Napoleon's Waterloo & Hitler's Barbarossa: 5 lessons Putin can learn from failed war campaigns


 | Updated: Mar 12, 2022, 06:23 PM IST

Putin's current 'special military operation' strangely echoes Napoleón's failed Waterloo campaign and Hitler's disastrous Operation Barbarossa.

Putin & Napolean

As Russian President Putin continued his troop build-up through months of planning over the last six months and into the new year in 2022, it was widely expected the Russian Army would steamroll through Ukraine and annex Kyiv within days if not hours.

Putin has one of the best arsenals in the world backed by conventional and nuclear weapons. The strength of Russia's Air Force alone can torment any enemy force in the world as Syrians would testify but despite the obvious advantage over Ukraine, the Russian Army is still standed outside Kyiv three weeks into the war with the campaign expected to last longer than Putin expected.

Putin's current "special military campaign" strangely echoes Napoleón's failed Waterloo campaign where despite being a superior force the French general was outdone by allied forces in Europe.

(Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons)


Ukraine: Putin's 'Stalingrad'?

The Ukrainians themselves have since the beginning of the war said they will turn Kviy into "Stalingrad" reminding Putin of Hitler's faild bid to take Stalin's city in 1941-43 during World War-II when the German army undertook the Russian campaign to destroy the then Soviet Union.

Putin is also now grappling with "other variables" which he perhaps did not take into account when he ordered his troops to march into Ukraine on February 24, what were they?



Napoleon's Grande Armée

Napoleon was the most feared general in the early 19th century as he had conquered once superior forces notably in the Battle of Austerlitz where his Grande Armée destroyed the Austrian and Russian forces through superior tactics and planning.

For Putin it was equivalent to Syria and Crimea where the Russian Army reigned supreme and the West feared the worst.

The Waterloo battle consisted of three armies - the great  Grande Armée led by Bonaparte, the British army headed by the famous tactician Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington and its allies and the Prussian Army under Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher's command.


Lesson No:1 for Putin

It is widely believed that when the Prussian Army entered the campaign in the last hour it turned the tide of the war which until then was under Napolean's control. 

However, a closer examination reveals Wellington’s forces held firm against Napoleon's well-managed machine withstanding artillery and infantry attacks.

Lesson No:1 for Putin: Napoleon clearly underestimated the stout defence provided by the British army at Waterloo.

Ukrainian forces are currently showing the same Wellington spirit while managing to resist a much superior force.

Defence right now is the best form of attack for Ukrainians, therefore it is no wonder Putin has confirmed he will allow Syrian fighters into Kyiv, but can a foreign mercenary force win a war against an inspired national army?


Napoleon's Waterloo strategy like Putin's Kyiv war

Like Putin's Army, Napoleon opened his campaign on the morning of June 18, 1815 with a blistering artillery, infantry and cavalry attack but it failed to damage Wellington's force as his army withstood the challenge. Moreover, there were examples of unsupported cavalry charge into the centre of Wellington’s infantry causing French casualties.

There were other unplanned diversionary attacks employed by the French which put Napoleon’s forces at a numerical disadvantage as the French Imperial Guard Corps struggled to fend off the allied attack.

In an act of military genius, Wellington who was heavily outnumbered asked his men to lie low and hide from the French and when the time came and the French came under heavy fire, he signalled his troops to fire and stand out taking the French by surprise. 


Bonaparte surprised

The advance of the British forces along with the Prussian army took Bonaparte by surpsie who ordered his once invincible army to retreat. The disastrous show took away the aura of invincibility of the French and handed a morale boosting victory to the British and Russian forces who now believed Napolean's unbeatable Army could now be beaten.

Lesson No: 2 for Putin: An all-out air, ground and artillery fire often does not break the will of the enemy in fact it often has the opposite effect. Ukraine's forces have been fighting the Russians despite being at a disadvantage. 

The surprise attacks on Russian forces by Ukraine's drones combined with clever tactics involving "seek & destroy" has put the Russian army on the backfoot in the past three weeks.


German blitzkrieg fails in Russia

Another example of a failed campaign lies in Putin's backyard amid the German ruins at the battle of Stalingrad in 1941-43. In 2022, the citizens of Ukraine are fighting with the same "Stalingrad spirit" while defending Kyiv and other cities amid large scale shelling and air attacks by the Russians.

As Hitler launched his "Operation Barbarossa" in the summer of 1941 pouring over 3,600 tanks, three million German troops including half a million from Romania and other allied countries it looked as if the German blitzkrieg would once again power through Soviet Union and into Moscow within weeks as Hitler expected. Hitler had committed 80 per cent of his army into Soviet Union, according to one account.


Stalingrad stalemate, another Ukraine?

The early gains by the German Army were stupendous at it tore into Soviet Union as German general Franz Halder commented: “It’s really not saying too much if I claim that the campaign against Russia has been won in 14 days.” 

The three army groups broke through the Russian defence as the German Panzer tanks ran amok often leaving the supply lines well behind while charging through the cities and farms across the Soviet Union.

However, after the great initial assault as the Russian army regrouped over months a stalemate set in as Hitler decided to concentrate all his forces in winning at Stalingrad on the way to Moscow in order to humiliate his rival Stalin.


German Blitzkrieg an old war tactic in 1941

At Stalingrad, the Germans who were not used to house to house fighting had to engage with a city desperate hold on as Stalin ordered his troops to fight till the death, along with poor German logistical planning with the supply line left far behind and lack of proper intelligence as Hitler viewed the Russian army with disdain believing it was poorly trained and lacked modern weapons hampered Germany's campaign.

Blitzkrieg as a war tactic was already two years old by the time Operation Barbarossa was launched in June, 1941 and with vast swathes of Soviet Union left to conquer Stalin shrewdly slowed down the German advance pulling them into pitched battles which went on for months at Stalingrad and other cities as the German Army wilted under its own weight and expectations.


Operation Typhoon

Germany in fact left the march to Moscow until late into the campaign concentrating its efforts at Stalingrad, by the time it launched "Operation Typhoon" to take the Soviet capital, Russian forces had regrouped, the harsh Russian winter had already eaten into the German army and slowed its advance and Soviet reinforcements and fresh reserves were trained and put on the front.

Lesson No: 3 for Putin: Poor planning and logistics and underestimating the enemy often leads to disaster. The Pentagon has already gone on record to predict at least 2,000 to 4,000 Russian troops have been killed although Ukraine President Zelensky has put the figure much higher. 

The 40 mile Russian army has been standing at the gates of Kyiv ready to move in but has been left stranded due to stiff resistance by Ukraine's home army. A big army is often no guarantee of final victory.


'We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down'

"We have only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down," this is what Adolf Hitler said while launching the attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941.

The statement reeked of overconfidence as Hitler had scant regard for Soviet forces and regarded them as being weak and led by inept generals. The Nazi leader believed Russians had struggled to defeat Finland the previous year so they could never take on the German war machine.

Lesson No: 4 for Putin: Just like Crimea in 2014 which was a "quick victory" without much external opposition, Putin too believed deploying the great Russian Army while encircling Ukraine from all sides would ensure a quick surrender and would lead the West to accept Ukraine's capitulation.

A big force does not ensure final victory as variables on the ground could be quite different.


Putin's sanctions gamble

Finally, there one modern element which neither Napoleon nor Hitler struggled against during their disastrous operations which was the effect of sanctions now in force against Russia.

The Biden administration had warned Putin of "massive consequences" in the form of Western sanctions if he invaded Ukraine, but Putin had stated just days ahead of the invasion on February 18 that the "West will introduce sanctions against Russia in any case".

"Whether they have a reason today, for example, in connection with the events in Ukraine, or there is no such reason. In this case, the goal is to slow down the development of Russia and Belarus," the Russian president had said while downplaying the impending sanctions.

"With this aim, there will always be a reason to introduce certain illegitimate restrictions, and this is nothing more than unfair competition," Putin believed.

However, the West has not only hit back with massive sanctions but several top line companies have pulled out of Russia leaving Putin with little option to sell Russian products in the world markets to keep his war machine in shape.

Lesson No: 5 for Putin: It is no secret war is sustained by a strong economy, however, Putin clearly underestimated the kind of sanctions which was likely to be imposed on Russia including on oil which is the mainstay of the Russian economy along with gas. 

However, oil and gas need to be sold in the world markets to keep the wheels of the economy turning. A long sanctions list encompassing all sectors of the economy is likely to seriously hamper Putin's war effort.