Ukraine war mystery: What’s wrong with the Russian military?

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Ukraine war mystery: What’s wrong with the Russian military?

Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin decide to use military force to achieve his political objectives in Ukraine? Perhaps because recent experience has taught him that it works. In Georgia in 2008, Crimea and the Donbas in 2014, and in Syria starting in 2015, Russia achieved its objectives at relatively little military or economic cost.

We can say with some certainty that the 2022 war in Ukraine has not gone that way.

As of this writing, nearly two weeks into the conflict, Russia has committed more than 90 percent of its planned forces to the fight but does not appear to have accomplished any of its strategic objectives. Ukraine’s government remains in Kyiv and in command of Ukraine’s military, and the Russians have taken only one major Ukrainian city, Kherson in the south, and even there the occupiers were met with significant protests by locals over the weekend.

The number of Russian troops killed is likely somewhere between the roughly 500 claimed by Russia and 11,000 claimed by Ukraine — even the lower figure is high for two weeks of fighting — and there have been widespread reports of desertions and low morale. Russian forces are massing around the capital, Kyiv, but accounts differ as to the degree to which they have the city surrounded.

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It’s true that Ukraine’s military and civilian resistance has proved more effective than many expected, and the country has received more international support than anticipated, but some of the Russian forces’ difficulties are also clearly due to their own strategic mistakes and logistical difficulties.

How damaged is the Russian military — in terms of training, logistics and morale — and how much does it matter for the future of this conflict?

Strategic blunders

The first sign that this was not going to go quickly or easily for Russia came on the first day of the war, when Russian paratroopers attempted to seize Hostomel Airport northwest of Kyiv, which would have allowed them to airlift in troops to take the capital. But the paratroopers landed well ahead of the invading force, had little air cover and ended up in a violent struggle with the Ukrainian military that left the airport unusable. The Russians were forced to transport their troops over land.

Overall, the early days of the Russian invasion were characterized by small units moving on their own, without logistics support or air cover, getting into skirmishes with Ukrainian defenders. An example was a seemingly halfhearted attempt by small detachments of Russian forces to take Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in the first days of the war. This spread-out and haphazard approach was baffling to some of those who study Russian military tactics, which typically emphasize heavy artillery.

“From what we understand, or what we thought we understood, about Russian doctrine, they’re doing everything wrong,” David Shlapak, a senior defense researcher at the Rand Corporation, told Grid. “They came in completely ignoring the principles of combined arms. They came in without employing artillery and firepower the way we would have expected them to. They undertook some fairly risky operations. Their doctrine is actually pretty clear on how they intend to fight. And they just didn’t do that.”

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Another mystery for many observers is why we haven’t seen more concerted use of Russian air power. The invasion began as generally expected, with cruise and ballistic missile salvos against Ukrainian air defenses and radar systems. As Justin Bronk, an air power analyst at the Royal United Services Institute recently wrote, the logical next step “would have been for the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) to mount large-scale strike operations to destroy” the Ukrainian Air Force. It’s a maxim of modern war; the first thing you do is take control of the skies. Instead, Russian fighter jets have launched only limited sorties into Ukraine, usually in singles and pairs at low altitudes to avoid Ukrainian air defense systems.

A “significant majority” of Ukraine’s air force is still operational, according to U.S. officials. All this led Bronk to conclude in a follow-up analysis that the VKS simply “lacks the institutional capacity to plan, brief and fly complex air operations at scale.”

Low morale and confusion

Reports have been emerging of Russian troops surrendering en masse, sabotaging or abandoning their vehicles to avoid fighting, and even being forced to ask Ukrainians for food or loot grocery stores. These reports, which the Ukrainian government and its allies have an incentive to highlight, should be taken with a grain of salt. But it is becoming abundantly clear that many Russian officers were not aware they were going to be part of an invasion of Ukraine until just before it began. Some rank-and-file troops may not have known they were no longer on a “training mission” until after they crossed the Ukrainian border. This is all the more remarkable given the detailed accounts of Russian plans being publicized by Western intelligence agencies. It appears that officials in Washington and certain European capitals knew more about the mission than the Russian soldiers themselves.

The Russian government had been denying for weeks that it planned to invade, and Putin and his top military aides may have been paranoid about leaks. But the lack of preparation may explain some of the strategic confusion in the early days of the war.

At a higher level, the war’s planners may have started to believe some of their own propaganda suggesting that Ukrainians were actually Russian patriots, waiting to be liberated from their Western-installed Nazi overlords. The nearly 200,000 troops Russia assembled along Ukraine’s borders didn’t constitute that large a force if the aim was to conquer a country larger than France, with a population of over 40 million. The thinking may have been that at least some Ukrainians would welcome them, and that resistance would crumble under a barrage of cruise missiles and lightning raids into the country’s main cities.

That’s not what happened.

“I’m increasingly beginning to think that it was a combination of hubris and miscalculations based on some sort of warped understanding of force ratios and poor assessment of motivation among the Ukrainians,” Margarita Konaev, a research fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told Grid.

The traffic jam from hell

The Russians may have relied too heavily on “thunder raids” by small, lightly defended detachments in the early days of the war, but today, attention is fixed on a 40-mile-long convoy of trucks and military vehicles that has sat for a week now, hardly moving, about 15 miles from the center of Kyiv. It’s a military traffic jam of vehicles and soldiers hampered by fuel and food shortages, according to U.S. officials.

Satellite image of long column of vehicles on a road surrounded by forest.

Alex Vershinin, a recently retired U.S. Army officer with experience in war gaming, wrote a widely cited article prior to the war predicting that the Russian advance could be slowed by the difficulties of supporting Russia’s artillery heavy units with fuel, spare parts and other supplies.

Vershinin told Grid, “The question is, did that column stop because it ran out of supplies? Or did it stop because they had known they would run out of supplies and intentionally halted in that area to wait for the supporting echelon to catch up?”


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Either way, Russia has left a large amount of supplies and armor and soldiers on an open road, exposed for a strangely long time.

Stuck in the mud

During the lead-up to the war, a fair bit of commentary focused on the infamous rasputitsa, or thaw, which turns unpaved ground into muddy soup in Ukraine and western Russia. That in turn provoked some eye-rolling at the notion that mud would really be an issue for a modern mechanized army as advanced as Russia’s. But as the video below, of a $15 million air defense system apparently abandoned in the mud near Kherson shows, the terrain has been an issue.

“You can ask basically any American tanker ever about having to dig a tank out of the mud,” Dan Grazier, a retired U.S. Marine Corps tank officer now with the Project on Government Oversight, told Grid. “When you’re talking about big, heavy, armored vehicles, even with tracks, if they get stuck in the mud, it becomes a big deal really quickly. In most of the pictures that I’m seeing, the tanks are sticking to the roads, which tells me that there’s plenty of concern about getting all those T-72s and T-90s stuck in the mud.”

Low-tech war

It’s been decades since the world has seen a major land war between two industrialized countries. Technological advances have transformed modern combat in recent decades — or so we thought.

At least so far, Russia’s invasion has been surprisingly low-tech. There have been cyberattacks and a use of malware, but not the sort of devastating blows knocking out Ukraine’s communications or energy grid that many feared. (Whether this is due to lack of trying on Russia’s part or effective cyberdefense from Ukraine is not yet clear.) Rather than taking the fight to cyberspace, Russia is simply bombing Ukraine’s communications infrastructure and power plants. Russia has also made less use than expected of the drone capabilities it has demonstrated in other conflicts, notably in Syria.

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“I’ve been following the modernization of the Russian military and its significant improvements and investments in areas like electronic warfare, drones. We haven’t seen good use of any of those elements,” Konaev said.

Grazier, who today researches defense procurement issues, said the war should prompt some changes in thinking about defense priorities going forward.

“I think a lot of people who’ve been urging lawmakers to lavish money on these new Pentagon programs because the nature of warfare has fundamentally changed are going to be pretty embarrassed,” he said. “What I’m seeing so far is very conventional operations. What are we talking about here? Tanks, artillery pieces, fuel, mud.”

Fog of war

A word of caution is in order for any reader concluding that Russia is failing and likely to lose the war.

Ukraine is undoubtedly winning the global information war, building global sympathy and inspiring support for its cause. But Ukraine has also dominated the messaging to an extent that it may be giving a misleading picture of what’s happening on the battlefield.

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What we do know is that while Russian advances have stalled in many places in the north, they’ve made much faster progress in the south, along the coasts of the Sea of Azov and Black Sea. These are critical gains in that they risk choking Ukraine’s key lanes of commerce. Ukraine’s government may soon face a difficult choice about whether to pull forces from eastern Ukraine to keep them from getting cut off. Russian forces now appear to be regrouping for major assaults on Kyiv and Kharkiv. For all the talk of Russia’s mistakes and generally slow advance, it’s worth remembering that it took around a month for U.S. forces to take Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. History now regards that as a remarkably rapid operation.

The fact that this war is turning out to be a fairer fight than many expected also creates new political and moral dilemmas. The West is currently funneling weapons into Ukraine to help its army hold off the Russians or bolster an underground resistance if the Ukrainian government falls. But while Russia’s early tactics seemed designed to avoid heavy fighting in urban centers and civilian casualties, the longer war drags on, the more the Russian military is likely to employ the kind of scorched-earth tactics it used on cities in Chechnya and Syria. This could include the use of powerful “thermobaric” weapons, also known as vacuum bombs, to demolish large urban areas. “The Russian approach to warfare is typically, when in doubt, flatten the grid square,” said Shlapak.

As for hopes of an ongoing insurgency, Vershinin told Grid, “I’ve seen what partisan warfare did to Iraq. I wouldn’t wish that on any nation.”

Right now, the fact that Ukraine has more leverage than expected means that it is unlikely to agree to the ceasefire terms Russia is putting forward. But refusing those conditions could lead to the wholesale destruction of Ukrainian cities and many more people being displaced or killed.

For two weeks, much of the global narrative around this war has portrayed plucky Ukrainians standing up to bumbling Russians. There is truth in both characterizations. But it is also very possible that the story will take an even darker turn in the days to come.

Correction

An earlier version of this story misstated the date Russia invaded Georgia. This version has been corrected.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.