Operation Barbarossa Sets Precedent for Russo-Ukraine Conflict
By Tyler R. Wood
Mark Twain stated, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes." Nowhere else is this aphorism truer than in the current Russo-Ukraine conflict. Putin’s strategy in Ukraine, including changes in approach and setbacks, has noticeable similarities with a previous war involving Russia. Germany’s failed Operation Barbarossa, launched in 1941, as a surprise assault to rapidly defeat Russian forces eventually leads to the downfall of Hitler and Nazism. Operational shortcomings, gaps in planning, and a divided command all but assured the defeat of the Wehrmacht. As the Russo-Ukraine war enters its sixth month, Putin faces similar operational challenges in Ukraine that have not yet been overcome. In the same way as Hitler’s blunders in Operation Barbarossa delivered a crucial loss to Germany, Putin’s strategic mistakes in Ukraine will end in a decisive Russian military defeat.
Lessons of Operation Barbarossa
A historical review of Operation Barbarossa provides a precedent for current Russian failures in Ukraine. Hitler, bolstered by victories on his western front, oriented his focus to the east. Confident in the superior tactics of Blitzkrieg, Hitler believed he could deliver a quick defeat of the Soviet Union before winter. Not only that, but as a grand strategy, it would send a clear message to the western powers and force Britain to a peace agreement. From an economic perspective, captured Russian resources would enable a protracted war and sustain future operations. In a February presentation to Hermann Goering, Wehrmacht General Georg Thomas insisted that Germany could capture most of the Soviet Union's oil in the Caucasus and Ukrainian grain. Both resources would be strategic objectives for Hitler.
Following months of planning conferences, material buildup, and delays, Operation Barbarossa was launched early morning on June 22nd, 1941. It was one of the largest invasion forces ever assembled, consisting of 3 million soldiers, 2,000 aircraft, and 3,500 tanks spanning a massive front between the Baltic and the Black Sea. Caught by surprise, the Luftwaffe made short work of the Russian Air Force and quickly gained air superiority. Mobile panzer divisions, supported by artillery and infantry, swiftly maneuvered along their axis of advance. Army Group North attacked toward Leningrad, Army Group Center attacked to seize Moscow, and Army Group South advanced toward Kyiv. Six days after the invasion began the German army captured Minsk, and shortly thereafter the Army Group Center sat 350 kilometers outside Moscow. So brisk was their initial success that Franz Halder, head of the German General Staff, declared: ‘the campaign against Russia will be won in a fortnight.’
Unfortunately for Hitler, his early success would not deliver a quick victory. As German divisions penetrated deeper into Russian territory, they became frustrated by terrain, stiffer than expected Soviet resistance, and severe logistical problems caused by overstretched lines of communication. For example, Army Group North, commanded by German Field Marshall Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, had remarkable success in the first two weeks of the invasion, attacking 270 miles into enemy territory. But the following month they became stymied and could only proceed another 75 miles. Von Leeb was further crippled by logistical problems as his army consumed three times the pre-invasion estimates for fuel.
The sheer number and variety of tanks and motorized vehicles meant a severe strain on the German maintenance and repair part system. Troubles producing and transporting essential repair parts further hindered any offensive momentum the Wehrmacht once had. Worst yet, Hitler focused industrial production and material on future war efforts in other theatres, leaving the eastern front often neglected. Making matters worse, successes were turning into a disadvantage. The further German divisions attacked into Soviet territory, the longer their supply lines extended. Meanwhile, Russian forces benefited from the inverse effect of shortening interior lines, such as rapidly reinforcing and concentrating combat power and secure lines of communication.
Aside from logistics problems, Hitler and his top generals disagreed on the strategy and objectives for the invasion. This often led to distrust in subordinate field commanders, unclear operational focus, and a tendency for Hitler to micromanage operations from afar. Hitler, from the beginning, wanted to seize Leningrad as the primary objective, with Ukraine’s industrial sector secured in the south as a secondary measure. On the other hand, General Halder wanted to direct the main effort toward Moscow to destroy the bulk of Russian forces they were sure to meet.
Based on unfavorable circumstances brought about by stiff Russian resistance and logistics troubles, Hitler waffled on a new strategy moving forward. Compounding matters, Hitler gave conflicting orders to his subordinates. In one instance he ordered Army Group Center to cut off Leningrad from the rest of the Soviet Union, and four days later, during a visit to Army Group North, instructed they do the same. On July 19th, he issued a directive to begin a new phase of the operation but changed his course of action again on August 21st. With a new direction, German commanders would focus their efforts on enveloping Kyiv and maintaining Leningrad as a secondary prize.
Now having achieved success in his primary objective, Hitler and his advisors decided to pursue Moscow as an autumn offensive. And on September 16th, 1941, the German high command issued orders to begin Operation Typhoon, led by three panzer divisions. With renewed vigor, the operation began with Army Group Center delivering approximately 700,000 casualties to the defending forces in the first two weeks. Despite these setbacks, Stalin made the crucial decision to reinforce Moscow with all available men, weapons, and equipment being dispatched to the front.
Weather featured a critical role. First, the fall rainy season turned roads to mud and mired German motorized and tracked vehicles to a standstill. Which, inadvertently, left them susceptible to ambushes and attacks by Russian soldiers. Second, November into December brought freezing temperatures and ice that both cooled German morale and aggression. The Wehrmacht faced continual attrition and lacked the necessary reserves to plus up their combat strength. December 1st brought Hitler to within 30 miles of Moscow and he remained optimistic that a triumph was within grasp. During the final assault on Moscow, German forces met significant resistance from reinforced and determined Russian divisions. On December 2nd, a German reconnaissance battalion made it to a Moscow suburb only to be dispatched by a hasty Russian counterattack.
Depleted and exhausted, German forces were at their end. New Soviet commander, General Georgi Zhukov, wasted little time and launched an audacious counteroffensive consisting of 100 divisions. Reeling, the Wehrmacht had no better option than to retreat under pressure, pursued by a determined enemy. With certain defeat imminent, Hitler began relieving field commanders and reprimanding those few he still kept faith in. In the end, Hitler suffered a decisive loss. Stalin remained in control of Moscow, Leningrad, and the economic industrial centers that Hitler so desperately fought for. Marking a significant turn in the war, Hitler and the German empire would never recover.
Putin Trounced on Western Front
Putin has not accounted for the strategic lessons of Operation Barbarossa and their stark parallels to his special military operation in Ukraine. Like Germany in 1941, Putin chose to mount an assault across a wide front and multiple lines of advance. In the north, Russian mechanized and airborne forces attacked toward the Ukrainian government center of gravity, Kyiv, in the hopes of settling a quick victory. Simultaneously, Russian forces attacked along a center axis to seize Kharkiv, and the third axis of advance, from the south, to capture Odesa.
As early as March of this year, Putin’s forces began to suffer the same logistical quagmire that derailed Wehrmacht forces during Operation Barbarossa. Forced to use muddy roads in the north, versus preferred rail operations to move supplies and equipment, Russian forces are unable to deliver fuel, rations, or munitions in an adequate timeframe. Moreover, by adopting a Blitzkrieg-style operation, Putin overstretched his lines of communication during the rapid advance toward Kyiv. This left his convoys susceptible to ambushes and indirect fire that wreaked havoc on long lines of stationary vehicles. Exterior lines have the advantage of flexibility and simultaneous envelopment, but only if these lines are adequately protected.
Continuing early setbacks and mounting casualties led Putin to fire senior commanders in May, including Lieutenant General Serhiy Kisel for failing to seize Kharkiv. Additionally, the staggering loss of Russian generals perishing in Ukraine, along with growing concern over the potential outcome, has led Putin to micromanage operational and tactical level decisions. By pulling almost all decisions to his level, Putin, like Hitler, erodes initiative from subordinate field commanders and thwarts adjacent unit coordination.
Growing failures in the campaign and trouble at home assured Putin that change was needed. In April, he announced that a new phase (or strategy) had begun in Ukraine. Giving up on Kyiv, Russian forces focused their efforts on the east to liberate the Donetsk and Luhansk republics in Donbas.
As of late, the Russo-Ukraine conflict is transitioning into a war of attrition. Having the initiative wrested from him, Putin seems content to fight a protracted operation to slowly grind down his adversary. That is until winter and additional Ukrainian combat power arrive. President Volodymyr Zelensky is seeking an opportunity to deliver a decisive counterattack, like the one led by General Zhukov in the late winter of 1941. To do so, he will need continued western support for anti-tank weapons, long-range artillery, battlefield intelligence, and bolstering their unmanned aerial capabilities. Western material support, coupled with economic sanctions, will weaken Russian resolve over the long term and give Ukraine the chance to regain lost territory.
Today, Putin is making the same strategic mistakes that brought down his former adversary and are ripe for exploitation by NATO. By attempting a quick strike on Kyiv, he overextended his supply lines and was unable to seize the decisive point of the campaign. To Putin’s chagrin, Ukrainian forces are experiencing success in mounting limited counterattacks and retaking lost territory due to poor Russian planning. In the end, the lack of logistics planning, poor mission command, and no clear strategy will lead to the eventual defeat of Russian forces in Ukraine.
The views expressed are those of the author. They do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the US Army, or any other organization.
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 McDonough, Frank. The Hitler Years. Vol. 2, St. Martin's Press, 2020, chapter 2, page 117.
 Ibid., 128.
 Mann, Chris, and Christer Jorgensen. Hitler's Arctic War. St. Martin's Press, 2002, chapter 3, page 74.
 Glantz, David M. Barbarossa: Hitler's Invasion of Russia 1941. Tempus Publishing, 2001, chapter 1, page 15.
 Hartmann, Christian. Operation Barbarossa: Nazi Germany's War in the East 1941-1945. Oxford University Press, 2013, chapter 4, page 49.
 Kirchubel, Robert. Operation Barbarossa 1941: Army Group North. Osprey Publishing, 2005, page 46.
 Ibid., 47.
 Glantz, David M. Barbarossa: Hitler's Invasion of Russia 1941. Tempus Publishing, 2001,
Chapter 1, page 22.
 Ibid., 23.
 Liddell Hart, B.H. Strategy. Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1967, chapter 17, page 255.
 Wettstein, Adrian E., et al. “Urban Warfare Doctrine on the Eastern Front.” Nazi Policy on the Eastern Front, 1941, edited by Alex J. Kay, University of Rochester Press, Rochester, NY, 2012, page 61.
 Liddell Hart, B.H. Strategy. Frederick A. Praeger, Inc., 1967, chapter 17, page 259.
 Tucker-Jones, Anthony. Slaughter on the Eastern Front. The History Press, 2019, chapter 8, page 97.
 Ibid., 99.
 Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Touchstone, 1988, chapter 24, page 862.
 Ibid., 863.
 Ibid., 864.
 Ibid., 865.
 “Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 25.” Institute for the Study of War, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-march-25.
 Berkowitz, Bonnie, and Artur Galocha. “Analysis | Why the Russian Military Is Bogged down by Logistics in Ukraine.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 3 Apr. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/03/30/russia-military-logistics-supply-chain/.
 Shinkman, Paul D. “Putin Loses Faith in Top Generals Following High-Profile Failures in ...” U.S. News, 19 May 2022, https://www.usnews.com/news/world-report/articles/2022-05-19/putin-loses-faith-in-top-generals-following-high-profile-failures-in-ukraine.
 Snodgrass, Erin. “Putin Is Making Low-Level Tactical Decisions and 'Micromanaging' Russia's War Efforts, According to Reports.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 17 May 2022, https://www.businessinsider.com/putin-is-micromanaging-russian-war-efforts-per-reports-2022-5.
 Aaron Steckelberg, Adam Taylor. “Why Russia Gave up on Urban War in Kyiv and Turned to Big Battles in the East.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Apr. 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2022/kyiv-urban-warfare-russia-siege-donbas/.
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 DeVore, Marc R., et al. “Winning by Outlasting: The United States and Ukrainian Resistance to Russia.” Military Review, July 2022, pp. 11–21.