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Why “the Russian army is just not very good”

Vladimir Poutine. Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock

Books will be written about Russia’s failures in Ukraine and Ukraine’s surprisingly strong resistance to invasion by its much larger, better armed and more powerful neighbour. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 lightning strike to capture the capital Kyiv was failed, then retracted. And Russia’s relief plan, redeploying its saddened forces to seize more territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, is, by all accounts, wavering and may not succeed either. .

Ukraine humiliates the Kremlin – killing its generals, sinking its battleships, destroying its tanks and planes, even repelling Russian advances – but it does not win. Russia has killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, razed cities and towns, caused Ukraine’s economy to shrink by 30% this year, and seized much of Ukraine’s territory.

And Russia could still achieve some of its redefined military objectives in Ukraine. But Moscow’s mighty army, once considered the second strongest in the world, is losing. What is happening?

Russia had unrealistic expectations

“The reality,” Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told the Senate this week, is that “Putin faces a mismatch between his ambitions and Russia’s current conventional military capabilities.”

Russia’s original war objective “was to inflict a decisive blow on Ukraine that would transform the political institutions of the country”, writes Zack Beauchamp on Voice. Putin’s withdrawal from Kyiv and the rest of northern Ukraine “de facto admitted that his fundamental war objective was beyond his power”.

Yes, “the Russian special military operation in Ukraine is already a strategic failure,” says Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group. “What they wanted out of this was a docile Ukraine run by people friendly to Russia. That doesn’t seem like a plausible outcome – and other than that, their forces have proven to be much less capable than almost anything. the world thought so.” What we see with Russia, a senior Pentagon official assessed in mid-March, “is poor planning met with real execution.”

Ukraine exploited Russian missteps

When Russia launched its invasion, it attempted to quickly seize kyiv and other major population centers, assuming there would be “light Ukrainian resistance, which ultimately was not the case. “. Voice‘s Beauchamp writes, “and they were undermined by poor logistics and a decision to travel on open roads which created easy opportunities for ambushes. The Ukrainians took advantage of this, attacking Russia’s weak supply lines and pinning down the Russians in brutal block-to-block combat” and savage drone attacks on Russian armor.

The first images and reports showed “the Russian armored vehicles abandoned for lack of fuel, its soldiers foraging for food, its transport planes shot down from the sky, its various military elements – tanks, infantry, planes – unable to coordinate their objectives”, Fred Kaplan notes to Slate. Putin wanted a blitzkrieg, “but the Russian army is not made for lightning strikes”.

“If we’ve learned anything from this conflict so far, it’s that theoretical Russian advantages don’t always translate into battlefield success,” adds Beauchamp. “And there are reasons to think that Ukraine could repel the Russian attack again.”

Russia has failed on the electronic battlefield

“One of Russia’s most costly mistakes when it invaded Ukraine was the expectation that it would dominate the electronic warfare part of the battle,” writes David Ignatius in The Washington Post. The purpose of the “exotic” military art of electronic warfare “is to attack an adversary by manipulating the electromagnetic spectrum – by jamming, intercepting or altering communications, radars, GPS or other signals”, and “the Russians overestimated their own capabilities, underestimated Ukraine’s – and did not count on the might of NATO’s military support in kyiv.”

Russia’s electronic warfare operations were “dazzling” when it invaded Ukraine in 2014, but Ukraine has greatly improved its capabilities since then and “Russia’s centralized, top-down command structure” meant that no one was empowered to “make quick fixes,” adds Ignatius. So, “when their sophisticated communications equipment failed, the Russians resorted to cellphones on Ukrainian networks, which revealed not only their plans but also their locations – enabling precise attacks”, including one that killed Major-General Andrei Simonov, “one of the main leaders of his country”. electronic warfare specialists.

A shifting balance

“While Russia is weakening, Ukraine is growing stronger: it now has more tanks than at the start of the war, much better artillery and much more weapons systems of all kinds,” writes Max Boot at the To post. “Russian morale is low, with officers who would disobey orders; Ukrainian morale is high.”

And “Russia has paid a terrible price for meager gains,” adds Boot. “Kyiv claims that over 25,000 Russian soldiers were killed”, probably a slight exaggeration, and “open source reports confirm that Russia lost over 3,500 vehicles (including over 600 tanks), 121 aircraft and nine warships, including the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, are the worst losses Russia has suffered since World War II.

And the penalties take their toll

The United States and its allies hit Russia with all sorts of punitive sanctions, many aimed at preventing Russia from rebuilding its arsenal. And it’s already working, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo testified before Congress. “We have reports from Ukrainians that when they find Russian military equipment on the ground, it is full of semiconductors they have taken out of dishwashers and refrigerators.”

“We are going to see additional impacts on the battlefield as the Russian aerospace industry and the Russian maritime industry are not able to source the parts they need to fly their planes, their submarines moving and their boats sailing,” Raimondo said. MP Matthew Axelrod said The Wall Street JournalRisk and Compliance Forum.

The Russian army is not very good

Russia’s failures are due in part to “the valiant resistance of the Ukrainian army and civil defense forces”. Slatewrites Kaplan. “But it’s also because the Russian military is just not very good.” Seriously, “I watched the Russian army for years. I knew they weren’t good, but I never suspected they were that bad,” retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling tweeted. “Corruption has taken hold of their ranks, their government, their leadership on a Mafia-like scale.”

In fact, Putin values ​​Russia’s defeat of the Nazis in World War II “because Russian history offers few comparable military achievements,” says Sir Lawrence Freedman, the dean of British academics in war studies. The 20th century began with Russia’s “humiliating defeat at the hands of Japan” and ended with Russia “humiliated by secessionist Chechnya in one war” before winning the second only “by adopting brutal tactics”.

Russia’s bloody and costly victory in 1945 “leaved a lasting image of a military steamroller, a mass army crushing everything before it by its weight”, but “it is now evident that there is no steamroller,” Freedman wrote. Still, “the idea’s influence on Russian generals helps explain the arrogance behind their initial plans, as if Ukrainian forces would crumble once faced with a Russian offensive.”

The sad irony is that Adolf Hitler and Napoleon Bonaparte made similar and ruinous strategic miscalculations about Soviet and Tsarist Russia, respectively, writes Joe Donato at the Modern War Institute. “Vladimir Putin is no Hitler or Napoleon, but there are striking similarities between the flawed victory theory that underpinned his foray into Ukraine and their doomed invasions of Russia.”

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