disputed, if not hated, among the Western intelligentsia and policy circles. That’s because he thinks there can be no good outcomes for those with the highest stakes in the conflict, and that he has long argued, well before the current war, that Nato’s eastward expansion was bound to provoke Russia into a military response.

Nowadays, whatever he says or writes about Ukraine is either preaching to the converted, among whom I count myself, or considered just more hateful pro-Russian propaganda from an incorrigible contrarian. I recently interviewed Mearsheimer here.

However, if we take a detour with this latest analysis of what he calls “the ABC’s of blitzkrieg”, you might find his stance on the war, or at least the latest counteroffensive, reasonably objective and neutral.

The conclusion that the Ukrainian army has failed at a decisive breakthrough in the eastern front is becoming less controversial by the day, though some Western pundits and politicians still cling to the possibility of success. Others simply move the goalposts, and claim the counteroffensive was never meant to be a blitzkrieg, but “a marathon”, in other words, a war of attrition.

But haven’t the two sides been doing exactly that in the past year as they are bogged down at the front which has been more or less stabilised? So why suffer such heavy casualties for an offensive when it’s just more of the same? Just to please the West?

Blitzkrieg in 1939

Here’s how he defines lightning war: “A blitzkrieg relies on the mobility and speed inherent in an armoured strike force to defeat an opponent without engaging in a series of bloody and protracted battles. That strategy is predicated on the assumption that the opponent’s army is a large and complex machine that is geared to fighting along a well-established defensive line. In the machine’s rear lies a vulnerable network, which comprises numerous lines of communication, along which information and supplies move, as well as key nodal points where the various lines intersect. Destruction of this central nervous system is tantamount to the destruction of the defending army.

“A blitzkrieg involves two major operations: winning a breakthrough battle and executing a deep strategic penetration. To be more specific, the attacker aims to surreptitiously concentrate its armoured forces at a specific location or two along the front line, where the defender’s force-to-space ratio is low and where the attacker can achieve numerical superiority over the defender.

“A defence that is thinly spread out and outnumbered is relatively easy to break through. After opening a hole or two in the defender’s front line, the attacker seeks to move rapidly into the depths of the defence before the target state’s forces can move to cut off the penetration. Although it may be necessary to engage in a set-piece battle to accomplish the initial breakthrough, a high premium is placed on avoiding further battles of this sort. Instead, the attacker follows the path of least resistance deep into the defender’s rear.”

Also, the tank is essential but artillery is not.

“The tank, with its inherent flexibility, is the ideal weapon for making a blitzkrieg work,” he wrote. “Artillery, however, does not play a major role in blitzkrieg, in part because it requires significant logistical support, which interferes with the rapid movement of second-echelon forces into the expanding salient and more generally is a drag on mobility.”

Nothing controversial here, and it quite explains why the current Ukrainian offensive, which has relied more on artillery than mobility, hasn’t worked out. One reason is to minimise Ukrainian casualties, but that has reportedly caused complaints from some Western quarters, which seem happy to see more Ukrainian bodies being thrown into the slaughter. And of course, the Ukrainians have more artillery than tanks.

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But it’s Mearsheimer’s history part that might miff some war buffs.

He lists five German offensives in the second world war; all but one were blitzkrieg. “Germany launched five major offensives in World War II: against Poland in 1939, France in 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941 and then again in 1942, and against the Allied armies in 1944,” he wrote.

“The Wehrmacht did not employ a blitzkrieg strategy against Poland, although substantial tank forces were engaged in the operation. It simply steamrolled over the Polish military in what was clearly an unfair fight.”

What? The overrunning of Poland wasn’t blitzkrieg?! That’s a bit like saying the Cold War wasn’t about nuclear weapons.

Here’s what the famous British war historian and strategist Liddell Hart wrote in his influential History of the Second World War.

“The [German] campaign in Poland was the first demonstration, and proof, in war of the theory of mobile warfare by armoured and air forces in combination,” he wrote. “When the theory had been originally developed, in Britain, its action had been depicted in terms of the play of ‘lightning’. From now on, aptly but ironically, it came into worldwide currency under the title of ‘blitzkrieg’ – the German rendering.”

I take Mearsheimer’s point; German military superiority was so great the Poles would have been overrun one way or another. And yet, it seems the Germans really did plan a blitzkrieg as a proof of concept.

It was, after all, an exciting new idea at that time. But where did it come from?

Well, I recall reading a long time ago a review of Mearsheimer’s highly unflattering book on Hart written early in his, Mearsheimer’s, career.

Hart, it seems, spent a good deal of his career claiming to be the originator of lightning mechanised and armoured warfare. The fact that the brilliant German general Heinz Guderian, who distinguished himself in the invasion of Poland, sang Hart’s praises after the Nazi defeat helped cement the British writer’s then stellar reputation, which has since been questioned, partly thanks to Mearsheimer. Of course, as a war prisoner, Guderian might have wanted better treatment and early release by the Brits through Hart.

Historians nowadays generally consider an unrealised war plan for a fully mechanised offensive against the Germans devised in 1918 by the British general and eccentric genius J.F.C. Fuller as the first blitzkrieg-like plan.

So, I gather Mearsheimer doesn’t trust Hart’s judgment on blitzkrieg, which extends to even the latter’s uncontroversial take on the opening battles of world war two that overran Poland in 1939.

But I digress.

Blitzkrieg in 2023?

The Ukrainians needed a blitzkrieg of sorts as a breakthrough for purely political reasons, rather than military. Why? The existing stalemate is demoralising for everyone and will curtail Western public support eventually.

“There was growing evidence of war fatigue in the West and the US faced a threat from China in East Asia that was a greater danger to American interests than the Russian threat,” Mearsheimer wrote. “In short, Ukraine was likely to lose in a protracted war of attrition, because it would be an unfair fight.”

Unfortunately, the Ukrainian army has neither the equipment nor training to carry out a blitzkrieg-like breakthrough, which everyone has fantasised would either push the Russians back into their own territories or force them to negotiate a peace advantageous to Ukraine and the West. Both wishes turn out to be unrealistic.

In the end, Ukrainian generals chose to pivot with artillery and long-range missiles. And that has reportedly irked their Western cheerleaders.

As the fearlessly independent Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone puts it: “I’m sorry, US officials ‘fear’ that Ukraine is becoming ‘casualty averse’? Because safer battlefield tactics that burn through a lot of ammunition don’t chew through lives like charging through a minefield under heavy artillery fire?”

Not only was the latest counteroffensive doomed from the start, but its failure will cause further distrust and recrimination between Kyiv and its Western backers.

It was ill-conceived from the start.