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No assumption survives contact at war
Why recalculation post-contact matters more than pre-combat assumptions
In Ukraine, the only amount that might be stacked higher than the body counts on both sides is the list of flawed Russian assumptions. But while pundits and analysts endlessly repeat President Vladimir Putin's mistakes, we should remember that no assumption survives combat. War makes everyone wrong. What matters most now is how quickly all sides adjust.
The list of Russian misconceptions, misappraisals, and mistakes is indeed long. Here goes a quick survey: Ukrainians want to be in “Russiky Mir” (the "Russian world”). Ukrainians don't want to side with the West. Ukrainians won't fight. President Volodymyr Zelensky will surrender. Superior Russian troops will easily take key Ukrainian terrain. Russians will embrace this "special military operation." 'Fortress Russia' sanctions-proofing measures will hold. Global businesses will want to continue to work in Russia. Europeans won't push back, China will intervene significantly on Russia's side, and America is too divided to assemble a global coalition to counter Russia.
Most, if not all, wrong.
But even if Putin made bad assumptions about his war in Ukraine, so have many other individuals and governments. That's because organized, lethal violence in modern society is shocking—unthinkable, really—and when it happens it tends to make everyone look like slack-jawed gawkers at a roadside car wreck.
The British war historian, Sir Michael Howard, wrote with A.J. Wilson in 1974, "I am tempted to declare dogmatically that whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives...the advantage goes to the side which can most quickly adjust itself to the new and unfamiliar environment and learn from its mistakes."
To wage war is to be wrong repeatedly in the faith that your adversary is even more wrong.
Just ask President Putin, who wrote in his book, First Person, during the second year of the Russian war in Chechnya in 2000, “I think that there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That’s inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is making mistakes, you’ll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude and you have to keep thinking of victory.”
The Russians are recalculating. Vladimir Putin is recalculating. So should we.