Army vehicles were so decrepit that repair parties were stationed approximately every 15 miles. Some officers were so out of shape that the Army earmarked $1.5 million to resize standard uniforms.
It was the Russian military more than a decade ago when the country invaded Georgia, according to the then defense minister. The shortcomings, large and small, were glaring enough for the Kremlin to announce a complete overhaul of the military to build a leaner and more flexible professional force.
But now, almost three months after Russia invaded Ukraine, it is clear that the Kremlin has unfortunately failed to create an effective fighting machine. Russian forces in Ukraine have underperformed to a degree that surprised most Western analysts, raising the prospect that President Vladimir V. Putin’s military operation could end in failure.
In all respects, despite the capture of territories in the south and east, the Russian army suffered a severe blow in Ukraine. He was forced to abandon what he expected to be a blitzkrieg to take over the whole country in days. His forces were driven from the vicinity of kyiv, the capital. The flagship of his Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, was sunk; he never controlled the sky; and by some Western estimates, tens of thousands of Russians died.
This war highlighted the fact that, to the detriment of Russia, much of the military culture and scholarly behavior of the Soviet era persists: inflexibility in the command structure, corruption in military spending, concealment of numbers losses and repetition of the mantra that everything goes according to plan.
The signs of trouble were hiding in plain sight. Last summer, Russia held war games which the Defense Ministry says showed its ability to coordinate a deployment of 200,000 troops from different branches of the military in a sham effort to combat the NATO. They would be among the greatest military exercises of all time, he said.
Lt. Gen. Yunus-Bek Evkunov, deputy defense minister, told reporters the drills demonstrated Russia’s ability to rapidly deploy joint forces in a way that “would sober up any enemy”.
The whole exercise was scripted. There was no opposing force; the main units involved had been practicing their choreography for months; and each exercise started and stopped at a fixed time. The number of troops participating was likely half the announced number, military analysts said.
“It’s the Soviet military, basically,” said Kamil Galeev, an independent Russian analyst and former fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington. “The reforms have increased the efficiency of the army, but they have only gone halfway.”
When, after the Georgian conflict in 2008, Russia tried to reorganize its army, the idea was to get rid of the rigidly centralized Soviet-era army that could supposedly muster four million troops in no time. weather. Instead, field officers would have more responsibilities, units would learn to sync skills, and the entire arsenal would be swept into the computer age.
Many traditionalists resisted the change, preferring the old model of enormous, concentrated strength. But other factors also contributed to the army’s inability to transform. Birth rates plunged in the 1990s, leading to fewer men being drafted. That, coupled with persistently low salaries, set back recruiting goals. Endemic corruption has handicapped efforts.
But the fundamental problem was that the Soviet Union’s military culture endured, despite the lack of men and means to sustain it, analysts said.
“The Soviet army was built to generate millions of men to fill lots and lots of divisions that had endless stocks of equipment,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at the NAC, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. “It was designed for World War III, the war with NATO that never happened.
Ultimately, the push for change stalled, leaving a hybrid version of the military somewhere between mass mobilization and a more flexible force, analysts said. He still favors substantial artillery over infantry troops that can take and hold land.
The scripted way in which the army practices war, on display during exercises last summer, is revealing. “No one is tested on their ability to think on the battlefield,” said William Alberque, Berlin-based director of the arms control program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Instead, officers are assessed on their ability to follow instructions, he said.
Russia would like the world to see its army as it appears in the annual Victory Day parade – a well-oiled instrument of fit soldiers in dashing uniforms marching in unison and bristling with menacing weaponry.
“They use military forces as a propaganda machine,” said Gleb Irisov, 31, a former air force lieutenant who left the army in 2020 after five years. He then worked as a military analyst for the official TASS news agency before resigning and leaving the country as he strongly opposed the invasion.
Senior military commanders argue that recent expeditionary forces, particularly in Syria, have provided real combat training, but analysts call this claim exaggerated.
Russian troops faced no real adversary in Syria; warfare was primarily an air force operation where pilots could fly over targets at will. Russia has not fought a major ground war since World War II.
Yet Russian leaders have exaggerated the country’s success. In 2017, Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu boasted at a meeting of fellow ministers in the Philippines that Russia had “liberated” 503,223 square kilometers in Syria. The problem is that the area Mr Shoigu claims to have liberated from militants is more than twice the size of the entire country, Proekt, an independent media outlet, reported.
With around 900,000 personnel in total, of which just over a third are ground forces, Russia’s military is not that big, given that it has to defend a vast country spanning 11 time zones, officials said. analysts. But the goal of recruiting 50,000 contract soldiers each year, first announced a decade ago, has not been met, so there is still an annual recruitment of 18 to 27 year olds.
Russo-Ukrainian War: Main Developments
Mr. Putin did not resort to mass military conscription that would round up all able-bodied adult males for war. But even if it did, the infrastructure to train civilians en masse no longer exists. The consensus is that the bulk of Russia’s available ground forces have already been deployed in Ukraine.
Endemic corruption has drained resources. “Each person steals as much of the allocated funds as is appropriate for their rank,” said retired Major General Harri Ohra-Aho, Finland’s former intelligence chief and still an adviser to the Defense Ministry.
Corruption is so widespread that some cases inevitably end up in court.
In January, Colonel Evgeny Pustovoy, the former head of the armored vehicle procurement department, was accused of helping to steal more than $13 million by falsifying contracts for batteries from 2018 to 2020, according to TASS.
In February, a military court in Moscow stripped Maj. Gen. Alexander Ogloblin of his rank and sentenced him to 4.5 years in prison for what the charges called fraud on “a particularly large scale”. Authorities accused him of embezzling about $25 million by grossly overspending on state contracts for satellites and other equipment, business news site BFM.RU reported.
Big deals aren’t the only temptation. The combination of low salaries – a senior officer earns around $1,000 a month – and bloated budgets is a recipe for all sorts of theft, analysts say, causing a chain reaction of problems.
Commanders disguise the few exercises they organize, pocketing the resources budgeted for them, said Mr. Irisov, the analyst. This exacerbates a lack of basic military skills like navigation and marksmanship, although the Air Force has maintained flight safety standards.
“It is impossible to imagine the scale of the lies within the military,” Mr. Irisov said. “The quality of military production is very low because of the race to steal money.”
Every fifth ruble spent on the armed forces was stolen, Chief Military Prosecutor Sergey Fridinsky told Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the government’s official gazette, in 2011.
Mr Irisov said he had come across many examples of substandard equipment – the much-vaunted Pantsir air defense system unable to shoot down a small Israeli drone over Syria; Russian-made bulbs on the wings of SU-35 warplanes melting away at supersonic speeds; new trucks break down after two years.
In general, Russian weaponry lags behind computerized Western counterparts, but it is serviceable, military analysts said. Still, some new productions have been limited.
For example, the T-14 Armata, a “new generation” battle tank unveiled in 2015, has not been deployed in Ukraine because there are so few of them, they said.
Russia has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its military, producing under the state armaments program a flood of new planes, tanks, helicopters and other equipment. Military spending has not fallen below 3.5% of gross domestic product for much of the past decade, according to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at a time when most European nations have struggled to invest 2% of GDP And that’s just the public part of Russia’s military budget.
This type of financial investment has helped Russia realize the gains it has in Ukraine.
Johan Norberg, a Russian analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, said Russia and its military are too stretched to expect them to solve all the problems even in a decade. The war in Ukraine exposed the fact that the Russian army is “not 10 feet tall, but it’s not 2 feet tall either,” he said.
Alina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.