There has been a lot made of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The theories, and their holders, kick and bubble, searching for brief moments in brief interviews to talk about NATO expansion, buffer countries, the return of Cold War politics, the declining health of leaders, memories of great empires and lost pride, ethno-nationalism, democracy vs. autocracy, that old earned right of self-determination, of freedom, and the hopes of an Open Society (there’s your roundabout premonition).
Yet what is strangely missed in all this loud analysis, is the central and most illustrative story of the whole Ukrainian War (the explanation for how it started, how it’s going, and how it will end): error correction and the scientific method.
In March 2017, Commander of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov, penned an article declaring the changes about to sweep the Russian military. Poorly suited to “war in modern conditions” the old Soviet structures, strategies, training and equipment, were to be torn-down, and replaced by an understanding that “victory is always achieved not only by material, but also by the spiritual resources of the people, by their unity and desire to oppose oppression with all their might.”
Now six months into the current conflict, it is worth asking just what happened to that vision; to that theory of modern warfare. What went so horribly wrong?
Science moves forward in uncomfortable and poorly understood ways. Ways which statements, like that of Gerasimov, miss almost entirely. The scientific method always begins with the discovery of a problem — for Gerasimov and the Russian military that problem was a lack of competitiveness. But tilted towards a certain kind of answer, it was the wrong problem to be focussing on, the wrong question altogether. Rather than asking how they were to catch-up, they should have been asking what had caused them to fall so far behind.
Russia is a country of revolutionary and military glory, of battle-storied nationalism, and monuments to fallen heroes. It is not a country that ever needed convincing that its armed forces were an important and valuable institution. Thick with machinery, advanced weapon systems (even if not widely distributed), and manpower, a simple absence of resources and investment does not explain the combat failures we are now seeing. The baseline here is not parity with America, but only a broad effectiveness and reliability.
After correctly diagnosing a problem, our scientist in the laboratory (if diligently following method and procedure) begins to look for a theory. Something that will explain the phenomena (cover the problem) and provide a solution. This is a deeply creative action (as are all the steps involved), but one that doesn’t amount to progress on its own. The trouble with theories is that they are everywhere: easy to dream-up, always just a lazy thought away, and both infinite in number and range. The difficult job happens at the sorting table, at the moment of selection, when it all comes down to choosing from that endless buffet of solutions.
And it is a difficulty now showing-up on the Ukrainian frontlines. Hundreds of billions of dollars of military investment over the past decade culminated in a clumsy circus act, in front of a global audience: violent, bludgeoning, but above all embarrassing. Seized documents from Russian prisoners show that the Kremlin expected to claim Kyiv, and control the Ukrainian government, twelve hours after the invasion; they thought supply lines would not be an issue; they predicted that the Ukrainians would not fight; they believed their own soldiers would follow orders; for combat lessons from Syria to be applicable; for morale to be high and for logistics to function; for tanks to be effective in residential areas; for air supremacy to erase resistance on the ground; for technical and numerical advantages to translate smoothly into a battlefield victory.
The single factor causing all these theories to miss connecting with reality? Error-correction!
In a world where our problems hide from us, and where theories can be read into any situation (feeding off our biases, our desired outcomes, and our ignorance) it is criticism — and only criticism — which makes all the difference. Living inside the world, inside the phenomena that we are trying to explain through the creation of theories, we are always likely to be wrong… in some way or another. Mistakes — big and small — are the natural state of things, and so just like a good scientist we should want to seek them out as quickly as possible, in order to correct them as quickly as possible.
It is here where progress is found, with the discovery of what might be wrong. The alternative is silence and agreement, which might feel a little more pleasant to some people, but which also means stagnation. You can either find errors, correct them, and watch them disappear (letting you move on to different errors); or you can avoid them, let them pile and build upon each other, and wait for them to eventually erupt as catastrophe and crisis.
Before the invasion, Russia was riddled with the symptoms of such error-avoidance. Every new military breakthrough was flashed across TV screens and hailed as game changers, then later walked down Moscow streets in grand parades. Ask who the audience is for these showcases and you will find the image of a country running from its problems.
If they are for the military itself, then this implies a fragile institution in need of a good morale boost and some self-assurance; if they are for the Russian public then implied is a population without confidence in its own defence forces; if they are for a global audience then we are seeing a competitive insecurity — a military that is posturing, and flexing, to show itself as a capable threat and deterrent, rather than just being a capable threat and deterrent.
Even Gerasimov’s announced overhaul for “war in modern conditions” opened a window to a culture of error-avoidance within the military. Effective error-correction means constant small alterations and ongoing, small changes, so that large-scale, revolutionary reform and upheaval is never necessary.
These symptoms have continued onto the battlefield: guns don’t fire, radios don’t work, soldiers aren’t properly briefed or prepared, the air force and navy aren’t properly integrated with combat forces on the ground, tanks are missing basic mechanical parts, new fighter jets are using commercial (American made) GPS units for navigation, frontline commanders are forced to communicate over insecure cell phones on locally bought SIM cards…
Less obvious signs of error-avoidance sickness are there too. The haphazard shelling of civilian populations has been largely reported on as Russian cruelty, Russian indifference to human life and human rights, or as a brutal war strategy designed to terrorise the Ukrainians into submission. It might be all these things, but it is also a sign of pressure! Run to an unacceptable standstill by terrain and Ukrainian defences, the random shelling of non-military targets is likely a way for frontline soldiers to show their commanders that things are still happening — they might not be moving, but they are still attacking.
There are also dead Generals… lots of them. Every time some lucky sniper looks down the barrel of his rifle and sees an elite member of Russia’s military hierarchy slumming-it in the trenches, he has a culture of error-avoidance to thank for his good fortune. Realising that battlefield losses are not being accurately reported, that slight victories are being exaggerated, that basic orders are not being followed, these Generals have taken the only quick solution they have: standing over the shoulders of their troops like impatient helicopter parents. These are problems that mildly effective error-correction mechanisms would have snuffed-out long before the heat, and real-world consequences, of live conflict.
Yet in this, lie the small seeds of a stuttering truth: from error-correction comes knowledge creation, which — just as it allows for better experiments in the laboratory — also makes for better killing machines on the battlefield. And, that Generals are rushing toward the frontlines is a sign that they are finally seeing long-hidden errors, and desperately trying to apply short-term fixes before things get any more out of control. It is less than ideal, and comes with its own set of costs (a shrinking pool of well-trained officers), but it is error-correction of a kind… and it might just work!
So much of the Russian action now is just this, a late and panicked attempt to learn from cumulative mistakes. Redeploying away from Kyiv and into the East, is one of those lessons learnt. As is the firing of high ranking FSB (the Federal Security Service of Russia) officers for supplying poor intelligence. Or the arrest of staff from the Ministry of Defence for the misappropriation of billions of dollars of war funds. But the reason that these reforms still seem so unimpressive on paper, has less to do with timing, or their bluntness, or even the limited creativity behind them. Rather it is because they are top-down, authoritarian solutions to top-down, authoritarian problems.
Like the history of anything noteworthy, the history of science belongs in the mud — with all the other difficult and irresponsible parts of the human enterprise. But every new scientific success is like a net trolling through that mud, catching truth, and dragging us a little higher, a little cleaner, and a little better off with each pass. The point is that we are all, unavoidably, deep inside an infinite space of bewilderment. And so it all falls to us to weave more — and better — nets; something, anything that might make a difference. Like it or not, we will have to come to our own rescue.
The good news is that we have plenty of help. In a free and Open Society, everyone has an equal role in this, if they want it. We can all discover errors in the world around us, we can all expose those errors to the light, and we can all propose creative solutions. The only thing that is needed is the acceptance of criticism, no matter its target, and no matter the source.
Authoritarian regimes behave differently. They claim to stand outside of the mud which their populations are mired in, and are therefore justified to make decisions on their behalf. Whereas the rest of us are sometimes right, and often wrong, they allege to be always correct (or almost always). So for these regimes criticism, and the discovery of error, is not only unwelcome, but also an existential threat to their hold on power. Recognising this hostility, citizens, government employees, soldiers, etc. simply stop reporting the errors they find. Everything that makes itself to the top of the administration is rose-tinted, over-quoted, and disconnected from reality. Distortions always cause problems. And if ignored they always build, and hit, as climactic emergencies of the type we are now seeing inside the Russian military.
Our Open Societies, with all those public disagreements, bickering, and endless criticism, might look from the outside (the inside too) as unnecessarily shambolic — but only to those people who don’t understand the scientific method, and the importance of discovering our mistakes as fast as possible. This misunderstanding is just another example of how badly astray things tend to go under authoritarian regimes. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to find that countries which are bad at error-correction, are also bad at noticing the presence — and success — of error-correction in their enemies. You would expect a country like Russia to underestimate how much Ukraine had changed in the eight years since their annexation of Crimea, as well as underestimating the resolve, the willingness, and the ability of the Western alliance.
Nobody is perfect in this game, and we have our own problems here. Error-correction is a system, and no individual country is inherently any better at it than any other. It all comes down to culture! And so it could come unstuck tomorrow if we start trying to silence opinion (or even begin to resent criticism) today.
But the outlook for Russia is much worse. Occupation is a hard business, and there are no doubt people at the top of Western intelligence agencies wishing — perhaps even to the point of manipulating battleground conditions and war strategies — that the fighting continues into a decade’s long bleed of Russian capacity and willpower. Let’s all hope, for the sake of the Ukrainian people, that it ends a lot sooner than that! What is certain though is that the side most likely to triumph, will also be the side who plays the most competitive game of proving themselves wrong; the side which can fall in love with the accumulation of harsh, unfiltered, critical feedback.
A standard for victory which applies to all battlefields, wherever they may be, to all laboratories, to all institutions, to all problems, and to all of life!