Reversion to a Mean Strategy: System Memories & Latent Constraints in Russia’s War on Ukraine
TLDRUpFront: A deeper dive into strategies and doctrines of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine through a lens of complex systems analysis to help explain what has happened to now, and what is likely to happen in the future.
Click here for InfoMullet forecasts of Summer/Fall scenarios for Russian-Ukrainian war.
Click here for the contingencies of that forecast (coming soon!).
Click here to scan InfoMullet coverage of 2022-Current Russian-Ukrainian War.
Click here for a single background post reviewing Ukrainian politics 2004-2019.
Click here for Historical Mullet coverage as it happened 2014-2015 during Euromaidan/Dignity Revolution and start of Russian-Ukraine conflict.
As the Russian vs. Ukraine war grinds on into summer and fall, the forecasts I make on what is likely to happen are in part based on the perception of the strategy I perceive the two sides as deploying against one another and the doctrines that inform those strategies. Full disclosure up front, I am not a bonafide expert on military strategy and doctrine in general, let alone Russian military in specific, including some Mulleteers. For those experts, I ask forgiveness in advance because I’m going to be a bit loose in the term’s strategy and doctrine.
For everyone else – what the heck is a strategy and how does it differ from doctrine? A strategy is the system of integrating available capabilities, adapting it to the circumstance of a theatre of conflict, with the hopes of achieving a military or political objective. It’s important also not to confuse capabilities with strategy. Even if we see Russia deploying tanks into Ukraine, and we know tanks are maneuverable, that doesn’t mean Russia is using a maneuver strategy because it’s using tanks. Strategies of maneuver, defense, no-contact attrition can all use tanks – and the way it is used will differ as will the outcomes.
This system of strategy nests in the much larger system of doctrine. Doctrines are the “Represents a system of officially accepted views and positions on the goals or character of a potential war, how to prepare for it and prevent it.” This means doctrine is the larger system within which strategy nests. Nested within strategy are smaller systems of operations which would be coordinating the activities along Russia’s currently 800km front. Within operations lies tactics, which are the specific on-the-ground activities at any engagement along that front.
The interaction of these systems nesting within systems is a complex system – which is where my expertise in system dynamics does come into play. Most of my existing simulations are built[2 & 3] is in a space known as DIME-PMESII which stands for diplomatic, information, military and economic activities that can produce political, military, economic, social, information and infrastructure outcomes. This perspective of complex systems gives us additional vocabulary to describe and understand what’s happening in the war not available within traditional military fields, though it’s becoming more and more important.
In the language of systems – doctrine is the system memory of a countries long-term efforts to develop military power and it exerts either supports or constraints upon various strategies. For the war in Ukraine that means Russia’s existing doctrine could either help or hinder its deployment of different strategies. Between February and May the war is best understood as Putin and his commanders trying strategies Russia’s doctrine hindered until finally settling, in May, on one that doctrine supported. When Putin tried military strategies that Russia doctrine exerted a latent constraint on, they failed. As he shifted to strategies that Russia doctrine exerted a latent support, they fared better. I’m differentiating here between an aspirational doctrine and sticky doctrine. Like many companies embracing new methodologies or ways of working – they may have aspirations of what they could do. But the sticky culture is what they revert too when times get tough.
What’s up Doctrine?
What are the two main strategies relevant in Ukraine? The first, maneuver warfare seeks to fix an enemy in place across a broad front – and then outmaneuver them at specific points. These points can be a breakthrough or an unprotected flank. In either case maneuver warfare exploits the opportunity to bypass, and isolate units cutting off from supplies or reinforcements. In this doctrine tanks and armored mobile infantry play a key role either to punch through the breakthrough point or rapidly outmaneuver the enemy. Artillery plays a supporting role, softening the point of exploitation or holding in place other forces through suppressive fires. In contrast to a maneuver doctrine, a fires doctrine puts artillery in the primary role. Tanks and infantry may advance to secure firing positions, but they mainly operate defensively to repel attacks to dislodge the infantry. Meanwhile the protected indirect fires overwhelm defensive positions with firepower leading to collapse. (I have simplified this by leaving airpower out of the equation, but then again, so did Putin.)
Traditionally, US and NATO doctrines have focused on maneuver while Soviet doctrine focused on fires. In the last 40 years there is no conventional military with a better track record of success at maneuver strategies than the US military. After the breakup of the USSR, Russian aspirational military doctrine was to imitate these maneuver strategies but its sticky doctrine remained artillery focused. We can see in Putin’s shifting strategies February through April efforts trying, and failing, to achieve the aspirational doctrine.
The Left Hook Strategy
For example, during the first invasion of Iraq General Schwarzkopf feinted north. This ‘froze’ Iraqi troops along the Kuwaiti border. He then sent a massive “left hook” wide into the desert up around and behind the Iraqi positions. This encircled and cut off the Iraqi troops resulting in mass surrenders or grim fates for those that tried to escape such as along the Highway of Death. Many, myself included, wrongly suspected Putin of attempting this strategy by feinting invasion from the north towards Kyiv and the northern arc of cities. This would pin Ukrainian forces to defend them, giving Russia freer rein in the south.
Multiple Fronts, Shock & Awe and Thunder Runs
In the second Gulf War, the original concept was to invade on multiple fronts in the north through Turkey and the south up through Kuwait and Saudi Arabia simultaneously. Ultimately the northern invasion was downsized when newly elected President Erdogan denied the use of Turkish soil to stage conventional US brigades. Instead US Special Forces inserted into northern Iraq linking up with existing Kurdish Peshmerga units to create the second front. Supported by shock and awe airpower the two fronts employed rapid advances and maneuvers to create dire conditions for Iraqi armies which found themselves outfought, out bombed, and out flanked. Then flying columns of armor were sent in high-speed forays into downtown Baghdad, known as “Thunder Runs.” Designed to inflict psychological shock at the speed of US advances Thunder Runs sought to crumble resistance in what amounted to hedged bluff.
Putin tried to copy this maneuver strategy by attacking Ukraine on three different fronts and sending his own Thunder Runs of unsupported raiding detachments into northern Ukrainian cities. Airborne assaults by helicopters and paratroopers also attempted to capture strategic airports ahead of advancing forces, calling back to US successes during the Panamanian invasion doing the same.
Failure of Aspirational Doctrines
But it turns out Russia’s maneuver doctrine was aspirational – and couldn’t deliver on the strategies deployed ending up with the worst of all worlds. If he was planning a left hook feint the forces in the north never should’ve advanced far beyond the border and those in the south should’ve struck harder. On the other hand, if Thunder Runs and air assaults were going to have any success they needed support by a rapidly advancing Russian army coming up swiftly behind. Instead, the Russian invasion looked like a dogsled with two fast dogs at the front followed by four much slower dogs. A force to slow to keep pace with rapid maneuver but moving just enough to get caught up and entangled with Ukrainian city-defenses. As a result, the entire Russian armies in the north crashed in on themselves creating the infamous 40km traffic jam north of Kyiv.
Reversion to the Mean Strategy
Beginning May, the grand shift in strategy saw a reversion from the aspirational doctrine (maneuver) to the sticky doctrine (fires) of both the Soviet Union and Russia. This reversion to the mean – or return to expected or average performance – meant a shift from maneuver to attrition fires warfare conducted through no-contact ranged artillery or low-cost expendable troops became the order of the day. This is the method by which Russia eventually took Mariupol and then Sieveriedonetsk. Using its low-precision but superior numbers in indirect fires through artillery, rockets Russian forces would simply destroy, block-by-block if needed, defensive outposts. What troops were sent into the meat-grinder of these urban conflicts were LNR/DNR conscripts mobilized in the breakaway Ukrainian provinces, Chechnyan irregulars, and other low-quality troops they could afford to lose.
It’s a mean strategy in another sense of the word –large casualties in both military and civilian populations. In five months of war killing between 12-30,000 and causing over 8M Ukrainians to flee the fighting with another 10-12M internally displaced inside Ukraine. At one point, Ukraine Armed Forces fatalities clocked at 100-200 soldiers a day creating unsustainable pressures on them and their strategies (see below). We’re nowhere near the end of conventional conflict either – with an InfoMullet forecast predicting more of the same through summer and fall. Compare and contrast a successfully executed maneuver strategy in the opening of the Iraq War that was over in 26 days with under 10,000 civilians killed depending on estimates.
Say it again, “no plan survives contact…”
Adjustments in strategy during a war are not unique to Russia. Take any country that hasn’t fought a full-spectrum conflict in a few decades, put them up against a ready, determined, and equipped near-peer enemy, and it’s unlikely any plan you brought to the line of departure will survive crossing it. Tellingly, the US which performed maneuver strategy excellently in the opening of the Iraq War stupendously failed at counter-insurgency doctrines and strategies resulting in the deaths of several hundred thousand Iraqi civilians over the span of US occupation. In Afghanistan we’ve tried 7-8 distinctly different asymmetric and counter-insurgent strategies, in the end, abandoning the country and watching it collapse in a route to the Taliban.
The constraints on aspirational strategies of maneuver are not limited to Russia. Ukraine’s played excellent defense – but have so far failed to exhibit any maneuver strategy at scale in counter-offensives. They’ve taken pieces of ground here and there, inching back Russian gains. But even though UAF fought off Russian assaults in the cities in the north were not able to exploit the slow retreat to encircle and capture or destroy the retreating units. Now those units have shifted to the eastern front. Likewise, in Kharkiv, there is a constant back and forth of Russian forces establishing artillery lines to attack the city, and UAF forces chasing them off from the belts zone around the city. But UAF cannot maneuver far enough away from the city and push Russian forces back over the border cutting the line of resupply to Izyum. 
These limits on doctrine and constraint are not due to terrain. The terrain is more difficult in the north and may have limited maneuver options for both armies during the first three months to the war. But the eastern front of Ukraine consists of large expansive open spaces. In World War II this front saw the Battles of Kyiv in 1941, Uman and the 2nd Battle of Kyiv in 1943 employ large maneuver strategies successfully between German and USSR forces. But the eastern front is looking more WWI than WWII. A dynamic equilibrium along a long line of entrenched fortifications where Russian incremental advances in the north around Sieveriedonetsk are offset by Ukrainian incremental advances in Kherson. Shifting ownership of 5km patches of ground with ever mounting casualty counts.
“If I were Putin I’d do X.”
I don’t know about you, but when someone slides seductively into my DM’s it’s often to whisper sweet nothings of alternative innovative Russian strategies Putin should be using. This isn’t surprising – I have lots of friends who are gamers and enjoy wargames, either on a board or via computer – and my DMs are very boring. Commercial wargames habituate players to see the board, being able to individually direct units what to do and have them react to that order as expected. Even military wargames are often nothing more than a bunch of guys/gals sitting around a table (BOGGSAT) where they can “talk” their way to success.
System Memory Constraints & Support
These simplified simulations do away with the challenges of implementing any military doctrine at scale. But in the real world our current doctrine is a system memory of everything we’ve done to implement that doctrine. In system dynamics a system memory is the current reflection of all past changes that have occurred. My current bank account value today is a “system memory” of every deposit and withdrawal of money over the life of that account. But it goes further – what jobs I took, what salaries I made, what debt I took on or decided not to. All of these, my entire economic life is reflected in that one system memory of the current value of my bank account. We may not always be able to see it, but it’s definitely there. And system memories can act as laten constraints (limits) or supports (empowering) just like the current value of my bank account determines whether I can buy something or not. The system memory of doctrine reflects acquisition, equipping, training, fielding, logistics – even cultural factors like command structure and perceived appeal of service in a military during the decades prior to a conflict.
With Russian Armed Forces, the system memory is heavily weighted to the sticky doctrine of fires over maneuver. The problems Russia has had in executing thunder runs or maintaining logistics of a multi-pronged invasion is a reflection of the system memory stretching back decades where those activities were not supported. It’s why so many of us were surprised to see them even try it early on.
These system memory constraints explain why Russia isn’t trying X or Y strategy that a person can think up. Swarm, for example, is an advanced strategy combining large amounts of drone, highly mobile and dispersed forces. But the current system memory of Russia doesn’t allow it. It can take 10-20 years of peacetime effort, focusing on exercises rather than demonstrations, to add a new conventional doctrine at scale for the sizes of forces in the Russian v. Ukraine war. With all the corresponding funding, technology, and rooting out of corruption. In the past many, including myself, suspected Russia was innovating an advanced doctrine known as additive complexity or less clearly termed “unrestricted warfare”. The much-feared Russia disinformation and cyber threats has a hard upper limit. They can troll Facebook, influence public opinion through troll farms, infiltrate sensitive and secure systems, and even practice limited economic warfare. But they cannot combine any of these capabilities into a cohesive unified strategy and deploy them to create battlefield conditions that lead to successful military outcomes.
By way of comparison Ukraine had the same sticky doctrine of Russia inherited from the Soviet Union. Only in 2014-2016 did Ukrainian Armed Forces begin a hard shift to adopt the aspirational western military culture and doctrine. With an active, if low-intensity war on their eastern front, senior leaders perhaps had a better understanding of the risks of full-scale Russian invasion than civilian leaders did. Military command pushed down to local units, the trappings of strict hierarchy (e.g., large tables and static briefings) abandoned and the military begin adopting exercises over demonstrations.
But even with 6-8 years of effort there’s limits of what Ukraine has achieved as mentioned above in their failure to exploit maneuver strategy at key moments. Likewise, they still equipped, trained, and fought with Soviet era weapons systems. This presents a challenge to the inflow of US and NATO military support with platforms that are far more advanced, but also require more training to use effectively. This system memory constraint on Ukraine is exacerbated by manpower exhaustion and competing priorities. Most of Ukraine’s original forces have not survived intact and ready and increasingly poorly trained reserves and foreign legions are being used to fill the gap. Where Russia fed LNR/DNR reserves into Sieveriedonetsk, Ukraine pushed foreign legions into the sausage maker. New forces raised in the west of the country receive only minimal training, sometimes as little as a week, before being sent forward. This isn’t long enough to prepare a recruit to become a soldier let alone learn how to operate highly technical systems like the HIMARs into play.
Potemkin Doctrine: Demonstration vs. Exercise Armies
Even worse there’s evidence that Russian forces were a “demonstration army” rather than an “exercise army.” What that means is the real doctrinal tension in Russia wasn’t between aspirational maneuver and sticky fires. Rather, a Potemkin preference demonstration forces that spent their time preparing for military parades and choreographed demonstrations. Indeed, an entire YouTube cottage industry grew up putting Russian military parades to the “Hell March” soundtrack of the video game Red Alert. A doctrine for self-serving political needs rather than the needs of combat. If Russia’s Armed Forces had a sticky Potemkin doctrine, the system memory supports marching in impressive columns around Red Square on Victory day while constraining effectively fighting in combat conditions of Ukraine. Potemkin doctrines are corrosive to military readiness – and if this occurred Putin’s not the first who fell for its charms. There’s good arguments to make that US trained Potemkin forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as well – where systemic failures at military readiness were hidden behind choreographed demonstrations for senior leaders and visiting dignitaries.
Fortunately, the US support in military advisers and equipment to Ukraine did not fall into this trap. While Putin practiced parades, Ukraine prepared for a Russian invasion. Even if they were not fully able to shift the system memory from the sticky to the aspirational doctrine – the effort put into the change over the years showed results where it mattered most. Putin’s first three strategic attempts at maneuver were defeated in order and now Zelensky and the UAF are holding their own against a reversion to Russia’s mean strategy.
Hence my forecast for summer and fall of not much change in the front lines until an operational pause, or mutual exhaustion, forces one.
But check here for contingencies which may change that forecast.(TBD)
 Examples of DIME-PMESII simulations of Syria & Iraq during the ISIS conflict: https://www.mdpi.com/2079-8954/6/2/16/htm & https://www.mdpi.com/2079-8954/6/2/17/htm
 Example of DIME-PMESII simulation for understanding violent radicalization as a social contagion: https://www.mdpi.com/2079-8954/9/4/90/htm
 Cued to overview of Ukraine’s military modernization 2014-2022 https://youtu.be/zXEvbVoDiU0?t=1009