THE JOB of organising NATO’s biggest military exercise since the cold war kept Admiral James Foggo, then the commander of American naval forces in Europe and Africa, busy in the summer of 2018. Trident Juncture was to gather 50,000 personnel, 250 aircraft and 65 warships in the European Arctic in October. As logistically taxing as that sounds, it was small fry compared with what Russia was planning in Siberia in September. The Vostok exercises would be the biggest since the Soviet Union’s mammoth Zapad drills of 1981, boasted Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister: they would involve 300,000 troops, 1,000 aircraft and 80 warships.
This was a huge feat. “It was a big lift for us to get 50,000 people in the field,” recalled Admiral Foggo recently. “How did they do that?” The answer, he eventually realised, was that they did not do it. A company of troops (150 at most) at Vostok was counted as a battalion or even a regiment (closer to 1,000). Single warships were passed off as whole squadrons. This chicanery might have been a warning sign that not everything was as it seemed in the Russian armed forces, even before they got bogged down in the suburbs of Kyiv.
“It’s not a professional army out there,” said Admiral Foggo. “It looks like a bunch of undisciplined rabble.” Since they invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Russian forces have succeeded in capturing just one big city, Kherson, along with the ruins of Mariupol and chunks of Donbas, the eastern industrial region that they partially occupied in 2014 and now hope to conquer in its entirety. That meagre haul has come at the cost of 15,000 dead Russian soldiers, according to a recent British estimate, exceeding in two months the Soviet losses in a decade of war in Afghanistan. The invasion has clearly been a fiasco, but how accurate a reflection of Russia’s military capabilities is it, astonished Western generals wonder?
On the eve of war, Russia’s invasion force was considered formidable. American intelligence agencies reckoned that Kyiv would fall in days. Some European officials thought it might just hold out for a few weeks. No one thought that the city would be welcoming such dignitaries as Antony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, America’s secretaries of state and defence respectively, two months after the fighting started. The belief was that Russia would do to Ukraine what America had done to Iraq in 1991: shock and awe it into submission in a swift, decisive campaign.
This belief was based on the assumption that Russia had undertaken the same sort of root-and-branch military reform that America underwent in the 18-year period between its defeat in Vietnam and its victory in the first Gulf war. In 2008 a war with Georgia, a country of fewer than 4m people, though successful in the end, had exposed the Russian army’s shortcomings. Russia fielded obsolete equipment, struggled to find Georgian artillery and botched its command and control. At one stage, Russia’s general staff allegedly could not reach the defence minister for ten hours. “It is impossible to not notice a certain gap between theory and practice,” acknowledged Russia’s army chief at the time. To close that gap, the armed forces were slashed in size and spruced up.
Ambition in spades
Russian military expenditure, when measured properly—that is, in exchange rates adjusted for purchasing power—almost doubled between 2008 and 2021, rising to over $250bn, around triple the level of Britain or France. Around 600 new planes, 840 helicopters and 2,300 drones were added to the arsenal between 2010 and 2020. New tanks and missiles were flaunted at parades in Moscow. Russia tested new tactics and equipment in Donbas, after its first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and in its campaign to prop up Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator, the following year.
A retired European general says that watching this new model army fail reminds him of visiting East Germany and Poland after the end of the cold war, and seeing the enemy up close. “We realised how shite the 3rd Shock Army was,” he says, referring to a much-vaunted Soviet formation based in Magdeburg. “We’ve again allowed ourselves to be taken in by some of the propaganda that they put our way.” Russia’s army was known to have problems, says Petr Pavel, a retired Czech general who chaired NATO’s military committee in 2015-18, “but the scope of these came as a surprise to many, including myself—I believed that the Russians had learnt their lessons.”
The charitable interpretation is that the Russian army has been hobbled in Ukraine less by its own deficiencies than by Mr Putin’s delusions. His insistence on plotting the war in secrecy complicated military planning. The FSB, a successor to the KGB, told him that Ukraine was riddled with Russian agents and would quickly fold. That probably spurred the foolish decision to start the war by sending lightly armed paratroopers to seize an airport on the outskirts of Kyiv and lone columns of armour to advance into the city of Kharkiv, causing heavy casualties to elite units.
Yet, this coup de main having fizzled, the army then chose to plough into the second largest country in Europe from several directions, splitting 120 or so battalion tactical groups (BTGs) into lots of ineffective and isolated forces. Bad tactics then compounded bad strategy: armour, infantry and artillery fought their own disconnected campaigns. Tanks that should have been protected by infantry on foot instead roamed alone, only to be picked off in Ukrainian ambushes. Artillery, the mainstay of the Russian army since Tsarist times, though directed with ferocity at cities such as Kharkiv and Mariupol, could not break through Ukrainian lines around Kyiv.
Problems in profusion
In recent weeks officials and experts have debated the causes of Russian failure. Some have drawn comparisons to the collapse of the French army in 1940. But the analogy is not apt, says Christopher Dougherty, a former planner for the Pentagon. “France failed because it followed bad doctrine,” he says. “Russia’s failing in part because it’s not following its doctrine, or basic principles of war.”
Inexperience is part of the problem. As the historian Michael Howard once noted, the expertise a military officer hones “is almost unique in that he may only have to exercise it once in a lifetime, if indeed that often. It is as if a surgeon had to practise throughout his life on dummies for one real operation.” America has been wielding the scalpel nearly continuously since the end of the cold war, in Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and so on. Russia has not fought a war of this magnitude against an organised army since seizing Manchuria from Japan in 1945.
Things it could do in smaller wars, in Donbas and Syria—such as using electronic sensors on drones to feed back targets for artillery—have proved harder on a larger scale. And things that appeared easy in America’s wars, such as wiping out an enemy’s air defences, are actually quite hard. Russia’s air force is flying several hundred sorties a day, but it is still struggling to track and hit moving targets, and remains heavily reliant on unguided or “dumb” bombs that can be dropped accurately only at low altitudes, exposing its planes to anti-aircraft fire.
All armies make mistakes. Some make more than others. The distinguishing feature of good armies is that they learn from their mistakes rapidly. In abandoning Kyiv, focusing on Donbas and putting a single general, Alexander Dvornikov, in charge of a cacophonous campaign, Russia is belatedly showing signs of adaptation. In early April a Western official, when asked whether Russia was improving tactically, observed that armoured columns were still being sent unsupported and in single file into Ukrainian-held territory—a suicidal manoeuvre. On April 27th another official said that Russian forces in Donbas appeared unwilling, or unable, to advance in heavy rain.
In part, Russia’s woes are down to Ukraine’s heroic resistance, buoyed by a torrent of Western weaponry and intelligence. “But just as much credit for the shattering of Russian illusions lies in a phenomenon long known to military sociologists,” writes Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, “that armies, by and large, reflect the qualities of the societies from which they emerge.” Russia’s state, says Mr Cohen, “rests on corruption, lies, lawlessness, and coercion”. Each one has been laid bare by Russia’s army in this war.
“They put a lot of money into modernisation,” says General Pavel. “But a lot of this money was lost in the process.” Corruption surely helps explain why Russian vehicles were equipped with cheap Chinese tyres, and thus found themselves stuck in the Ukrainian mud. It may also explain why so many Russian units found themselves without encrypted radios and were forced to rely on insecure civilian substitutes or even Ukrainian mobile phone networks. That, in turn, may well have contributed to the war’s toll on Russian generals (Ukraine claims to have killed ten of them), since their communications at the frontline would have been easier to intercept.
Yet corruption cannot be the whole story. Ukraine is also corrupt, and not much less so than Russia: they sit respectively in 122nd and 136th position on the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, a pressure group. What really distinguishes the two is fighting spirit. Ukrainian soldiers are battling for the survival of their country. Many Russian ones did not even know they were going to war until they were ordered over the border. A European intelligence official says that conscripts—whom Mr Putin has repeatedly and publicly promised not to send to war—have resisted pressure to sign contracts that would turn them into professional soldiers; others have refused to serve outright. The official says that units affected include the 106th Guards Airborne Division and its 51st Guards Parachute Regiment, which are part of the notionally elite VDV airborne forces, and the 423rd Motorised Rifle Regiment, part of an important tank division.
Difficulties in droves
Ill-trained and poorly motivated soldiers are a liability in any conflict; they are especially unsuited to the complexities of modern combined-arms warfare, which requires tanks, infantry, artillery and air power to work in synchrony. To attempt such daunting co-ordination in Ukraine with sullen teenagers, press-ganged into service, fed expired rations and equipped with badly maintained vehicles was the height of optimism.
Such a task requires, at the very least, sound leadership. And that too is in short supply. Non-commissioned officers—senior enlisted men who train and supervise soldiers—are the backbone of NATO’s armed forces. Russia does not have a comparable cadre. There are “too many colonels and not enough corporals”, says a European defence official. Staff training is rigid and outdated, he says, obsessed with the second world war and with little attention paid to newer conflicts. That may explain why doctrine was thrown out of the window. Manoeuvres that seemed easy at Vostok and other stage-managed exercises proved harder to reproduce under fire and far from home.
To the extent that Russian officers have studied their military history, they appear to have imbibed the worst lessons of the Afghan, Chechen and Syrian wars. During their occupation of northern Ukraine, Russian soldiers not only drank heavily and looted homes and shops, but murdered large numbers of civilians. Some have been rewarded for it. On April 18th the 64th Motorised Infantry Brigade, accused of massacring civilians in Bucha, was decorated by Mr Putin for its “mass heroism and courage” and accorded the honour of becoming a “Guards” unit.
War crimes are not always irrational. They can serve a political purpose, such as terrorising the population into submission. Nor are they incompatible with military prowess: Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht was good at both fighting and murdering. But brutality can also be counterproductive, inspiring the enemy to fight tenaciously rather than surrender and risk being killed anyway.
The savagery and confusion of Russia’s forces in Ukraine is consistent with their recent conduct in Syria. Their bombing of Ukrainian hospitals echoes their bombardment of Syrian health facilities. By the same token, Israeli military officers who watched the Russian air force in Syria closely came away surprised by its struggles with air defence, target acquisition and high-tempo sorties. At one stage they thought Syrian involvement in air operations was the only plausible explanation for such a low level of professionalism.
In the end they concluded that Russia lacked the training, doctrine and experience to make the most of its advanced warplanes. Israeli military pilots were struck, both on combat tours and during their day jobs as airline pilots, by Russia’s crude approach to electronic warfare, which involved blocking GPS signals over vast swathes of the eastern Mediterranean, sometimes for weeks at a time. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became bogged down, Israeli analysts realised that Russian ground forces were afflicted by many of the same problems.
Some of Russia’s most important diplomatic partners appear to be drawing the same lesson. Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired Indian general who once commanded India’s forces in Kashmir, notes “Russian incompetence in the field”, rooted in “hubris and reluctance to follow time-tested military basics”. A group of retired Indian diplomats and generals affiliated with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a nationalist think-tank close to the Indian government, recently discussed Russia’s “visible and abject lack of preparation” and “severe logistical incompetence”. The fact that India is the biggest buyer of Russian arms lent their conclusion particular weight: “the quality of Russian technology previously thought to be superlative is increasingly being questioned”—though Ukraine, of course, uses much of the same equipment.
A similar process of reassessment is now under way in Western armed forces. One camp argues that the Russian threat to NATO is not as great as was feared. “The reputation of the Russian military has been battered and will take a generation to recover,” reads a recent assessment by a NATO government. “It has proven to be worth less than the sum of its parts in a modern, complex battlespace.” But another school of thought cautions against hasty judgements. It is too early to draw sweeping lessons, a senior NATO official warns, with the war still raging and both sides adapting.
If one of Russia’s errors was to draw false confidence from its success in seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and averting the fall of the Assad regime in Syria in 2015, the argument runs, there is a similar risk that Russia’s foes might infer too much from the current shambles in Ukraine. Michael Kofman of CNA, a think-tank, acknowledges that he and other experts “overestimated the impact of reforms…and underestimated the rot under Shoigu”. But context is everything, he notes. In recent years the scenarios that have preoccupied NATO planners have not been wars on the scale of the current one, but more modest and realistic, “bite and hold” operations, such as a Russian invasion of parts of the Baltic states or the seizure of islands such as Norway’s Svalbard.
Wars like this could play out very differently from the debacle in Ukraine. They would start with a narrower front, involve fewer forces and place less strain on logistics, says Mr Kofman. Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian general staff would necessarily underestimate NATO in the way that they mistakenly dismissed the Ukrainian army. And if the Russian government was not trying to play down a future conflict as nothing more than a “special military operation”, as it has in Ukraine, it could mobilise reserves and conscripts in far greater numbers. Many crucial Russian capabilities, such as anti-satellite weapons and advanced submarines, are not known to have been tested in Ukraine at all.
Geography is important, too. While Russian logistics are “eerily reminiscent” of the old Soviet army, says Ronald Ti, a military logistician who lectures at the Baltic Defence College in Estonia, their dependence on railways would be less of a problem in an attack on the Baltic states. “A fait accompli operation where they bite off a chunk of Estonian territory is well within their capabilities,” says Mr Ti, “because they can quite easily supply that from railheads.” (Whether the Russian air force, its inexperience and frailties now exposed, could protect those railheads from NATO air strikes is another matter.)
Lessons in abundance
Mr Kofman believes the question of “how much of this war is a bad army, which in important ways it clearly is, and how much is a truly terrible plan” has not yet been answered. And yet answering it is essential. In a seminal paper in 1995, James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, argued that costly and destructive wars that rational governments would prefer to avert through negotiation can nonetheless still occur owing to miscalculations about the other side’s capabilities. In theory, a war-averting peace deal would reflect the relative power of the two potential belligerents. But the two sides can fail to reach such a bargain because that relative power is not always obvious.
“Leaders know things about their military capabilities and willingness to fight that other states do not know,” wrote Mr Fearon, “and in bargaining situations they can have incentives to misrepresent such private information in order to gain a better deal.” That helps explain why Russia so wildly inflated its supposed prowess in the Vostok exercises. And it can work. “I suspect many of us were taken in by Victory Day parades that showed us all of the smart bits of kit,” says the European general.
The battle for Donbas will not entirely settle this debate. A Russian army that prevails in a war of attrition through sheer firepower and mass would still be a far cry from the nimble, high-tech force advertised over the past decade. More likely is that Russia’s plodding forces will exhaust themselves long before they achieve their objectives in southern and eastern Ukraine, let alone before mounting another attempt on Kyiv. The world’s military planners will be watching not just how far Russia gets in the weeks ahead, but also what that says about its forces’ resilience, adaptability and leadership. Like a knife pushed into old wood, the progress of the campaign will reveal how deep the rot runs.
Read more of our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis