Were our perceptions of the Russian military wrong? In 2016 RAND published a wargame report suggesting that a concerted Russian offensive could seize the “Sulwaki Gap” against NATO opposition, dividing the Baltics from the rest of the alliance presenting NATO with a fait accompli. The wargame included assumptions about the effectiveness of Russia’s armed forces based on lessons learned from Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, as well as Russia’s military performance in Syria.
Looking back, it’s hard not to conclude that RAND, like much of the West, overestimated Russian military capability. Thus far, the performance of the Russian Army and the Russian Aerospace Forces have been, from Moscow’s point of view, quite disappointing.
How does this change how we think about the effectiveness of the Russian military?
How Good is the Russian Military: The Evidence
Russian forces in Ukraine have been beset by a mess of problems. Despite extensive supply stockpiles assembled before the war, Russian mechanized forces have often run out of fuel and food. Russian mechanized units have found themselves massed on a few major roads, strung out in kilometers-long convoys because of problems with the Ukrainian mud. Russian soldiers have raided stores in occupied towns, apparently because of an inability to get rations from military sources. Ukrainian aircraft, regulars, and irregulars have taken advantage by hitting vehicles at the head of Russian columns, making the traffic jams even less tractable. At the same time, Russian infantry and airborne detachments have advanced well ahead of support forces, often finding themselves isolated and subject to capture or destruction. Several airborne assaults have failed as aircraft have been shot down or detachments have failed to seize or hold critical points.
Morale seems low (at least in the north, less so in the south where advances have been more successful), with many soldiers abandoning their vehicles. Reports of mass surrenders have not yet been corroborated, but Ukrainian forces have captured numerous prisoners, many of whom seem to have little idea why they are in Ukraine. Reportedly, many soldiers and non-commissioned officers had no idea that the invasion was about to proceed, leaving them intellectual and morally unprepared for the fighting. Corruption in maintenance and upkeep may have made many vehicles unsuitable for transport and combat.
On the aerial side, the VKS has yet to sweep the sky of Ukrainian aircraft, including both drones and manned fixed-wing fighter-bombers. Reasons for this are befuddling given Russia’s relatively competent and recent experience with airpower in Syria. While Russia has conducted hundreds of missile strikes, the damage inflicted seems to have had little military effect thus far. Despite enormous advantages, Russian airpower has not been able to either win a decisive advantage in support of ground forces, or prevent Ukraine from using the skies.
Why has Russia been so bad?
On the one side, some commentators are arguing that operational and strategic decisions have hampered the effectiveness of Russian forces. Michael Kofman, for example, argues that the decision to emphasize operational security hurt planning and that a belief that Ukraine would quickly surrender led units to advance in a haphazard and chaotic fashion. On the other side analysts such as B.A. Friedman has contended that the Russian ground forces are displaying behaviors that cannot be explained by anything but sheer, raw ineptitude, including poor training and poor communications. For my own part, I tend to side with Friedman; a good, well-trained force can compensate for the kinds of problems that Kofman identifies. It is difficult to imagine a US force manifesting the kinds of problems we’re seeing the Russians have, no matter the political or strategic context.
Russia may still win this war. The balance of forces continues to favor Russia, some important capabilities (including artillery and fixed-wing aircraft) have not yet been committed, and Russian forces are advancing in the south. However, the effectiveness and lethality of its armed forces have come into serious question. Part of the point of launching the war was to intimidate future opponents, and if possible to shake Eastern European faith in the power of NATO to defend them. Now, very few analysts are talking about the Russian military as scary or intimidating; they’re debating the sources of its ineptitude. Even if its armed forces win, Russia has taken a major hit to its prestige.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).