Recently I’ve been reading the fascinating book The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam by James William Gibson. Technowar, far from being a type of all-out DJ battle, is how the author describes the concept of war which evolved in the minds of America’s military and political elite at the beginning of the Cold War, and in particular shaped America’s strategy in Vietnam. When it came to understanding the US defeat in Vietnam, in the past I read books such as A Bright Shining Lie* by Neil Sheehan, along with biographies of Vo Nguyen Giap and some of that illustrious general’s own works. While the so-called “liberal” explanation of defeat, that America’s leaders held a number of incorrect assumptions and mistaken ideas which led to a big misunderstanding that killed well over a million people, has always been closer to the truth than the conservative tale of self-imposed restraints and a stab-in-the-back myth in regards to the home front, Gibson set out to expose both explanations as mythology, fairy tales that different segments of America told themselves.
Gibson digs deeper, past basic political misconceptions and the idea that the US military simply didn’t know how to fight a proper counter-insurgency campaign. No, according to the dominant beliefs among the generals and political elites of the time, they knew exactly what they were doing. They weren’t perplexed by the intricacies of winning hearts and minds or fighting against guerrilla tactics. They had a strategy, which Gibson dubs Technowar, and not only did they know it would succeed, but the very idea that it could possibly fail was simply unthinkable. The US war machine was far more technologically advanced than that of the National Liberation Front, AKA the Viet Cong, and the North Vietnamese military. American industry was far more developed than that of Vietnam, and even the Chinese and Soviets who were supplying them. This would turn into a battle of attrition, but unlike WWI where the idea was to effect a breakthrough and capture territory, Vietnam strategy boiled down to two words- body counts. The idea was to kill enough VC and NVA until both the NLF and North Vietnam were convinced that they could not win their war. To see how this strategy played out on the ground, as well as its nuts and bolts, you’ll just have to read the book.
It would be nice if that were the last time America’s leaders succumbed to a delusion disconnected from military reality. Members of the Bush administration found a unique way of dealing with counter-insurgency in the modern world- just pretend it won’t be an issue. They picked a conventional opponent, knocked it out using America’s insurmountable advantage in conventional warfare, and then expected the troops to be showered with roses by a grateful population, just before the latter buzzed off to design a Western-style liberal democracy wherein entrepreneurship and the free market decide everything. To some extent, the US and its allies showed that they had learned from past mistakes in Vietnam. At least they seemed to have stopped measuring success in body counts, more body counts, and nothing but body counts. Holding territory and at least attempting to build functioning governments and institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to have played a more central role. Still in the run up to the Iraq invasion Bush and his advisers constructed an echo chamber for themselves and thus fell victim to a delusion just like the “best and brightest” who got the country into Vietnam.
One cannot help but to find parallels with Putin’s post-2014 imperial adventure. In fact, in many ways the delusion is even more destructive than it was for the US in Vietnam. A fundamental pillar of Technowar was the irrefutable fact that America’s military-industrial complex was superior to that of the Vietnamese and their insurgent organization in the South. As the US was getting increasingly involved in Vietnam (something its leaders did quite deliberately for the most part), it was simultaneously experiencing its biggest economic boom. That the US could produce more helicopters, more small arms ammunition, more shells, more rockets, more bombs, etc. was not up for debate, and given the accomplishments of US industry during WWII and the period thereafter, you can almost forgive some of the country’s leaders for succumbing to the delusion that this ability would convince the Communist Vietnamese that they couldn’t win.
Putin, of course, has embarked upon a branching warpath with nothing like the kind of economy the US had prior to 9/11, let alone that of 1950’s-1960’s America. Worse still, while Putin did at least start a massive military overhaul prior to his superpower play, it’s difficult to determine the extent to which the Kremlin gets its money’s worth. When it comes to contractor corruption and questionable budget items, the Pentagon is by no means a virgin. But in Russia corruption permeates every level of society, including the military. Who can say for sure what the Ministry of Defense actually gets for the money it’s spending?
Besides this we can see that the Kremlin, itself not particularly known for waging terribly successful counter-insurgency warfare (paying tribute to a Chechen ex-rebel is hardly victory), has obviously succumbed to a number of Technowar-like delusions in its wars.
In Ukraine there’s lot of evidence suggesting that the Russian government intended to take a much larger swath of land in the East; at the very least we know they wanted the whole of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. There’s also a very good possibility that in the beginning, they believed they could effect this without much costs, just as they did in the Crimea. It’s also quite possible that they merely let their proxies think this would be the case, letting them take the walk through the minefield. However, one must remember that prior to the mobilization of 2014, Ukraine had at best a token military, one which had disarmed quite a bit with the help of the United States, incidentally. As such, the idea of a two-day drive to Kyiv might not have seemed to far fetched to anyone familiar with the military capabilities of Ukraine and Russia.
Yet despite a government plagued with infighting and corruption, the new Ukrainian army has managed to hold the line in the East. Perhaps showing slightly more regard for reality than the Bush administration or those of the Vietnam War era, the Kremlin radically revised its line toward the “rebellion” in the East, from giving up any plans for taking cities like Kharkiv and Dnepropetrovsk to scrapping the whole “Novorossiya” project and declaring what’s left of the rebel territories to be part of Ukraine.
Syria, has turned out to be another matter, and another possible source of delusion. It began with the idea that Russia would pretend to lead a crusade against ISIS, and in the process, Western nations would have to work with Moscow to obtain a resolution in Syria. It is highly likely that the “destroy ISIS” pretext was never seriously believed by the Russian Ministry of Defense, but it’s hard to tell because the system here isn’t known for brooking dissent. If Putin says destroying ISIS is the goal, then that’s the goal, even as you’re bombing almost everyone but ISIS in the beginning.
Of course Putin and company were mistaken on other aspects of Syria. The West didn’t exactly jump at the chance to effect reconciliation with Russia, as Putin had apparently hoped when he inaccurately likened the struggle to that of the Grand Alliance of WWII. The sanctions are still in place and there’s no real sign that this will change anytime soon. It is very possible that Western leaders have finally started to understand the interests behind Putin’s sabre-rattling, and if so they might have figured out that any concession they make will not be appreciated, nor will their be reciprocity. Western countries can afford to play the long game in this case.
The Kremlin got a bucket of ice water over the head last November, when one of their fighter-bombers in Syria was easily shot down by Turkish F16’s. This of course was followed by all manner of economic threats against Turkey, but Ankara doesn’t seem to show signs of folding. Erdogan, like Putin, is also an authoritarian steeped in delusions, and he won’t back down in his own backyard. Yet in spite of this, the recent “simulated attack” on the USS Donald Cook (Yes, again) shows that the Russian government hasn’t learned its lesson about what actually happens when they go toe to toe with NATO forces.
There is also, of course, the overarching problem of having no direction or easily-defined objectives, both in Ukraine and Syria. In Ukraine it’s fairly clear that the goal was propaganda aimed at preserving the regime in Moscow. Conditions in Ukraine must ever be worse than those in Russia, so that millions of viewers can always say “At least this isn’t as bad as Ukraine!” It’s also dangerous to have so many Russian-speaking people, and indeed the Kremlin’s propagandists and even Putin himself all insist that Ukrainians and Russians are one people, creating a fully-functioning democratic society that can hold its leaders accountable. If they don’t need a “strong” hand to keep them in line in Sumy or Kharkiv, why do they need it in Kursk, Voronezh, or Moscow?
Of course the problem here is that “troll Ukraine” isn’t really a goal. It costs tons of money and has done nothing but hurt Russia’s image while proving to be a major boon for NATO and the Western military-industrial complex. When it comes to strengthening NATO and getting the US back into Europe, Lucas and Applebaum are amateurs compared to Vladimir Putin. This, incidentally, is probably one of the arguments you’ll hear from conspiracy theorists after the fall of Putin’s regime, when he is inevitably labeled an agent of the State Department (Because fuck the CIA, apparently).
In Syria it would appear there’s more of a concrete goal- defeat ISIS. Whether Assad stays or goes, kicking ISIS back across the border is a coherent, achievable goal. The problem is that it’s clear that more and more of the fighting is falling on the shoulders of Iranians, Russians, and Hizbollah. Russia has the most military resources out of these groups, which means it would be very easy for them to get drawn further in and end up shouldering more of the burden. But let’s say for the sake of argument that they kick ISIS out of Syria- what do they get for this? Sure they’ll gain some propaganda points, perhaps justifiably so this time, but they’ll most likely get stuck with the task of keeping Assad afloat, and there’s always the remaining threat of other rebel groups plus possible ISIS stay-behind forces who could go over to unconventional warfare. You know, that warfare that Russia is really bad at?
When we read the Russian state and pro-Kremlin press on Syria, we don’t really see much discussion about possible failure. In fact, one writer for Russia Insider published a piece that criticized Putin’s move, quite reasonably pointing out that it could put Russia in a difficult lose-lose scenario. The response from other Russia Insider Putin fanboys was harsh. The very idea that Putin’s plans in Syria could possibly fail is “anti-Russian.”
The delusions of the Kremlin regime don’t stop in the realm of military adventures. We see it in their so-called “information war” as well, particularly every time they release another laughably phony video or story. It’s not that Russia doesn’t have plenty of past mistakes to learn from; it’s just that unlike the US, Germany, Japan, or the UK, the powers that be basically nullified those mistakes, and in more recent times they have sought to make their official narrative the only one. All past shocks in Russian society are simply attributed to spies and foreign agents, and thus preventing the next one is simply a matter of finding and stopping the spies and foreign agents. It’s almost like those body counts in Vietnam.
Reality is a harsh mistress. Regimes can ignore her only for a limited time until she kicks in the door and stabs you repeatedly in the gut with a steak knife. It’s clear that the delusions of the Kremlin aren’t quite identical to the meticulously constructed pseudo-science of Gibson’s Technowar, but parallels do exist, and in fact the Kremlin has actually fallen further from reality in some respects. Far from despising force, Putin and his cronies looked with awe and envy at America’s military interventions in Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq. If only they could send troops and planes around the world to violate other nations’ sovereignty! Now, at the expense of millions of Russian citizens they believe they have achieved this capability, one which is by no means a sign of true national greatness. Believing themselves to have achieved parity, the Kremlin appears to have devoted zero attention to understanding the foundations of US military might, and they certainly never considered the staggering costs America has paid thanks to the delusions of the original neocons (really good point on that from ex-ambassador McFaul).
Indeed it is ironic that the regime has spent so much on propaganda that gloats over the decline of the American empire when it is traveling down that same road in a much worse condition. Just up that road, slightly off to the side, there’s someone hiding in the brush clutching a Kalashnikov and waiting to spring an ambush. But it’s no Victor Charlie. It’s Lady Reality.
*A Bright Shining Lie is an extremely thick book, but if you don’t have the time or just want to get the gist first, it was made into an HBO original movie back in the 90’s and the whole thing can be found in four part here on Youtube. It’s definitely worth watching.