Ancient Lessons For Modern Planners

One of the earliest reasonably documented military engagements between an overwhelming invader and a much smaller, but motivated, resistance was the Greek defense against the Persian invasion. Various pertinent lessons can be learned from that conflict and applied to the current one.


While the numbers of soldiers involved in the ancient Persian Wars are routinely discounted by modern scholars, three specific battles have remained among the most studied of human history. One, Marathon, involved the use of a thin line of heavy infantry managing to encircle a larger force of light infantry. The second, Salamis, involved small and maneuverable Greek ships moving between far larger Persian ships and sinking them in the ensuing chaos. The third, Thermopylae involved 300 Spartan soldiers holding off a massive Persian army for days by meeting them at a pass where only two soldiers could engage at a time. The superior Spartan infantry rotated and held off the more numerous Persian soldiers for several days before being encircled due to local treachery. Remarkably, due to weather conditions in northern Ukraine, all three of these battles are relevant to today’s conflict.

The Battle of Marathon laid out the ideal situation for a heavily armored conflict. You spread out your resources, they cover one another, and then they encircle and smash the enemy. Greek warfare followed this pattern for hundreds of years, with the heavily armored phalanx being almost unstoppable until the arrival of Alexander the Great. But during the Ukrainian conflict we have not seen tanks spread out and covering one another. Instead, we’ve seen them in vast columns. Like the Battle of Thermopylae, essentially only one vehicle at a time moves into a position of engagement with the enemy. In addition, any breakdown in the column results in a total loss of movement. These vast, largely immobile, columns have been sitting ducks for more agile light infantry, as in the battle of Salamis. Unable to maneuver, they are unable to defend themselves or launch any sort of effective offensive operation.

The Russian forces can’t have intended to enter the battle space in vast columns. Footage of operations from the Belarussian war games in early February showed military assets deployed in a more conventional arrangement. They traveled from place to place on the roads, but they then switched to operations across open country, arraying themselves in lines and deploying significant simultaneous firepower at the front. That is not the sort of arrangement we have seen in Ukraine.

The obvious question is: why?

Why, faced with literal traffic jams on the meager roads linking Ukraine to Belarus and Russia have the Russians not simply gone off road? The terrain is reasonably flat. It would seem ideal for this sort of workaround. The answer comes from one of the most familiar images from this war: tanks and other vehicles stuck in mud.


Ukraine is famous for its mud. In fact, it and Russia have a mud season, known as Rasputsitsa. In the spring and the fall, mud has directly impacted military invasions of Russian itself. It is believed the Mongols, Napoleon and Hitler were all slowed by Russian mud prior to being hit by the Russian winter. The spring is particularly difficult due to the cycle of freezing and defrosting that causes ‘frost heaves’ in which the road is buckled due to thermal cycling. Tanks and heavy armored vehicles do significant damage to roads in the best of situations. When combined with poor road conditions, the roads can effectively cease to exist. Another familiar site has been vehicles with their tires torn to shreds. While poor maintenance and possible enemy action contributed to these situations, a common method of dealing with muddy conditions is the lowering of tire pressure. When tires that are already in poor shape have their pressure lowered, the result can be complete failure.

Prior to the First Gulf War in Iraq, U.S. forces apparently secretly crossed and laid down geomatting to provide a better surface for moving their armored assets.  The Russians did not. Instead, they are relying on improvisational techniques to try to overcome the challenges they are facing.

The result of this is that instead of deploying their heavy assets in an ideal arrangement, as at Marathon, they have found them funneled into narrow corridors as at Thermopylae and then attacked by more mobile units as at Salamis. Every aspect of this military history eternalized over 2,000 years ago has been seen turning against the Russian armored forces.

Again, the question must be asked: why? Why would the Russian military, which must be aware of its own national history of using weather as a tool of warfare, make such a fundamental mistake? 

Was it incompetence, hubris or some other factor?

The third option seems the most plausible. The Russian military ran a dry run of the Ukrainian invasion in Belarus only weeks before the actual conflict. They had no problems with mud there. 

A look at the temperature graphs can explain why:

In Minsk, temperatures were somewhat above historical averages with an average high of -1 C (1.4 C warmer) and an average low of -5 C (2.9 C warmer than normal). While these are not ideal conditions to avoid mud, they were seemingly cold enough to support the exercises. At this point, everything checked out. The tank offensive could be supported.

Except… it couldn’t. Here’s a look at the temperature in Kiev for the three weeks prior to the Ukraine invasion.

Here, temperatures were significantly above average with an average high of 4.7 C and an average low of -1.4 C. Both are approximately 4.6 C warmer than normal – a shocking differential. Critically, daily temperatures often remained at or above freezing. Given that the earth retains significant heat, this would have led – did lead – to ground that could not support Russian armored movements.

The dry run in Minsk was not representative of conditions in Kiev only two weeks later. Because of this, Russian armor was trapped. 

Discussions of climate change are outside the purview of this review; this is only a small sample of a single year’s outlying temperature in Kyiv. Even between these two locations the differentials between average and actual temperatures are vastly different. Highs in Minsk were only 1.4 C above average while highs in Kiev were 4.6 C. 

Irrespective of long-term climate trends, it seems clear that the early spring in northern Ukraine led to a massive battlefield disadvantage for the Russian heavy armor and equipment. There was an element of hubris in the decision to go ahead with the invasion nonetheless. The weather data was entirely public and knowable. The impacts of the mud could have easily been factored in. But the decision to invade had apparently already been made. Furthermore, there was an expectation that local resistance would collapse almost immediately making factors like weather irrelevant.

At this point, the Ukrainians have claimed over 11,000 Russian fatalities. If these numbers are to be believed, more Russians have been killed in 10 days of engagement in Ukraine than Coalition forces lost during the entirety of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. They have lost most soldiers than the USSR lost in 9 years in that same theater. While the Ukrainians have certainly suffered high casualties, the story to date would probably have been far different had temperature averages been maintained.

What lessons can be learned for the future? 

Perhaps it is just this: despite massive advances in technology since the days of the Greeks, weather still matters and planners of all sorts – whether moving laptops or tanks – who fail to adapt to changes in weather can find themselves making serious and possibly fatal errors.


For a more humorous take on the hubris of planners, check out this excerpt from my autobiography.

If you want a broader understanding of the dynamics of the conflict, I’ve presented them in a relationship advice column.

How did you like this article? Let us know so we can better customize your reading experience.


Leave a comment to automatically be entered into our contest to win a free Echo Show.
Samantha Carter 4 months ago Member's comment

I enjoyed your parody article about the war as a relationship advice column. The parallels were obvious, except the part of poisoning the vodka. How does that solution apply to the real world?  Sanctions?  Those don't seem to be doing much? 

Joseph Cox 4 months ago Author's comment

You could literally poison the vodka. Russian troops are looting grocery stores. Put Fentanyl in all the vodka in stores and you'd eliminate a third of the army. 

Samantha Carter 4 months ago Member's comment

Wow, that's harsh. I thought you meant poison Putin, which I'm all for.  But most of those Russian soldiers are just boys who were forcibly conscripted and tricked into fighting in Ukraine.  At least if the videos of the captures Russian soliders, and their mothers are to be believed.

Joseph Cox 4 months ago Author's comment

They are also in an army conducting an illegal war. If you're allowed to shoot them and blow them up while they are driving on the road, why can't you poison them when they loot?

No, I don't think it is good that *anybody* is dying in this war. Unfortunately, when nations decide to embark on these sorts of adventures, their people maintain some culpability. This is why I don't mind general sanctions. A whole nation has allowed and encouraged Vladimir Putin to be who he is. Just as an entire nation allowed Hitler, or Khamenei. The nation bears responsibility - not just the leader. 

If this were an era where these sorts of wars of conquest were acceptable or even laudible (see all of human history prior to the 20th century) it might be different. But we live in an era where this is definitely not acceptable and we don't want it to become acceptable. Those who engage in this behavior - entire nations who allow it - have to face consequences so the next people walking this road won't allow a Putin or Khamenei to come to power.

The Russian people can still bring this to a close, but they overwhelmingly favor the special operation. Brainwashed? Yes. But they knew what they were getting when they chose Putin, watched him level Grozy and then learned - if they bothered to look - that Putin himself had carried out the apartment bombings that predicated that war. They chose not to look. By all means, welcome the Russian people back - but not while this continues.

In Iran's case, the Iranian people need guns to end their genocidal regime (these should be afforded them). Many tried to resist the rise of the Ayatollahs. Many gave their lives. But apparently not enough, and not hard enough. So now the people of Iran are harnessed for evil purposes. We really ought to give them a chance to revolt. But if they don't and if their nation attempts to genocide another people? Well, then there must be consequences - so the next people walking this path know better.

Dainan Gilmore 4 months ago Member's comment

The Russians have spent much effort in "sanction proofing" their economy, and they recently struck an alliance with China to offset much of the damage that sanctions will cause. Most importantly, sactions will take a long time to have an impact, longer than the war will likely take.  

Joseph Cox 4 months ago Author's comment

Nobody is sanction proof. Even North Korea depends on trade. There is no shipping now. Russia is being forced into vassal state status with regards to China.

Their decision to nationalize will cripple their economy for as long as the current government is in place. No investors will trust the Russian government not to do this (not that they should have).

If the oligarchs want not to be Chinese vassals, they might need to fix this problem.

Wall Street Wiz 4 months ago Member's comment

Actually, if you Google "Sanction-Proof" and Russia, you'll find a thousands of news articles that are using this term.

Dainan Gilmore 4 months ago Member's comment

Yes, good points.  I should have said to "mitigate the affects of sanctions."  And they certainly have done that.  I do believe sanctions are largely inefective, since countries will always find to do what's in their own best interets, everyone else be damned.  So they will buy Russian energy, and other exports, through 3rd parties if need be.

I read an article here about how India openly said they need to find a way to circumvent the sanctions since they are too dependent on Russia.

Susan Miller 4 months ago Member's comment

It looks like companies are doing more than governments.  Corporations are suspending operations in Russia or fleeing the country all together.  That will not go unnoticed by every day Russians who may pressure Putin to end his madness.

Dick Kaplan 4 months ago Member's comment

It may not have as much of an impact as you think.  Many companies like #Visa, #Mastercard and #Amex made a big PR splash saying they were cutting off Russia. But if you read the fine print, they simply were not letting people use Russian issued credit card in other countries. They will still work just find in Russia, which means this will have virtually no affect at all.

As for companies like #McDonalds and #Apple, Putin said he may simply nationalize those companies' stores and confiscate all their assets, and continue to run them with Russians in charge!

Joseph Cox 4 months ago Author's comment

Yup, lots of halfway measures with great headline value.

Adam Reynolds 4 months ago Member's comment

You'd probably get more clicks with a title that better explained what this article is.  Especially when people see it on social media, they'll have no clue.

Joseph Cox 4 months ago Author's comment

I was trying to pick something TM appropriate. But pick a better title and I can let the grand poo-bahs know :)

Joseph Cox 4 months ago Author's comment

Temps have dropped, so Russia might be able to drive over open country. Next few days critical. If they are still in open country by Monday or Tuesday - when temps shoot up - they will be stuck.