General Mark Hertling: Russia's Army Is Terrible. But It's Not Over.
Our deep-dive into the War in Ukraine
Six things you should check out this morning:
Trump appeared to describe the imprisonment of January 6 suspects as “a terrible thing that has happened to a lot of people that are being treated very, very unfairly” and complained about Michael Byrd, the US Capitol Police officer who shot Babbitt, appearing on television, which he said was a “disgrace.”
Must-read piece by our friends at the Dispatch: “Partisanship Over Policy at the Heritage Foundation.”
And, I’d like to report a homicide.Saying "we should support Ukraine" but denying them the $ is cowardly and dishonest. I imagine Heritage would have said to Churchill, "We support you in spirit, but as for weapons you're on your own."@monacharen We don't "oppose helping Ukraine," as you claimed. Months ago, we outlined many ways the U.S. can support Ukraine in a fiscally responsible way. Let's have an open and honest debate about it. https://t.co/d2ct964SCARob Bluey @RobertBluey
Tempo, Fatigue, and Black Swans
On Wednesday’s podcast, I sat down with Lt. General (ret.) Mark Hertling for an in-depth discussion of the war in Ukraine. Hertling is a former commanding general of U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army, so he brings a wealth of insight to his analysis of both the Ukrainian and Russian armies.
What follows is an edited, partial transcript of our conversation:
On Russian army corruption (3:22)
Charlie: So what has happened? When we look at the success of this counter-offensive and the failure of the Russians, is this all about the new Western weapons? Or is it a more complex story? … I'd like to get your take on why you think the Ukrainians were able to be so successful in the short term, and the role of Western weaponry and the strategy that they've employed.
Lt. Gen. Hertling: Well … I kind of bristle every time I see on the internet or on television shows or listening to podcasts, when I hear people say that it's all about the Western technology, and we should give them more. We should give them everything they want.
Because, whereas that's certainly a part of what has made Ukraine successful in defending their motherland, there are so many other complexities involved, as you just said.
The first thing is the Ukraine army has transformed over the last 15 years, and I proudly say I was a small part of that when we were training with the Ukrainian army, when I was commander in U.S. forces in Europe…
So, we started that way back in about 2008, and truthfully, it was for selfish reasons. It was because Ukraine had volunteered to send forces to both Iraq and Afghanistan, which they did until the very end of both of those wars, and we needed them to be competent on the battlefield and fight shoulder to shoulder with us. They were not that kind of an army when we first started working with them.
So, over the last 15 years, they have transformed internally. They have conducted western style training events and exercises, they have built a more professional Leadership Corps, not only at the senior officer level, but at the NCO or the sergeants level, and they have really bought into the Western approach to security. So, that's another factor.
But, one factor that not a whole lot of people are saying much about is, truthfully, the Russian army is bad.
As Ukraine has gone in one direction, in terms of a positive transformation, over the last 15 years, because of kleptocracy, and corruption, and poor training, and poor leadership, and lousy recruiting, and just the way they purchase and acquire equipment and treat their soldiers, the Russian army has deteriorated and gone in the opposite direction.
So, it's a combination of the improved Ukrainian army, the horrible stature of the Russian army, and the incorporation of key technological weapons at critical points during this fight.
Charlie: Well, let's talk about the Russian army for a little bit. As you pointed out, the Russians have been now fighting for more than 200 days in dirt and mud. They haven't been well led. They haven't been resupplied. Some of them haven't been paid. They've been under attack by precision artillery. They're fighting Ukrainians who are defending their motherland. And, their morale is ... in the toilet. So, the question is, what does Russia do now? I mean, Russia is now put back on the defense. But, as you pointed out, I mean, they continue to control vast swathes of Ukraine. They still have quite a few resources, and Vladimir Putin has lots of cards. So what do you see as the status of the Russian army right now?
Lt. Gen. Hertling: Well, you know, I sometimes get pushback when I post things on Twitter, because there are some that will jump on and say, "Hey, you're giving away operational security secrets and the Russians can adapt to that."
My response to that is "No, they can't."
I mean ... if you have a viable military, and you make mistakes on the battlefield, and you have a culture of learning, and growing and changing, and adapting to your mistakes and turning things around, then I'd say, "Yeah, okay. You don't want to give any secrets to the Russians because they want to adapt."
This is the example of Israel in the 1973 war in the Middle East. They adapted when they were initially defeated. So, good armies can do that, but Russia is not a good army.
It is so corrupt, and it is so debased by their political leaders, and their senior leaders, you would literally have to replace everyone, and start a training process for both officers and sergeants, noncommissioned officers, as we call them.
You would have to somehow get new equipment for them that isn't damaged or in very poor condition, which all of their equipment is. You would have to train their soldiers on how to conduct ... combined arms operations, which they have failed to do. And, truthfully, all of that takes time.
I was once asked when I was a trainer at our National Training Center in California, when ... a bunch of congressmen were watching a brigade, commanded by a colonel, conduct operations. One of the congressmen asked me, "What does it take to make that brigade commander so good." And I said, "About 20 years of experience, from being a lieutenant all the way up to being a colonel, and seeing how armies work."
I guess, Charlie, what I'm trying to say is, you just don't fix an army overnight, especially when it has the morale problems that the Russian army has now, when it has the equipment and leadership problems, what they have. And, when there is so much corruption at the ministerial level, the senior general level at the top in Mr. Putin.
On what happens next (20:26)
Charlie: So, let's talk about what happens next. As you pointed out at the top of the show here, there's lots of fighting remaining. The Russians are in retreat, but they will obviously consolidate their lines of defense. They're likely to defend some of the key logistics hubs in the south. They're, again, likely shoring up their defenses and using artillery to some effect. So, clearly, this offensive is not going to go on at this pace forever. So, let's talk about the three things that you said yesterday on your Twitter thread that concern you: tempo, fatigue, and black swans. So, let's go through each one of them. Talk to me of what you mean about tempo?
Lt. Gen. Hertling: Well, this is something that, as a senior operational level or strategic level commander, you have to concern yourself with. And, I learned this lesson not only from experience, but also being taught by my mentors. You know, tempo is a term that the military uses. It's actually defined in doctrine as the rate of speed and rhythm of military operations with respect to the enemy's activities. Now, that seems like a simple definition, but what it means is, how fast you go, or how slow do you go or how much do you go in the middle, so that everyone can keep up?
You know, it's one thing to have frontline forces blasting through occupied territory by the Russians, which we've seen Ukraine do over the last five days. It's another thing for those frontline forces to turn around and say, "Okay, I've used up all my ammunition, where is it?" Or, "I don't have any more fuel left in my vehicle? Where's the fuel?" Or, "Okay, I've hit these targets, intelligence guys and gals, where are the next targets I need to hit? And where's the enemy going?"
So, I'm saying this simply, so you understand that the frontline fighters will go as far and as fast as they can, but everyone else has to keep up with them. And, this gets back to my other comment before about the training of the Ukrainian force.
Again, I'll probably get heat for this. Ukraine has a good army, right now. They don't have a great army, right now.
They are missing some of the parts and pieces at the operational and strategic level. And, even though they've been very successful, and your listeners will say, "Well, what's he talking about? They just reconquered Kharkiv."
Yeah, okay, but there's a whole lot more to go and there's a whole lot more things to do, and even the American army screws us up quite a bit.
So, what you have to do is keep everyone together, realize that you can't outrun your supporters and your supply and you can't put yourself in a position where the enemy sees opportunities to conduct attacks against you.
When I first saw the initial advance of the Ukrainian army on a map, it kind of looked like the Germans heading toward Bastogne in World War II. It was a very long line of Ukrainian vehicles, over 25 to 50 kilometers long. And, both sides of that line, we're still surrounded, allegedly, by Russian forces.
So, if Russia had been a good army, they could have attacked into those shoulders, as they're called, and collapsed the Ukrainian offense very quickly, the only thing, truthfully, that saved the Ukrainian army and that long line of attack from Kharkiv to Izium, and then on to Kupiansk, was the fact that Russia is so bad at what they do.
They didn't seize the opportunity, and they didn't have the intelligence that showed them how open for attack the Ukrainian army was.
Charlie: The second one of your concerns that you listed was fatigue. And, “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” I don't know if that was Vince Lombardi or William Shakespeare, but obviously, this is something that the most experienced commanders, and I think most of us actually understand. So, what do you mean? What are you concerned about in terms of fatigue? The fatigue of Ukrainian forces that just don't know when to stop?
Lt. Gen. Hertling: Well, that's part of it. It's just the fatigue of combat.
I'm going to give you an example: When I was a young major during Desert Storm, when we crossed the line of departure in Saudi Arabia, and I was in a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, as part of first armored division, we literally moved for three days straight, without contact, or scattered contact, with enemy forces.
And, those were the frontline Iraqi forces that were actually pretty bad. So, we were taking a lot of prisoners, much like Ukraine has done with Russia.
But, then we hit the Republican Guard at about the four day mark. And, most of us hadn't slept. I mean, commanders never get enough rest, and leaders never get enough rest.
But, the soldiers, because it was a continuous movement, also did not get enough rest. So, you're talking about four days straight without sleep, grabbing bites of food, always being on the alert, because you never know when you're going to be hit, or when you're going to have to hit other people. So, it's just a physiologically and emotionally fatiguing event to go into combat.
Then when you start combat — when you're actually shooting — the adrenaline push that you get from that is the equivalent of what you sustain when you are really fatigued to try and keep going.
So, you have a double dose… Your hormones, just drive you off the chart. So, after four days, you are just completely exhausted.
Now, there's support: when you have support from your fellow soldiers, when you have the population and the government behind you, that fatigue is mitigated. But it's still there.
So, what I'd suggest, is if those frontline forces don't take a tactical pause, to rest, to recuperate, to resupply, to just get a little bit of sleep, it will drain that force.
And, truthfully, Charlie, that's what's been happening to Russia, they have been under attack, their soldiers have been lying in the dirt, uncared for by their leaders, not knowing really what their mission is, and getting pounded by artillery on a daily basis. So it's a different proposition, but it's the same physiological requirements to keep in the human body and the related equipment going.
On Black Swans (30:50)
Charlie: So your third concern after tempo and fatigue is Black Swan. The Black Swan event, unpredictable events that can have severe consequences. So what are you thinking of there? What are the black swans that we should be keeping an eye out for?
Lt. Gen. Hertling: Well, Charlie, in combat, one of the things I learned as a senior commander is just when you think things are going great, something comes up to, pardon my expression. bite you in the ass. And it's usually something that could have been unexpected, but usually it's not. It's something that's in the back of your mind, you say, "Oh, that might happen ... but I'll just overlook it for now." But they always come back to bite you.
This happens in business a lot, too. But what I'm suggesting is, from an amateur observer standpoint, I could sit here today and just write down at my desk 100 things that might crop up that are partly unanticipated, and there may be no plans for.
What I listed in that tweet thread that you're talking about are just eight that kind of came to mind. There are many, many more. And there are people in the State Department, in the Pentagon, in the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in President Zelenskyy's government that are certainly watching some of these things and looking for them, but it's going to surprise the American people. If something happens to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, that's a scary event, but people are planning for what to do next, and they have talked about these things.
… The Ukrainian army is [also] going to capture a lot of Russian prisoners, probably within the next week, if they haven't already captured them.
There's indicators that there's an element in Kharkiv, of the Russian fourth tank division of the first tank army, they left behind estimates, somewhere between 35 to 45 tanks, and 35 BMPs, which are the Russian equivalents of a personnel carrier. And if they left that many behind, that means there's a whole lot of people out there that are being rounded up.
And I would suggest both in Kharkiv and in Kherson, we're soon going to see a massive number of Russian prisoners of war.
Now, the question is, what is Ukraine Army going to do with them? And how are they going to safeguard those, because, by the way, that's that's a requirement of the Geneva Convention is you safeguard your prisoners of war and you don't treat them harshly. Russia has not done that. They have done just the opposite. They have been criminal in their approach to prisoners of war.
…I keep using the example of the Falaise pocket during World War II, a place in France where Bradley's army captured close to 10,000 German prisoners. Well, when you have that many prisoners of war, what do you do with them? How do you feed them? How do you put them in camps? How do you make sure that they're safeguarded?
And how many Ukrainian soldiers are going to be really pissed if they come upon these groups of people, and they want to take out revenge on them? I think the Ukrainian army is more professional than that. But, you know, people do strange things when...
Charlie: They're human beings.
Lt. Gen. Hertling: Yeah.
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