My guest today is MAJGEN Mick Ryan, who only days ago officially retired from more than 35 years of service in the Australian Army. During this time, he has deployed on multiple overseas deployments, has commanded troops at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and brigade level, and among the many awards for service and excellence he has received, in 2008, Mick was also awarded the Order of Australia for distinguished leadership of the Australian 1st Reconstruction Task Force in Afghanistan.
He is a recognised expert in leadership, institutional strategy, technology, organisational adaptation and change management, institutional reform, as well as personnel development. Mick is also a prolific writer and speaker, with a particular focus on thinking about and preparing for the battlespace of the future.
This is also what his recently published book is all about. It is titled ‘War Transformed: The Future of 21st Century Great Power Competition and Conflict’ and is a deep dive into how four key disruptors, namely geopolitics, demographics, technology, and climate change, will impact great power rivalry. In short, Mick explores how the dynamics of the nascent fourth industrial revolution and its interplay with the ongoing changes in the way we live as well as dramatic shifts in global affairs will transform tomorrow’s wars.
He joined me today to talk about his book and how it relates to the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Some of the topics we covered are:
- Nature vs. Character of war
- Russian vs. Ukrainian Information Operations
- Why Putin is fundamentally losing, so far
- The role of surprise in this invasion
- Re-emergence of Europe
- Russian military deficiencies
- Two principal decisions Ukraine is facing
- The importance of time in the current war
- Importance of leadership in war
- Critical role of logistics
- Impact of the Russian invasion on China
- Are ‘our’ wars, different to ‘their’ wars?
- 21st Century as showdown between Democracy vs. Authoritarianism
- Lessons learnt from the Russian invasion
You can find out more about MAJGEN Mick Ryan here. I also recommend you follow his Twitter page (@WarintheFuture) for regular updates on the current crisis and beyond. Lastly, you can view and purchase his book ‘War Transformed: The Future of 21st Century Great Power Competition and Conflict’ here.
Listen to the podcast here
MAJGEN Mick Ryan: On The Russian Invasion And His Recent Book ’War Transformed’
My guest is Major General Mick Ryan, who only days ago officially retired from more than 35 years of service in the Australian Army. During this time, he has deployed on multiple overseas deployments and has commanded troops at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and brigade levels. Among the many awards for service and excellence he has received, in 2008, Mick was also awarded the Order of Australia for distinguished leadership of the Australian 1st Reconstruction Task Force in Afghanistan.
He is a recognised expert in leadership, institutional strategy, technology, organisational adaptation and change management, institutional reform, as well as personnel development. Mick is also a prolific writer and speaker with a particular focus on thinking about and preparing for the battlespace of the future.
This is also what his published book is all about. It is titled War Transformed: The Future of 21st Century Great Power Competition and Conflict. It’s a deep dive into how four key disruptors, namely geopolitics, demographics, technology, and climate change, will impact great power rivalry. In short, Mick explores how the dynamics of the nascent fourth industrial revolution and its interplay with the ongoing changes in the way we live, as well as dramatic shifts in global affairs, will transform tomorrow’s wars.
He joins me to talk about his book, but I’ve asked General Ryan to bring our interview forward from our originally agreed-upon date because what he writes about is almost eerily reflected in what we’re seeing play out during the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. Hence, we agreed to speak on the morning of the 6th of March 2022 in Australia as the war in Ukraine needs the end on its 10th day. General Ryan, thank you very much for joining me on the show.
Thanks. It’s great to be with you.
Before we get into the ugliness of the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, let’s take a moment to get to know you a little more. You spent three and a half decades serving in the Army. What motivated you to join all those years ago?
I was brought up in a little mining town in Central Queensland, but my folks and indeed the community had always brought me and my friends up there with a pretty strong service ethic. Certainly, my parents had after going through a phase where I wanted to be an archaeologist after seeing Raiders of the Lost Ark.
I was going to say, haven’t we all?
It still is a little attractive at times. I sent it on becoming a civil engineer and then becoming a civil engineer in the Army. I applied for a scholarship to ADFA when I was fifteen to do that. I got a scholarship and then went to ADFA to do that.
If I’m correct, I’m pretty sure I’ve read and heard elsewhere that it wasn’t all smooth sailing initially for Officer Cadet Ryan.
For a young seventeen-year-old from a small town of 5,000 people in Central Queensland, it was a bit of a shock. To be fair, I probably wasn’t mature enough at that point in my life to appreciate the amazing opportunity the Army was giving me. I failed every subject in 1987. It seems like a long time ago now, but other times seem like yesterday. I was hugely fortunate that the Army Major General took me aside. His office said, “You haven’t had a very successful academic beginning, but you’ve got the makings of an Army leader. Why don’t we send you over the Hill to Duntroon, and we’ll see what you got?”
I find it a wonderful irony that your last full-time job in the Army, although you remain in the Army as a reservist, was as the Commander of the Australian Defence College.
There’s some irony there that one of the elements of the college is the Australian Defence Force Academy. It was nice to be able to go back there, spend four years, most Wednesdays. Except for during exams or when the cadets weren’t there, I would have lunch with a group of cadets in the cadet’s mess and talk to them about their thoughts, aspirations, and challenges. There are different generations that are coming through at the moment, but they’re better connected, fitter, and smarter. They’re every bit as motivated as my generation and the proceeding generations to serve their country.
That’s a neat segue into the book as well. The title is War Transformed: The Future of 21st Century Great Power Competition and Conflict. One of the things that you open up in the book as well as you talk about the nature of war was the character of war. It’s that point you made about the cadets now. They might be smarter, quicker, and more connected. They’re as motivated or as attached to Australia and nationhood as your generation was. Can you talk about this dichotomy between the nature of war versus the character of war? Maybe that’s then a neat segue to talk about what we’re seeing in Ukraine as well.
Nature is about those things that are inherent in all kinds of human warfare. The uncertainty and what we call the fog and friction. It’s a cliché, but it’s also a very real thing. We see it in every kind of human conflict because you cannot read the minds of humans. You cannot always predict what they’re going to do. One of the great continuities of war is surprise. We’re always trying to surprise each other.
The other element of the nature of war is it is humans who make all the decisions or at least all the important ones about warfare, no matter what developments we might see in some kinds of autonomous weapon systems. We’ve had them for a while in Navy close-in weapons systems or even Patriot air-defence missiles. The ultimate decisions to turn those things on, assign them sectors, and allow them to operate are human as the political decisions and strategic decisions are taken by a human. That’s war’s unchanging nature.
The changing character is where we fight, how we fight, and the tools with which we fight. All continue to evolve every single war is different because of geography, demography, technology, or the aims over which wars are fought. We are seeing that play out now in Ukraine. We’re seeing lots of new things. Live streaming the war is largely new. We’ve never had the type of insight into the day-to-day conflict that we’re seeing now play out mainly over Twitter but other forms of social media.
At the same time, we’re seeing its inherent nature play. There are lots of things we still don’t know. There are lots of times that both sides have been surprised, although the Russians have probably been surprised more at every level than the Ukrainians have. There are some new technologies that we’re seeing. Principally, the use of social media and the internet to generate strategic influence on behalf of the Ukrainians. It is a great case study of this enduring nature and changing character of warfare.
That’s why I opened up with that and why I asked you to record this earlier because as I was reading your book, it became so obvious that what I was reading was literally playing out mainly on Twitter. This is also a question that we can dive into in a little bit more detail. That’s the information operations that we’re seeing because you do touch on it as well in the book.
You’ve alluded to the Russians struggling with that at the moment, but you can go into a little bit more detail as to what you’re seeing, particularly in this information operation space and the competition for influence, which you spend a little bit about in your second chapter of the book to write about. What are we talking about when we say information operations in this case, and then who is winning it?
There are a few dimensions to this. The first one is both sides want to project a positive image of what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. Clearly, the Ukrainians are winning big time in this. The Russian pronouncements, particularly those of the Russian president, have either been fantasies or plain delusional. That’s part of the information battle.
The second piece is allowing access by third parties to also get out information. Whether they’re journalists, non-government organisations, and third-party observers. Once again, the Ukrainians are being enormously successful, and the world press has had pretty good access generally to what’s going on there.
A third piece in information warfare is the conduct of operational security, where you seek to preserve important elements of friendly information that you don’t want the enemy or anyone else to know but will inform locations’ future intentions in a whole range of military and strategic aspects of war. That’s the third piece.
A fourth piece is obviously deceiving the enemy, the conduct of deception operations. Deception has always been part of warfare. It’s all about ensuring the enemy is weakest, where you want them to be weak and strong where it’s irrelevant. Deception is also part of information operations. You also need a strategy as a government and as a military high command to pull all those things together. You can’t assume they’re going to happen. As we might say in the military, “It can’t just be Annex X in the OPOR. It has to be an integral part of planning from day one.” As I say in the book, violence and influence are two sides to the same coin in warfare.Deception has always been part of warfare. It’s all about ensuring the enemy is the weakest where you want them to be and strong where it is irrelevant. Click To Tweet
What do you put Putin’s success or absence so far? You made the point that he’s either delusional or living in a fantasy world. You also talk about Russia quite a lot as a case study in your book as to how it’s changing its character of war, not necessarily nature. We’ve seen Putin try the same tactics that he’s used before that were successful working for him. What’s different now? What do you put the current situation down to?
I think the Russians have largely bluffed the world about their military capability. There’s no doubt that the Russians, over generations, have had some very fine military theorists. Operational art emerged out of Russia before the Second World War, and it was appropriated during the Cold War for airline battles in a whole range of other activities. Some of the more recent developments were led largely, but not exclusively by General Gerasimov. There are other military theorists that have been very important here besides him, but this notion of active defence and some of their other evolved military ideas have gained the attention of many in the West. It is also fair to say that these new hypotheses about warfighting from the Russians are yet to be proven in Ukraine.
That’s what we’re seeing. Bringing it back to the information operations, one of the aspects that struck me as surprising and something I’ve touched on the show with a number of people already is that this perhaps is the first time we’re seeing war not just waged by military people but the war has gone on a scale to the Ukraine citizens more so than anywhere else. As we talked about it before, I’m a child of Sarajevo. Sarajevo resisted what is still the longest siege of any city. The people resisted it, but it was still an element of the population that was passive. It was hiding in the cellars, struggling to survive, and doing their bits and pieces looking after each other, but it was the Army or the territorial defence that fought.
We’re seeing something very different now. To use Twitter, we’re seeing techniques and procedures being passed down through Twitter on how to fight an urban war, how to use Molotov cocktails, and what to target on an armoured vehicle or on a personnel carrier. That is very different. I guess that’s also part of this information operation that’s certainly, from my view, cited with Ukraine and those who are resisting it. You’d mentioned surprise as one of the enduring features of war. Do you think this was a big surprise to Putin? How is he handling it now with his commanders noting the rather top-down leadership style that Russian forces employ?
I think he has been surprised. His narrative up to now was that he assumed that Ukraine was a natural part of the Russian imperium. That’s how he’s talked and that’s how he continues to talk, to be frank. The massing of nearly 200,000 Russian militaries around the periphery of Ukraine was designed to scare, overall, and coerce Ukrainians into political concessions that did not happen. When Russian troops began their invasion rolling across the border, he was surprised he had to do that.
More importantly, he was surprised at the huge amount of resistance that those troops have continued to suffer. Particularly, in the first 48 hours, they tried to attempt a fast, cheap, and easy invasion of Ukraine with light forces, special forces, and paratroopers, which frankly wasn’t terribly clever. Those forces are hard to sustain at a distance and don’t have a lot of combat power, particularly if you’re coming up against any competent force, which Ukrainians are. He was surprised by the level of resistance. That’s his second surprise.
The third surprise for Putin is how quickly the world has come behind Ukraine. Putin’s worldview was probably shared by many others in different parts of the world. The West is weak, it’s on the decline, American politics are seeing it on the decline, and European defence spending which is low indicates it’s on the decline. Putin has probably been surprised by a rapid turnaround in Western political views on defence and defending democratic ideals. Who would’ve imagined even the rearmament of Germany in the defensive democracy beyond its borders?
Also, sending weapons to Ukraine.
It takes a special kind of genius to pull that off. Putin is that special kind, and it’s not the good kind.
It’s the irony as well because you’ve quoted Vladimir Lenin in your book who allegedly said, “There are decades where nothing happens and there are weeks where decades happen.” I find the irony that it’s another Vladimir that’s proving that right. As you said, Germany’s post-politic has changed vastly. Switzerland is the third largest contributor to the sanctions against Russia. If we want to look at a week, that’s capturing decades. This is surely it, isn’t it?
I think so. The decades where we’re seeing play out each day and week in this war are about a political reformation in Europe. As one observer described it, we’re now seeing the post-Cold War Europe emerge. I think there’s a lot to that. We’re also seeing a Russia that may have to fundamentally change in the wake of this invasion up to and including potentially a change of regime at the very top. The fall of Ukraine and a regime change in Russia are almost equally certain to emerge from this. What happens first will be interesting, but I can’t see how Putin can continue to rule Russia in the way that he has for many years in the wake of what has been a personal disaster driven by him solely. It has demonstrated terrible decision-making and bad strategic ethics.
Going forward from here, what do you see as the unfolding scenario? We’ve talked about Ukrainian resistance, and of course, if anything, Putin has achieved completely the opposite of what he intended to. That’s the galvanising, not only of NATO, but Europe as we just talked about. We know that thousands of anti-tank weapon systems are being provided to Ukrainians on a daily basis. There’s a potential of planes coming in. There’s a very fine line that NATO and Europe are walking from officially declaring war with Russia. How do you see this unfolding? As you rightly pointed out, capturing and holding, Ukraine is a big ask. Is it even possible?
The Russian Army, people keep saying, “It’s so big. It’s much larger than Ukraine.” Remember, it’s only about 280,000. The Russian Army is smaller than the US Army.
What’s the 2 million that we keep hearing? Is that the reserve forces?
That’s the reserve force. We all know that reserves take time to mobilise and prepare. The more quickly you mobilise them and throw them at the fight, the more likely they are to be unsuccessful and take higher casualties. The Russians have committed almost all of the 200,000 that they encircle Ukraine in the lead-up to the war. There’s evidence that they are starting to bring in forces from garrisons further away including the East. There are a few strategic risks here now.
The Russian Army will be becoming combat fatigued as an advancing Army into a country that hates them, and that is resisting every step of the way. As an Army that suffers from a lack of purpose, to be quite frank will be getting both individually and as an organisation very fatigued. That will start to bite over the coming days and weeks. With the Russians stripping out forces in other locations across Russia, it’s showing off potentially what a toothless tiger, the Russian military, has become less, obviously, the thousands of nuclear weapons that they still deploy.
I guess you’ve also made the point in the book and I think we’ve learned that lesson from Afghanistan. Regardless of all the technological advances that the military might possess, it’s ultimately the people that are using those and the people on the ground that will win now. That’s what we’re seeing in Ukraine and certainly, something that your book addresses.
It’s the simple things that matter and those simple things come from humans. For example, both sides have equal access to the internet and social media. One side has used it well and the other side has not. The Ukrainians have kept their communications network up and running. There’s a great Monash Twitter feed that looks at it. Generally, it’s been between about 85% and 95% capacity, which is well beyond what we might have expected this far into the war.
The Russians were supposed to be masters at this stuff. You might call them the other gang that couldn’t influence straight. Also, the Ukrainians have focused on building an international coalition, which the Russians haven’t been able to do. None of those things have anything to do with technology. They’re about people and ideas.
You also talked about and published in an article that Ukraine is likely to face some serious three particular decisions that they’ll need to make. What are those decisions and how are you seeing them play out since you published that piece?
There are two pressing ones. The first one is the Ukrainian forces in the East. In the medium term, they’re at risk of being encircled. The Ukrainians will need to make some big decisions, and this is high military command and political decisions about seeding ground so the Army can survive. That’s important.
The second one and probably the biggest one is the survival of the Ukrainian leadership. These two aspects, the Ukrainian president and his leadership, and the Ukrainian military must survive. If that means that they have to seed ground or even some of the smaller cities for that, their strategy will probably have to embrace that give and take, and the seeding of grand and cities to ensure their leadership and their military survives to perpetuate this fight against the Russians.Ukrainian leadership and the military must survive the Russian invasion, even if it means they have to seed ground and cities. Click To Tweet
I guess they’re trading space for time. Again, time is another aspect that you’ve talked a lot about in the book. On whose side is time at the moment?
I would say the Ukrainians own the clocks now. It’s a saying that comes out reputedly out of a Taliban leader in Afghanistan. We said, “You may have the watches, but we own the clocks.” I think that’s pretty much the case of what we’re seeing now. Putin does not have a lot of time here. Sanctions will take time to bite, but they will bite. The Russian people have largely been kept in the dark, but they will start to see more of what’s being done in their names. The coffins will start flowing home in ever larger numbers, whether it’s a conventional fight or an insurgency. That is impossible to hide. Both from an international perspective and a domestic perspective, Putin needs this over quickly. That isn’t going to happen. The Ukrainians have all the time and Putin is under a lot of pressure.
As a General of the Australian Army, that’s known as one that’s quite capable and punching above its weight. What do you make of the infamous Russian battalion tactical group, which we’ve come to maybe not fear, but certainly be apprehensive about given what we’re seeing both operationally and tactically on the ground? What are some of the lessons that certainly Western militaries are going to take away from this?
The battalion tactical group is an interesting case study in evolved organisations. Once again, a great hypothesis for what might work in war. What we’re seeing play out is it’s not the right construction for this kind of war or the other side of it is they’re not being led well. There’s sufficient evidence that firstly the leadership has been poor. The soldiers were not told what they were going to do. They sat around for a long time. I don’t think they used their time building up very well. Forces have appeared to be committed piecemeal around the linear road axis. Maybe it’s not the organisation of the battalion tactical groups. It’s a problem here about how they’ve been committed and more importantly, how they’ve been led.
Of course, they’re exercising training and logistics. What’s the saying? “Amateurs talk tactics, professional talk logistics.” I guess we’re seeing that play out here. Were you surprised at the insane logistical nightmares that the Russian Army is facing or has faced over the past ten days?
Not particularly. You’re in the Army. I’m in the Army. We’ve all seen logistics challenges in normal training exercises. The reason those logistics challenges happen is not always because of leadership incompetence. Logistics in military operations that are moving fast are difficult. Every professional military organisation on the advance teaches its people to be aggressive in advance. Our cavalry, infantry, armour, attack aviation, and the others that support them are taught to move fast and to be very aggressive in the assault and in the advance. That means sometimes that even the very best military leaders run out of supplies. We saw that famously happened to Patton in the Second World War.
That is some of the challenges here. I also think if you have a look at a map of the Russian axis of advance, there are multiples. That makes the challenge of supporting multiple axes really different from a logistic perspective. If you have a look at the South, they’re on diverging axis, which makes those challenges even more profound.
I guess the leadership piece that you just alluded to undercuts or contributes to any of those deficiencies and makes them prominent and we’re seeing the opposite. A case study for the ages is certainly going to be the leadership example of Zelenskyy versus Putin. The famous pictures of Zelenskyy in the trenches sipping tea with his general staff and soldiers while Putin is sitting on a 50-foot table with his general staff. What do you think China is making of all of this? Undoubtedly, China will be watching how this is playing out.
There are a lot of lessons here for dictators and how they make decisions in the first instance. Old blokes leading countries that don’t have any say in selecting their leadership tend to become more isolated, more protective of their position, and more paranoid as time goes on. We’ve seen that from Putin, definitely. The 20-foot table is just one manifestation of it. He hasn’t had any significant close human contact for nearly two years because of COVID.The Russian invasion of Ukraine makes old country leaders that don't have any say in selecting their leadership tend to become more isolated and paranoid as time goes on. Click To Tweet
President Xi in China is not that different from that. He’s almost isolated himself since COVID. He’s purged a lot of leadership aspirants from both the PLA and the Chinese Communist Party more broadly. It means he’s not going to get the broad diversity of views that he probably should get as a national leader across all the aspects of governing from national security to the economy and society. That is the strategic advantage of democracies in the 21st century. We may move slowly at times, but we do consider lots of different ideas. That is an enormous strength of democracies. That’s clearly what the Ukrainian people see as their future. That’s why they’re fighting so hard.
A lot’s been made in the past certainly during the Olympics as well as the enduring relationship between Russia and China, a relationship that has no boundaries. Do you think that’s slowly changing now? At least we’re seeing the two major Chinese banks have issued sanctions against Russia. China has sought to be balanced in their approach. They certainly haven’t criticised Putin publicly, but they’ve also abstained from voting in the UN. They were 1 of the 35 countries that abstained but weren’t 1 of the 5 that voted against the UN resolution, which basically declared to the world that this is an illegal invasion. What do you think China will make of this going forward given the ongoing competition in contestation with the US?
I think it will look at the West anew. In essence, China has lost Europe. Europe will probably never again be as fawning over China as it has been up until now. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still important economic relationships there. There are. Our own country has them, but Europe and the US will look very differently at some of the authoritarian regimes around the world and how they operate both domestically and internationally.
The PLA has a lot to learn here. The Russian Army is a deeply experienced combined arms organisation with theories that are based on the operational practice as well as their doctrines and a good training regime. Although in this instance, it hasn’t been good enough. The PLA will look at that and go, “If an experienced, well-equipped Army can fail like this, this beautiful shining toy that we’ve created over the last twenty years may not be as capable as we thought it was.” Finally, they’ll look at the 180 kilometres that separate Taiwan from China very differently. If Ukraine, which had no significant obstacles at the border can be difficult, getting across the Taiwan Strait will be a hugely difficult operational challenge for the Chinese. Frankly, it’s probably beyond them.
That’s reassuring to hear because that hopefully might stifle this at least a narrative that the war between China and the US, and of course us by extension, is almost inevitable, which is what we are hearing quite a lot. What are your thoughts going forward? This conflict between China and the US as the two great powers of the world at the moment, is it inevitable?
That’s probably something I should have highlighted as a question. What do you mean when you talk about great power dynamics as ranging between cooperation, competition, and conflict? To some audiences, it might not be as obvious because there are some shades of grey in there.
Clearly, large nations have an interest in a degree of cooperation, whether it’s about how the international trade system works, deconflicting a range of different areas of military capability, or even collaborating on societal issues. Whether it comes to immigration and these kinds or some of the big challenges like climate change, there is and should be a degree of cooperation there.
Competition gets to trade. It gets to a battle of ideas. Obviously, the US and China have very different ideas about how countries should be led and how societies should work. Conflict or warfare either, it’s fighting each other or through proxies is likely as we’ve seen in the past all the way back to the great competitions between powers historically. I don’t think it’s inevitable. That’s why cooperation and healthy competition are an important part of putting off conflict in the future between these two powers.
One other aspect of the Russia and China piece on the macro geopolitical level is that both of those countries have used some of our own wars. Whether it’d be in Afghanistan, Iraq, or even the bombing of Serbia, they’ve used that as examples of our own hypocrisy. Why are our wars different to their wars?
There is a fair bit of self-flagellation from certain commentators in the West. The whataboutisms, it’s all our fault and this kind of stuff. That’s an important part of the debate to test our own ideas about ourselves. In a democracy, we do absolutely need those kinds of voices. That doesn’t mean I agree with them. Largely, I don’t, but they are important voices and they’re the kinds of voices that you’ll never ever hear in Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and places like that. They’re important to have in this part of the debate. I don’t always agree with them. I don’t agree with the notion that it’s the West’s fault that Russia invaded Ukraine because they might become part of NATO.
It’s ridiculous that democracies wouldn’t support other nations that want to become democracies regardless of where they are. How close to China is Japan? It’s very close. That doesn’t mean it should automatically fall within a Chinese sphere of influence. It’s the same thing with Ukraine. The democratic nations of the world should support the growth of democracy wherever it is to be found.
The point I was hoping to get at as well and to talk about who you refer to throughout the book quite a lot is that undoubtedly, war is an extension of politics. When we’re talking about the Russian sphere of influence or the Chinese sphere of influence, it’s very easy for those nations to talk about Western spheres of influence. Putin has said 1,000 times that you can’t increase the security of one nation by decreasing the security of another. Of course, he’s referring to Ukraine shouldn’t be allowed to go to NATO.
At some point, we have to allow for an off-ramp or refrain from going into conflict, which will ultimately make it inevitable. Find a middle ground somewhere and I can’t see how we do that without at least acknowledging the genuine, at times, concerns that some of these nations might have against our own. Rather than becoming galvanised more in our own identity and embracing our own positions, fear makes it more inevitable. What are your thoughts on that?
It was always inevitable when humans have different ideas and different aspirations. Particularly when those ideas and aspirations on one side are about the suppression of people and not allowing them to fully achieve their full potential. I can’t see how the 21st Century won’t be a grand competition between the values of democratic freedom and the full prosperity of people on one side. We’re not perfect. We know that. Certainly, better than denying people freedom of expression and the capacity to fully realise the ultimate potential that we’re seeing in these authoritarian regimes. It’s a fantasy to think there won’t be further conflict between those ideas. The 21st Century may well see us seek to finalise this question of democracy versus dictatorships.It's a fantasy to think there won't be further conflict between democracies versus dictatorships. The 21st century may well see us seek to finalise this question between these two ideas. Click To Tweet
Is that your assessment of the 21st Century that that’s the ideological battle going forward?
I think that’s what we’re seeing now and we’re going to see that more. That’s the narrative that China’s had out there over the last decade or more about the decline of the US. For them, the decline of the US is a metaphor for the decline of the democratic systems. We’ve seen freedom houses assessments of world democracies over the last couple of years in particular describe a decline in the number of democracies and the quality of democracies around the world. There is some foundation for that narrative. It doesn’t mean it’s inevitable and it doesn’t mean we should accept it.
The superpower of the world, the US is a nation, and that’s what 50% of its voting population believes the last election was stolen. That in itself is a huge issue on a question of the US’ understanding of democracy in its own values. Given that you’ve returned as well from the US for your book launch, what is your feeling about the US at the moment? The war in Ukraine, what is its impact? Is it becoming part of a solution or is it contributing to the problem of polarisation we’re seeing in the US?
It’s been interesting. You’ve seen a more unified polity in the United States. I wouldn’t say fully unified because it never is and it’s a democracy. There’s a competition of ideas, and that’s one of the things that makes it great. For all its weaknesses, it has a huge number of strengths. This idea of freedom and liberty are powerful ideas for human beings. The US remains an economically and militarily powerful nation. Economically and militarily, it is still the preeminent power in the world now. To be quite frank, when you have a look at all the other options, I wouldn’t want it any other way.
That’s it in a nutshell. That’s what’s forcing the big division in the world as well. People are conscious that the US sphere of influence, call it whatever you want, is still certainly for most Western nations preferred to a Chinese sphere of influence. Maybe we can pivot very briefly. I know we’re coming close to the end of our time. Towards lessons learned from this, given that your book is written of course for a broad audience, but you do make the point that it’s for current and future leaders of Western democratic militaries, what are some of the lessons that you’d like military leaders to take away from what we’re seeing play out?
There are a few things here. We’re seeing that the balance of information and violence needs to be constantly honed and thought about. We have seen the Ukrainians do a masterful job in both the strategic narrative, but also protecting their own information. The second one is the integration of air and land. The Russians have been awful at it. How has an Air Force the size of Russia not been able to achieve its superiority already over Ukraine which is just beyond them?
What do you put it down to? That’s an important question.
It’s been a couple of good pieces about that. I won’t get into it in detail. I think there are a lot of reasons. The Russian Air Force in general is not the capable Air Force or the quality Air Force that a lot of people have assumed it to be. A third observation is we still need fast-moving combined highly lethal conventional forces on the ground. At the end of the day, on the ground is where the people are. In particular, people are in the cities. You cannot win wars with the Navies and Air Force. You can win battles, but wars are one on the ground where the people are, and you need very capable ground forces to do that.
They might look slightly different to what we see now. They may have a different balance of long-range firepower, armour, infantry engineers, communications, and logistics in what we see now, but they’re a central part of military power in the 21st Century. The final observation is strategy matters and strategic thinking matters. I wrote a piece on this and published it in 2021 about the importance of strategic thinking.
Russian’s strategy in this campaign has been delusional and from their poor assumptions about a rapid collapse of Ukraine and the declining West has come every single operational and tactical era of the Russian forces. We should be reinvesting in our capacity to think through strategic challenges and come up with good strategies for the 21st century for our country.
You’ve published a piece in ABC as well about the war moving into the cities. What do you see happening over the next week or next ten days in Ukraine?
Certainly, we’re seeing a move into the cities. My thread talked about how the Russians might seek to envelop it. I’ll shortly publish something about how they might look at their city operations. We’re going to see that it is going to be a long-drawn-out fight because both Russia and Ukraine have now made Kyiv a significant political objective. Not a military objective, but a significant political objective.
Why is the city as a political objective important?
Firstly, it’s Ukraine. It’s a symbol for Ukraine that they retain sovereignty and control of their country. It is where their president is located from which he is uniting his people and also uniting international opinion. For the Russians, they equate the fall of Kyiv to the fall of Ukraine. That is not true, but there is some truth to it. Kyiv is a central element in the Russian campaign. It must be a central component of Ukrainian strategy, and they will fight bitterly over a long period of time to retain control of that city.Kiev is a symbol of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Since it is a central element in the Russian invasion, it must also be a central component of Ukrainian strategy as well. Click To Tweet
Thinking back to Sarajevo, I was in Germany at the time, but Sarajevo was on its knees. It was fully surrounded and it was about to fall. There were messages coming in from other cities in Bosnia to the city of Sarajevo from the citizens saying, “If you fall, we’ll fall with you.” It is basically what gave the city of Sarajevo a renewed spirit of, “We are this symbolic centre of this nation. If we live, the nation lives.” That’s what we’re seeing play out in the Ukraine as well. My last question to you, General, is that if you could rewrite your book, are there any points you’d reassess or emphasise more greatly, and perhaps even more importantly, some that you would like to shape and morph given what we’ve seen over the past few days?
There would be only one, and there’s a lot of this in the book, but I’d emphasise it even more strongly. It’s the moral forces in the war and the centrality of good purpose for civilians and soldiers in a war. The Ukrainians have that in this war. The Russian soldiers clearly do not, and neither do the Russian people. The second part of that is good leadership matters. It is so important.
In an era where we emphasise particularly in our organisation a more collaborative style of leadership, you need those individuals who will stand up, make the hard decisions, and lead and unify their people. We need to build those people. We need to understand that those people must be risk-takers, entrepreneurs, and the kind of people that can make decisions under the worst of circumstances without having to throw everything back at a committee.
Particularly, the moral piece is one of the pillars of the fighting force of the Australian Army, intellectual, physical, and moral. General, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much for making the time firstly to speak with me, and then of course, giving me so much of it. I appreciate it.
Thanks, Maz. It’s been great to talk to you. I appreciate the opportunity.