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Putin’s Ukraine War Was Truly an Early Military Disaster

How could a country’s armed forces that had undergone two full decades of military modernization have performed so poorly?

Su-27. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Su-27. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In January 2022, nearly 200,000 Russian troops were poised just across the Ukrainian border. One month later, an attack seemed imminent. The U.S. Government believed the Russian army could roll over the Ukrainians quickly, as evidenced by the fact it withdrew embassy staff from Kyiv in case the capital fell. Yet despite an initial surge of Russian formations deep into Ukrainian territory, it didn’t take long to discover the Russian military was less capable than many in the West expected. Far less.

Before delving into the many examples of how bad Russia’s army was at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels, it is first instructive to examine why so many – this author included – expected Putin’s military to crush the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) within weeks or a few months. Some said Ukraine’s army was “no match” for the Russian military, while others warned the Ukrainian capital could fall “within days” of the attack. I had similar expectations.

On February 24, 2022, the first day of the war, I went on Fox News and told Trace Gallagher my biggest concern was that Russian tanks would bypass Kyiv (because, I argued, that would be “the worst mistake they could make,” as they didn’t have enough troops to take the city) and flood deep into the country, flanking the major troop concentrations, “and destroy the (Ukrainian) field army.”

Like other analysts, my understanding of Russian conventional capabilities was based on an inaccurate picture the Russians had painted in public for the better part of a decade. The irony is, Russians deceived themselves as much as Western analysts, and that was the first “bad” action of the Russian army. It would not be the last.

(Editor’s Note: You can find all parts of this series here.)

Why Russia’s Army Badly Underperformed in the War’s Open

As will be discussed below, Russian performance at every level in the opening rounds was marginal to abysmal. How could a country’s armed forces that had undergone two full decades of military modernization have performed so poorly against what was, at best, a territorial defense force with little to no offensive warfare experience?

In 2011, a researcher from the Netherlands published a paper looking at Russia’s ongoing military review and concluded that by 2020, the shortcomings exposed by Russia’s poor performance in the 2008 war with Georgia should be rectified. By then, the reforms should provide Russia with “a military apparatus that is capable of making difficult neighbors such as Georgia toe the line or enabling it to exercise power projection in other ways.”

Less than one month before the war, the New York Times published an analysis that seemed to confirm that what the researcher from 2011 projected had indeed come to pass. The authors ominously wrote that under, “Mr. Putin’s leadership, [the Russian military] has been overhauled into a modern sophisticated army, able to deploy quickly and with lethal effect in conventional conflicts.” Russia’s arsenal included, they added, “precision-guided weaponry, a newly streamlined command structure and well-fed and professional soldiers.” Yet once that force was employed in the field, the stark reality was exposed that the Russian military had in fact not been transformed into a lethal, proficient force.

After nearly a year of warfare, the New York Times produced an exhaustive analysis that peeled back the shroud of what actually happened in those two decades. The “reforms” had produced a rot that was only exposed in the light of day by the cruel reality of war. The report found that Russian efforts to produce a modern force had instead delivered “a hodgepodge of elite troops and bedraggled conscripts, advanced tanks and battalions that were powerful only on paper.”  Corruption up and down the chain of command – and deception to senior leaders – was one of the main culprits.

The report gives one example of a major tank base near Moscow that the Kremlin believed had been rebuilt into a modern base that would defend the capital. Instead, over many years the money was squandered or embezzled and none of the work had been done. When a delegation from Moscow said it would come for a tour, the local leaders paid over one million dollars to have a contractor put facades on the buildings to make them appear modern – while the insides were literally gutted. No one bothered to look inside.

In 2019, the report goes on, “Russia’s chief military prosecutor said that more than 2,800 officers had been disciplined over corruption violations in the past year alone.” Other reports indicated that part of the corruption was a culture of lying to superiors, where no one wanted to send information to higher leaders that was bad, so they just said everything was good. It is likely, therefore, that no one was more shocked at Russia’s opening failures than Putin himself: his senior commanders likely assured him the army was strong, trained, and ready to perform at a high level.

Once the scale of Russia’s failure in the opening rounds of the war had been exposed, one of the Kremlin’s most pro-war bloggers, Alexandr Khodakovsky, seemed to capture the spirit of the moment best when he groused that the “existing system of circular self-and-mutual deception is the herpes of the Russian army.” This internal rot, over 20 years of effort, produced an army that was little more than a Potemkin Village. Its demonstration on the field of battle was atrocious.

How Russia’s Army Underperformed on the Battlefield

The problems for Russia started on day one of the invasion. Ukraine at the time had approximately 40 million citizens. To launch its invasion of this large country, Russia had amassed a mere 200,000 total troops. Worse, they split the force into four axes, ensuring that no one direction would have dominating combat power. It appears the Russian senior leaders who planned the invasion pinned all their hopes on the idea that when Zelensky started getting reports of Russian tanks pouring into the country from four directions, he would capitulate.

Such an outcome wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility, but at best it was a fringe possibility. But the level of hatred of Russia from the Ukrainian side – especially after eight years of basically civil war – should have led the Russian leaders to expect that the Ukrainian army would not run at the sight of the first enemy tank. Shockingly, the Kremlin had no provision for a contested invasion, as there were vastly insufficient numbers of troops available for the tasks.

Russia’s opening missile strikes badly damaged but did not destroy the Ukrainian air defense system. As a result, Moscow’s air force was never able to saturate the skies with tactical support aircraft for their undermanned ground force. The initial thrusts did, nevertheless, shock the Ukrainian army, and make substantial progress in seizing territory. In fact, Russia took more territory than they had troops to defend or protect.

One of the best examples of this was the disastrous attempt to capture the Hostomel Airport outside of Ukraine with air assault troops. The intent was to capture the airfield, and then use it as a land bridge to continue pouring Russian ground forces to seize Kyiv before the Ukrainian Armed Forces had a chance to mobilize their defenses. It was a complete disaster. To succeed, Russia had to hold the air field with infantry troops long enough for the columns of armor to link up with them on the ground. The armor never made it and eventually all the light infantry were routed.

Meanwhile, the Russians were having trouble at the tactical level with their tank units as well. The Russian logistic system is flawed at the systemic level, as it is dependent on having access to rail lines to deliver most of its warfighting supplies and Russia utilized an inadequate fleet of utility trucks to take the supplies from the train stations to the frontlines. Tank units in the beginning made basic tactical mistakes that were hard to explain, such as bunching up on roads within range of the enemy and being destroyed by artillery fire.

In May 2022, almost two entire Russian armored battalions were wiped out trying to cross a river. The reasons for the loss were shocking to anyone with experience in tank warfare, as the mistakes made were elementary in nature and entirely avoidable. Initially, Russia made grossly inadequate use of drones and had virtually no anti-drone weapons, allowing Ukraine to have a huge early advantage. Cooperation between infantry, artillery, and armor was poor in the early rounds, as communications systems were abysmal, some units using unencrypted walkie-talkies or cell phones to coordinate combat actions.

But as bad as these and other examples are of depicting Russian tactical deficiencies in the early stages, Russian combat units have, over time, adjusted and corrected many of their early blunders. What has most held the Russian war effort back, however, has been its strategic leadership. The next in this series will discuss how the Kremlin’s glut of poor leaders, more than their combat troops, may ultimately be the reason Moscow fails to accomplish Putin’s war aims.

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Davis is a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor. 

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.