Ukraine is the latest disaster in a long history of Russian military dysfunction

The Russian army has had its fair share of military disasters with its most recent in Ukraine being a clear product of a system that refuses to accept the truth and only deals in exercising unlimited power.
russia battle of tannenberg
A depiction of the disastrous Battle of Tannenberg, 1914. Credit: ART Collection / Alamy Stock Photo
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It is evident that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has gone catastrophically wrong. Russia opted for a coup de main against Kyiv, much in line with the Soviet ‘state capture’ practises seen in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968), and Afghanistan (1979). The apparent success against protests in Belarus and Kazakhstan had reinforced faith in a rapid seizure of the state.

The military aspect of the operation hinged on the rapid acquisition of Hostomel airport. The initial reconnaissance elements landed but were overwhelmed. Russia made a second attempt to land paratroopers with 200 transport helicopters a few hours later, but Ukrainian resistance and air defences made that impossible. At the same time, vast columns of armoured vehicles were supposed to drive at best speed to Kyiv, to reinforce the air assault forces, but they were held up, ambushed, and arrived in penny packets where they were often destroyed piecemeal.

Putin had prepared an international announcement that the securing of Ukraine, in just three days, had ushered in a new world order where the West was eclipsed by the two Asian superpowers, Russia and China. Yet, by day three, the grand announcement had to be postponed. The Russian armed forces had expected to conduct a limited ‘special operation’, not fight a war.

Consequently, the logistics chain, designed for a largely peaceful takeover and confined to obvious road routes, was being cut to pieces by Ukrainian light infantry and drones. Russian losses mounted, columns were brought to a standstill, and the indiscipline of their army was fully exposed.

The Russian army tried to adapt. It brought up its artillery, covered by long range missile fire and adopted the approach developed in the conflicts in Chechnya and Syria: destroy everything in their path with firepower before advancing into the cities to secure the ruins. Terrorising the population would add to the effect of bringing the Ukrainians to their knees, it was reasoned. But the bombardments did not terminate resistance. As had happened in the Donbass fighting since 2014, the destruction of urban centres only increased the ability to defend them. Russian infantry was ordered to dismount from their vehicles and make attacks against any nodes of resistance they found, but the Ukrainians rarely adopted fixed positions which could be subjected to intense artillery fire. They destroyed vehicles and kept on the move. When the Russian troops advanced on foot, they were cut down. When they came in vehicles, the Ukrainians made use of anti-tank weapons. The battle was fluid and the Russians struggled to make sense of it.

After the failure to seize Kyiv, the Russian army withdrew in the north to concentrate on the capture and consolidation of the Donbass, from Kharkiv in the north to Mariupol in the south. For Putin, the wreckage of Mariupol carries no military significance, but it is the only city, other than Kherson, where he could declare victory and escape the illegal war he had created. The problem he faces is that Ukraine may decide that, with continued Western backing, it could drive the Russians out.

So, the second option for Putin is to reach a stalemate. It would be a frozen conflict on a large scale, a tactic he has used before against Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. Having regenerated his military forces, he may, in a few years’ time, be able to resume the offensive. To do this, Putin will calculate that the West, while outraged and active today, will have lost interest by 2024.

What will derail Putin’s plans? In short, a military defeat and the sustainment of active Western support for Ukraine. Breaking the Russian naval blockade with more advanced missile technologies would open the Ukrainian coast to the egress of vital grain supplies and the ingress of munitions and humanitarian aid. The gradual strengthening of the Ukrainian armed forces, especially in air power, would allow them to drive the Russians entirely out of the north, recover Mariupol, and liberate much if not all of Donbass. This process would take months, but it would demonstrate that Putin had not secured a victory at all. It would also prevent Russia from burying the evidence of its manifold war crimes in dozens of locations across the occupied sections of Ukraine. The arrival of foreign forces would make a resumption of Russia’s war of aggression impossible.

The reason for the poor performance of the Russian army is a subject of intense debate. Its attitude and performance have both been lamentable: weak logistics, flawed planning, failed communications, a lack of air-ground coordination, desertions, and tactical failures at every turn.

While labelled as Putin’s war, there is much that is actually very familiar about the Russians’ failed approach. The indiscipline and barbarism of Russian soldiers is not an aberration, it is recorded in accounts in Ukraine, in Poland, and in Germany dating back one hundred years. The gloss of their parade-ground army has once again been exposed by its inadequacies when actually fighting, a complaint which was true in its failed invasion of East Prussia in 1914 and its incompetent defence of the USSR in 1941 . The Russians have often used minorities for the tasks its own troops struggled to achieve, and once again we see Syrian, Daghestanis, Chechens, and even central Asians being brought up to conduct operations. There are reports that conscripted Donbass men are used as waves of infantry in hopeless assaults, with the inevitable heavy losses. While the statistics are much debated, Russia may have lost 2,500 armoured vehicles, 15 combat aircraft, and possibly 9,000 killed and wounded in just one month. There are reminders here of historic Russian battles, in the Carpathians in 1916 where almost a million casualties were sustained or in the shock tactics in 1944-45. The Battle of Berlin alone cost the Soviets 360,000 killed.

Yet, there is another disquieting aspect of this conflict which requires sober reflection. It concerns the institutional failure of the apparently modernised and professional Russian armed forces. Amongst the lower ranks, corruption and bullying are endemic. In the officer corps, there is no self-critique, and no institution can hold the officers to account. They perpetuate the system because it serves their narrow interests. Political criticism will land you in prison, or worse, and so the conspiracy of silence continues. It seems that military and civilian secret security services generated intelligence that suited Putin’s impression of Ukraine, specifically that this was a deeply conservative and pro-Russian country that wanted liberation from a neo-Nazi elite and crazed libertarians. It was also, more rationally, a resource-rich country that would advance Putin’s ambition to resurrect the Russian imperial state and face down the West.

So, while the focus is on the military failures, we would do well to examine the extent to which Putin’s illegal and barbaric war is part of a system that refuses to accept the truth and only deals in the exercise of unlimited power.

Russia’s military setbacks give grounds for optimism, but, let me remind you that this same dysfunctional system is also nuclear armed and led by a figure who thinks only in terms of absolute power.

Rob Johnson

Dr Rob Johnson is the Director of the Changing Character of War Centre (CCW) at Pembroke College, University of Oxford. CCW is funded by the Ax:Son Johnson Foundation and carries out research into strategy, operations, new technologies and the conduct of war. Dr Johnson is a former army officer, and has extensive experience of conflicts and their analysis. He has published a number of books, including Lawrence of Arabia on War, which was the winner of the Military History of the Year Award in 2021. His most recent publications include: The Conduct of War (2021) and World Information War (2021). He is currently working on strategic decision making in the two world wars.

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