Things it could do in smaller wars, in Donbas and Syria — such as using electronic sensors on drones to feed back targets for artillery — have proved harder on a larger scale. And things that appeared easy in America’s wars, such as wiping out an enemy’s air defences, are actually quite hard. Russia’s air force is flying several hundred sorties a day, but it is still struggling to track and hit moving targets, and remains heavily reliant on unguided or “dumb” bombs that can be dropped accurately only at low altitudes, exposing its planes to anti-aircraft fire.
All armies make mistakes. Some make more than others. The distinguishing feature of good armies is that they learn from their mistakes rapidly. In abandoning Kyiv, focusing on Donbas and putting a single general, Alexander Dvornikov, in charge of a cacophonous campaign, Russia is belatedly showing signs of adaptation. In early April a Western official, when asked whether Russia was improving tactically, observed that armoured columns were still being sent unsupported and in single file into Ukrainian-held territory — a suicidal manoeuvre. On April 27th another official said that Russian forces in Donbas appeared unwilling, or unable, to advance in heavy rain.
In part, Russia’s woes are down to Ukraine’s heroic resistance, buoyed by a torrent of Western weaponry and intelligence. “But just as much credit for the shattering of Russian illusions lies in a phenomenon long known to military sociologists,” writes Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins University, “that armies, by and large, reflect the qualities of the societies from which they emerge.” Russia’s state, says Mr Cohen, “rests on corruption, lies, lawlessness and coercion”. Each one has been laid bare by Russia’s army in this war.
“They put a lot of money into modernisation,” says General Pavel. “But a lot of this money was lost in the process.” Corruption surely helps explain why Russian vehicles were equipped with cheap Chinese tyres, and thus found themselves stuck in the Ukrainian mud. It may also explain why so many Russian units found themselves without encrypted radios and were forced to rely on insecure civilian substitutes or even Ukrainian mobile phone networks. That, in turn, may well have contributed to the war’s toll on Russian generals (Ukraine claims to have killed ten of them), since their communications at the front line would have been easier to intercept.
Yet corruption cannot be the whole story. Ukraine is also corrupt, and not much less so than Russia: they sit respectively in 122nd and 136th position on the Corruption Perceptions Index published by Transparency International, a pressure group. What really distinguishes the two is fighting spirit. Ukrainian soldiers are battling for the survival of their country. Many Russian ones did not even know they were going to war until they were ordered over the border. A European intelligence official says that conscripts — whom Mr Putin has repeatedly and publicly promised not to send to war — have resisted pressure to sign contracts that would turn them into professional soldiers; others have refused to serve outright. The official says that units affected include the 106th Guards Airborne Division and its 51st Guards Parachute Regiment, which are part of the notionally elite VDV airborne forces, and the 423rd Motorised Rifle Regiment, part of an important tank division.
Difficulties in droves
Ill-trained and poorly motivated soldiers are a liability in any conflict; they are especially unsuited to the complexities of modern combined-arms warfare, which requires tanks, infantry, artillery and air power to work in synchrony. To attempt such daunting co-ordination in Ukraine with sullen teenagers, press-ganged into service, fed expired rations and equipped with badly maintained vehicles was the height of optimism.
Such a task requires, at the very least, sound leadership. And that too is in short supply. Non-commissioned officers — senior enlisted men who train and supervise soldiers — are the backbone of NATO’s armed forces. Russia does not have a comparable cadre. There are “too many colonels and not enough corporals”, says a European defence official. Staff training is rigid and outdated, he says, obsessed with the second world war and with little attention paid to newer conflicts. That may explain why doctrine was thrown out of the window. Manoeuvres that seemed easy at Vostok and other stage-managed exercises proved harder to reproduce under fire and far from home.
To the extent that Russian officers have studied their military history, they appear to have imbibed the worst lessons of the Afghan, Chechen and Syrian wars. During their occupation of northern Ukraine, Russian soldiers not only drank heavily and looted homes and shops, but murdered large numbers of civilians. Some have been rewarded for it. On April 18th the 64th Motorised Infantry Brigade, accused of massacring civilians in Bucha, was decorated by Mr Putin for its “mass heroism and courage” and accorded the honour of becoming a “Guards” unit.
War crimes are not always irrational. They can serve a political purpose, such as terrorising the population into submission. Nor are they incompatible with military prowess: Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht was good at both fighting and murdering. But brutality can also be counterproductive, inspiring the enemy to fight tenaciously rather than surrender and risk being killed anyway.
The savagery and confusion of Russia’s forces in Ukraine is consistent with their recent conduct in Syria. Their bombing of Ukrainian hospitals echoes their bombardment of Syrian health facilities. By the same token, Israeli military officers who watched the Russian air force in Syria closely came away surprised by its struggles with air defence, target acquisition and high-tempo sorties. At one stage they thought Syrian involvement in air operations was the only plausible explanation for such a low level of professionalism.
In the end they concluded that Russia lacked the training, doctrine and experience to make the most of its advanced warplanes. Israeli military pilots were struck, both on combat tours and during their day jobs as airline pilots, by Russia’s crude approach to electronic warfare, which involved blocking GPS signals over vast swathes of the eastern Mediterranean, sometimes for weeks at a time. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became bogged down, Israeli analysts realised that Russian ground forces were afflicted by many of the same problems.
Some of Russia’s friends appear to be drawing the same lesson. Syed Ata Hasnain, a retired Indian general who once commanded India’s forces in Kashmir, notes “Russian incompetence in the field”, rooted in “hubris and reluctance to follow time-tested military basics”. A group of retired Indian diplomats and generals affiliated with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a nationalist think-tank close to the Indian government, recently discussed Russia’s “visible and abject lack of preparation” and “severe logistical incompetence”. The fact that India is the biggest buyer of Russian arms lent their conclusion particular weight: “the quality of Russian technology previously thought to be superlative is increasingly being questioned” — though Ukraine, of course, uses much of the same equipment.
A similar process of reassessment is now under way in Western armed forces. One camp argues that the Russian threat to NATO is not as great as was feared. “The reputation of the Russian military has been battered and will take a generation to recover,” reads a recent assessment by a NATO government. “It has proven to be worth less than the sum of its parts in a modern, complex battlespace.” But another school of thought cautions against hasty judgments. It is too early to draw sweeping lessons, a senior NATO official warns, with the war still raging and both sides adapting.
If one of Russia’s errors was to draw false confidence from its success in seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and averting the fall of the Assad regime in Syria in 2015, the argument runs, there is a similar risk that Russia’s foes might infer too much from the current shambles in Ukraine. Michael Kofman of CNA, a think-tank, acknowledges that he and other experts “overestimated the impact of reforms…and underestimated the rot under Shoigu”. But context is everything, he notes. In recent years the scenarios that have preoccupied NATO planners have not been wars on the scale of the current one, but more modest and realistic, “bite and hold” operations, such as a Russian invasion of parts of the Baltic states or the seizure of islands such as Norway’s Svalbard.
Wars like this could play out very differently from the debacle in Ukraine. They would start with a narrower front, involve fewer forces and place less strain on logistics, says Mr Kofman. Neither the Kremlin nor the Russian general staff would necessarily underestimate NATO in the way that they mistakenly dismissed the Ukrainian army. And if the Russian government was not trying to play down a future conflict as nothing more than a “special military operation”, as it has in Ukraine, it could mobilise reserves and conscripts in far greater numbers. Many crucial Russian capabilities, such as anti-satellite weapons and advanced submarines, are not known to have been tested in Ukraine at all.
Geography is important, too. While Russian logistics are “eerily reminiscent” of the old Soviet army, says Ronald Ti, a military logistician who lectures at the Baltic Defence College in Estonia, their dependence on railways would be less of a problem in an attack on the Baltic states. “A fait accompli operation where they bite off a chunk of Estonian territory is well within their capabilities,” says Dr Ti, “because they can quite easily supply that from railheads.” (Whether the Russian air force, its inexperience and frailties now exposed, could protect those railheads from NATO air strikes is another matter.)
Lessons in abundance
Mr Kofman believes the question of “how much of this war is a bad army, which in important ways it clearly is, and how much is a truly terrible plan” has not yet been answered. And yet answering it is essential. In a seminal paper in 1995, James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford University in California, argued that costly and destructive wars that rational governments would prefer to avert through negotiation can nonetheless still occur owing to miscalculations about the other side’s capabilities. In theory, a war-averting peace deal would reflect the relative power of the two potential belligerents. But the two sides can fail to reach such a bargain because that relative power is not always obvious.
“Leaders know things about their military capabilities and willingness to fight that other states do not know,” wrote Mr Fearon, “and in bargaining situations they can have incentives to misrepresent such private information in order to gain a better deal.” That helps explain why Russia so wildly inflated its supposed prowess in the Vostok exercises. And it can work. “I suspect many of us were taken in by Victory Day parades that showed us all of the smart bits of kit,” says the European general.
The battle for Donbas will not entirely settle this debate. A Russian army that prevails in a war of attrition through sheer firepower and mass would still be a far cry from the nimble, high-tech force advertised over the past decade. More likely is that Russia’s plodding forces will exhaust themselves long before they achieve their objectives in southern and eastern Ukraine, let alone before mounting another attempt on Kyiv. The world’s military planners will be watching not just how far Russia gets in the weeks ahead, but also what that says about its forces’ resilience, adaptability and leadership. Like a knife pushed into old wood, the progress of the campaign will reveal how deep the rot runs. ■