SCGA Team: Phillips P. O’Brien

Phillips P. O’Brien

Chair in Strategic Studies, University of St Andrews

Phillips is the Chair of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrews.

His research, writing and impact work is mostly on the making of grand strategy, defence policy and the interaction of domestic politics on international relations in the 20th and 21st centuries.

He had written books on these different themes including most recently: How the War was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge 2015) and, The Second Most Powerful Man in the World: The Life of Admiral William Leahy (Dutton 2019).

Phillips has published numerous articles in journals such as Diplomatic History, Journal of Strategic Studies and Past and Present. Professor O’Brien is also part of two ongoing research projects, one on cyber power and the other exploring an interdisciplinary understanding of strategy and strategy-making. Both of these he plans to take forward with SCGA. 

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Press, Clips, Interviews

In an address to the National Army Museum earlier this month, the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace gave a fascinating view of the present state, and possible future, of military power. Though he focused on Ukraine, he also gave some tantalising hints about where the UK might be moving next.

On May 2, the daily Pentagon briefing on the state of the war in Ukraine started with a rather extraordinary story about the behaviour of Russian forces during the ongoing Battle of the Donbas.

Sometimes history is closer than it seems. Russian soldiers who have been wounded, captured or lost friends and colleagues in Ukraine have learned that very painful lesson over the last six weeks.

With the Russian army making some gains in the east in recent weeks, albeit incremental ones, commentators are asking whether — or even claiming — President Putin’s forces have changed the course of the war and are now on track to “win”.

Russia’s botched invasion has illustrated the diminishing power of heavy and expensive military power.

Russia has failed to understand the importance of airpower.

Ahead of Russia’s annual Victory Day celebration on 9 May – which marks the date the Soviet Union defeated Nazi Germany – the world is once again playing a will he, won’t he game with Vladimir Putin.

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia unleashed a string of attacks Monday against rail and fuel installations deep inside Ukraine, far from the front lines of Moscow’s new eastern offensive, as Russia’s top diplomat warned against provoking World War III and said the threat of a nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated.”

Ukraine’s success illuminates a strategy that has allowed a smaller state to—so far—outlast a larger and much more powerful one.

We face a serious dilemma as the Battle of the Donbas begins.

The idea that the Russian army remains a powerful, effective force capable of breaking through Ukrainian lines and encircling forces in the Donbas remains widespread.

Good equipment and clever doctrine reveal little about how an army will perform in a war.

The sinking of the Russian guided missile cruiser Moskva is both a reminder of the past and a marker for the future. It harkens back to a lesson learned forty years ago. It was in 1982, in the waters around the Falkland Islands, that the ability of anti-ship missiles to destroy modern warships was brought home to much of the world.

The Battle of the Donbas, if that is what we are to witness, may be Russia’s last throw of the dice with this army.

Sometimes history is closer than it seems. Russian soldiers who have been wounded, captured or lost friends and colleagues in Ukraine have learned that very painful lesson over the last six weeks …

So much had been written about the Russian armed forces’ modernisation and improvement over the last decade that that it was widely believed that the Russians possessed one of the largest and most powerful armies in the world until a few weeks ago. The army might not be on par with the US or China, but it was certainly capable of conquering a military minnow like Ukraine – or so the logic went.

The received wisdom that the country’s greater size makes victory over Ukraine inevitable is misguided.

Fighting a war is really difficult – as we constantly find out every time a new one is started. Though they may begin with hopes of lightning invasions and victory parades, they often end in protracted, bloody catastrophes. This is the situation facing Russia’s leaders today.

Phillips O’Brien, Strategic Studies Professor at the University of St. Andrews, joins Lawrence O’Donnell with his assessment of what’s going wrong for Russian troops invading Ukraine, saying they started a campaign with “no idea what they were taking on” and says Russia needs to reconsider everything they’re doing to win this war, “but what we don’t see is them understanding that.”

In times of peace we often glamorise the military potential of nations by discussing their capabilities using the crudest but easiest of measures — weapons. There can be lots of talk about hypersonic missiles, aircraft carriers, the latest fighter-bombers and the heaviest tanks with the biggest guns.

It certainly makes for good copy and provides a real testosterone-laden charge to the many who get a kick from that sort of thing.

Vladimir Putin fancies himself a great student of Russian history. He couched his justification for the invasion of Ukraine in a vision of Russia and the Soviet Union’s history that was paranoid, grandiose and incoherent, all at the same time.

Ukraine needed to be subjugated by Russia because it was acting as a stalking horse for NATO and the West.

Social feed

The kind of thing that might not get the coverage, but really matters twitter.com/IuliiaMendel/s…

Slovakia plans to resume production of 120 and 155 mm shells for Ukraine - Foreign Minister

Putin, clearly drunk at today’s Russian military awards ceremony, gets his Kremlin propaganda lies mixed up - it’s supposed to be Crimea that Ukraine denied water to, not Donetsk. twitter.com/wartranslated/…

Drunk putin explains why strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure will continue because "they started first by attacking the Crimean bridge"

A substantial loss of talent and international understanding for the SNP front bench. @StewartMcDonald did a huge amount to craft a workable defence policy for the party and was respected across Europe. twitter.com/stewartmcdonal…

Serving as my party’s defence spokesperson has been a job I’ve loved. Today I’ve decided it’s time for a change.

I wish @StephenFlynnSNP and @MhairiBlack every success. I’ll be cheering them on from the backbenches.

Haven't noticed too much difference--though more ads trying to sell me gold as an investment, perhaps a sign of the crypto implosion? twitter.com/MaxBoot/status…

Haven’t seen a major change in my @Twitter experience (because I block trolls aggressively) but I am noticing more “promoted” tweets in my timeline, including a bizarre ad attacking Israel over the USS Liberty incident 55 years ago. Am assuming Musk is desperate for dollars!

Or the single greatest history tweet I’ve ever seen…. twitter.com/atrupar/status…

this is a dark horse contender for the worst tweet of all time lmao

Stoltenberg stating the obvious twitter.com/KyivIndependen…

⚡️Stoltenberg says Ukraine has right to defend, as Russia accuses Ukraine of striking its territory.

“What we see is that Ukraine is defending itself. And we need to understand this in the wider context,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

So my students have been creating course-related memes as an end-of-semester extra credit thing and this one for my WWII in Europe course very much influenced by ⁦@PhillipsPOBrien⁩ ‘s work made me lol.

People seem to be making up weird escalation lines for Russia, it’s somehow ok for Ukraine to attack targets in Kursk or Belgorod oblasts but it’s a big deal when the Ukrainians attack a target in Saratov Oblast. I just don’t get it

Had some thoughts on how one can judge the importance of a military engagement, which occurred to me after seeing the reaction to this thread. Wrote a substack post about them, which just went out. phillipspobrien.substack.com/p/how-one-migh… twitter.com/PhillipsPOBrie…

Actually the Ukrainians have regularly launched attacks on Russian and Russian claimed territory since March. The interesting thing is that they have not been treated as escalatory. These attacks might be responded to with huffing and puffing and more missiles. twitter.com/nytimes/status…