Ukraine Squanders a Precious Opportunity
By Jake Jacobs
[I’m posting this story, hoping it will reach many through my audience. You can reach Jake at XrJake@gmail.com. Here’s a PDF version you can share]
France’s General De Gaulle’s L’Appel du 18 juin speech was controversial even before it was delivered.
“The destiny of the world is here. I, General de Gaulle, currently in London, invite the officers and the French soldiers who are located in British territory … to put themselves in contact with me.”
With that speech, radio broadcast on 18 June 1940 by the BBC, the Free French Forces was born. Those soldiers would march into Paris 4 years later at the head of the liberating column.
The speech almost didn’t happen.
Prime Minister Churchill, recognized it was a disproportionately disruptive speech — one that could upend the European political landscape.
Nonetheless, at 8 P.M., just two hours before broadcast time, Churchill approved de Gaulle’s speech. The BBC repeated the broadcast four times the next day and both the Free French Forces and French Resistance formed.
Today embattled Ukraine faces a similar dilemma as Britain in 1940; vis: what to do with the Russian resistance.
Has President Zelensky grasped the disproportionate power he has to shape the conflict — even from within that enemy’s own territory? So far, it doesn’t seem so.
Three days into Putin’s “special military operation,” a company of Russian soldats defected to the Ukrainian side to “protect Ukrainians from real fascists” and save their own country “from humiliation and destruction.”
The Ukrainians wasted little time retraining these soldats and folding them into the Ukrainian army. In the meantime, three members of the group delivered an awkward mea culpa press conference in Kyiv on 7 April appealing to other Russian soldiers to defect. No leader of the group emerged and what became of the defecting Russian captain is unknown to this writer.
The Ukrainian presser lacked the stirring Marchons! Marchons! of de Gaulle’s sanguine radio appeal but nevertheless, the nascent Free Russian company grew to a battalion-size unit now called the Freedom of Russia Legion (with its ill-suited emblem).
Has it been employed effectively? Or is it wasting away?
News reports, social media, and posted videos show Free Russian units deployed piecemeal into the Donbas salient actively engaging Russian Federation units on the ground — which seems a waste of a precious opportunity.
Any unit can engage Federation forces as the Russians seem to be inept or ineptly led. Nevertheless, Federation forces inflict heavy casualties in this frontal warfare which apparently meshes old Soviet frontal warfare doctrine with WW1-era operational tactics.
This is the appropriate point to describe two schools of warfare and how each would differentially employ the Free Russian units; vis: attrition warfare versus maneuver warfare.
Attrition warfare is simply kinetic in the sense that opposing forces physically battle one another until one emerges the victor. Basically, larger forces with superior firepower and logistics beat inferior forces.
To be sure, the Free Russian units incrementally added to desperate Ukrainian forces. What was needed more was not an incremental but exponential increase — a force multiplier often hiding in plain sight — war by maneuver.
Maneuver warfare does not seek to attrit or defeat an opponent by direct attack and firepower but uses preemption, deception, dislocation, and disruption to destroy the enemy’s ability or will to fight. It relies heavily upon unrelenting rapid actions, initiative, originality, and the unexpected, while seeking to avoid an opponent’s strengths, exploiting instead their weaknesses and attacking their critical vulnerabilities.
Maneuver warfare is complex and much more difficult to effect but if one’s opponent has superior forces, maneuver warfare is the only alternative to defeat and capitulation. Hard-pressed Ukraine is not employing Free Russian units in maneuver warfare. It is not maximizing their unique disruptive potential as Russians — in effect losing a force multiplier.
Another aspect of maneuver warfare is the use of concealment and deception. These two tactics are employed to get the enemy either to underreact or overreact — frittering away their economy of force or something more precious — time.
How does that play into the Free Russian Legion? Take for example direct Ukrainian attacks on Russian soil and their attendant risks. First, such attacks oblige Putin to retaliate and escalate while giving him a mandate to mobilize and deploy the broader Russian Federation military. Second, such attacks shake to the core the already unsteady western coalition and their generous but tenuous support to Ukraine. That’s why the United States declined to supply Ukraine desperately needed long-range missiles that can strike into Russia.
But if the Free Russian Legion were to strike inside Russia — that would be a different scenario indeed and profoundly disruptive both militarily and politically. In a sense such a ploy is meant to lull Russia to underreact by not retaliating against Kyiv in order to conceal their embarrassing vulnerability from the Russian public. Conversely, such attacks induce Russia to overreact by redeploying military assets away from the front to counter prospective future attacks.
Politically, the autocrat strongman Putin, becomes irresistibly driven to suppress political dissent via clumsy military means, especially when dissent shifts to armed opposition, however small and sporadic. Thus, the Free Russian Legion constitutes a force multiplier when employed against critical Russian vulnerabilities in an unconventional or asymmetrical manner.
Through concealment and deception Ukraine should exaggerate the size, scope, and strength of the Free Russian Legion and to a limited extent they have.
Ukraine calls this nebulous unit a “legion,” not a company, battalion, regiment, or brigade. For maximal effect it should be administratively commanded by a Russian officer — a brigadier with some plausible Russian connection.
Is a Russian de Gaulle lurking somewhere in the wings? If so, draft him. If not, make or fake someone. The Legion needs a “Russian” leader as its face to Russia and to the world — someone cast from the de Gaulle mold. Align the Legion with Garry Gasparov’s Free Russia Forum to form a quasi-government-in-exile.
If battalion-sized, organize the Legion on paper as a regiment and don’t number its subordinate understrength battalions, but name them after Russian dissidents: Battalion Magnitsky, Nemtsov, Navalny, Dzhemilev, etc.
Let the ghosts of murdered Russian dissidents haunt the Kremlin and invaders alike. Also, the Legion needs a robust and broad complement of military and naval equipment in the form of tanks, artillery, vessels, and aircraft. Ideally, it should be armed with captured or abandoned Russian Federation equipment and ammunition. It should regularly broadcast its gratitude that Putin is demilitarizing Russia — not Ukraine — while unwittingly arming growing opposition to Putin.
Thus equipped, the Legion should operate on the border of or inside Russia whenever practical. Russians with Russian equipment liberating Mother Russia from the clutches of Putin’s kleptocracy, and there is rough precedence for it — in a sense.
Despite risks stemming from a direct attack upon the Russian Federation, Ukraine did successfully conduct a bold but limited surprise attack 20 miles inside the Russian border upon Belgorad. On 1 April a pair of Ukrainian Mi-24 helicopter gunships struck the major fuel depot and distribution hub there with devastating effect. Ukrainian officials were smug and its Ministry of Defence was deliberately ambiguous — neither confirming or denying Ukraine’s role in the incident.
How would the same attack have played before Russians and the world if the gunships had been marked with Free Russian roundels, flown by Free Russian pilots? If the attack had been followed with a Free Russian press conference after the mission — complete with video?
Ideally then, the Russian Legion can and should be employed in politically sensitive “no-go” areas against high-value targets. If the US administration doesn’t want Ukraine to employ lend-lease rocketry to hit Russian soil then let the Free Russians have a go at it. Lend them two HIMARS and two dozen ATACMS missiles with 190-mile range to strike only critical targets in identity-challenged Crimea. The Black Sea fleet docked in Sevastopol and the Kerch Bridge are particularly vulnerable targets. Follow that with a counter-thrust into the strategic peninsula led by the Tatar “Dzhemilev Battalion” of the Free Russian Legion.
Fortunately, there are Free Russians who share this writer’s viewpoint enough to act upon their convictions. Media reports and adviser to Zelensky, Oleksiy Arestovych, claim that the Freedom of Russia movement is responsible for increasing acts of sabotage within Russia — mostly arson. Also, Russians are leaving for Ukraine to fight for and defend it. Although it remains to be seen whether Free Russian military overt operations within Ukraine will synchronize with covert operations at scale within Russia, the present situation seems to trend that direction.
As is, the situation behooves Zelensky to adopt Churchill’s attitude toward de Gaulle’s Free French Forces and unleash the Freedom of Russia Legion upon the Russian Federation. Allow it a limited degree of military and political independence rather than officially keeping it a subordinate organic unit of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Employ the Legion as Ukraine’s specialized maneuver warfare force to disrupt Russian hegemony and strategic aims with unfathomable chaos. In reality, Ukraine could exercise operational control over the Legion while being deceptive about it — just as Arestovych coyly claimed: “We do not control them.”
As is, the situation behooves some defecting Russian officer to step forward in Kyiv and in the spirit of de Gaulle declare: “Судьба мира здесь!” — the destiny of the world is here!
As is, the situation behooves Ukrainian military leadership to take heed of Churchill’s observation:
“Battles are won by slaughter and manoeuvre. The greater the general, the more he contributes to manoeuvre, the less he demands in slaughter.”