Putin And Patton In Syria

Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 7221, Hoover Institution Archives.

Image credit: 
Poster Collection, US 7221, Hoover Institution Archives.

The term “culminating point” in military operations describes the stage of an offensive at which the heretofore successful attacker is about to outrun his advantages, whether in numbers, materiel or psychological leverage on the defender. If a commander recognizes the culminating point and resists the temptation to push beyond it, he pauses to reorganize, resupply, and refresh his force before renewing the attack. But the commander who cannot resist the temptation of a complete and immediate victory right away risks losing everything.

In Syria, Vladimir Putin and his generals recognized that their brutally successful counter-offensive against the divided opposition was approaching a culminating point—not for the Russian air force, but for the ground forces engaged, an unsteady mix of Syrians, Iranians, Hezbollah fighters, and Russian advisors. So, with spectacular cynicism, Putin agreed to a “cessation of hostilities” on terms so porous that the Assad coalition could pause for breath and consolidate its gains, while Russian fighter-bombers continue to attack “terrorists” and prevent the opposition from catching its wind. Make no mistake: The Russian-backed Assad regime’s offensive is merely on hold (having already achieved several strategic goals, including discrediting the U.S. military and NATO).

A classic, ultimately positive example from the past of a victorious force reaching a culminating point and being halted in time was the advance of General George S. Patton’s Third Army across northern France in the late summer and autumn of 1944. Patton’s rapid advance shattered German defensive efforts, but verged on running out of sufficient fuel. Denying Patton’s request for priority resupply (which would have deprived rival commanders), General Eisenhower forced a measured pause while flanking Allied armies caught up and combat service support elements developed reliably robust logistics to support the resumption of a broad offensive. The Allies won.

Examples of commanders who have pushed beyond operational or strategic culminating points, only to fail disastrously (even against weaker enemies) are, literally, legion. Two millennia ago, the Roman legions under Varus pushed too deeply into the German wilderness, until they had exhausted themselves and lost secure lines of retreat. Under Arminius, the German tribes inflicted one of the worst defeats on Rome in its imperial history. Even centuries earlier, Persian rulers had pushed past strategic culminating points in their invasions of Greece, and Alexander drove his army to an extreme that was psychologically and physically unsustainable, leading to his all-but-catastrophic withdrawal from the Indus.

More recently, Napoleon’s army, diminished by the need to leave behind garrisons and gnawed by disease, reached its culminating point at Borodino, but, mesmerized by the nearness of Moscow, Napoleon drove on and met the culminating point not just of a war, but of his career. Thirteen decades later, Hitler would make a nearly identical mistake. Even Field Marshall Erwin Rommel lacked the mental and moral discipline to halt his drive against Egypt as his forces grew ever more fragile logistically. The result was his decisive defeat at El Alamein. Gamblers win battles, but disciplined judgment wins wars.

Putin has internalized the military legacy of his own country, from Charles XII of Sweden’s disastrous advance to Poltava—one of the worst over-extensions in history—to General Brussilov’s operationally brilliant, strategically futile offensive in World War I. Now Putin deserves credit for having the rigor to restrain his own aggressive character and pause when it was time, skillfully gaining not only time to consolidate on the ground, but a disarming victory in the weak-limbed world of diplomacy, as well.