The Intellectual Failures Behind Russia’s Bungled Invasion

A Ukrainian serviceman stands on top of a Russian tank captured after fighting with Russian troops near Kyiv, 27 March 2022. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

It is a point of consensus among analysts that the initial phases of the Russian invasion of Ukraine have been a relative failure. Though Russia may still prevail in this conflict, the reasons for its blundering initial attempt are worth unpacking.

In certain regards, Russia’s failures reveal its limitations in fairly basic competencies such as logistical planning. The capability limitations of at least some Russian forces in areas such as tactical communications, as well as poor morale, certainly seem to have added to this mix. However, Russian forces have also suffered early losses due to a perplexing departure from their previous practices. The Russian army, which some have described as an artillery army with a lot of tanks, typically does not advance without substantial preparatory fires, which have been notably absent in the early stages of the conflict, along with any meaningful efforts at combined arms warfare. The use of Russian assets such as airborne forces and armour in penny-packeted formations which could not provide mutual support to each other has created substantial tactical vulnerabilities. A lack of preparation of the electromagnetic battlefield and the initially limited use of precision strike capabilities also stand out.

What might explain these curious choices? One answer put forward by analysts is that the unworkable political assumptions that undergirded President Vladimir Putin’s war plans – for example, that Ukraine would fall apart like an artificial state – were simply not challenged by subordinates who would not risk a dictator’s ire. It has further been suggested that the shrinking of the Russian president’s inner circle to encompass a coterie of former intelligence officers devoid of military experience has contributed to groupthink. This could certainly be true, and would align with much of what we know about the military failings of personalist dictatorships. However, at this stage, we might consider an alternative explanation: that Russia’s failures reflect a series of long-standing erroneous assumptions about modern warfare that are held by wide segments of the military. If this is the case, senior members of the uniformed military may not have had to hold their tongues and subscribe to a war plan they did not believe in; rather, the war plan might be a reflection of what Russian officers have been writing and saying about modern war for years.

What Were They Thinking?

Take, for example, the Russian literature on the next generation of warfare, a subject on which authors such as Vladimir Slipchenko, Major General Alexander Vladimirov and the former Deputy Chief of General Staff Makhmut Gareev have been writing over the last several decades. A central feature of this scholarship has been faith in the ability to integrate sophisticated long-range strike capabilities with non-kinetic means including information warfare, the cultivation of fifth columnists, and the erosion of hostile state capacity in a way that can limit the duration and intensity of kinetic action and ground combat in particular. Parts of the literature substantially deemphasise seizing and holding ground. In essence, this strain of Russian literature evinces a confidence that a target state can be eroded internally prior to conflict, both reducing the level of danger and providing an opportunity for power projection. Nonmilitary instruments were accorded an importance comparable to the use of kinetic force by figures such as General Gerasimov in his now famous 2013 lecture on the changing character of war. There appears to have been little discussion by these Russian figures of the complexities of coordinating fundamentally different military and nonmilitary assets. Nor has there been much visible effort to question the notion that military and nonmilitary tools complement each other’s effects in an additive way. This is a major weakness on both counts. Nonmilitary tools and military ones need not complement each other, and may actually have contradictory effects. For example, efforts to cultivate friendly or apathetic elements in a foreign society may be entirely undone by an assault that has a unifying effort on an opposing society. In this context, previously sympathetic or neutral elements may alter their loyalties or at least avoid acting in support of an invading force. Rather than complementing each other in an additive fashion, then, subversion and direct assault may be contradictory. Indeed, this appears to have been the major flaw in the FSB Fifth Service’s research conducted before the conflict, which conflated pre-war dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian government with post-war attitudes, ignoring the effect that Russia’s own actions would have in changing these opinions.

Russia’s failures may reflect a series of long-standing erroneous assumptions about modern warfare that are held by wide segments of the military

Moreover, as a former GCHQ official noted when speaking to RUSI, subversive assets – be they human resources or cyber capabilities – differ in fundamental ways from a military tool like artillery, which can be called upon in relatively short order and with relatively predictable effects. This is a major impediment to any attempt to deliver integrated effects; the instruments involved work on different timescales and in different ways. Any exercise in cultivating assets behind an enemy’s lines is a time-consuming, uncertain and resource-intensive art, more like investment than traditional warfare. Assets, be they human assets or cyber capabilities, can be compromised without one’s knowing. Individuals can be turned or neutralised by a defending state’s security apparatus, or may simply decide not to risk themselves in support of their state patron, as the history of domestic coups attests. Russian discourse seems to take little account of this inherent uncertainty and treats these assets as capabilities that can be readily cultivated and called upon in tandem with the military instrument. Finally, Russian military authors writing about phenomena such as so-called colour revolutions appear to place excessive weight on the agency of large actors and their ability to shape conditions in smaller states, while excluding the agency of the elites and people of the state in question.

Taken collectively, this evinces an overestimation of how feasible it is for an external actor to build and sustain networks of influence in a target state, and to coordinate these networks with the use of force to minimise the need for kinetic action. It might come as little surprise, then, that the initial invasion occurred with little coordination, with units operating as if they expected crumbling or non-existent resistance. While Russia may indeed have spent much time cultivating networks to ensure that this would be the case, its planners might have suffered from excessive certainty regarding the results of these efforts. This could be, at least in part, a function of how the Russians have thought about future war.

A second related characteristic of modern Russian military thought that has come to the fore is its emphasis on long-range precision strike capabilities and their potential for disruption across the depth of an opponent’s society. Russian authors such as Slipchenko and figures such as Gerasimov have long held that the exponential growth in the precision of conventional weapons has rendered them increasingly lethal. This line of thought began in the Soviet era under Marshal Ogarkov, who argued that conventional prompt strike could become comparable to tactical nuclear assets in some circumstances. In Russia’s understanding of conflicts such as the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s and the Gulf War, NATO precision strike capabilities effectively paralysed Serbian and Iraqi assets in a way that made ground assault either unnecessary or an afterthought. This is an incorrect reading of the effectiveness of precision strike in the conflicts of the 1990s, which were ended by the threat or actual use of overwhelming ground forces against opponents that were not paralysed to the point of being incapable of action by precision munitions, important though these were. Nonetheless, a fixation with ‘non-contact warfare’ appears to have permeated Russian thinking since the late Soviet era, and may well have reinforced short war assumptions. In this vision of warfare, the disruptive effects of subversion could be reinforced by a precision strike campaign against key infrastructure that could further paralyse an already crumbling state. The Russian decision to open the conflict with cruise and ballistic missile strikes against targets throughout Ukraine may reflect this excessive faith in standoff capabilities. Not only is it unlikely that precision strikes can by themselves paralyse a state to the extent that ground warfare becomes an afterthought, but the very limited opening salvo of the campaign seems to reflect an excessive faith in the destructive potential of individual weapons.

A fixation with 'non-contact warfare' appears to have permeated Russian thinking since the late Soviet era, and may well have reinforced short war assumptions

In effect, then, the Russian approach in Ukraine, which seems to have been based on the idea that the Ukrainian state could be prevented from operating as an integrated system by a combination of subversion, erosion and precise kinetic strikes against key nodes, may reflect more than just wishful political thinking by one man. Instead, it may be the result of ideas regarding the character of modern warfare held by the Russian security establishment as a whole.

Bad Ideas or Wrong Context?

To be sure, we should be careful to attribute all of Russia’s early failures to a malaise in its thinking about modern warfare. The purpose of this article is not to dismiss factors like pathological political leadership as key factor. Nor do Russian discussions of next-generation warfare mean that the Russian armed forces have completely ignored more conventional operations. Finally, the apparent decision not to forewarn soldiers about where they were going was not a necessary outcome of any Russian idea propounded in recent decades. However, the belief system developed over the last decades is at least conducive to the sorts of decisions Russia’s leaders have made. As history has shown, military beliefs about the character of war determine the assessments that officers pass to their political leaders regarding the art of the possible, and thus partially shape political outcomes. In a similar vein, one can more easily send troops forward in the way Russia did if one believes that the opponent’s resistance will have been rendered inert by a new form of warfare.

As for the merits of Russian ideas themselves, in some areas they may have been conclusively debunked, while in others the initial Russian failure may reflect the fact that the utility of such ideas is context-specific. Penetrating an opposing society and activating subversive elements may be easier if the state is genuinely a fragile one or, alternatively, if one’s own actions have not lent the opponent’s society a sense of cohesion. Similarly, while Russia has used over 1,100 standoff munitions to little effect, this may or may not debunk the notion of non-contact warfare. Long-range standoff capabilities failed to paralyse the Ukrainian military response but might well have delivered different effects against a state with less geographical depth than Ukraine. Japan, for example, might fare differently against a comparable Chinese missile arsenal.

Questions for Future Strategists

Some key questions from Russia’s failures in Ukraine that future analysts and strategists will need to examine revolve around the depth of the intellectual failures in Russian military thought. First, their influence on the campaign plan will be critical to answering the question of whether its failure was primarily the result of faltering political leadership or wider institutional failings. Moreover, to the extent that Russian thinking about penetration at depth and non-linear warfare has been responsible for the current debacle, this may provide salutary lessons regarding non-Russian concepts of future warfare that are based on similar (though not identical) logic. However, it is also worth noting that the revealed limits of these concepts may be context-specific, and that they may have proven more effective under different circumstances. Understanding when and where they might be applicable is a task for future work in the area of military science.

This Commentary is the first in the new Russia Military Report series.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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