Perhaps the largest explanation for some of the unanticipated Ukrainian success defending against the Russian invasion likely pertains to certain intangibles such a pure, unfettered, intensity of will to resist invaders and protect children and families. The collective fervor and resolve with which Ukraine openly defied Russia and unexpectedly mounted a crippling defense, if somewhat ineffable or difficult to describe, is probably the largest reason for Ukraine’s success.
This Ukrainian will to fight and die if needed for their homeland and children amounts to an “X” factor which is impossible to quantify or calculate. At the same time, the Russian military assault was beset with tactical errors, strategic miscalculations, supply chain blunders and a massive morale problem among the ranks.
Many former and current US generals, experts and observers cataloged a long list of Russian mis-steps and errors during the opening weeks of the assault, which resulted in the failure to capture Kyiv. One expert observer, a former senior leader in the intelligence community and former Army Vietnam combat veteran actually made a “list” of Russian errors.
“I remember on or about day three of the invasion, right at the end of February, I made a list of things that I thought the Russians had messed up. And I had a list of 29 things. It's hard to believe that you could have had a group misfire on so many in so many ways, whether it was logistics, plan of attack or attacking on too many fronts. And, I mean, that was a colossal list,” Mike Mears, former Director of Human Capital, CIA, told Warrior in an interview.
The overall Ukrainian intensity was without question largely influenced if not fully inspired by a defiant President Zelensky who chose to stand in the middle of downtown Kyiv and vow to defend Ukraine. While the Russians had made an incursion into Ukraine in 2014, the skill and resolve of their military was likely lesser known, and many assumed a massive Russian Army would quickly overrun most if not all of Ukraine.
As an intelligence expert, Army combat veterans and student of military tactics and training, Mears detailed some of the perceived errors appearing to imperil the Russian effort, yet he also credited the unique and inspirational leadership qualities exhibited by President Zelensky.
“He has absolutely captured the hearts and minds of people and starting off with that, well publicized act of courage where he said ‘I don't need a lift…. I need to ammo. I'm staying here.’ He voted. Great leaders vote with their feet and with their calendars. And that's what he did,” Mears said.
Mears spent many years training leaders during his tenure at CIA, and has a cultivated, long-standing sense of the kinds of attributes and characteristics woven into the soul of great leaders.
“I was talking to a Ukrainian the other day, and I asked him, I said, Did you vote for Zellinsky? And he said, ‘Oh, no, no, I thought the guy was a comedian. I didn't vote.’ And then he paused. And he said, ‘and you know, today, I'll die for him.’”
There is certainly a logical reason why it would make sense for a soldier to defend one’s homeland, as it is something done throughout the history of humanity to varying degrees of success. Alongside the existence of superior strength and force, what are some of the ultimate margins of difference when it comes to victory and defeat in war? Why do smaller, seemingly less capable armies at times prevail? Is it luck, unknown circumstances or tactical proficiency? Perhaps none of those. Perhaps it is “heart.”
Heart, or unrestricted, passionate devotion to country, family and pure survival may best explain the reasons for Ukraine’s unexpected success.
In an effort to verbalize the difficult to capture variables which inform and account for seemingly limitless intensity, inspiration and will to fight, a former high-level leader in the intelligence community spoke to Warrior about several interesting psychological and neurological phenomena of great consequence to the human soul, cognition, intention and, ultimately, decision making.
Mears cited a famous text by a Noble Laureate Daniel Kahenman who authored “Thinking fast, Thinking slow,” an interesting study of the emotion and science behind human decision making. A large element of this, Kahenman explains, involves a significant and varied mix of logic and less calculable or more subjective phenomena such as emotion, inspiration, spirit or even instinct. Mears cited this “logical brain” and posited that indeed it was accompanied by an equally if not far more powerful “automatic” brain informed by passion, feeling, intuition or moral and philosophical sensibilities.
Perhaps Kehenman and Mears’ reading of his text comes close to finding words for inexplicable human traits and faculties such as inspiration, intensity, hopes and dreams.
“There's the logical brain, then there is what I call the automatic brain, which is basically everything else…. our dreams, hopes, habits, and so forth. So Zelensky was taking that approach, and I think it's a good one to use in leadership where you've got to engage the automatic brain, but you also have to engage that logical brain. We forget that quite often, after giving the logical reason for a change, the change falls flat and we don't understand why,” Mears said.
Mears’ discussion of Zelensky reminds us of an ancient, yet timeless text which succeeded in capturing and informing the minds of millions throughout the centuries with ideas about the human condition. In the famous text “The Republic,” Plato outlines what’s known as the “tri-partied” model of the human soul in Book X, something which consists of a “beast” – or base desires and appetites … “rational principle” which is our distinctly human ability to reason, and the “spirit” or “EIDOS”... a passionate love of learning which inspires and motivates the philosopher king. Should we draw upon this classic Platonic model, it would indeed seem that pure “rational principle” alone might be insufficient to inspire the kind of intense devotion shown by Ukrainians. It also requires the “spirit,” that lesser understood yet arguably more powerful element of human motivation. While drawing upon rationality in many key respects, Zelensky exhibits and appeals to “EIDOS.”
In short, Zelensky strikes a deeply entrenched, defining “chord” woven into the soul of man, responsible for inspiration, motivation .. and even a willingness to face death.
“We are emotional and instinctual animals. And as one neuroscientist told me, We operate in that mode, the habitual mode and so forth at 80% of the day, 85% of the day. So we should take that into account. And I think that's why Zelenskyi is and has been so effective. He goes after the head. He goes after the heart and he goes after the gut,” Mears said.
Ukrainian President Zelensky is well known for his passion, fervor, intensity and somewhat inexplicable ability to unite and inspire the country of Ukraine by directly and openly defying Russian invaders from the capital of Kyiv. This pure “spirit” is in large measure responsible for Ukraine’s unexpected success, yet Ukraine’s ability to stop, repel and even destroy attacking Russian forces could not be happening without substantial tactical proficiency.
Basic love of self, country, countrymen, civilians and children is certainly an undeniable motivating force, as is a simple need to unify against a common enemy to defend the homeland. Yet passion alone could not kill or stop the Russian invaders, as Ukraine has used US and NATO-provided weaponry and innovative warfare tactics to achieve unexpected success.
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In a tactical sense, Ukrainian success can be identified in concept by the term “decentralization.” Ukraine have applied this idea of decentralized command and control to great effect in several key respects. Ukraine’s use of anti-armor weapons is perhaps the most visible element of this, as dispersed groups of dismounted fighters showed an ability to stage ambushes and hit and run attacks upon incoming mechanized Russian forces by disaggregating and striking at different angles from hidden positions with shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. By not needing to “mass” in large formations or have every movement orchestrated from one central command hub, Ukrainian fighters were able to leverage an element of surprise and themselves become smaller and much less vulnerable targets available to Russian attackers.
With these factors in mind, a former high-level leader within the intelligence community explained that a leader’s ability to inspire is only as effective to the extent that it is matched by tactical competence and practical leadership ability. The most important leadership quality needed amid combat and incoming hostile fire … is competence, says Mike Mears, former Director of Human Capital, CIA, told Warrior in an interview
“There was an interesting study at West Point sometime ago that said, when you're in combat all of those attributes or needs, leadership, strengths, drop, and suddenly another one comes up to be number one, and that is competence. And the reason is, if you're caught in a firefight, what you hope more than anything is that your Sergeant knows what to do and how to do it. You don't care so much about all this other stuff. And that's the only exception in leadership, I think, in which you get this during life threatening situations, you get this little reversal,” Mears explained.
Along these lines, yet another aspect of Ukraine’s effective use of a “decentralized” strategy can be seen in the communications realm. There has not appeared to be any kind of functional command and control “hub,” center or location from which coordinate tactical decisions, rather those at the tip of the spear are empowered to make fast decisions within a broader leadership framework or structure.
Having multiple, dispersed radio “nodes” is a critical element of a “decentralized” strategy as it makes communication much more survivable and sustainable when facing a major threat. Smaller “nodes” or individual radio locations spread apart create smaller, less detectable signals likely to be found or attacked by Russian forces. The smaller the radio or electronic device, the smaller and less detectable the emitting signal or signature for enemies to track and jam. This decentralized command and control strategy may be one key reason why there are little to no reports of Russia using EW, something it was widely known to be capable of during its previous incursion into Ukraine in 2014.
“Look back at Zelinsky, he had about 26%. approval rating on February 23, or shortly before the invasion. And I think there was a recent survey that showed him with 91% approval rating. He has shown himself that he's not a comedian. This guy is a highly competent manager, administrator, and leader. The competence that he's showing, is extraordinarily reassuring to the Ukrainian people,” Mears said.
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“Are leaders born or made? I believe the answer is both,” Mike Mears, a now retired senior member of the intelligence community who specifically evaluated and trained leaders for decades. As the former Director of Human Capital for the CIA, Mears has studied, cultivated and supported those in large leadership roles with massive responsibility.
While some of the nuances or specifics which went into the analysis may not be available for security reasons, the effort did prove quite successful in the realm of predicting future behavior of those tasked with major leadership positions.
“It's not perfect but they can, with some precision, filter out if the person has certain attributes. Do the leadership candidates have drive? Is that balanced by empathy? Are they optimists? Are they learners? There is a cluster of measurable traits that you can measure to predict future behavior. That was a great discovery actually in the OSS in ‘43,” Mears said.
One former high-level intelligence official suspects that part of the problem with the attacking Russian force may relate to the fact that Putin may be getting incomplete or inaccurate information regarding developments in the war. This could be one reason why Russia appears to have made few adjustments to their failed strategies and is instead largely adhering to its straightforward, linear mechanized assault against Ukraine, a technique which has yielded few effective results.
“My theory was that the FSB, the old KGB, was reporting good news and reporting what the leader wanted to hear. And they've all by the way, they've always done that since the 1950s, and embassies abroad. They always give the leader what they want to hear. Well, as a result, if you had that information, it'd be logical to assume the Ukrainian government would collapse in two days,” Mike Mears, Former Director of Human Capital, CIA, told Warrior in an interview.
It would make sense, given Putin’s known terror tactics and willingness to imprison or detain many of his own people, that his subordinates may simply operate out of a sense of fear. This fear of Putin, one could easily imagine, may lead them to distort war developments, minimize losses or embellish Russian successes, something which could mis-inform Putin and lead him to continue making the same mistakes.
Ruling or governing by fear is certainly a well-documented tactic used by dictators and autocrats throughout history, some recent examples of which might include Stalin’s reign of terror, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and many others.
Such leadership styles are often described as distinctly Machiavellian, referring to Italian philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli’s text “The Prince” written in the 1500s. Intended as a guide or manual instructing new young Princes how to achieve and sustain power or rule over a Principality, the text is famous for advancing a classic “ends justifies the means” kind of argument. “If a Prince maintains his principality, regardless of outcome or effect, the means will always be judged honorably,” is an often-cited famous excerpt from the Prince. Machiavelli even specifies a need for “cruelty well used,” as he called it, a method of employing terrorizing or punitive methods to subordinate, control or subdue would-be detractors.
Part of Machiavelli's roadmap for maintaining Power includes the specific use of “fear” as a tactic. Machiavelli famously explains that, as a Prince, he would rather be feared than loved, saying “men love at their own convenience.” If you are the dictator, however, men “fear” at your convenience.
Throughout the centuries, some have praised Machiavelli while others reviled or rejected his thoughts on political leadership. Saddam Hussein was reported to keep a copy of The Prince in his bedroom, and others throughout human history have embraced what is now known as a Machiavellian tactic to scare subjects into submission. In the case of Putin regarding Ukraine, should Mears and other top experts be correct, his Machiavellian approach ultimately did not serve him well, as he was led into making critical war decisions based upon false information.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
Mike Mears .. Senior Warrior Intelligence Analyst
Mike Mears retired as the CIA’s Chief of Human Capital where he founded and headed the CIA Leadership Academy. He is a trainer and leadership consultant to government and private sector organizations.
Prior to CIA, Mike was senior vice president at GE investments where he managed private equity funds, was a turnaround specialist, and a Six Sigma Black Belt. Before that, he launched eleven small business start-ups, and was president of a fast-food company. Mike served as commander of a nuclear missile site, a general’s aide, and was decorated for valor as a U.S. Army combat platoon leader in Vietnam.
He earned his undergraduate degree at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and his MBA from Harvard Business School.
Mike teaches or lectures on leadership at Department of Defense, Georgetown, University of Salzburg, University of Maryland, and the National Intelligence University.