Mark Philip Hertling, served 37 years in the US Army, and in an extensive interview, he analyzed the five phases of the Russian invasion and explained why he believes in the victory of Ukraine.
Retired American general Mark Philip Hertling is a respected commentator on the war in Ukraine. He served 37 years in the U.S. Army, retiring in 2013 as commander of U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh Army.. During his long military career, he spent several years in direct combat and trained elite units. He was the commander of the 1st Armored Division in Iraq, and his unit was often cited for its military successes. He served and commanded at all levels of the military and conducted combat training in the US and the Joint Multinational Training Center in Europe. He is an energetic and passionate speaker, with very informative and understandable military presentations.
In an analysis he wrote for the Washington Post, he explained in detail why he absolutely believes in the Ukrainian army and their victory.
“During my time as commander of US forces in Europe, I met Ukrainian leaders and soldiers during various training missions and saw their culture of adaptability grow and develop. I have also had the opportunity on several occasions to closely observe Russia ‘demonstrating’ (but not properly training or exercising) its military capabilities, and have often observed the deep and pervasive corruption that has engulfed and threatens its armed forcessaid Hertling.
When units train at the NTC, they fight against strong opposing forces for several weeks. Every 24-48 hours there is a pause in action, and then their actions are analyzed and the good and bad things the unit is doing are shown. Good units further erase what they do well, fix their bad stuff, and the battle continues. After three weeks those units and their leaders are damn good. On the other hand, not-so-good units don’t take criticism and correct mistakes, constantly let small problems grow into big ones and don’t reflect on their own failures and poor leadership.
The retired officer recalls that even before he learned the details of Putin’s strategy or the operational goals of his army, he knew that the invasion would not end well for the Russian leader. “Ukraine will fight beyond its capabilities. And Russia will be ashamed,” he told a colleague on the first night of the war.
He points out that it is the war went through five phases and that in each phase the Ukrainian forces significantly outnumbered the Russians, mainly due to the military’s culture of adaptability. “Russian forces are still hampered by a lack of that same culture, as well as a lack of leadership and initiative,” he says. He also reminds that Putin has never officially announced his strategic goals.
“I tried to figure out what his generals might do. He seemed to want regime change in Kiev, the destruction of the Ukrainian army, the subjugation of the Ukrainian population, control of ports on the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov (and possibly Moldavia). It is clear that Russia does not have sufficient troops or combined arms effectiveness to achieve Putin’s ambitious war goals,” he added.
Even worse, Putin’s military ignored one of the most important principles of war – unity of command. The generals planned an attack from nine different lines of advance, but never managed to coordinate large naval and air forces into a mass attack.
The war began on February 24, and it took six weeks for the first phase of Putin’s offensive to fail. As early as April 2, he was forced to try a different approach. He moved Russian forces to the east, putting new generals in charge. But he did not do enough to repair the damage done to the army by such a disastrous start. Estimates vary, but it appears that up to 40 percent of Russia’s front-line combat units have been destroyed, supply lines decimated, and effective leadership lacking. Putin moved most of his army to the east and then ordered the army to be rebuilt within weeks. “Any general familiar with the physical and psychological demands associated with reorganizing such a severely degraded force would tell you that it will not work,” Hertling emphasized.
Then on April 18, Putin launched a new offensive in the east, marking the beginning of the second phase of the war. New arrows and circles were drawn on Russian maps, but Russian generals and troops on the ground were still weaker. There was no quality adaptation and no attempt to learn hard lessons from earlier failures. Patchwork units of low morale were thrown into combat with little planning, poor reconnaissance and ineffective battlefield leadership. Ukraine, on the other hand, was not complacent. Ukrainian generals were quick learners and Ukrainian soldiers were innovative and adaptable. Russian forces continued to suffer heavy losses.
They didn’t learn their lesson even in the third and fourth phase
The third phase started in July and lasted until September. The Ukrainian army forced the enemy into a large-scale retreat in the northeast in the Sumy and Kharkiv regions, using limited counterattacks aimed at the right locations, supported by large-scale operational deceptions in the south. Ukrainian special operations forces also contributed significantly to this phase, using secrecy and disciplined operational management to ensure Russia was embarrassed behind its lines.
For most of the summer, the Russians suffered losses that far exceeded those suffered during the disastrous first and second phases of the war.
The fourth phase of the war began at the end of September, when Putin announced that several partially occupied southern regions of Ukraine would be annexed. This was accompanied by Putin’s order to mobilize an additional 300,000 Russians. Referendums in the occupied territories, which were prepared for months, were repeatedly postponed in the face of an effective rebellion by the Ukrainian population and territorial forces. And the mobilization, while successful in bringing a limited number of “fresh” but reluctant soldiers to the front line, still suffered from the same shortcomings that had characterized the Russian war effort from the start.
Mobilizations were rushed and improvised, recruits were poorly trained and equipped, and Russian leadership was still lacking. In contrast, Ukraine’s actions during this period consisted of an impressively coordinated use of conventional forces that successfully incorporated newly arrived Western weapons, primarily precision artillery and missiles, the retired general explains. In addition, this phase involved more Ukrainian special operations and continuous rear operations. Russia responded by launching missiles at densely populated Ukrainian cities, targeting key infrastructure and Ukrainian civilians. The war crimes of the Russian leadership and Russian forces continued.
Since December, we have been in the fifth phase of this war. Although the front may not have moved much, there was significant fighting and heavy losses on both sides.
This phase is best understood not as stagnation, but as a phase in which Ukraine struggles to survive the Russian onslaught. Putin continues his misguided mobilization and sends fresh cannon fodder to the Ukrainian lines in assault waves.
Ukrainian generals balanced limited but sustained counterattacks with active defense, while simultaneously being forced to allocate scarce air defense capabilities to protect civilians. Ukrainian forces also continue to conduct intelligence operations to identify targets likely to be attacked in the near future. It’s a delicate balance for decision makers in Kyiv. They are trying to hold the defensive lines while training and equipping their forces with newly acquired, advanced Western material that will make a qualitative difference in the upcoming counter-offensive.
Ukraine’s armed forces have adapted admirably at every stage of this struggle, learning lessons from the training they have undergone over the past decade and from the scars of the battlefield itself. And Russia has repeatedly shown its inability to do the same. Russia will continue to fight for change – simply because it cannot. The national army is made up of local people, and the national army reflects the character and values of the society. While equipment, doctrine, training and leadership are important qualities of any army, the essence of fighting power derives from what a nation stands for. Putin’s autocratic kleptocracy is no match for agile Ukrainian democracy for now, concludes Mark Hertling