Infocus: Professor Phillips O'Brien

As Russia began to wage its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February, most observers thought that it would reach a swift victory. The country had made major investments in military modernization and strategy, entering the conflict with what was supposed to be among the most advanced tanks, aircrafts, and naval vessels in the world. They had planned, trained, and prepared for this moment. The odds were stacked in their favor.


Professor Phillips O'Brien, Head of the School of International Relations and a Professor of Strategic Studies, however, had doubts about Russian military supremacy from the invasion’s earliest days. Noting the vast economic, demographic, and political problems that could inhibit how Russia managed the conflict behind the lines, he was among the first to question that they would coast to the crushing victory many expected.


As the invasion – along with the massive geopolitical, societal, and economic repercussions it has wrought – has dragged into its eighth month, O'Brien’s suspicions have been vindicated. The Russian military has begun to exhaust much of its best military resources and personnel, failing to hold occupied ground and incurring major losses. Meanwhile, with the backing of significant Western humanitarian and military aid, Ukrainian forces have held a strong defensive line and launched a counter-offensive, making substantial territorial gains in the country’s east.


O'Brien, who has been at St Andrews since 2016 and is the author of How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II, among other titles, has been watching the conflict unfold at its most granular levels. He analyzes wars with the assumption that they are won and lost through the handling of mundane logistics and strategic operations, rather than brute force alone. For his careful strategic analysis, he has been widely sourced in the media and published in The Atlantic, The Sunday Post, The Spectator, The Critic, and more. On his Twitter feed, he also provides regular updates on the invasion to an audience of more than one hundred sixty thousand followers.


I recently spoke to O'Brien to learn more about how understands the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and war more broadly. In our conversation, he elaborated on why he believes that outcomes in war hinge on the control of communications and logistics, and explained why he thinks that military “power” in global politics needs to be defined by a combination of more nuanced factors than military and economic might alone.


He discussed the state of the ongoing conflict, which he says has been “trending” in the Ukrainian direction, spelling out why President Vladimir Putin initiated a mass conscription process in late September and touching on the probability of Nuclear warfare (which he thinks is low, but still possible).


As Ukrainian forces mount an uphill battle to reclaim Russian-held territory, and they – like the Russians – are dealt significant logistical challenges, O’Brien predicts that both sides will struggle to support military deployment beyond the end of next year. Still, he says, the invasion’s impact on warfare and the world will endure: permanently altering combat and shifting our understanding of military strength away from a tally of tanks and tactical weapons and toward a more nuanced picture of power.


War is often studied on the battlefield, but O'Brien looks at it from behind the front lines, analyzing how military power is deployed and organized. That, he says, is where victories and defeats are decided.


“War is often portrayed as battles – as heroism, bravery, or cowardice from a dramatic point of view,” he said. “The human experience of war is dramatic and terrible. But war itself tends to be won and lost through really mundane, and in some ways, boring processes. It's a process of creating force, deploying force, and getting it to the right place.”


O'Brien’s perspective on war begs a rethinking of how power has been traditionally understood in international relations: as “hard power,” defined by a state’s military and economic capabilities. Mainstream scholars in international relations often quantify such “hard power” assets to determine whether a state is a “great power” with significant international influence and military strength. O’Brien, however, notes that while military capabilities are important, there are also social, technological, and economic factors that determine how an army fairs in battle.


“Hard power matters, but hard power is created,” O’Brien said “A military is not a thing in itself. It's a product that is created by a political structure, society, economic base, and technological base. All of these things go into making a military. They are in many ways, I would say, more important for understanding whether someone is a ‘great power’ or not.”


O’Brien’s rethinking of “power” has implications for how he understands the Russo-Ukrainian war. Despite the “hard power” advantages that Russia had going into its invasion, like its formidable artillery and military resources, he says that the country has struggled because it is plagued by more complicated problems.


“People had obsessed over the numbers of tanks and numbers of artillery pieces [Russia had before the war],” he said. “Well, [Russia] is actually not that large economically. It's got significant demographic problems; there are questions about corruption. All of these things added together, actually weakened the armed forces more than the raw numbers would indicate.”


“The Russian trajectory has been declining,” he continued. “Many of the best troops in the Russian army are wounded, killed, and not able to fight right now. They went into Ukraine with a lot of their best equipment. But as time goes by, they're replacing that, and in some cases, with less good equipment, older equipment, and things in storage. That means that military efficiency goes down.”


Responding to losses and major setbacks, President Vladimir Putin announced in late September that Russia would begin a nationwide conscription process involving the “partial mobilization” of its citizens, sparking protests across the country and moving many to flee. As of late October, that draft has ended, according to the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.


“[Those high losses and setbacks] are why you see conscription,” O'Brien said. “It's an attempt to try and generate something new so [Russia] can get more force into the field. The losses have been very, very high. And they're trying to make up for them.”


Meanwhile, helped by formidable financial and military aid from the West, O'Brien says that the Ukrainians “ have clearly been learning” how to successfully conduct military operations.


“The war has begun, quite relentlessly, but slowly, trending in the Ukrainian direction,” he said, “That's not because of what is actually going on when the two sides meet – it’s because behind the line, the Ukrainians are getting better equipment, they're getting better trained, and they just have a better overall command structure and flow of supplies.”


At the end of August, Ukraine launched a counter-offensive. As of October 17, they have retaken over 500 settlements and 12,000 square kilometers of territory in the Kharkiv region, according to an emergency service official. They have also captured Lyman, a critical transport hub, and are now seemingly preparing to advance toward Svatove, where Russia has its logistics center.


But despite Ukrainian’s relentless efforts on the offensive, O'Brien says that they are yet to encounter some significant challenges.


“Going forward is really dangerous. The Russians showed that all summer – they could barely advance,” he said. “​​ [Advancing] is something that you have to do very slowly and very deliberately. You have to make sure you weaken the other side enough.”


He adds that the biggest victory the Ukrainians have had during the counter-offensive, around the Kharkiv region, was delivered to them only after Russian troops had largely evacuated from the area into Kherson and more eastern parts of Donetsk and Luhansk.


“They're not going to find anything as empty as they found Kharkiv,” he said. “The Ukrainians, now, are trying to advance into areas which have significant Russian forces.”


Ukrainian forces have also been dealt logistical challenges. While they are receiving critical support from the West – and specifically from the US, which has provided them with over $60 billion in security and humanitarian aid – they have received up to five different kinds of major artillery systems, all of which require troops to receive different operational training.


“That's actually a bit of a problem. How do you handle the logistics? They're integrating things they didn't have before the war, and they've got to train their forces up to them,” he said. “They've also got to do it while the Russians are battering their cities, and now shutting down their power supply. That's also a complicating factor.”


Facing unique logistical challenges, O’Brien thinks that both sides will struggle to support military involvement in the conflict beyond the end of next year, even while they may be politically unwilling to accept peace.


“Neither Russia nor Ukraine have the ability to manufacture [the military equipment] that they're losing,” he said. “I would think that, probably by the end of next year, both sides will have a great deal of difficulty maintaining the conflict.”


“Neither side can actually fully conquer the other,” he added. “However, neither side at this point is politically willing to accept that reality. I think they both understand it. But they’re gonna have to reach a situation where the war becomes so destructive and exhausting that they both think it's worthwhile to talk. That will happen at some point.”


O'Brien added that, while it is a possibility, he doesn’t believe that nuclear war is a likely outcome of the conflict, even as Putin floats some nuclear threats. If Russia does engage its atomic arsenal, that would set a dangerous precedent, he says, signaling that atomic weapons can be used against non-nuclear powers – like Ukraine – for political aims. That would encourage more countries to seek and maintain nuclear weapons, he says.


“If a country uses a nuclear weapon in a war it's losing, and against a power that’s not a threat to its existence – and Ukraine is not a threat to Russia's existence– that's really pretty important,” he said. “You take away any incentive to have [nuclear] non-proliferation.”


O'Brien says that the war will – regardless of whether atomic weapons are involved – have enduring impacts on military strategy and society. That includes by increasing the importance of factors like technology and morale when assessing military strength, and by incentivizing militaries to prioritize inexpensive weapon systems, like the drones and electronic weapons systems that have been used by both sides in the conflict, over expensive heavy-duty weapons systems.


“The cost of building the big heavy things, the big warships, the big tanks is actually economically difficult to justify because you could destroy them with much cheaper systems,” he added. “If you can destroy really expensive things on the other side with really cheap things on your side, that means that will ultimately move the war in your favor. That is something we are learning.”


There will also be long-term economic and societal impacts that both Russia and Ukraine will take years to recoil from. Russia will have to rebuild from the position of a pariah state, rethinking its economy after being shunned from the energy market in Europe. Ukraine, for its part, will have to emerge from a conflict that has corroded its landscape, infrastructure, and society.


“There will have to be some rebuilding,” O’Brien said. “And it will be interesting to see how they go about doing it.”


On November 9, citing supply issues, Russian forces announced they would be retreating from the city of Kherson, marking a major victory for Ukrainian forces.



Image: Charles Gorrivan


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