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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

If Only Someone Saw This Coming

State of the Union: Unfortunately, the war has reached such a stage where a compromise and way out will perhaps not appeal to irrational minds.

Helmet,And,Equipment,Of,The,Second,World,War,Are,In
Credit: Kolbakova Olga

In a recent essay, John Mearsheimer gives a magisterial lesson on why Blitzkrieg is overhyped and usually fails in the context of the Ukrainian war. Mearsheimer first explains what Blitzkrieg (BK) is, writing that it “relies on the mobility and speed inherent in an armored strike force to defeat an opponent without engaging a series of bloody and protracted battles,” and that it requires a “flexible command structure peopled from top to bottom with soldiers capable of exercising initiative in combat situations where the fog of war is sometimes thick.”

But, BK often fails. In fact, the historical record of BK suggests that only superior forces succeed in BK, and peer or inferior forces never do. Mearsheimer gives the historical examples of various BKs: “Germany launched five major offensives in World War II: against Poland in 1939, France in 1940, the Soviet Union in 1941 and then again in 1942, and against the Allied armies in 1944,” adding,

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Israel Defense Forces (IDF) launched blitzkriegs against the Egyptian army in 1956 and 1967. In both cases, the Israelis decisively defeated the Egyptians, but neither was a fair fight as the IDF was a superior fighting force. There have been five other blitzkriegs besides the four German and two Israeli cases: the 1945 Soviet offensive against Japan’s Kwantung Army in Manchuria; the North Korean invasion of South Korea in 1950; the Indian offensive against East Pakistan in 1971; the Vietnamese strike into Cambodia in 1979; and the US-led attack against the Iraqi army in Kuwait in 1991. These cases, like the two Israeli cases, were unfair fights.

The only instance of a successful case of conflict between peers, between near compatible forces, was one of Germany in France. In all the other cases, the overwhelmingly superior forces succeeded, and in all the cases of peer-to-peer contact, the offensive force practicing BK got mired down by the defender in mines and mud. Essentially, in a fair fight, BK rarely ever succeeds.

The essay is worth reading in its entirety, especially given the recurring gloom one now encounters in various media, as the much touted Ukrainian “counteroffensive” is slowing down in some places and failing to progress in other areas. It was always ever to be thus. Twenty years of blowing up camel herders gave us a false sense of conflict, unsuited for a war of attrition, where the entrenched defending force is visibly bigger with more production capacity and more manpower. One can see an array of articles even in formerly optimistic platforms of the New York Times and Politico cautiously calling for a negotiated settlement and freezing of the current lines of conflict. The realists were right. A combination of foresight and detached pessimism is not a common instinct, especially during a hyper-emotional moment of aroused public passions, but the reality soon comes back to slap one in the face.

Unfortunately, the war has reached such a stage where so many careers and predictions are on the line and depend on its outcome that a compromise and way out will perhaps not appeal to irrational minds. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, the hatred for realism is similar to the “rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.”