Russian military weapons destroyed by Ukraine, near Bucha on March 1, 2022 (Ukrainian Ministry of Defence)
Russian military performance in Ukraine shows glaring weaknesses in their training and culture, but many of their failings are fixable.
Analysts have followed Russia’s 14 years of military modernisation with concern, tracking the development of a range of systems that technically outmatch many Western counterparts. It became a cliché in military circles to append analysis of Russian military modernisation and emerging concepts with the caveat that its soldiers were not 10 foot tall. The abysmal performance of the Russian military in its invasion of Ukraine has laid bare just how wide the theory–praxis gap is. While this should lead to a recalibration of assessments of Russian capability, however, it is important that analysts do not over-correct.
Watching the Wheels Come Off
Russian military performance has been spectacularly poor in Ukraine. At the tactical level, Russian units have showed an inability to follow basic military procedures. They have failed to prove routes, have advanced in densely packed groups of vehicles, have tended to lose momentum when engaged, and been road bound, neither screening their flanks with patrols nor setting up their air defences. The force has shown a very limited capacity to operate in combined arms groupings. In contact, Russian units have behaved erratically and have lacked coordination when under fire. Bizarrely, many Russian units have not even taken precautions that would be consistent with a desire for self-preservation, leading to an unsustainable level of personnel and equipment losses.
Beyond their tactical incompetence, the Russian military has shown that its commanders are inadequate planners. The sequencing of units moving on ground lines of communication made no tactical sense with riot police pushed in front of fighting formations. There appears to have been no serious mapping of time and distance to synchronise actions, leaving air assault forces isolated and vulnerable to counterattack. Air and ground integration has also been absent. Artillery strikes have been employed to rubbleise large urban areas, an act of almost no military utility, while fires in support of manoeuvre have been lacking.
However, the greatest failing of the Russian military has been at the strategic and operational echelons. Putting aside the catastrophically bad assessment of Ukrainian sentiment that informed the initial concept of operations, the Russian high command appears to have fixed upon a timetable for the invasion only to fail to inform their tactical commanders until a day before. This is unforgiveable. Working out which units a formation is to collaborate with in order to set up encrypted radios takes time; studying the map and assessing routes takes time; and getting into the right headspace to go to war takes time.
The failure to give subordinates time to prepare reveals a dysfunctional command culture in which troops are treated as an expendable resource in the pursuit of objectives. While this may be technically accurate, behaving as though it is guarantees that those troops will underperform. Low morale not only reduces the combat power of troops in contact; it also drives corruption, carelessness over maintenance of equipment and other behaviours which have all been exhibited throughout Russian operations in Ukraine.
Yet They Advance
The failure to prepare units before the invasion is perhaps the greatest cause for caution in writing off the Russian Army over its performance in Ukraine. Many – though by no means all – of the failures at the tactical level stem from not having enough time to prepare. This is a mistake that the Russian military could readily avoid in the future and would likely have a significant impact on improving Russian military performance. Thus, it is important not to set their operations in Ukraine as the baseline for future conflicts.
A further caution about underestimating the Russian military is that, in spite of their abysmal performance, Russian forces have continued to advance. They are beginning to shake out into combined arms units, and have successfully seized Kherson and encircled Mariupol and Kharkiv. The Russians are advancing towards Dnipro to close off resupply to Ukrainian formations in the Donbas. Slowly, Russian units are working around the west of Kyiv while approaching the city from the east, threatening encirclement.
While Ukraine has publicised its successes, it has not revealed its own casualties. They are heavy, and Ukrainian units have been mauled by Russian artillery. Fires have also limited the scale of viable counterattacks.
The asymmetry in available information also conceals the significant unevenness in Russian military performance. Some Russian units have demonstrated tactical proficiency and a will to fight. Incompetence has similarly been disproportionately evident in certain Russian units. Yet, as these formations have depended on the same logistics chain, and given the vast scale of the operations, effective tactical actions have often been difficult to observe amid the chaos of the wider campaign. As Russian soldiers resign themselves to a hard fight and unseasoned troops overcome the initial shock of an unexpected war, it is also reasonable to expect many Russian units to exploit their abundance of firepower, even if they continue to lack initiative, rather than abandon their equipment.
Western forces must also understand the challenges of scale before writing off the Russian military. In October, I observed a US battalion conduct a combined arms assault in which their tempo was disrupted by light resistance. They bunched up, were punished by artillery and subsequently broke down into individual components, losing cohesion. Combined arms warfare is difficult, and it gets harder at scale. NATO forces would be much more disciplined in their Tactics, Techniques and Procedures than their Russian counterparts, but with few allies ever exercising even at brigade scale, one suspects a large NATO force would rapidly run into logistics problems and a breakdown in sequencing.
In short, Russia’s poor performance may not be replicated in smaller-scale operations, while NATO should not assume it is prepared for large-scale ones simply because Russia is not.
No Time for Complacency
Western states – eager to minimise military spending – are liable to look for excuses to avoid having to ensure their own military preparedness in response to the conflict in Ukraine. There are several narratives that could see the initial urge to resource the military dissipate. One is to point to Russia’s poor performance to suggest current capabilities are adequate. Another is to point to the quagmire that Russia has entered to suggest that it will lack the capacity or will to pick additional fights in the near future. These narratives are dangerous.
When Egypt lost the 1967 war – their army proving utterly incompetent – Israel assumed that their dominance would deter Egypt from a future attack. Instead, Egypt, feeling humiliated and vulnerable, rapidly reconstituted its forces and set about training to overcome its shortcomings in military effectiveness. Where Egypt judged it could not make up the gap, it rehearsed operations that mitigated its weaknesses. In 1973, it achieved surprise in the Yom Kippur War. Russia’s underperformance in Ukraine may lead Moscow to take drastic steps to address its weaknesses.
From a deterrent point of view, it is also worth noting that Russia has effectively incurred the full weight of Western economic retaliation and will suffer from political isolation as a result of the conflict in Ukraine. While economic limitations may slow further aggression, it must also be noted that the West no longer has tools for deterrence by punishment. Moscow also lacks much leverage other than through its military. NATO members must, therefore, ensure they have the means to practice deterrence by denial. If Russia’s setbacks in Ukraine lead to a delay before further aggression, it is vital that NATO uses the time wisely to prepare.
Ensuring deterrence by denial should not be seen purely through the rushed procurement of weapons systems and vehicles. After the Cold War, NATO countries took significant economies as regards training, readiness, and munitions stockpiles. There may need to be adjustments to the balance of investment in capability as a result of lessons drawn from the conflict in Ukraine. However, before putting more money into procurement, many NATO members would be well served by ensuring that their troops are deployable, trained and have sufficient reloads for a serious fight. Russian soldiers may not be 10 foot tall, but an enemy of any height can prove challenging if you have run out of ammunition.
Jack Watling is Research Fellow for Land Warfare at RUSI.
Dr Jack Watling
Senior Research Fellow, Land Warfare