Settele discusses strategy and tactics in the Russia-Ukraine War
In this first article of a three-part series, we ask researchers and experts at the University of Maine to weigh in on the conflict unfolding in Ukraine.
Just a few days before the announcement of the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave a speech claiming territorial rights over Ukraine. He gave viewers an edited history lesson of sovereignty as far back as the Ottoman Empire and blasted the influence of the U.S. and NATO as threats to national and regional security.
That Russia might invade a neighboring country was not surprising. In a military operation in February 2014, Russia took advantage of the chaos unfolding in Kyiv during Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity to invade, and subsequently annex, the Crimean Peninsula. The conflict lasted one month and six days and marked the beginning of the Russo-Ukrainian War.
Eight years later, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been far less successful.
“The expectation from the world, but especially Moscow, was that Russia would roll through Ukraine like a hot knife through butter,” says retired Navy Captain Jim Settele (USN-Ret). Settele is the Executive Director of the School of Policy and International Affairs at the University of Maine.
Over the course of his 27-year military career as a naval flight officer, Settele served on four E-2 squadrons on several different aircraft carriers, including the USS Midway, and was Commanding Officer of the VAW-126 Seahawks onboard the USS Harry S. Truman.
Settele also served as Military Assistant to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld from 2001 to 2003 and became director of Operations, and Policy and Strategy for U.S. Naval Forces Europe – Sixth Fleet in Naples, Italy in 2004.
“When you go into someone else’s home to fight them, expect them to fight harder, with more intensity, perseverance and passion than you could possibly imagine,” Settele explains. “Underestimating the will of the Ukrainian people was a mistake. It was not only a mistake on Russia’s part, but it was I think, a mistake on all our part to think that it would be such a walk for the Russians.”
Settele explains that the Ukrainian military had been preparing for this kind of warfare since the annexation of Crimea when Russia placed some of its pro-separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. Beyond that, the Russian military operation lacked organization and planning.
“In Maine, we know what mud season is. The seasons are fairly close with respect to what they look like between Ukraine and Maine. The Russians thought, ‘it won’t hurt us because we have tanks.’ Well, it’s not the tanks that were the issue. The tanks could go through the mud. It was the supply chain vehicles that had trouble with the mud. When you put your force way forward, you must have the ability to resupply with food, water, but mostly with gas.” The tanks, Settele says, go through a lot of gas.
Early in the recent invasion, Russian forces were not able to maintain adequate supplies to their frontline forces. “Those supply chains were going down these small highways and they weren’t tracked, they weren’t set up for mud, and so they stall on the highways. Ukrainians were really good about taking out the supply trucks in the front of these long chains. And when they took them out, they shut down the supply route. They couldn’t go around the destroyed vehicles because of the mud.”
Beyond creating supply chain issues, Ukrainian forces employed a strategic type of warfare that was well-tailored to the situation.
“The Ukrainians are using guerilla counterinsurgency-type tactics. Small squads, small groups of soldiers with high-end weapons supplied by the European Union, the United States and NATO, which are top-of-the-line defensive weapons: anti-tank weapons, Javelins and Stinger missiles for surface-to-air and lots of other capabilities that small platoon groups can use to halt the Russians.”
The will of the Ukrainian people, modern weapons supplied by the West, and poor planning have all contributed to a much less successful Russian advance than predicted.
“This is where I think the Russians are going to get even nastier because they need to get something of value out of this.” That they are learning from their mistakes in the first part of the war has become clear, but how far they are willing to go remains uncertain.
Settele is concerned about what’s next and wonders where the “red line” is—a figurative point of no return—when the U.S. and NATO would decide to increase the level of support for Ukraine, which has thus far primarily been supplying defensive, and more recently offensive, weaponry.
He points out that attacks on civilians and widespread war crimes appear to have not crossed that line. “I don’t know how many people we can watch die—civilians, innocent people, babies, kids, mothers-to-be, in how many hospitals and schools, or train stations, as people are trying to leave. How much do we have to witness before we step up in a more significant way and not be so concerned about escalation?”
Ukraine is investigating more than 21,000 possible war crimes since the onset of the conflict. The fear of escalation, Russia’s potential use of nuclear weapons, and the resulting widespread societal destruction remain a big concern and, for now, a significant deterrent to the Western powers shifting from a defensive to an offensive approach.
When asked what scares him the most about Russia right now, Settele says, “Putin is unhinged. He’s been challenged in his own country with [Alexei Navalny] and some others. And democracies are appearing to be successful in the former Soviet satellite countries. He’s seeing his grip on power, and his grip on the Russian ideal, fading. If he’s not done after Ukraine, what’s next?”
He says it’s not entirely out of the question that Putin would invade other countries, regardless of their NATO status. “It’s somewhere between Cold War II and World War III. But we’re not returning to the status quo.”
For Americans, there is a lot to be concerned about, Settele says. The world is a lot less safe, and in the long-term, there will be substantial repercussions, including higher hydrocarbon costs, inflation and food shortages. “We’re a lot worse off, and a lot of that’s got to do with Russia crossing the line into Ukraine and prosecuting a war that they should never have started.”
Moving forward, Settele hopes that Putin would never use a nuclear weapon. But hope is not a good strategy, he says, especially if you think that is a possibility.
Written by Tilan Copson and Ali Tobey