Prior to the war in Ukraine, intelligence gathering by the Russian GRU failed to appreciate the rise of Ukrainian identity and morale, nor did it anticipate their resistance, facilitating Russia’s exceptionally poor performance in its February invasion of Ukraine. In addition, poor logistics planning, and in particular an absence of training by the armored and air force, has led to egregious equipment and personnel losses. This creates an inability to either achieve air superiority or advance quickly on the ground.
Given that training with modern equipment as well as its maintenance is expensive, this should not have been a surprise to analysts. Russia spends less than France on its military, despite having five times the personnel. The Soviet Army, by contrast, was better funded, and trained for high-tempo advances at a constant rate of 50 kilometers per day. Supported by prompt artillery, helicopter, air and chemical strikes, Soviet armored columns consisting of tanks, mechanized infantry, mortars, were trained to work closely together. Alongside the world’s largest army engineer forces, Soviet regiments could breach minefields and river obstacles in less than an hour. TikTok combat videos showcase Ukrainian conscripts firing anti-tank rockets, Javelins and NLAWs against exposed Russian tanks, a tactic that would have been far more difficult against a Soviet combined arms force protected by infantry. For the Soviets, artillery barrages were meant to suppress enemy defenses permitting a continued advance. In contrast, the current Russian army is using artillery to bombard cities without coordination with maneuver forces, which reduces effectiveness and dramatically increases ammunition expenditure.
However, this is not the end of the road for Russia. Throughout its entire history, the Russian army has had a long history of quickly reinventing itself in war, after an initial humiliation.
What History Tells Us About the Russian Army
In the November 1939 Winter War, the Soviet Union invaded Finland with an overwhelming force of 600,000 soldiers, mostly conscripts, and several thousand tanks and aircraft. The Soviets anticipated a quick victory, although some senior politburo members, like Nikolai Voronov, warned otherwise.
In the lead-up to the war, the chaotic conditions created by the rapid expansion of the Red Army were compounded by a series of political purges that left its officer corps in disarray at all levels and disrupted morale and discipline. The result was the absence of preparatory training, unit cohesion, battlefield coordination, and a disregard for logistics.
Unfamiliar with the difficult wooded terrain, the road-bound Soviet columns fell prey to mobile Finnish troops, losing by the end of the conflict, very conservatively, at least 130,000 soldiers killed, as well as 1,000 tanks and 300 aircraft destroyed, with some estimates of the losses being between two and five-fold.
Like the invasion of Ukraine, the world exhibited sympathy for Finland but was reluctant to intervene.
The Combined Arms Challenge in Ukraine
The type of warfighting technique that the Soviet Union neglected in its invasion of Finland in 1939, and Russia in its February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, is combined arms operations. The principle of combined arms is getting the soldiers of different and highly technically specialized fields to work closely together, in order to force an enemy on the “horns of a dilemma.” The optimal defense against a tank is very different from defending against aircraft, and having to defend against a full spectrum of threats compels an enemy to compromise their defense.
Combined arms start at the squad level comprising five infantry soldiers, each with their specialized weaponry, and get more complex, as these are integrated with tank and artillery units, air support controllers, logisticians, battlefield repair technicians, medical services, electronic warfare specialists, and psychological warfare operators. Radios are decisive as facilitators of coordination, and proficiency requires time-consuming training. Coordinating complex operations is a monumental challenge, even among experienced and mature professionals.
One of the coautors of this article is a former army engineer officer, and conveying the complexity of measuring the soil on a riverbank as a prerequisite for bridge building, means that my brigade or division commander can’t simply stick his finger on a map for a crossing site. German and Israeli generals, in particular, have frequently been at the front line, not primarily to demonstrate brave leadership, but because there is a need for an on-the-spot manager to resolve endless disputes between the different combat arms, in the middle of a battle.
Why Can’t Russia Win in Ukraine?
What explains this disregard for combined arms warfare in Ukraine today by the Russian armed forces? Georgetown University Professor Caitlin Talmadge argues that the performance of authoritarian regimes in war, depends on the extent to which threat perceptions shape the balance between favoring regime loyalty and technical competence in the armed forces.
This is an important distinction to make in order to explain the well-performing authoritarian states, like North Vietnam and Nazi Germany, versus poorly performing regimes like South Vietnam and Iraq. Four practices are particularly prone to distortion due to neglect caused by politicization: unmeritocratic promotion patterns, infrequent training, compromised command structures, and corrupted information management. Russian President Vladimir Putin has privileged senior officer loyalty over technical competence in the Russian armed forces, with the consequence that the premium placed on reliability fed corruption right through the military logistical system.
This corruption begins with the rampant mismanagement of funds that has led to pervasive inefficiencies in defense management and arms procurement in Russia. The Russian defense industry for the most part is state-owned, and as a result, is intimately connected with Putin’s inner circle. Attempts at military reform by former defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov in 2008 to improve control over finances in the military, as well as pushing for reforms in military education antagonized and alienated the defense establishment. Subsequently, Sergei Shoigu was appointed as Serdyukov’s replacement by Putin in 2012, where he instead took efforts to appease the defense establishment. Following his appointment, there were no serious attempts to solve the problems of mismanagement, and these problems have only been made worse since 2012. Transparency International’s Government Defense Integrity Index in 2020 still identified a high corruption risk in Russia’s defense establishment.
This has manifested itself in multiple ways during the current conflict, such as the issues with maintaining the tires on military equipment, as well as fuel shortages on the front lines. On top of which the continued demands for expansion have hindered any meaningful reform in military education. Consequently, the disregard for combined arms is the result of a military establishment that has been so far intractable to change, overburdened, and structured around incentives to appease the elites.
But Reinvention Can Happen in Ukraine…
Just as remarkable as the exceptional failure and costs of the initial Soviet defeat in Finland, was Moscow’s ability to reinvent itself on short notice in the face of calamity. A month into the debacle, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, furious at the failures, restored the direction of the operations to the higher military staff. Nikita Khrushchev in his memoirs describes how Stalin hurled insults at Commissar of Defense Kliment Voroshilov, and blamed him for these mishaps. General Semyon Timoshenko was brought in to replace Kirill Meretskov to command the Finnish theater. Timoshenko had much more substantial combat experience than Meretskov, having fought in the First World War, as well as in the role of commander several times after, proving himself to be a competent leader. Timoshenko would also replace Voroshilov as Commissar of Defense after the war.
Together with, and as a result of these changes in the command structure, the army spent much of January 1940 training for coordinated warfare. Key to the Finnish defense was a defensive fortification called the Mannerheim line marked by a complex system of bunkers, obstacles, and trenches built into the terrain to slow down any advance. Khrushchev mentions that before the war, the military was not even aware of the existence of these fortifications. Part of the new training regimen in January consisted of more thorough reconnaissance practices of those fortifications by air and ground elements. This went as far as chemically analyzing the cement of the bunkers, and practicing fresh reinforcements on building mockups of the Finnish positions. The result was a demonstrable improvement in low-level cohesion and battlefield coordination of Russian forces opposite the Finns. Instead of the human wave tactics of before, the new Russian advance was methodically based on combined arms. By March 1940, facing an echelon of well-orchestrated assaults, Finland conceded to a ceasefire and the loss of twelve percent of its territory.
In response to the political shock and increasing pressure of a military calamity, the political leadership in Moscow will traditionally sacrifice loyalty concerns in order to achieve military professionalism. The Russian military’s consciousness of its own historical traditions, and the widespread social deference to national security, means that humiliation will sweep aside many institutional obstacles. Peter the Great, Pyotr Rumyantsev, Viktor Suvorov, Mikhail Kutuzov, Vasily Chuikov, Georgy Zhukov, are all astoundingly skillful commanders. This timeless self-awareness was driven home to me by my guide on a visit to the Leningrad Hermitage in 1987, in endless halls of battlefield portraits. Once so empowered, the Russian military, typically appoints a strong-willed and technically competent commander, who uncompromisingly restores doctrine and a tough training regimen. Russia is fortunate in that its cost tolerance permits it to buy the time to continue fighting while it makes the adjustments necessary to achieve victory. This gives them the ability to turn the tide when least expected. Most militaries do not have this luxury.
There is recurring evidence for this phenomenon in Russian military history. In an encounter against the Japanese at Lake Khasan in July 1938, the Soviet forces suffered a bloody retreat caused by an absence of combined arms techniques and coordination, abandoning their heavy equipment in their wake. The commanding Marshal Vasily Blyukher was arrested as a result of his poor performance. At the subsequent 1939 Battle of Khalkhin-Gol against the Japanese, Soviet forces under the command of General Georgy Zhukov performed considerably better, severely punishing Japanese forces and making Tokyo reluctant to invade the Soviet Union during Barbarossa. Similarly, Russia suffered a humiliating defeat in its 1994 attack into Chechnya, deploying armored columns without combined arms tactics into the urban complexity of Grozny. Five years later, combining sophisticated intelligence efforts aimed at assassination and strategic messaging, a brutal counter-insurgency, regional diplomacy, and again, combined-arms tactics, Chechnya was quickly recaptured in 1999. This tale of calamity and doctrinal rebirth was a significant theme of the Soviet Union’s war and the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany during the Second World War. History may well repeat itself in Ukraine, where the stalemate in the fighting has bought time for the Russians to learn and adapt to their initial mistakes.
Make no mistake that Russia possesses a solid core of professionals around which such a reinvention can occur, even if several layers of Putin sycophants will have to be peeled off. The unmeritocratic officer appointment system at the senior levels of the Russian military that has caused a cascade failure in planning, training, and logistics, has not infected the mid-range brigade and battalion commanders. Russia has not yet deployed any of its elite airborne divisions, which would be ideal for combined arms, urban warfare missions, and bold deep penetration operations.
The largest variable is whether the Russian army actually wants to execute Putin’s invasion of fraternal Ukraine. It also means that there is still hope that the Russian army will play its role as savior of the people and intervene in politics.
Other states have also managed miraculous transformations. After repeatedly dismal failures against the combined Italian and Deutschland Afrika Korps under German General Irwin Rommel, the British Eighth Army, with the right combination of caution and boldness, and thorough rediscovery of combined arms, irrevocably smashed the Axis forces at the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt in October 1942. Possibly the greatest pedagogical general, British Field Marshal William Slim transformed a polyglot of British Indian-Army, East and West Africans, and 50,000 Chinese soldiers, cowed by the Japanese in 1943 and 1944, into an instrument that out-thought and annihilated the Japanese in Burma in 1945. The Israeli Defense Forces, consisting ninety percent of conscripts, lost fifteen percent of their aircraft and tanks within seven days of the outbreak of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The solution was to combine their tiny professional airborne, elite Ha Sinai brigade, and tanks, into a combined force that tore through the rear of the Egyptians in a maneuver that put them on the road to Cairo, Egypt’s capital. After eight years of desultory warfare, the Iraqi Republican Guard finally mastered combined arms and in 1988, swiftly ejected the Iranians from the Al Fao peninsula in a classic combined arms assault.
What Should the West Do In Ukraine Now?
The Western response must be two-fold. First, move quickly to enable the Ukrainian forces to achieve the best possible outcome before this window of Russian incompetence is irrevocably closed. Every week of the quagmire grants Russia time to reorganize its forces, refine its tactics, and discover new leaders. Second, the West must actively engage with the Ukrainian forces to ensure that there is just as aggressive a process of implementing lessons learned and fluidly adapting doctrine in order to take advantage of Russia’s weaknesses.
Dr. Julian Spencer-Churchill is an associate professor of international relations at Concordia University, and author of Militarization and War (2007) and of Strategic Nuclear Sharing (2014). He has published extensively on security issues and arms control, and completed research contracts at the Office of Treaty Verification at the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, and the then Ballistic Missile Defense Office (BMDO). Attila Arslaner is a graduate student at Concordia University and an affiliate of the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies.