On the eve of war in Ukraine, US officials told Newsweek they believed Kyiv would fall within days of a Russian invasion, and the country’s resistance neutralized soon thereafter. They were so convinced of this outcome that they even offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Driving this assessment was the fact that prior to the war, much was made of Russia’s vaunted military power, particularly its hardware—all those new weapon systems added since 2008—and on the overwhelming size of the Russian forces.
For instance, nine days before the invasion, a piece by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies offered an in-depth assessment of Russia’s new tanks, planes, warships, missiles, and artillery, providing an ominous picture of what the Ukrainians would face if war came. The “New Look” modernization program was said to make Russia “a far more capable military power today than at any time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
As the war’s duration approaches three months, however, the Ukrainians have not only reversed the Russian military’s drive on Kyiv but, to the surprise of virtually everyone, forced it to withdraw from the entire northern part of the country. A subsequent attempt to narrow the Russian offensive to the east in order to encircle Ukrainian forces has likewise come to grief. Even overcoming the resistance of the small, beleaguered body of Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol took more than eighty days, required Russia to resort to appallingly destructive tactics, and can hardly be counted as the performance of a highly capable military force. Russian casualty numbers in these misadventures have been staggering. What’s more, Russia’s poor military performance has come at an extraordinary cost: only a month into the war, NATO estimated that up to forty thousand Russian troops had already been killed, wounded, or captured, or had gone missing.
These developments reveal that prewar analysis focused too narrowly on the Russian military’s new and modernized equipment, which was hiding ugly facts and conditions. An analysis of those realities, now on full display on Ukraine’s battlefields, provides a far better understanding of what analysts missed in their evaluation of the Russian army that invaded Ukraine. In effect, those gleaming new tanks and planes constitute a Potemkin army, an impressive facade designed to hide from Vladimir Putin the ugly truth that it was not ready for war.
While modern historians now contend that the story of Grigory Potemkin’s portable village deception of Catherine II is overblown, the way that the reality of Putin’s army was concealed from him—a reality on full display in Ukraine—constitutes a deliberate deception of gross negligence and deployment of an army unprepared for full-scale war.
Dismal Logistics and Vehicle Maintenance
General Omar Bradley famously (and perhaps apocryphally) said, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” This truism seems lost on Putin’s army. One of the most notable shortfalls of the invading forces has been the sheer number of vehicles the Russians have abandoned since the start of the war.
The military analysis site Oryx, which tracks the material losses on both sides in Ukraine through open sources, reports that Russia has lost thousands of vehicles of all types, including more than six hundred tanks, and hundreds more armored vehicles of many types. Scores of those losses are due to the Ukrainian military’s use of Western-supplied weaponry, such as the American FGM-148 Javelin and the British NLAW.
But it’s not only Ukrainian firepower stopping Russian vehicles. Satellite images revealed a major problem Russia has faced since launching the invasion is a breakdown of its logistical supply system. Within a few weeks of the war, images were shared widely that showed undamaged but abandoned vehicles littering Ukrainian roads, making clear that the Russian military is suffering from major maintenance problems likely due to shortages of spare parts and fuel.
Russia’s logistics woes are not just limited to poor planning and organization causing massive traffic jams. Trent Telenko, a former staff specialist with the Department of Defense and US Army vehicle auditor, has noted that images of Russia’s trucks and other vehicles reveal signs of a serious neglect of maintenance. In particular, images showing ripped-up tires and leaking wheel hubs expose a massive lack of the routine maintenance required to keep vehicles running—vehicles that are the primary means for transporting tons of supplies like food, fuel, ammunition, and spare parts to the war zone.
The Russian military’s logistics support appears severely limited in its capability to sufficiently resupply its forces. A widespread lack of maintenance, combined with bad Ukrainian weather and muddy roads, drastically limits that capability. What accounts for these maintenance and spare parts deficits? Poor planning? Yes. The tyranny of distance? Yes. And then there is the corruption of the Russian military and defense sector. In 2020, Transparency International’s Government Defence Integrity Index designated Russia’s defense sector as “at high risk of corruption, owing to extremely limited external oversight of the policies, budgets, activities and acquisitions of defence institutions.” Corruption extends even to the tactical level—Russian soldiers have a history of selling their own fuel on the black market, and Russian soldiers in Belarus have reportedly tried to sell fuel to locals both before and during the war in Ukraine.
The effect of all of this has extended all the way down to the Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) that Russian soldiers carried in their rucksacks into Ukraine. Many had expired in 2015, as captured Russian field rations in Ukraine show. The ration problem has reportedly gotten so bad that Russia has requested MREs from China.
Training and Experience Shortfalls
Another indicator that helps explain the Russian military’s poor performance so far in Ukraine is its training practices. This is especially relevant when it comes to combined arms operations. “So far, Russian forces have shown extremely poor coordination across the board, from basic logistics tasks, to coordination of airborne assaults with ground forces activity and arranging air defence cover for columns on the move,” Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote at the beginning of the conflict.
Despite the Russian military’s recent experience in Syria, its initial advances in Ukraine showed poor proficiency in these kinds of operations. The first assault on Hostomel’s airport, for instance, was done almost entirely by airborne infantry and helicopters, with no long-range indirect fire and hardly any support from fixed-wing aircraft.
As a result, Ukrainian defenders, with the aid of armored vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopter gunships, were able to rally, surround the Russians, shoot down some of the helicopters, and retake the airport for a short period of time—long enough to damage the runway and render it unusable even when Russian forces seized the airport a second time.
Had the Russians executed a combined arms attack that, in addition to the helicopter assault, included coordinated long-range missile strikes along with fixed-wing attack aircraft and suppression of enemy air defense operations, they could have successfully captured the airfield and destroyed any counterattacking forces, enabling Russian reinforcements to be flown in en masse just outside of Kyiv.
Subsequent fighting in the area saw Russian forces attempt to seize towns and cities with apparently no air support at times, reportedly leading to high casualties. One video posted by Ukraine’s intelligence service, for instance, shows the apparent aftermath of an ambush in Hostomel that wiped out an entire Russian platoon, including multiple armored vehicles.
A lack of rigorous training and relevant experience may explain the limited operations by the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS), one of the war’s ongoing mysteries. Despite a large modernization program in the last decade that added about 350 new and modern aircraft to its inventory and a force of about 300 combat aircraft usually stationed near Ukraine, the VKS has not conducted the type of large operations that were critical to NATO or allied successes in the wars in Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
The VKS does fly over one hundred sorties a day, but a “good number” of those sorties “never leave Russian airspace or Belarusian airspace,” with Russian aircraft “not venturing very far or for very long into Ukrainian airspace,” according to a senior US defense official. Instead, the VKS has relied heavily on firing long-range standoff munitions launched from bombers and aircraft over Russia, Belarus, and the Black Sea, likely because Ukrainian air defenses cannot reach them there.
Though the VKS gained valuable experience in Syria, it usually only sent small formations on combat missions—often a lone fighter-bomber or two to four aircraft at one time. Even when different types of aircraft operated together, they generally only did so in pairs of two. Thus, the VKS does not have experience conducting operations with multiple types of aircraft flying together in formations of dozens of planes operating in a coordinated fashion to attack multiple targets.
Additionally, VKS pilots themselves receive less training than their Western counterparts, with the average Russian pilot conducting about 100–120 flying hours per year. By comparison, the average British and American fighter pilot logs around 180–240 flying hours per year. The type of training is also different, with US and British pilots utilizing advanced flight simulators, training in bad weather, and practicing attacks against live and simulated air and ground defenses within time constraints. “By contrast, most VKS frontline training sorties involve comparatively sterile environments, and simple tasks such as navigation flights, unguided weapon deliveries at open ranges, and target simulation flying in cooperation with the ground-based air-defence system,” according to Bronk.
The Paralysis of Centralized Leadership
The invasion has also brought new public scrutiny to the Russian military’s leadership structure, mainly because of the reported loss of so many general officers. According to Ukrainian officials, the death toll of Russian soldiers includes twelve general officers, a staggering number. A large number of lower-ranking senior officers have also reportedly been killed, including the deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The Russian government has not confirmed all of the reported deaths, but, if genuine, they would represent the highest attrition rate among senior officers for Russia since World War II.
There are a number of reasons for these casualty figures, such as the reported usage of mobile phones and unsecured radio channels enabling Ukrainian intelligence to locate and target the generals. But the main reason is because the Russian command-and-control structure is highly centralized and top-heavy, which means that Russia’s senior officers have to be close to the front line simply to command their troops. This in turn puts them at considerable risk of being successfully located and targeted, a process that the United States has helped facilitate by providing actionable intelligence about their whereabouts.
The US system, by comparison, is much less centralized. While senior officers strategize and make the overall plans that guide operations, it is the strong cadre of junior officers, aided by a highly professional corps of noncommissioned officers (NCOs) with years of training, military education, and experience, who actually carry out those orders on the ground.
And while those US junior officers and NCOs obey orders from their superiors, the concept of mission command empowers them to make decisions themselves when executing those orders on the ground, with the authority to adapt and improvise. This is especially important, as it ensures a seamless transition of command decision-making in the heat of battle.
The Russian military has no such similarly empowered junior officers and NCO corps. As a result, unit cohesion is more difficult to maintain. Everything from logistics issues, morale problems, and panic on the battlefield cannot be addressed locally, but must wait for guidance from the top.
The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, has been attempting to model its military on NATO and US standards, including building up its own NCO corps through engagement in programs like NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme.
More Ugly Surprises Await Putin
While the above facts explain why Russia’s military has failed to achieve its main objectives so far, the war has entered a new phase, with Russian attention shifting from a large-scale invasion across multiple fronts on Ukraine’s border to a face-saving effort focused more narrowly on Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The shift to a narrower front has brought about a regrouping and reorganizing of the Russian military’s capabilities, as well as lessening the strain on its logistics networks, to enable better performance. In addition, the VKS has shown signs of increased activity, and the state of Ukraine’s air defenses may be weaker as almost three months of action and attrition may have reduced the stockpile of surface-to-air munitions.
But this will not be enough to cause a reversal of fortune for Putin and his military.
Ukraine continues to inflict heavy costs on those military forces, including last month’s sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship. Moreover, Russia’s “primary armored vehicle manufacturer appears to have run out of parts to make and repair tanks,” reports Fortune, constrained as a result of international sanctions. This is but one illustration of the impact sanctions have imposed.
The Ukrainians have revealed that the Russian military many believed to be the second strongest in the world has serious limitations. It has proven to be a facade of gleaming new tanks and planes concealing all of the performance and command problems noted above, until they had to fight.
This ugly surprise will not go away as Ukraine increasingly begins to look like a quagmire, entrapping Vladimir Putin and his Potemkin army in a military and diplomatic swamp.
Richard Shultz is a professor and director of the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.
Benjamin Brimelow is a research assistant in the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons
The Russian military is not a paper tiger for they too can dish out firepower and punishment. That said, I think that this war has exposed the horrors of war that haven't been widely seen in high-tech combat (not the Bush Wars of Africa or the coups around the world) since WW2. Massive destruction of cities, towns, ports, and infrastructure are underway with no regards to civilian causalities. In a modern era, this is akin to WW3. The Russians have weapons and are using them to great effect and massive destruction.
So what happened? The Ukrainians are smart…they fight and flight…the women and children fled, leaving many empty homes and buildings that were empty shells when hit with Russian firepower. Other nations might not be so lucky to flee before the invading army arrives. The Ukrainian men were thus left behind to dig in and defend the nation.
Sure, there are women, elderly, and children holed up in subways, basements, shelters, and other areas, but the vulnerable areas of Ukraine are mostly evacuated to neighboring nations that accepted and welcomed them. This is not a war where the civilian populace stayed in place. Those that couldn't flee suffered a fate worse than those that did flee.
When it comes to firepower, numbers mattered. The Russians have numerical superiority, but fuel and lack of ammo protection hindered their ability to fire-and-maneuver in such a way to destroy the pesky Ukrainian ATGM infantry. This is akin to even worse than Afghanistan for the NATO and US members. Unlike the Afghan National Army, the Ukrainians have pride in defending their homeland and they believe in their government. The Russians…could be the opposite. Politics and national pride play a role in patriotism and heroism. A happy family worth fighting and saving is worth the sacrifice. If the goal is to have military parades to remember WW2, then the Ukrainians are obviously NOT WW2 Germans.
The US DoD spends a lot of money on Readiness, and yes, there is corruption within US Defense companies also (EMALS and ammo elevations on the USS Gerald Ford and F-35 issues). But eventually, like buggy software and video games, patches and upgrades are issued to correct the problems. Americans and Westerns have a say in reviews, gripes, Unions, and Congress—citizens have a Voice. Product and business and company ratings and reviews are all over the Internet, and to censor the Internet is one aspect of a flaw that was not, did not, cannot be fixed. If the end user cannot have a review, rating, or vote on the product, then the information on how that product is (say Amazon reviews) leads to ignorance and dis-and-misinformation as to the real truth. Only on intercepted Russian communications have the Western world learned about the gripes and complaints of the Russian military—end user ratings brought out in the open. In an Authoritarian Regime, not having a say, a Voice, a protest, the freedom of speech, can lead to life and death if the decisions are made from higher up.
Regarding "Intel Fail" by the US and the West…did they foresee this? HUMINT is such that the CIA has not good knowledge "on the ground" of how the Russian military really is. But did they? When Russian BTRs tried to ram USSOCOM M-ATVs off the road in Syria, did the CIA have a clue that the Russians were unprofessional? One has to recall that Ukraine is an "all-out war" with shooting of every single kind of weapon that there is. This isn't SOCOM in Syria where guarding the oil fields means one can't shoot and if attacked, it's just .50cal and M777 155mm shells for defense.
The Ukrainians were gifted high-tech Western weapons from every nation that wanted to donate—the Ukrainians can read, speak, and listen to ENGLISH and THAT is a KEY component of why the Ukraine war is different. The Russians cannot speak much English. The Afghans…hardly any English unless they're dual-citizenship or translators. The US flew most of the educated Afghans away from that country on the last days, especially those who wanted to fight and did for their country. That is why other nations like China who send their students to the US for college may be a larger threat because these students can read, speak, and listen to English, but the censorship of the Internet and PRESS is such that they too have no Voice in end user ratings and reviews that carry the truth.
Everything in this article is correct, except perhaps the overall "so what?" implied by the title. The Russian army of a few years from now will be much better than the army of February 2022. Combat has a way of accelerating the learning process. Call it darwinism by fire: The weak or corrupt planners and leaders who were able to hide for years by playing the system are suddenly revealed. They die or are fired and are replaced by those who perform. Units that have survived battle gradually become more experienced. Armies are made of humans and humans learn – especially when their lives are on the line.
This effect is especially strong for armies that have suffered a defeat. Think of the reforms of Gneisenau and Scharnhorst after Jena, or those the Soviet Army introduced after their humiliation in the Winter War. Or the root and branch reforms the US Army underwent after Vietnam. The Russian Army will learn from this debacle as well. This is almost certain.
I acknowledge that some of the underlying problems in the Russian Army such as poor morale, corruption, and the absence of a true NCO corps will be hard to address, but these can still be compensated for. The Soviet Army of 1940 had many of the same weaknesses as todays Russian Army but after years of learning the hard way, it eventually defeated the supremely competent Wehrmacht. Granted, Soviet morale was greatly boosted by patriotic spirit. But I think we should be careful in assuming that Russia is incapable of mobilizing patriotism again in a modern context. Because they hardly even tried to do so in this campaign does not mean that they cannot in the next.
It seems that we all overestimated the Russian Army for the past decade. But I am worried that we may now make the opposite mistake.
The article keys some thoughts that have occurred over time. One is the tendency of the analytical establishment to inflate the capabilities of a particular country's force capabilities noting as one example some of the assessments of the Iraqi forces prior to operations in the first Gulf War. While there are some in the community that do seem to have a better handle on the range of factors that constitute a force's likely performance when confronted with an opponent of competitive capability, the assessment of the "moral" factors seem always deficient.
In the case of the current conflict…the Ukrainian force is defending their homeland while the Russian force is an aggressor for all of the wrong reasons…something that creates a cognitive dissonance for any Russian soldier when the enormity of what they have been ordered to do sinks in. At the moment, the moral factor seems weighted toward the Ukrainian will and intent to fight hard and long for their motherland…whatever it takes.
Another thought that occurs…in the evolution of practice and experience and process of rationalizing competing factors…one past experience comes to mind. When commanding a U.S. force constituted to replicate a Soviet motorized rifle battalion in four months of opposing force scenarios using the systems later deployed to the NTC during the test of the MICV (later Bradley IFV), the underlying idea was that the Soviet tactical system would essentially serve up a mindless sort of target array that rolled into the kill zone like a "turkey shoot."
Of course, after many scenarios, the vehicle crews of the MRB, using the tactics, became increasingly adept at use of terrain while maintaining momentum at speed and position in formation. An unplanned excursion scenario was ordered before sunrise one morning and the MRB attacked across deceptively flat terrain to seize an objective.
It was likely the expectation was that the MRB would suffer heavy losses as it came into range. In the event, an attacking tank was the first and only loss in the attack and that kill occurred as the MRB was about to over run the position. The exercise was called at that point as, unknown to the MRB commander, there was a large body of observers in vicinity of the objective.
One take away that stayed in mind…with the skill that had developed in the MRB's crews to apply the Soviet tactical doctrine and assault TTPs, the crews became very adept at using the terrain and the system to become deadly in the assault, not simply providing an array of targets that could be serviced.
It seems we are always in that zone of resisting inflation of the opponent's capabilities to a point well beyond reality and crippling our will to resist. But at the same time being able to balance our assessments by not dismissing an opponent's ability to adapt and be a deadly and capable opponent.
A good article that did generate some thought.