June 27, 2022 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 395

Wars Of Multiple Miscalculations

June 27, 2022 | By Yigal Carmon and Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Russia | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 395

In 1973, Israeli Intelligence watched repeated Egyptian military mobilization and demobilization and discounted the threat, until the 23rd time when those maneuvers and mobilization turned out to be the actual outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, which tested Israeli resolve like no other. Miscalculations in intelligence and foreign policy can be deadly.

"Who is Fighting Whom" by Franco-Russian painter Franz Roubaud (1856-1928).

The Russia-Ukraine War still raging is a vivid example of the miscalculations of war. This war, which initially received more prominent coverage in the American press than America's own invasion of Iraq in 2003, has seen a long list of mistaken assumptions play out in real time.[1] While the Western press pays particular attention to Russian missteps, they seem to have appeared on all sides – Russian, American, European, and Ukrainian. Some of these are the following:

  • The failure of American deterrence regarding Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

  • Russia's miscalculation of Ukraine's fighting spirit and political cohesion.

  • Ukraine's and Europe's miscalculation (in contrast with the Americans) that Russia would actually attack.

  • The miscalculation of Western intelligence, including the CIA, that saw a quick Russian victory, including the taking of the Ukrainian capital, within days.

  • Russia's miscalculation on the scope and strength of Western sanctions.

  • The West's miscalculation on the scope and strength of their sanctions on Russia.

One can go on and on with an even larger list. The West seems to have overestimated Russia's ability at the beginning of the war and then underestimated Russia's ability to continue the war at a high level. Embarrassingly, some of these conclusions played out on Twitter, that most public and merciless of public forums. Bellingcat investigator Christo Grozev predicted that Russia had the resources to continue the war until Sunday, March 6, 2022.[2] Russian propaganda has mocked the story,[3] repeated by U.S. Commerce Secretary Raimondo, that the Russian military is repurposing semiconductors found in dishwashers and refrigerators to keep their tanks and missiles working.[4]

One of the biggest miscalculations of the war seems to be on the role of Western sanctions. Intended to punish Putin, his war effort, and the Russian people, they may have helped him in the short-run and have also had a tremendous knock-on effect throughout the world.[5] The situation seems poised to turn even more dire in the coming months in energy-poor and food-scarce developing countries. While there is no doubt that sanctions have cost Russia (and may cost Russia even more in the long term), they have also succeeded in turbocharging inflation and shortages worldwide. The world is not so much facing "Putin's price hike" as it is a "Sanctions Price Hike" as Western attempts to prevent Russian energy from reaching the market (and other exports like fertilizer and wheat) boomeranged.[6] Ironically, due to high international prices, Russia and other energy-producing states can make profits that are the same as or greater than before the war while selling less of their product.

Perhaps another Western miscalculation, one with both economic and political consequences, was to present the Ukraine War as a conflict between democracy and autocracy.[7] With much of the world – including much of the Middle East and Africa – governed by autocratic states, a better argument would have been to speak of the integrity of sovereign states and their borders. It is no surprise, for example, that public opinion in the Middle East is overwhelmingly ambivalent about the Russia-Ukraine War.[8]

Only time will tell if there are two more fateful miscalculations in the works in Ukraine. The first question is whether the trends we see on the battlefield will more or less continue to their logical conclusion. Such a conclusion would lead to Russia being able to keep control of whatever territory it has been able to conquer so far or will take in the weeks ahead (roughly between a quarter and a third of Ukraine). The same conclusion would seem to suggest that, with Western help ($100 million a day), Ukraine is able to maintain its independence and control over most of its territory (75%? Less?) until some sort of end is reached.

Both these conclusions are based on the calculation that neither side, neither Ukraine nor Russia in what seems to have become a brutal war of attrition, will collapse nor fully gain the upper hand. That is certainly plausible. But one need only look to the West's last great war of attrition, the First World War, and recall that elements of the French, British, German and Russian armies mutinied at some point late in that exhausting conflict, and that in two of those cases, the internal rot was fatal.[9]

The other miscalculation scenario concerns the use of nuclear weapons, usually considered an impossible, extremely dangerous option during the Cold War age of Mutually Assured Destruction. One may have wondered if there was some sort of understood, informal agreement between adversaries NATO and Russia – NATO would not enter the war directly (with its own troops and NATO-manned aircraft) while Russia would not use tactical nuclear weapons. But if this is not the case, how much is known about internal tripwires that Russia would have that include the use of tactical nukes? Are NATO member Lithuania's actions against Russian Kaliningrad a blockade, and so an act of war? Such a dire nuclear eventuality only seemed likely in a situation where Russia was facing defeat on a Ukrainian battlefield against overwhelming numbers. Russia lost a war in Afghanistan and America lost a war in Vietnam and in neither case was the use of tactical nukes considered. General MacArthur did consider the use of atomic weapons against China in the Korean War and President Truman publicly did not discount the possibility.[10] Do we know how close we are to the edge here or is the West, once again, deceiving itself and making dangerous assumptions?

In all these cases, an institutional lack of imagination can lead us to think that everything in a dynamic, volatile conflict will continue, more or less, along a pre-ordained track, with the same, more or less, reactions and expected countermoves.

The risks of miscalculation are not limited to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. The question of Taiwan raises similar questions. In its indirect proxy conflict with Russia, the United States seeks to reassure China in order to get some level of cooperation against Russia. The United States also reassures China that our One-China policy has not changed while at the same time important voices in the West, including President Biden himself, explicitly compare Taiwan to Ukraine and vow to defend or arm Taiwan to a greater extent in order to deter Chinese aggression.[11] Which discourse does China believe, the reassurances or the rearmament and military intervention rhetoric?[12] If it is the latter, a logical conclusion could be that China knows that whatever plans it has for Taiwan will have to be sped up before Taiwan is strengthened. In this scenario, talk of strengthening Taiwan could make the prospects of invasion more rather than less likely, and instead of deterrence it becomes a provocation.[13] The lesson of Ukraine for China could be that Russia waited too long to attack Ukraine and that when it did, Russia mistakenly did not effectively employ all of its force.

Wars are full of miscalculations, some of them fatal, and that has been true since at least the time when the city fathers of Troy accepted a giant horse-shaped trophy into their gates. Distracted by the specter of the triumph of liberal democratic capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union, and then by two decades of bloody brush wars in the lands of Islam, the West, principally the United States, is thrust into the position to which it has grown unaccustomed of deadly power games in Eurasia that can have fateful consequences far beyond the immediate battlefield.

*Yigal Carmon is President of MEMRI. Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], June 21, 2022.

[2], March 4, 2022.

[3], June 25, 2022.

[4], May 12, 2022.

[6], June 24, 2022.

[7], March 6, 2022.

[8], March 30, 2022.

[9], August 22, 2009.

[10], accessed June 27, 2022.

[11], May 29, 2022.

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