Many of us who analyze the Russian military for a living have been shocked to see Russian forces fumble the way they have in Ukraine. There are already some heated calls for analytical accountability, most prominently from Eliot Cohen and Phillips Payson O’Brien, into how the body of Russian military analysts could have gotten the Russian military so wrong. There is no doubt that the Russian military has performed much more poorly than most anticipated and it is important to understand why. However, observers should beware of drawing simplistic, overarching conclusions about Russian military power writ large.
One can lump Russian military failure into two large categories: those that are contingent to the current conflict and set of circumstances surrounding the invasion, and those that are inherent to the Russian military. Based on my experience as an analyst of the Russian military and former member of the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration, I focus here on the former: those contingent political factors that have contributed to the Russian military’s poor performance. I plan to follow this up with another article on those failures inherent to the Russian armed forces.
The stage was set by Moscow’s inaccurate and chauvinistic assumptions about Ukraine, its leaders, its military, and its people. When these assumptions were paired with a desire to keep the invasion plans secret from those tactical echelons that were ordered to execute it, we can start to understand the disastrous Russian military operations during the opening days.
In the days leading up until the invasion, the Kremlin signaled limited intentions towards Ukraine while surrounding the country with troops from three directions all the while Putin was disparaging the notion that Ukraine was a legitimate and sovereign country. When the order was finally given to proceed along multiple axes entailing an invasion of half of Europe’s largest country, Russian military staff had little time to prepare. False assumptions from the Russian political and military leadership about the ease of invading Ukraine, coupled with a desire to keep the invasion secret, denied the Russian military the ability to prepare for war in the way that it had trained for countless times before.
The fundamental mistake made at the leadership level, that carried down to the lowest ranks, was an underestimation of the lengths Ukraine’s leadership, military, and people would go to defend it. Putin’s speech about the nature of Ukraine and its current leadership, purportedly consisting of drug addicts and neo-Nazis, was apparently not just propaganda. It betrayed at least some of his real thoughts: that the Ukrainian state was little more than an aberration that could not stand up to Russian power. The Russian leadership seems to have believed that Ukraine’s national character was little more than a house of cards that just needed a little shove. Had Putin and Sergei Shoigu, his minister of defense, believed that Ukraine would put up a hearty resistance, they might have employed the considerable power of the Russian military as it was intended, with in-depth planning for complex warfare involving phased and coordinated operations across all domains.
Carl von Clausewitz, in On War, discussed the need to understand the war upon which one is embarking and the difficulty of aligning political and military objectives, coupled with the challenge of defining the scale and effort required for a military campaign. Given the haphazard way in which Russian operations were executed during the opening weeks, the leadership expected a wholly different type of war than the one Russian forces have experienced so far. Clausewitz also notes that the end calculation of what level of effort is required is not objective but relies on “the qualities of mind and character of the men making the decision.” It would be difficult to find a better example of how the faulty views of one person could so straightforwardly bring about the initial failures of an operation than Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.
Putin’s erroneous assumptions likely justified the decision, by him, to keep the invasion largely secret from the Russian people and probably many in the leadership. Additionally, the unprecedented public sharing by the United States and other countries of the intelligence about the impending invasion may have complicated Putin’s timing and planning. If this invasion was to be easy, a quick result would forgo the need to prepare the population for an extended conflict. The logic would be that it would also limit Western responses since any punitive actions would be after the fact and lack credibility and sustainability. Installing even a partially legitimate puppet government in Kyiv would both support the narrative given to the Russian domestic population and frustrate attempts by the West to exact severe punishments on Russia.
At a more fundamental level, the soldiers themselves were likely shocked by suddenly finding themselves first, at war, and second, against a capable opponent. Interviews with captured Russian officers and enlisted personnel suggest that the operation and its scope were likely not shared at the tactical level. For those of us who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, every soldier, staffer, and commander understood where they were going, the danger they might face, and at least the rough outlines of the types of missions they were going to undertake. While there are an infinite number of surprises in war, we all knew we were going to combat. Turning to the Russian military’s experience thus far in Ukraine, it is apparent that this process of emotional and mental preparation for war was missing.
The lack of understanding and mental preparation of Russian troops, coupled with the initial results of the campaign, appear to be creating some impetus for some desertion within the Russian military. This is not to say that the Russian military is preparing to dissolve and retreat to Russia. Having some degree of desertion, soldiers in ones or twos, should not be unexpected, especially in a war between two countries with such deep connections. It’s another problem altogether for the Russian military when we start seeing sets of vehicles, representing an entire small unit, fully fueled and functional but with no crew.
At the time of this writing, Russian forces have pulled away from Kyiv and are focusing on operations in the east. Faced with an inability to achieve his initial strategic goals, Putin has likely decided that solidifying and expanding the separatist controlled areas in the east is the best he can do and still provide some semblance of a successful narrative to the Russian people. Russian operations in the east will benefit from shorter, more secure logistics, a small geographic area to focus combat power, and a more clear and efficient command and control structure with the reported appointment of Gen. Aleksandr Dvornikov as Russia’s top commander in Ukraine. However, this general will face the challenges of cobbling together a low-morale force that has taken heavy casualties and coordinating disparate units into an operational whole with a clear task.
There is a lot of speculation about how the rest of the Russo-Ukrainian War will unfold. Will this turn into a long, drawn-out stalemate in the east, or will Russia be able to recover from its initial failures and take advantage of its new operational situation and achieve the Kremlin’s revised strategic objectives? What is Ukraine’s strategic goal, now that it has survived Russia’s ham-fisted attempt to snuff out its existence? Motivated by its recent victory in defending Kyiv and blooding Russia’s forces, will Ukraine attempt to drive Russian forces out of the east entirely? Perhaps in the weeks or months ahead Russia will have an exhausted military that culminates without achieving even Putin’s minimalist objectives — whatever those may be. As Cathal Nolan notes, it is often “exhaustion of morale and materiel rather than finality through battles” that decide the outcomes of wars.
Russia military analysts have their work cut out for them in explaining the early failures of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I have attempted to provide an explanation for how some of the contingent political factors contributed to the Russian military’s poor performance. A portion of the failure is a result of incorrect political assumptions that limited military planning and operational expectations. But this does not explain nearly all of the failures. What appear to be inherent weaknesses in the Russian military and in need of further analysis are the clear lack of effective command and control, an overly timid air force, and poor tactical performance on basic unit-level skills, to name a few. The obvious second half of this analysis is the performance of the Ukrainian military. While this article has focused solely on Russian operations, the successful Ukrainian operations to halt Russia’s attempt to seize most of Ukraine needs detailed study.
Given that this is not the war Russia planned and trained for, it is difficult to say how it would have performed in a conflict it did prepare for — one against the United States and NATO. This is just the beginning of understanding and properly preparing for Russian military power — or the lack thereof — going forward and the implications it will have for the United States, NATO, and Russia’s neighboring countries.
Jeffrey Edmonds is a senior analyst on CNA’s Russia Studies Program. Prior to CNA he served as a director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. He is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and has served on active duty and the reserve for over 25 years. The views expressed here are his own.