The following is a translation of an article originally published on IINA’s Japanese website on May 19, 2022, augmented with a postscript written on September 6.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine on February 24, no doubt believing that his military forces could quickly overwhelm and topple the administration of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. As of this writing in May 2022, though, the conflict appears to be showing signs of a protracted war. There have lately been many reports of Putin’s ailing health and mental instability, which, if true, would naturally have a major impact on military operations, particularly in an autocratic state like Russia But while the media has made much of such speculations, it has offered little analysis of how the war is actually being waged. Given the dearth of information from Moscow and aggressive communications efforts by Kyiv, moreover, there appears to be a bias toward reporting events from the Ukrainian point of view. I will thus seek in the following to identify a rationale for the Russian military’s operational-level planning, although in no way do I believe that Russia’s attempts to change the status quo by force can ever be justified.
Much remains unknown about the quality and quantity of Russian and Ukrainian troops, weapons, and ammunition—as well as the matériel supplied by other countries in support of Ukraine—so a detailed analysis will need to be conducted by future researchers. In the hope of contributing to such analysis, though, I will offer an examination of the ends, ways, means—the main elements of operational art—as well as the risks identified by Moscow in its decision to launch its invasion.
What Is Operational Art?
The strategic (political objectives) and tactical (force deployment) aspects of warfare are closely interrelated and are linked by a level that is referred to as “operational art.” This concept was elucidated in a May 1989 article in the Military Review by Arthur F. Lykke, a retired US Army colonel and professor of strategic studies at the US Army War College. In it, he wrote that national security is supported on a stool called military strategy, the three legs of which are “ends” (objectives), “ways” (courses of action), and “means” (military resources). Using this simple analogy, he observed that the legs must be balanced to prevent the stool from tilting and to avoid national security risks.
In terms of military history, the concept is regarded as having developed in the Soviet Union, evolving from the need to study, understand, prepare for, and conduct warfare featuring increasingly broad line of contact between armies—stretching for thousands of kilometers and involving millions of soldiers—in World War I and the Russian Civil War. Given such a background, it would seem an apt concept in analyzing Russia’s initial operations in Ukraine.
Operational Ends (Objectives)
There were two conceivable operational objectives for the Russian military in launching its invasion. One was to establish the independence of the breakaway “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk and protect pro-Russian residents there by attacking Ukrainian forces from the east through attrition warfare. And the other was to undertake maneuver warfare by quickly invading from Belarus and Russia and overthrowing the government in Kyiv under the pretext of rescuing the people of Ukraine from the oppression and massacre that NATO’s eastward expansion would inflict, thereby achieving the “demilitarization” and “de-Nazification” of the country. The latter began with an attack on Hostomel Airport in the suburbs of Kyiv, but this aerial onslaught was subsequently thwarted by the Ukrainian forces, which regained control of the airport.
Russia also launched invasions whose operational objectives were unclear. Forces entered from the north seeking to capture Kharkiv, as well as from the Crimean Peninsula in the south. Various motives have been cited for these operations, such as to support the invasion of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, to secure a land corridor from Russia to the Crimean Peninsula, to capture Kherson as a water source for the Crimean Peninsula, and to scatter the strength of the Ukrainian forces by attacking on multiple fronts. While they may help to achieve Russia’s two objectives identified above, the attacks on Kharkiv and Kherson can hardly be justified, as they were likely simply aimed at capturing Kharkiv oblast, establishing a corridor to Crimea, and securing water sources for the peninsula.
On March 25, General Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian military’s General Staff announced at a press conference that “The main tasks of the first stage of the operation have been carried out,” and that Russia will now focus on achieving “the main goal: the liberation of Donbas,” by moving its troops from Kyiv to the two eastern regions claimed by Russia-backed separatists. And on April 23, the deputy commander of Russia’s Central Military District said on Russian state media that the goal of the “special military operation” was to take full control of Donbas and the southern part of Ukraine, hinting that Russia might also invade Moldova. At this point, Russian forces were concentrated in the east, occupied the southern oblast of Kherson, and were attacking Mykolaiv oblast.
The deputy commander’s comment, two months into the war, was the first mention of southern Ukraine being one of the targets of the invasion. It also pointed to Moscow’s decision to abandon its goal of toppling the regime in Kyiv and to focus instead on securing the independence of Luhansk and the Donetsk, and to bring southern Ukraine—an area stretching from Mariupol, Crimea, and Kherson to possibly Odessa and even Transnistria, an unrecognized breakaway state in Moldova—under its control. Given Russia’s operations thus far, though, this was unlikely to have been the initial goal of Moscow’s invasion.
On April 10, Putin appointed General Aleksandr Dvornikov, commander of Russia’s Southern Military District, to take complete charge of military operations in Ukraine. The fact that there had been no centralized joint commander until then has, no doubt, seriously hampered Russia’s efforts to plan and undertake unified operations and achieve its strategic objectives. Normally the central joint commander will identify clear operational objectives, the main orientation of operations, the distribution and coordination of forces, the integrated application of land, sea, air, space, cyber, and electromagnetic operations, and logistical arrangements. Without such instructions, a military invasion is likely to end in failure. Securing the effectiveness of operational art requires that the ends, ways, means, and risks are clearly identified so that a commander can delegate authority to subordinate units. It also necessitates ongoing and consistent education and training in operational art from the highest ranks of the military to the leaders of small units.
Operational Ways (Courses of Action)
Russia’s “special military operation” began on February 24, 2022, with air strikes on military targets and radar sites throughout Ukraine and an invasion by ground forces, backed by airborne operations. As I mentioned above, the ground invasion was mainly on two fronts: from the east in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and from Belarus targeting Kyiv.
Keys to the success of the latter were agility and self-sufficiency—factors contingent on the implementation of what is known as the OODA (observe–orient–decide–act) loop and logistical planning for the frontal attack. The OODA loop is a decision-making cycle aimed at taking control of a combat situation by reacting quickly and outmaneuvering the enemy. Self-sufficiency is also a crucial consideration, since the faster the offensive, the longer will be the supply route. With Kyiv located over 160 kilometers from the Belarusian border, Russia’s airborne supply was cut off when it failed to hold Hostomel Airport. Unlike the attrition operation in Donbas, the objective of the Kyiv operation was not necessarily to control the territory leading to the Ukrainian capital, and this made it more difficult to secure a land route for supplies.
Because the Donbas offensive sought to occupy new territory in incremental slices, the guerrilla tactics of the Ukrainian forces that proved so successful near Kyiv could not be effectively used in the east. Russian control of the region, moreover, gave its forces air superiority and access to intermediate supply stations, and commanders could operate from the rear, rather than having to issue instructions at the front.
Operational Means (Resources)
The invasion of Ukraine is foreign warfare for Russia. It is generally said that an aggressor needs three to five times the strength of the defender in order to prevail. The Russian army attacked with a force of 150,000 to 200,000 troops, while the Ukrainian army as a whole had some 130,000 soldiers, in addition to 900,000 reservists who served in the military for five years and residents who registered to join the war effort. Troop numbers alone would suggest that Russia’s gambit was reckless, so Putin and the Russian military must have mistakenly assumed that the Ukrainian army would not put up much of a fight in the face of Russia’s military advances.
As of April 26, Ukraine has received more than $5 billion worth of weapons and other military assistance from over 30 nations, including the United States and countries in Europe, and additional aid is expected going forward. Russia will thus have even greater difficulty in responding to attacks from a mix of low- and high-tech weapons, both from those long held by the Ukrainian military and equipment newly supplied by other countries. Another plus for Kyiv is the fact that the US military has been sharing intelligence on Russian troop movements for several months.
Russian unit commanders have needed to be near the front in the operation to capture Kyiv, given the difficulty of issuing commands from the rear, and this has led to numerous casualties among Russian battalion tactical group leaders. As of May 3, as many as 9 generals and 38 colonels have reportedly been killed in action. These attacks have been based on both Ukrainian intelligence and those furnished by the United States and NATO, and they have had a significant impact on how Russian units are commanded, resulting in the depletion of military resources—that is, a reduction in the means of warfare.
It goes without saying that in a globalized world, where information travels quickly across borders, attempts to unilaterally change the status quo by force against another country pose a major risk. The occupation and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and recognition of the “people’s republics” of Luhansk and Donetsk presented considerable risks for Moscow, but the invasion and occupation of other areas of Ukraine were even greater risks that the international community simply could not overlook.
An analysis of Russia’s operational art using Lykke’s model of the three-legged stool reveals that the ends, ways, and means were out of synch. This compounded the risks, resulting, at least in the initial stages, in the failed attempt to occupy Kyiv. As a tactical matter, moreover, the Russians had an inadequate grasp of the difficulty of the operation and the risks arising from the lack of skills among both individual soldiers and units.
Following Moscow’s setback around Kyiv, Putin stopped proclaiming, as he had initially done, that the invasion was not aimed at occupying Ukrainian territory. During the Victory Day speech on May 9, he asserted that “an invasion of our historic lands, including Crimea, was openly in the making” and that Russia thus “launched a pre-emptive strike at the aggression,” adding, “Donbass militia alongside with the Russian Army are fighting on their land today.” The statement gives a clearer picture of Russia’s ends, ways, and means, and in that sense, may help reduce its strategic risks.
An analysis of the initial phase of the Russian invasion from the perspective of operational art, as seen above, suggest that its ends, ways, and means were largely uncoordinated and that this has resulted in higher risks. Any strategy resting on such an unbalanced and unstable “stool” is likely to topple over.
In concrete terms, the invasion was launched without a clear strategy or objective (ends) and in the absence of a unified commander. As for courses of action (ways), little thought was given to implementing the OODA loop or securing logistical supply routes in the advance toward Kyiv, and the lack of a commander in charge of all combat areas prevented Russia from achieving unified, joint operations. There were serious lapses in analyzing Ukraine’s military resources (means), moreover, both in terms of troops—consisting not just of regular soldiers but also reservists and citizens who voluntarily enlisted—and weapons. Unexpectedly strong support for Ukraine, primarily from the United States and Europe, of both weapons and intelligence regarding Russian movements, coupled with unprecedented economic sanctions, have emerged as major risks for the Russian military.
Russia’s ends, ways, and means have become somewhat clearer in the second stage of operations following the failure to topple Kyiv, and the risks resulting from the gap between strategy and tactics has grown smaller than during the first stage.
Negotiations for a cease-fire have stalled following revelations of atrocities committed by Russian troops during its occupation of Bucha, so from the viewpoint of operational art, the chances of an early suspension or end to the fighting appear unlikely, despite the expectations of the Ukrainian people and rest of the world.
Postscript (as of September 6)
As stated above, there is still no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, and it is likely to drag on for some time. The scale of warfare—the fact that it is basically between two countries, that it is confined to the borders of Ukraine, and that it has not yet escalated into a world war, although it is by no means a localized conflict (involving approximately 600,000 square kilometers of Ukrainian territory)—places it between the strategic and tactical domains and allows it to be optimally analyzed at the operational level. Barring unforeseen developments like a change in political leadership on one or both sides, intervention by other countries, the use of strategic nuclear weapons, or a large-scale natural disaster, the country that can sustain the three legs of operational art—ends, ways, and means—and avoid related risks to the very end is likely to ultimately prevail.
4 Yasuhiro Kawakami, “Gendai no anzen hosho koza, dai-27 kai” (Modern Security Lecture, no. 27), All Japan Defense Association, March 2021, p. 4. Keizo Kitagawa, Gunji soshiki no chiteki inobeshon: Dokutorin to sakusenjutu no sozoryoku (Intellectual Innovation of Military Organizations: Doctrine and Creativity in Operational Art), Keiso Shobo, 2020, pp. 116–31. Daisuke Saito, “Senso o miru daisan no shiten: ‘Sakusenjutsu’ to ‘senso no sakusen jigen’” (A Third Perspective on War: ‘Operational Art’ and the ‘Operational Dimensions of War’), Senryaku Kenkyu, no. 12, January 2013, pp. 79–100.
5 Arthur F. Lykke, “Toward an Understanding of Military Strategy,” in J. Boone Bartholomees ed., The U.S. Army War College Guide to Strategy, Strategic Studies Institute, 2001, pp.179–85.
6 Kitagawa, op. cit., p. 117. David M. Glantz, trans. Munenori Umeda, Soren-gun “sakusenjutsu” jushinkaisen no tsuikyu (Soviet Military Operational Art: In Pursuit of Deep Battle), Sakuhinsha, 2020, p.7.
19 IISS, The Military Balance 2022, Routledge, 2022, pp.211–15．
20 “Ukuraina e gunji shien kyoka no Obei-gawa to Roshia taiketsu no kozu senmei ni” (West Steps Up Military Aid to Ukraine, Taking Tougher Stance toward Russia), NHK, April 27, 2022, Among the weapons provided include Javelin and NLAW anti-tank missiles, Stinger and Starstreak surface-to-air missiles, T72 tanks, Gepard anti-aircraft tanks, Mi17 helicopters, Switchblade suicide drones, Phoenix Ghost explosive drones, 155mm howitzers, armored vehicles, radars, ammunition, and bulletproof vests, as well as the servicing and repairs of such weapons. Washington announced on August 1 that the US would also provide HIMARS high-mobility artillery rocket systems and new 155 mm howitzers, bringing total US military assistance to approximately $8.7 billion.