How Putin's Bid to Copy Bush's Iraq War Playbook Ends in 'Shock and Awful'

Thursday, March 17 marks the three-week anniversary of Russian President Vladimir Putin's unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Over this time, Russia has lost more than 12,000 troops and is struggling to capture major cities.

Despite boasting the world's second most powerful military, according to Statista, trailing only the United States, Russia's attempt at a 'shock and awe'-style campaign has been a far cry from the U.S.-led shock and awe invasion of Iraq in 2003 that saw Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime largely unseated in just three weeks, with U.S. casualties less than 200.

American forces, joined by Australian, Polish, and British troops deployed over 177,000 soldiers into Iraq, with the initial air assault commencing on Wednesday, March 19. The rapid assault and superior fire power overwhelmed Iraqi forces, and by Wednesday, April 9, U.S. troops were pictured pulling down a bronze statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad's Firdos Square, symbolizing the end of his rule.

Saddam Hussein Statue
U.S. Marines pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad, Iraq on April 9, 2003. For many, this moment symbolized that the three-week-old invasion had achieved its goal. At the same point in its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has had little success. Photo by Mirrorpix/Getty Images

"The only shock and awe in Ukraine is that of the Russian generals who were stopped cold," Mark R. Jacobson, a military history expert, assistant dean of Syracuse University's Maxwell School and former Pentagon advisor, told Newsweek.

"They may have wanted [Iraq-style shock and awe]," he added, "but the lack of planning and preparation and the failure to anticipate what could go wrong is one huge contrast."

Putin's failure to predict the level of opposition and subsequent resistance that his forces would face from the Ukrainians led him to start a war that his forces were not prepared to handle from the start. Seeking to launch a campaign of shock and awe, this miscalculation left Russia unable to achieve the swift, decisive win it sought and expected, putting its forces in a situation where a conventional military victory may be unattainable.

Despite intelligence being one of Russia's greatest strengths, Jacobson said the early results of this war indicate major errors. He said that looking from the outside it appears that Russian assessments of Ukrainian resistance were either incorrectly gathered or potentially never given to Putin, while it also possible that he ignored reports altogether.

Jacobson said it appears Putin was firm in his belief that "Russians and Ukrainians were one people," and that upon invading the country his soldiers would be welcomed by the Ukrainian people, who would accept the "unity" of the two countries. If correct, that mentality could be a a key reason for Russia's failings.

Jacobson said that type of decision-making in autocratic systems is nothing new.

"We've seen this before, with certain types of personalities," Jacobson told Newsweek. "Their refusal to believe anything that conflicted with their worldview, that is really the DNA of strategic failures by leaders."

Jacobson said that the decision to proceed into war despite conflicting intelligence is one to which Mark Twain's famous quote applies, that "history doesn't repeat itself, but It often rhymes." But he added that in this case the rhyme is "imperfect."

Ukraine War Timeline
This graph features key moments seen during the first three weeks of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Shea Donovan

Before proceeding into something as consequential as war, Jacobson said it is in the best interest of an open-minded leader to consider alternative intelligence that does not support the decision. With the Iraq war, one of the key reasons for the invasion was intelligence that Hussein had developed an advanced chemical weapons program — the famed "weapons of mass destruction."

Two reports released by the United States Senate, one a year after the war and the other four years after, determined that the Bush administration misrepresented the intelligence and the threat from Iraq, and that the White House's concerns "regarding Iraq's chemical weapons production capability and activities did not reflect the intelligence community's uncertainties."

Jacobson said the policy makers had made up their mind to invade before they consulted intelligence.

"The policymakers had a predetermined answer, no matter what we were going in, they were looking for intelligence to justify a policy decision that had already been made." Jacobson told Newsweek.

Yet, while some of the U.S. intelligence regarding reasons for the invasion may have been inaccurate, the nation's military strategy was not hampered by that oversight. Colorado Democratic Representative Jason Crow, who won a Bronze Star for his service as an Army Ranger during the Battle of Samawah, told Newsweek that he and his peers went into battle "knowing what we were doing," something he says does not seem evident with the Russians.

Crow notes that many Russian troops did not know they were heading into a war, and instead thought they were going into training, having been duped by the Kremlin. Putin has sent waves of Russian ground forces at the Ukrainians, but operating under an ill-advised strategy, their sizable army has proven less effective than many originally expected.

"This is not a situation where you have armies that are on paper that just marched off of the paper and onto the battlefield," Crow told Newsweek. "These are real people."

"Whether or not those people are prepared for it mentally, whether they're ready for it, whether they're focused, whether they're well-led, really is a substantial factor in battle," he added.

Crow said that being taken by surprise likely unnerved and demoralized the Russian troops, and added that Russia's poorly executed logistics made the situation even worse. Russia's supply convoys have suffered mechanical issues, obstructing its supply chains. Crow says the lack of food, water, gas and other essential supplies are all significant factors impacting the Russian army.

Beyond Russia's apparent lack of care for its armed forces, Crow points to its inability to effectively execute combined arms operations as one of its most significant failings. Russia has struggled to dominate the Ukrainian airspace, and has also suffered naval losses. Crow says efficient combined arms operations were key to the success of the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003, and could very well be a primary reason for Russia's struggles in Ukraine.

"The Russians are continuing to fail to achieve air superiority," Crow said, "and that's extremely important in operations like this."

"Ukrainians continue to contest the skies," he added, "and make it very hard on the Russian Air Force and Russian supply convoys which are harassed by drones and the Ukrainian Air Force."

Peter Mansoor, a retired Army colonel who served as the executive officer to General David Petraeus during the Iraq War and now serves as a military history expert with The Ohio State University, agreed with Crow's assessment.

Iraq War First Three Weeks
This graph features key moments seen during the first three weeks of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Shea Donovan

In Iraq, the American-led forces were able to attain air supremacy relatively fast, Mansoor said. He said because air supremacy is essential to combined arms operations, Russia has not been able to achieve the shock and awe capabilities America exhibited in 2003. Without this ability, Russia cannot disrupt enemy formations and combat offensive strikes of the type encountered by the U.S. in Iraq.

"It was airpower that was the key to [shock and awe]," Mansoor told Newsweek. "Air power was used to destroy Iraqi armored reserves and to pave the way for the advance of coalition ground forces."

Mansoor said America's air operations allowed it to more successfully achieve its goals in 2003. Air supremacy allowed U.S.-led forces to use guided munitions that put the coalition in a position where it was able to target the enemy in a specific fashion, resulting in less damage to the civilian infrastructure. Because of this, America was not forced to destroy entire city blocks, Mansoor said.

For a force aiming to occupy and install new leaders to power, this is a model strategy. Mansoor said. Civilian infrastructure is needed in a postwar period to support reconstruction of a country. Further, in Iraq, aside from Iraqi Republican Guard, which reported directly to Hussein, Mansoor said American forces were met with limited resistance, and even had Iraqis fighting alongside them. He suspects that only about 20% of the Iraqi population supported the Hussein regime.

Inflicting limited damage upon invasion while taking measures to avoid civilian casualties give greater credibility and support to the invading force. Russia's failure to take these precautions could put any prospect of a victory it may have left firmly out of reach.

A member of the Ukrainian Territorial Defence Forces looks at destructions following a shelling in Ukraine's second-biggest city of Kharkiv on March 8, 2022. Having fumbled their initial invasion, Russia has turned to using heavy artillery in their bid to take over Ukrainian cities. Photo by SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

Because Putin's army has not followed the American strategy of carrying out precision strikes made possible by attaining air dominance, Russian forces have turned to one of their primary strengths — heavy artillery. Russia has looked to exert military dominance by carrying out heavy shelling and the leveling of civilian infrastructure, inflicting major damage and resulting in significant civilian deaths.

"Putin and the Russian military do not seem to be concerned with what's left once they have achieved their objectives," Mansoor told Newsweek, "and they have begun the destruction of Ukrainian cities in order to achieve their goals of taking over the country."

"They do not seem to be concerned about having a functional nation once that's over," he added. "Everything is being sacrificed in the cause of what they conceive to be victory."

Ukrainians have fought hard for their democracy, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has overwhelming national support, a stark contrast to the support Hussein saw in 2003. So, even if Russia can pound Ukraine into submission, it is unlikely that its people would rally around a puppet government put in place by Putin, meaning the fighting is likely to continue even if his objectives are achieved.

Putin's army has already suffered heavy casualties, and has seen hundreds of its tanks destroyed. While most Russians remain unopposed to the war, thousands have nonetheless carried out anti-war protests, and a protestor even interrupted a state-run news program holding a sign that read, "don't believe the propaganda."

As cracks in Putin's attempt at a unified façade appear and his forces continue to struggle against Ukrainian opposition, Pavel Baev, an expert in Russian conflict management and a nonresident senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, said a Russian win is starting to look unimaginable.

Coalition Forces Move Through Southern Iraq
U.S. Army 3rd Division 3-7 Infantry soldiers take cover after taking fire during a search and destroy mission March 27, 2003 near the town of An Najaf, Iraq. American-led forces executed a "shock and awe" campaign that saw Saddam Hussein's forces largely defeated in three weeks. Photo by Scott Nelson/Getty Images

"I cannot see any way to victory for Russia in this war," Baev told Newsweek. "Every day of stalled offensive brings Ukraine closer to the point where the invasion would collapse because of the lack of stamina and resources in Russia for a large-scale conventional war."

That puts Russia's autocratic leader in a precarious situation.

"Putin's regime cannot survive a defeat," he added, "but what form its meltdown or breakdown will take is impossible to foresee. But the prospect of a violent chaos is clear and scary."

America and its allies faced international condemnation when they chose to invade Iraq. France, Germany, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia and others all opposed the effort. However, this opposition stopped far short of the heavy sanctions that have been levied against Russia.

While a report by the Council on Foreign Relations indicates the 2003 invasion had mixed effects on the U.S. economy, Russia was immediately rocked with sanctions after its invasion of Ukraine, with some financial observers predicting that the country could default on its debt in a matter of weeks.

Russia is not even among the top-10 world economies, according to World Population Review, ranking 12 on the global list. It has long relied on its military dominance to project an image of strength, and with that dominance now in question, Baev said Putin's autocratic rule faces a new level of existential risk.

"Putin's regime has mutated into a dictatorship starkly incompatible with democratic values, re-emphasized by the Biden administration," Baev told Newsweek.

"This conflict is fundamental," he added, "because the threat from every democratic progress [in the region] to the survival of Putin's grasp on power is existential."

While the U.S. occupation of Iraq after the invasion has undermined the Bush administration's legacy, at the time of invasion, a Gallup poll found some 72% of Americans supported the war. President George W. Bush's approval rating jumped from 58% to 71% when American forces entered Iraq, Gallup reported, and it stayed near that level over the course of the three-week invasion. Bush ultimately road this wave of approval to re-election in 2004.

US President Joe Biden meets with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 1, 2021, in Washington, DC. Unlike Hussein, Zelensky has emerged from this war as an international hero. Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

On February 25, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine, FiveThirtyEight reported President Joe Biden's approval rating at 40%. In just three weeks, amid offering significant support to the Ukrainians, that rating has climbed to 43%.

With public support for Ukraine continuing to mount in the U.S., a key similarity between the invasion of Iraq and the invasion of Ukraine could ultimately be the advancement of America's foreign interests.

While Bush's efforts in Iraq would result in governmental instability and the rise of ISIS, the initial invasion nonetheless succeeded in driving Hussain from power, and Iraq developed a de jure democracy, albeit one that is afflicted with widespread corruption and faces significant security threats.

Putin's invasion has seen the Ukrainian people rally around their democratic values, pushing much of the country closer to the European Union and further from Russian influence. It has also resulted in Europe increasing its defense spending, with Germany committing 100 billion euros to its armed forces, and Sweden raising its defense budget to equal 2% of its GDP.

For the U.S., a fortified Europe and a weakened Russia means a greater ability to divert its attention and resources to other pressing international matters, like the expansion of China.

With reports of cease-fire negotiations making some progress, the prospects for Ukraine surviving as a democracy seem somewhat brighter than many thought possible three weeks ago, when Putin's tanks rolled across its borders. Yet until some deal is struck, the threat remains imminent.

While Ukraine's forces have continued to stave off Putin's army, the size of Russia's military means that it will continue to be a major threat. Ukraine remains in harm's way, and Putin appears intent on having the war end on his terms.

As the conflict continues, Crow says the United States must continue to provide as much support as it can. He said that support should be aimed to combat Russia's ongoing weak spot, the area that has not allowed it to carry out the shock and awe seen in the 2003 U.S. attack on Iraq — air assault operations.

"I've been pushing the administration to either provide fighter jets and/or increase the sophistication of the air defense weapons," Crow told Newsweek. "They need better air defense equipment missiles to help take down Russian aircraft and continue to contest airspace over Ukraine."

"The bottom line is Ukraine is not invading its neighbor — they are not the aggressor, they are the defender," he added. "So, the weapons that we are providing are being used for defensive purposes, whether that's a javelin, a stinger, a machine gun, or a fighter jet."

Shea Donovan created the timeline graphics used in this article.

Correction: March 18, 2022 @ 12:02 p.m. The original version of this story listed French troops as participating in the initial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. The story has been corrected to show that those were British troops. We regret the error.