Why can’t Russia seem to win in Ukraine despite predictions it would conquer Kyiv quickly? Russia’s inability to dominate Ukraine, despite superior numbers, equipment and technology, has left many analysts in the West struggling to comprehend a campaign littered with strategic failures, even if Russia ultimately finds a way to secure some semblance of victory. For years Moscow has sold its forces as a near-peer adversary to the U.S. military. But their performance in Ukraine has been sub-standard, raising questions about years of assessments that pointed to the contrary.
Now, after more than a month of combat in Ukraine, a weak NCO corps, whether by design or by happenstance, appears to be holding the nation’s military back.
A Faltering Military
More than a month into their invasion, the Russian military has failed to achieve any of its primary objectives in Ukraine. Estimates of Russian troops killed in action range from 7,000 to 15,000, with twice or thrice that number wounded.
Independent researchers have tracked and verified more than 1,600 destroyed, abandoned, or captured Russian vehicles of all types, including tanks, fighter jets, armored personnel carriers, infantry fighting vehicles, and helicopters. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense is claiming almost twice that number.
The Russian military also seems incapable of providing basic goods, such as food, fuel, and ammunition, to its frontline units, thus wasting any gains made. As a result, Russia announced a dramatic shift in strategy last week, now claiming to focus its efforts specifically on the Donbass region of Eastern Ukraine. While Russia claims this shift was always part of the plan, it alleviates pressure on Russia’s forces elsewhere in the country whose advances have been halted by a combination of stiff Ukrainian defenses and Russian logistical failures.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and the rest of the Kremlin seemed to be as surprised as the rest of the world by the Russian military’s performance. Reports of in-house arrests and purges of military and intelligence officials are increasing.
In addition, Moscow is increasingly turning to external and foreign sources of manpower to fill the gaps created by the high casualties. The initial invasion force included Chechen fighters and Wagner Group mercenaries, who were tasked with high-risk operations, such as taking out Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his cabinet. But as the Russian advance has largely stalled on all fronts, these forces are seen as a good option to lower the political risk of the war—no ordinary Russian will care if a Chechen fighter or Wagner mercenary gets killed instead of a young Russian conscript.
If that wasn’t enough, the Kremlin is now turning to Syria to make up for the losses in Ukraine. Recently, the Russian Ministry of Defense stated that more than 16,000 pro-Assad Syrians were eager to deploy to Ukraine. Although for now, U.S. intelligence assessments contradict that claim, Syrian fighters might yet end up going to Ukraine to support the Russian invasion.
For close to 15 years, Putin invested increasingly more in his army. Short wars and military operations in Georgia, Syria, Crimea, and Eastern Ukraine, accompanied by frequent announcements about advanced new weapons technology, created an aura of invincibility.
But to be sure, past exercises and new Russian weapon systems had indicated that not all was well in the Russian military.
A Weak NCO Corps: The Reason Why?
There are many reasons why the invasion has gone so badly for the Kremlin. Factors such as poor intelligence, an underestimation of the Ukrainian military, and a failed assessment of the West’s ability to unite against Russia have all played a part. But there is also one directly related to the Russian military itself.
“My observation is that writ large the one thing the Russians don’t have which is sort of the key of the U.S. joint force is the middle management level; the NCO and staff non-commission officer level that really form the backbone of our military. They’re the people that actually ensure things get done,” Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie. General McKenzie, the commander of U.S Central Command (CENTCOM), said in a press briefing last week.
An institutional flaw such as a weak non-commissioned officer corps, especially in staff positions, could explain the poor performance of the Russian military in Ukraine. In the U.S. military, it’s the corporals, sergeants, and chiefs who really run the show.
Field-grade officers rely on “lowly” E-4s, E-5s, and E-6s to make tactical decisions on the battlefield that could determine the course of a battle. To be sure, the officers play an important role too, but their role is more one of a manager than the 24/7 leader people on the outside might expect. Without a strong professional non-commissioned officer corps, the U.S. military wouldn’t be the powerful, lethal machine it is.
“That people are—that people are fed properly, that people have a place—a warm place to sleep at night, all of those things. I just don’t believe they’re as good at that as we are. And you can draw your own larger conclusions, which I’m really not the person to talk about their operations in Ukraine, and what it means for their level of small unit training and small unit effectiveness which I would again note is the pride really of the U.S. military,” General McKenzie added.
“Our ability to have junior leaders execute independently. That is I think something that sets us apart from most militaries in the world and we’re very—and we stress that as a point of emphasis and we’re very proud of it.”
When it comes to military and intelligence, mirror-imaging analysis between nations can be dangerous. It is important to remember that the Russian military isn’t created, organized, or managed in the same manner as the U.S. military. Russia doesn’t have a non-commissioned officer corps in the way that people in the U.S. think about it. Moreover, junior Russian officers don’t have the same flexibility and responsibility and are lacking the initiative that one would find in their U.S. counterparts.
Although, one could argue that the Russian military performance in Ukraine may indicate that Russia’s lack of strong NCO corps, while maybe by design, represents a fundamental flaw in the nation’s approach to warfare.
In the end, many reasons have played part in the Russian debacle that is unfolding in Ukraine. And it is far too early to conduct a post-mortem. But the inherent inflexibility of the Russian military certainly has something to do with the lackluster performance of the Russian forces in Ukraine.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a Greek Army veteran (National service with 575th Marines Battalion and Army HQ). Johns Hopkins University. You will usually find him on the top of a mountain admiring the view and wondering how he got there.