Patterns in the Dust: What a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Would Tell Us About China

Commentary The imminent invasion of Ukraine is chaotic and scary, but paying attention to vital details like the composition and control of the attack can tell us something about China. The anticipated invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces could happen any day now. The fluid situation suggests too much chaos to the point that some analysts might claim we should wait until the dust settles. But in matters of national security, policymakers often don’t have that luxury. And even though it is fluid, a keen analyst can find patterns in the dust. These important items to look in a Russian invasion of Ukraine include the nature of the war as well as command and control of the Russian army, both of which that can inform any potential Chinese aggression. Back to the Future The first pattern must examine the nature of the fighting. Russia is said to practice revolutionary new styles like “hybrid” or “gray zone” warfare. This type of warfare includes using subversive, economic, information, and diplomatic means below the level of conventional war to inflict strategic defeats on their enemies. With that background in supposedly revolutionary action, it fascinated me that many analysts said the key Russian movements in Ukraine, and the first pattern to examine, is the old-fashioned tank thrust. The new hybrid warfare will try to launch cyber and psychological operations (pys-ops) attacks to make it easier, but that kind of warfare still doesn’t produce the results that Russia wants. The new and fancy warfare, at best, operates on the margins as a prelude to the main thrust. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that Russia will have to “grind forward” with a tank and motorized infantry assault. A Russian tank T-72B3 fires as troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia on Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo) This pattern is particularly important in East Asia as some analysts believe that China’s futuristic cyberattacks will paralyze leadership of potential victims like Taiwan, cause American missiles to harmlessly fall into the sea, and ships to list without navigation. Or the theory contends that China’s new carrier-killing missiles will make the carrier obsolete. But contrary to popular belief, China has historically been a low-tech ground power and while it is improving its technological capabilities and weapons systems—and those improvements are dutifully reported in the press as “game changing”—there is little indication yet that the game has changed. The Russian attack in Ukraine suggests that for all the new terminology, a war with China will be fought in traditional methods, with new dazzling technology shaping the margins. This shouldn’t be surprising to those that study Chinese military theory beyond Sun-Tzu. The ancient Confucian writer Guanzi wrote that the art of war doesn’t only consist in amassing weapons. If the ruler excels in weapons, but fails in material resources, the skill of his soldiers, and any number of things that consist of having a “broad knowledge” of his and the enemy’s realm, then the ruler will still lose the war despite his supposed success in weapons. Command and Control If Russia invades Ukraine, it will be its largest operation since World War II. While Russia has been aggressive, the past decades have seen short conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, and the Crimean Peninsula, which involved far less numbers of soldiers, over smaller distances, and a shorter period. The exact extent of the Ukraine invasion depends on the territorial ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But even unilaterally seizing the Eastern provinces under the guise of peacekeeping means that the Russians will be using almost double the soldiers over distances magnitudes larger than Crimea. As the Russians should know in their disastrous invasion of Finland during World War II, large armies without operational experience will have to develop the skills to perform large, coordinated campaigns. In Ukraine, the Russian military will have to coordinate air strikes, amphibious assaults from Crimea, airborne operations to capture key bridges, and artillery strikes in support of their (traditional) land forces. Without proper coordination, any one of these elements on their own could end up being a disaster for the Russians. And Russia will possibly perform all of them. The Ukrainian military, while outnumbered and surrounded, are not the pathetic provincials and insurgents the Russians faced before. They are mechanized and have their own defenses such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that would make coordination even more difficult. Ukrainian Military Forces servicemen attend a military drill with Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) Swedish-British anti-aircraft missile launchers at the firing ground of the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security, near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Jan. 28, 2022.

Patterns in the Dust: What a Russian Invasion of Ukraine Would Tell Us About China

Commentary

The imminent invasion of Ukraine is chaotic and scary, but paying attention to vital details like the composition and control of the attack can tell us something about China.

The anticipated invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces could happen any day now. The fluid situation suggests too much chaos to the point that some analysts might claim we should wait until the dust settles. But in matters of national security, policymakers often don’t have that luxury. And even though it is fluid, a keen analyst can find patterns in the dust.

These important items to look in a Russian invasion of Ukraine include the nature of the war as well as command and control of the Russian army, both of which that can inform any potential Chinese aggression.

Back to the Future

The first pattern must examine the nature of the fighting. Russia is said to practice revolutionary new styles like “hybrid” or “gray zone” warfare. This type of warfare includes using subversive, economic, information, and diplomatic means below the level of conventional war to inflict strategic defeats on their enemies.

With that background in supposedly revolutionary action, it fascinated me that many analysts said the key Russian movements in Ukraine, and the first pattern to examine, is the old-fashioned tank thrust.

The new hybrid warfare will try to launch cyber and psychological operations (pys-ops) attacks to make it easier, but that kind of warfare still doesn’t produce the results that Russia wants. The new and fancy warfare, at best, operates on the margins as a prelude to the main thrust. The Center for Strategic and International Studies reports that Russia will have to “grind forward” with a tank and motorized infantry assault.

A Russian tank T-72B3
A Russian tank T-72B3 fires as troops take part in drills at the Kadamovskiy firing range in the Rostov region in southern Russia on Jan. 12, 2022. (AP Photo)

This pattern is particularly important in East Asia as some analysts believe that China’s futuristic cyberattacks will paralyze leadership of potential victims like Taiwan, cause American missiles to harmlessly fall into the sea, and ships to list without navigation. Or the theory contends that China’s new carrier-killing missiles will make the carrier obsolete.

But contrary to popular belief, China has historically been a low-tech ground power and while it is improving its technological capabilities and weapons systems—and those improvements are dutifully reported in the press as “game changing”—there is little indication yet that the game has changed. The Russian attack in Ukraine suggests that for all the new terminology, a war with China will be fought in traditional methods, with new dazzling technology shaping the margins.

This shouldn’t be surprising to those that study Chinese military theory beyond Sun-Tzu. The ancient Confucian writer Guanzi wrote that the art of war doesn’t only consist in amassing weapons. If the ruler excels in weapons, but fails in material resources, the skill of his soldiers, and any number of things that consist of having a “broad knowledge” of his and the enemy’s realm, then the ruler will still lose the war despite his supposed success in weapons.

Command and Control

If Russia invades Ukraine, it will be its largest operation since World War II. While Russia has been aggressive, the past decades have seen short conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, and the Crimean Peninsula, which involved far less numbers of soldiers, over smaller distances, and a shorter period.

The exact extent of the Ukraine invasion depends on the territorial ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But even unilaterally seizing the Eastern provinces under the guise of peacekeeping means that the Russians will be using almost double the soldiers over distances magnitudes larger than Crimea.

As the Russians should know in their disastrous invasion of Finland during World War II, large armies without operational experience will have to develop the skills to perform large, coordinated campaigns. In Ukraine, the Russian military will have to coordinate air strikes, amphibious assaults from Crimea, airborne operations to capture key bridges, and artillery strikes in support of their (traditional) land forces. Without proper coordination, any one of these elements on their own could end up being a disaster for the Russians. And Russia will possibly perform all of them.

The Ukrainian military, while outnumbered and surrounded, are not the pathetic provincials and insurgents the Russians faced before. They are mechanized and have their own defenses such as anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that would make coordination even more difficult.

Lviv Ukraine
Ukrainian Military Forces servicemen attend a military drill with Next-generation Light Anti-tank Weapon (NLAW) Swedish-British anti-aircraft missile launchers at the firing ground of the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security, near the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Jan. 28, 2022. (AFP via Getty Images)

Russia has the advantage of simply walking or driving its army into contiguous territory. Most of the hotspots dealing with China involved naval forces. Any seizure of disputed territory would require large amounts of naval forces, amphibious operations, and greater amounts of coordination between services. Unfortunately for the Chinese, they have less practice than the Russians and more problems in that area.

Like the problems faced with many militaries trying to make the jump to being a “world class” military, China has numerous problems with joint command and interoperability between the services.

According to the U.S. Department of Defense, the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) “force structure and capabilities focused largely on waging large-scale land warfare along China’s borders.”

This makes sense. Even during periods of Chinese weakness and relative Western dominance like the late 19th century, China still had a capable land army that performed well in the border skirmishes with Russia and Vietnam.

The assessment about China’s force structure and capabilities was from 20 years ago, but despite significant advances in weaponry and reorganization, any Chinese use of military force would face substantial problems. According to a 2020 report by state-run media Xinhua, Chinese analysts describe “gaps” in joint operations because each service “fights their own way.” The report went on to explain the problem this entails using an army unit that had to cross the East China Sea but it doesn’t state the target, only that this would be a “reunification.” The disputed Senkaku Islands, currently Japanese territory but claimed by China, lie in that direction. Already this seems tougher than any Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the Russians have more practice.

The hypothetical “reunifying” army unit doesn’t have organic amphibious transports, electronic warfare equipment, air support, or naval support. Thus, this army unit would have to rely on other branches for all the above, but the regional army commander doesn’t have the authority to order the forces or easy cooperation from other commanders. The end result would be such disjointed effort— any potential invasion would look like amateur hour, not the juggernaut that many fearful Americans believe.

Conclusion

Watching a democratic power be invaded is scary and invokes feelings of helplessness. But we can still be informed even if the chaos is so intense the dust hasn’t settled yet. The Russian need for extensive ground troops like tanks and infantry—which are simply upgraded versions of things that have been around since World War I (for tanks) and far longer for infantry—show that warfare has not entered a new dangerous state.

Every time you read of “game changing” missiles you should remember that they are simply newer and better versions of technology that has been countered for a long time. When the Chinese see examples of Russian clumsiness concerning interoperability and command, they should realize that China will likely face far worse problems using its armed forces to pursue Beijing’s aggressive actions.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


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Morgan Deane is a former U.S. Marine, a military historian, and a freelance author. He studied military history at Kings College London and Norwich University. Morgan works as a professor of military history at the American Public University. He is a prolific author whose writings include "Decisive Battles in Chinese History," "Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy," and the forthcoming, "Beyond Sunzi: Classical Chinese Debates on War and Government." His military analysis has been published in Real Clear Defense and Strategy Bridge, among other publications.