Inside Russia’s military collapse in Ukraine

21 May 2022

4:15 PM

21 May 2022

4:15 PM

The Russian military has performed far worse in Ukraine than anyone could ever have predicted. After failing to take Kyiv, Russian troops have now been forced to focus on the Donbas region. Despite this greater concentration of forces, they are still struggling to make any major gains beyond the final capture of Mariupol, which had been under siege since the first days of the invasion without resupply or relief.

For Vladimir Putin this represents a grand humiliation. But for the West, Russia’s struggling campaign offers an unrivalled opportunity to understand Russia’s capacity to pose a future military threat. Key to this will be working out how many of Russia’s current failings are down to the specific circumstances in Ukraine, and how many are due to systemic problems within the Russian military itself.

Some of Russia’s most catastrophic losses occurred during the first few weeks of its invasion of the north of Ukraine in the suburbs of Kyiv, as well as around Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv. Elite airborne, spetsnaz (special forces) and marines units were put in positions far ahead of advancing ground units, and most were rapidly destroyed or captured; tanks advanced without infantry support into defended urban areas with predictable results; Rosguardia units more suited to riot control than frontline combat operations hit Ukrainian defence lines ahead of regular forces; the Russian Air Force largely stayed on the ground; and units ground to a halt in long traffic jams along mud-bound roads as those in front were destroyed, abandoned their equipment or ran out of fuel and ammunition.

Alongside exceptional Ukrainian courage and professionalism, these glaring military failures were largely the result of two factors which were specific to the context of this Russian invasion of Ukraine. First of all, the entire plan presented to the military by the Kremlin’s security apparatus was based on fundamentally flawed assumptions about the military and morale strength of Ukraine. The Russian military was essentially told to execute a plan based on the assumption that they would only face limited and short-term resistance from Ukraine.

Secondly, Russian operational-level commanders and troops were given less than 24 hours warning that they were about to invade Ukraine, most likely because of the Kremlin’s paranoia after weeks of accurate US and British public intelligence briefings about their invasion plans. As such, there was no time to conduct the planning necessary to coordinate the various elements of the Russian military and ensure proper logistics provision for combat operations. Instead, units were thrown across the border in ad hoc formations and ordered to make for key cities at high speed. These factors would almost certainly not be replicated in any future clash between Russian forces and Nato.

In a similar vein, Russian military morale has been a consistent problem throughout the campaign, with widespread reports of units being reluctant to press home attacks, refusing orders and more than 1,000 vehicles and heavy weapons abandoned by their crews. Many of these vehicles were captured in good working order and are now being used by Ukrainian troops, including hundreds of modern tanks. This seems to have been initially caused by lack of psychological preparation, since many non-commissioned troops were not told they were going to war until they were already across the border. The shock of not only unexpected combat, but also heavy and determined resistance and vocal hatred from the Ukrainian people they were ‘liberating’ was no doubt traumatic. After the initial weeks, that shock had largely worn off and there were aggressive propaganda drives by the Russian political and military leadership. But by this stage, very heavy losses and the unmistakable scale of the defeat in the north of Ukraine had sapped Russian morale. Against a Nato force, the initial unpreparedness for combat and lack of motivation to fight would likely not feature as heavily, since it would be the existential clash which Russians have been psychologically preparing for since the start of the Cold War.

Other factors, however, point to more enduring systemic weaknesses. The lack of tactical-level competence amongst most Russian units points to generally poor training despite most troops deployed in Ukraine being professional rather than conscript soldiers. This could be down to poor training conditions, violent and abusive hazing practices, a lack of a professional NCO cadre, or unrealistic highly-scripted training exercises. All of these factors contribute to poor retention and a lack of comparable training for the average Russian soldiers compared to Western fighters.

When it comes to the air force, the situation is somewhat better for Russia. But Russian pilots still tend to have fewer flying hours and are sent on less complex sorties than their western counterparts. The country’s flight simulators are also less sophisticated which means pilots can’t make up for the lower quality real-world training. This has prevented Russian fast jets from exploiting the capabilities they should possess on paper.

The deeply entrenched corruption within the Russian kleptocratic regime also appears to have led to widespread shortfalls in many less visible aspects of military power. This is especially the case in logistics, stockpile provision and maintenance of equipment.

Russia’s military seems to have suffered badly from funding being siphoned off and black market theft and selling of equipment. This has contributed to high breakdown rates for Russian vehicles, major communications difficulties due to substandard component substitution during manufacture, and extremely poor personal rations and medical supplies for troops.

There have been reports of Russian fighter jets using commercial GPS systems taped onto their dashboards. Vehicles have been fitted with cheap tyres which cannot be run at low pressures for off-road mobility and may even burst during heavy use, a factor made worst by poor depot maintenance practices. Trucks have been reinforced with pine logs, and soldiers have been using maps drawn up in the 80s before being sent to the front.

Without large scale political reform, this is likely to prove difficult for Russia to solve as a systemic weakness, and will tend to leave its military hollowed out compared to its strength on paper.

It should be remembered, however, that three key aspects of Russia’s military performance have broadly lived up to Western expectations. More than 2,000 long range precision strikes have been conducted against Ukrainian cities, industry and infrastructure using ballistic- and cruise-missiles since the campaign began. Russia has been capable of hitting and causing major damage to Ukrainian targets throughout the country, and this would be a major threat in any clash with a Nato state – although stockpiles have been significantly depleted and will take time to rebuild. Russia’s ground-based air defences have proven highly lethal against Ukrainian aircraft, and have helped make the Donbas frontlines nearly a no-go zone for them in the second phase of the campaign. Finally, Russian artillery has been potent and highly destructive on all fronts, imposing heavy casualties on Ukrainian troops (and civilians) despite their courage and innovative tactics.

At a broader level, the Ukrainians point out that the Russian equipment they’ve captured works on a technical level but was being poorly used by Russian troops. Russia’s problem is that it that will be very difficult to replace the more modern components of this equipment. Most modern weapons rely on western electronics and sensor components, which will be difficult to source while sanctions are in place.

Russia has thousands of armoured vehicles and heavy weapons in its reserve stockpile, but most will need refurbishment and modernisation before they can be used effectively. And these vehicles will require newly trained crews to replace those lost in Ukraine. All of this will take time and the lack of access to western components is likely to mean some of the army’s advanced sighting, navigation and communications capabilities will be hard to replicate at scale.

These outlined lessons are important because regardless of how the current invasion of Ukraine is resolved, Russia is unlikely to abandon military force as its primary geopolitical tool. Russia’s anti-western and anti-Ukrainian rhetoric has become almost unbelievably vicious – and devoid of any attachment to reality or reason.

Russian leaders have painted themselves into a political corner by attempting to justify their disastrous military adventure within a broader narrative of a historic and decisive clash with the West.

But the open and unprovoked savagery it has unleashed on Ukraine has burnt almost all of Russia’s soft power levers for the foreseeable future. Political parties across the Western world are hurriedly giving back Russian cash donations and distancing themselves from pro-Russian causes. Previously non-aligned Finland and Sweden have applied to join Nato and even Switzerland is seeking closer alignment with the defensive bloc.

Sanctions and geopolitical isolation have inflicted potentially crippling long term damage on the Russian economy and it has lost millions of its best educated young people who have fled the country. Central and Eastern Europe have committed to the difficult and slow, but hugely significant, task of diversifying their energy supply away from Russian oil, coal and gas – removing a key source of longer-term influence, revenue and soft power.

As such, Russia is likely to double down on military threats and coercion even if it is heavily defeated in Ukraine. Like the majority of military powers after a defeat, it will attempt to build its forces back up as quickly and with as many of the deficiencies fixed as possible. Systemic weaknesses such as corruption and dependence on foreign imports for high-end electronic components will hinder, but not prevent, Russia’s rearmament. The West needs to be ready for a threat that may well emerge in three to five years’ time when the Russian military, hardened and brutalised, emerges again from the wreckage in Ukraine.

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