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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Putin’s Ukraine Nightmare: Why Can’t the Russian Military Win?

Russian Military
Russian Military Su-34 Fighter-Bomber. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

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.

The Debate

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.

Implications

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).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. 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). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. Alex

    March 3, 2022 at 8:40 pm

    I understand that this is a mantra for some kind of complacency? Where did Russia fail to achieve its goals? Absolutely everything is going according to plan and everything is being carried out. Stop wishful thinking. After all, we all understand that reality will not change from this.

  2. Za Yebis

    March 4, 2022 at 2:14 am

    huh?

  3. John Vanderaerden

    March 4, 2022 at 6:58 am

    Everything according to plan? Did they planned to have thousand of dead soldiers and thousands of destroyed vehicles? Russian Soldiers crying on Ukranian tv? Something is wrong with your theory, very wrong.

  4. MJAC

    March 4, 2022 at 12:27 pm

    a wounded bear is a very dangerous animal.

  5. Kyle Vandermeer

    March 4, 2022 at 3:35 pm

    A foe appearing weak is not to be trusted.

    They aren’t fighting Ukraine. They are fighting “not Russia”. It’s a much longer game.

  6. Alex

    March 5, 2022 at 5:17 am

    John – see more propaganda. I personally saw how fakes are destroyed. More than 90% of what Ukrainians say is just another lie.

  7. Jim Pickens

    March 7, 2022 at 2:41 pm

    MJAC commented “a wounded bear is a very dangerous animal.”
    a fluffy stuffed teddy bear is not dangerous at all

  8. Gaunt

    March 20, 2022 at 10:59 am

    Ok Alex, then why has Russia failed to secure its basic military objectives after a month of warfare?

    Why is Russia now recruiting and importing foreign fighters to bolster their depleted ranks?

    Why is the Ukraine still fighting and operational in the air, 4 weeks in?

    Why have so many Russian senior officers been killed?

    You can complain about how everything you don’t like is lies and propaganda all you like, but how do you explain the visible, clear and growing total failure of the Russian forces on the ground?

  9. Alex

    March 20, 2022 at 12:38 pm

    Do I really need to respond to these lies? I’d rather write the truth whether you like it or not:

    As of March 19, Russian troops destroyed more than 4,000 military infrastructure facilities, as well as over 180 aircraft and helicopters, more than 1,400 tanks and other armored combat vehicles, 147 multiple rocket launchers and 201 drones.

    And you call it a failure? Then I’m not sure that a person who is over 15 years old can say that.

    Russian losses are exaggerated 10-15 times. Some propagandists talk about Ukrainian tanks near Moscow. I don’t even want to discuss this bullshit. These are just clowns, not sources of information.

  10. James

    March 31, 2022 at 5:18 pm

    Alex is a typical dirty alcoholic russian troll. I can just imagine his shitty existance. Wake up still drunk from crappy russian garbage vodka, goes to work at troll farm, surrounded by stinking dirty russians, uses trashy computer to copy and paste the same shit on all articles. Goes home to an ugly fat whore wife. Kids are stupid as fuck. Eats some garbage for dinner that people in the west wouldnt even feed a stray dog. Gets drunk on garbage homemade vodka. And … repeat till he dies from liver failure (hopefully soon).

  11. Alex

    April 1, 2022 at 10:47 am

    Bandera Nazi living in a pigsty believes that everyone lives the same way. I made several accounts for myself and shows how his ass is on fire, and I will show how his Bandera Nazis are on fire:

    The head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, demanded that American leader Joseph Biden increase the supply of Javelin man-portable anti-tank missile systems to Ukraine. According to him, the Chechen fighters especially liked the ATGM.

    “We demand from Biden to increase the supply of Javelins! I am ready to personally reward the old man for actively contributing to the Russian special operation,” the head of the republic wrote in his Telegram channel.

    According to him, Chechen fighters are busy around the clock searching for and eliminating “Bandera and nationalist evil spirits” in Mariupol.

    “The guys especially fell in love with the Javelin anti-tank missile system, which has double the effectiveness. In order not to give up this valuable trophy, nationalists usually sacrifice two or three lives. And then our fighters destroy the entire Bandera crew from it,” Kadyrov said.

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