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Has Russia emulated Nazi “blitzkrieg” in its invasion of Ukraine?

There has been much speculation about the poor performance of Russian forces in Ukraine on the one hand, and the unexpected resistance of Ukrainian army and citizens on the other. Yet, this still remains debatable and is down to interpretation and a more detailed understanding of what was expected vs what happened in reality.

These conclusions on military performance, mostly shared by the media, were informed by the idea that Russia was planning to execute a “blitzkrieg” or lighting war, in the style of Nazi Germany, in the early stages of World War II. This hypothesis has been put forward by many despite there being limited evidence that Putin wanted to achieve a fast and decisive victory. The slow progress towards controlling Kyiv and toppling the Ukrainian government, is therefore considered a failure. Yet, the concept of blitzkrieg in the context of Russian operations is a misnomer or a misuse because this is not necessarily what has informed Russian military movements or decisions.

The Guardian reported that the low morale of Russian troops might explain why Putin’s “blitzkrieg plan to overwhelm Ukraine” has progressed at a slower speed than expected. According to the New Statemen, Russian “hopes of a quick victory seem to have been predicated on a blitzkrieg decapitation strategy” of the Ukrainian government. Meanwhile, The Week commented that Russia is trying to conquer Ukraine through blitzkrieg and cited Ukrainian academic Valerii Pekar who stated that “so far, blitzkrieg has become blitzfail”. The Financial Times argued that Russia’s only alternative to its “failed blitzkrieg” is a “long-term occupation”.

These statements, however, seem detached from the reality of Russian military strategy and tactics in the first week of the conflict, when no blitzkrieg tactics – or any type of overwhelming doctrine – was being implemented.

What is blitzkrieg?

Blitzkrieg – or the Bewegungskrieg, as the Germans originally called it – is a military doctrine employing high mobile armoured formations (Panzer), in close cooperation with mechanised infantry and air power, on a scale grand enough to collapse enemy forces and neutralise critical infrastructure. It was developed to avoid the attrition of the trench deadlock of World War I and was widely conducted successfully by the Wehrmacht (the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany) during the initial phase of World War II.

Blitzkrieg did not pursue destruction by itself; instead, the main goal was identifying the enemy’s weakest point in order to break through, causing disruption in the enemy’s rear, and winning therefore by dislocation instead of destruction. The tactic was basically based on speed of movement, a decentralised and quick decision-making process, and dissimulation. Usually the enemy was misled about the focus of the attack, giving them a false sensation of safety and overconfidence. Thus, neutralising logistical bases and command and control centres was essential after launching the attack, making the enemy blind and immovable, leaving only chaos and confusion behind the lines.

High attack speed was used to avoid being stuck in a battle of attrition. In case of the attackers getting resisted by their victims, the Luftwaffe entered with close air support. To this end, junior commanders were allowed to take big battlefield decisions, acting quickly and flexibly to change the focus of the attack if needed, without going through the whole chain of command.

Did Russia apply blitzkrieg?

The Russian invasion into Ukraine does not seem to have the characteristics of a blitzkrieg. Firstly, Russia has been amassing its troops all around Ukraine – a wide perimeter – for months, undermining any eventual possibility of lighting war and surprise effect. Secondly, as showed by the progression of Russian military operations, Ukraine has been slowly but relentlessly encircled. Albeit patchy, with more success in the South and more struggles on the way to Kyiv, Russian troops have cut off lines of communications and access to electricity to undermine the morale of the cities that were encircled.

This was conducted by Russia during the first week of the invasion, using about half of the troops and assets it had allocated for this war, keeping the most powerful artillery on hold and eventually increasing the violence of the invasion progressively depending on resistance met on the ground. Certainly, this shows that in its opening operations, Russia has not proceeded full steam ahead in its efforts to achieve the tactical depth required by blitzkrieg in the way that Nazi Germany used it.

The confusion in the media’s use of blitzkrieg might be a consequence of the belief that Russia intended to conduct a shock and awe operation. This tactical doctrine is based on the use of mass and concentration of force against an adversary to achieve immediate paralysation of its will to resist. Although the proponents of the doctrine of Rapid Dominance characterised the blitzkrieg as a type of shock and awe, there are still differences. But it is also possible that the Western media found it convenient to deploy blitzkrieg to simplify for their readers the complexity of war, or as a strawman to emphasise the slow progress of Russia’s military campaign as rapacious. Russia’s military operation might still fail due to the invasion being a gamble, Ukrainian resistance in the cities, and miscalculations by the Kremlin’s strategists. Yet, this will not be because of a failed blitzkrieg.

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Zeno Leoni

Zeno Leoni

Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department

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