A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 6, 2022

Drivers of Delusion: Why Pre-Ukraine Russian Military Assessments Were So Wrong

Most western analysts believed Russia's hype about its military capabilities after its brutally efficient - and relatively bloodless - takeover of Crimea and parts of the Donbas in 2014. One of the benefits of a dictatorship like Russia's is that it can limit what outsiders see. 

But the downside of that system is that it tends to obscure the truth to insiders as well as those outside. This appears to be what happened to the Russian military, as its shortcomings have become exposed by its stymied invasion of Ukraine. Inadequacies in logistics, training, manpower shortages, combined arms coordination failures and doctrinal rigidity which would have become apparent early in a more transparent environment were covered up in Russia - until it was too late. JL

Robert Dalsjo and colleagues report in the International Institute for Strategic Studies, image Oleg Petrasyuk, PAP:

Explanations for Russian shortcomings (are) based on political wishful thinking regarding the public mood in Ukraine, Russian military capabilities and the reaction of the West. Russia’s military leadership had overdosed on ideas of next-generation warfare, whereby subversion and psychological operations in combination with long-range precision strikes would weaken the enemy so that little conventional force would be needed. The Kremlin was so convinced that Ukraine and the West would yield to a threatening military build-up that no proper invasion plan had been worked out. Rot in the Russian Armed Forces revealed by the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 was never removed, but painted over.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin made an all-in bet on invading Ukraine, most analysts expected Russian forces to be relentlessly effective and campaign plans meticulous, commensurate with the enormous risks the operation inevitably imposed on Russia in theatre and internationally. While the future of Ukraine hinges on the outcome of the war, so do Russia’s standing as an aspiring world power and the political future of Putin himself. But war can be a brutal examination that ruthlessly reveals peacetime cheating. Indications quickly mounted that little was going according to Russian plans, and that the plans, means and measures were not sound.
While Russian paratroopers quickly took Hostomel Airport, they became an isolated target instead of a beachhead. The menacing convoy emanating from Belarus suffered nightmarish logistical failures; Russian troops in the Donbas region failed to break through; and Russian armour and logistics suffered mightily at the hands of Ukraine’s special-operations forces, territorial-guard units, drones and artillery.1 Initial Russian missile strikes, cyber attacks, electronic warfare and psychological operations were of a much lesser scale and efficacy than expected.2 Pre-war analyses of more than a decade’s worth of military reforms widely believed to have turned the Russian Armed Forces into an effective fighting machine gave Ukraine slim odds of putting up a serious resistance.3 But quickly mounting evidence of Russian shortcomings on the battlefield evoked questions of whether its army has been a ‘paper tiger’ or ‘rotten’ all along.4
Prior assessments of Russian military capabilities, NATO–Russia war games, and analysis of the correlation of Russian and Ukrainian forces all clearly missed the mark on some important metrics, raising troubling questions for military analysts, including ourselves.5 A rethink of Russian military capability is clearly warranted, both to adjust for its demonstrable shortcomings and weaknesses and, equally important, to understand their causes and long-term strategic implications. Conducted in the fog of war, with biased sources and against a moving target – as Russian forces are continuously adapting – this is obviously a first assessment, not the final word. Military capability is context-specific, so the fierce Ukrainian resistance, extensive Western support (especially in the area of intelligence) and poor Russian strategic-level planning need to be factored in to avoid following an apparent overestimation with an equally gross underestimation.

A surprisingly lacklustre performance

The underwhelming performance of the Russian Armed Forces so far in the war in Ukraine has been evident at all levels of warfare, from the strategic down to unit level.6 Moreover, the shortcomings have manifested themselves both in expected things that did not happen and in unexpected – and sometimes confounding – things that did.
At the strategic level, the planning for the war seems to have been based on the wishful thinking that the Ukrainian government would flee at the first sight of danger, resistance would quickly crumble and Russian troops would be greeted as liberators.7 This was clearly a major intelligence failure, on a par with the US assessment of Iraq in 2003, reportedly prompting a search for scapegoats within Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB).8 There was also a jarring mismatch between the at least three months of deliberate build-up involving the bulk of Russia’s ground forces and the manner in which the campaign unfolded. We saw no lightning, armoured thrust towards crucial objectives, but instead a risky coup de main attempt to take Kyiv, involving small airborne forces and light forces on the ground. When this dash for the capital failed, there was seemingly no readily executable backup plan, despite Kyiv apparently being seen as the centre of gravity. Instead, the invasion proceeded concentrically on several disparate axes, without a clear focus of effort.9
Furthermore, this high-risk gamble was not preceded, as originally expected, by a massive shock-and-awe strike using the new long-range precision missiles Russia has touted, paralysing cyber attacks, debilitating use of electronic warfare or fiendishly clever psychological operations casting doubt on who started the war or on the utility of resistance. Granted, there were missile and cyber attacks in the first days, and some electronic warfare the first week, but they were not of a nature or on a scale that made for great effect beyond the point of immediate impact.10 As for attempts to place the blame for the war on the victim, or at least to sow doubt in the minds of bystanders, a traditional Russian method, these may have been prepared, but they were stymied by the release of US and UK intelligence revealing the existence of such plans.11 This appeared to take hold in Western public opinion, contributing to the cohesiveness and forcefulness of the response, but had less traction in other parts the world, crucially including Russia itself.
Another puzzling aspect was the absence of an overall military commander for the first six weeks of the war.12 While Moscow brought in forces from all five of Russia’s military districts, no central military commander – or even a primary one for ground forces – was apparently appointed. Instead, it seems that each district commander led his own troops in the operation, complicating coordination, especially on the northern axis, where troops from at least two districts were operating in the same area. Russia had greater success in the south, where the forces attacking from Crimea and Rostov mostly belonged to the Southern Military District, thus enjoying a more unified command. Ukrainian resistance probably was weaker there as well.13
At the operational level, three shortcomings stood out. Firstly, there was the failure to make effective arrangements for logistics – that is, the movement and resupply of troops – in a highly mobile offensive operation. There were widespread reports of both fuel and food shortages among Russian troops. These deficits seem to have been especially glaring in the north, where the distance from railheads, and thus the dependence on roads and trucks, was greater.14
Secondly, the failure to quickly establish and exploit Russian air supremacy over Ukraine, despite favourable odds, was conspicuous. The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) and missile units were widely expected to swiftly take out the Ukrainian air force and air defences, and then rule the skies and support the ground offensive.15 Instead, the Russian air operation has been hesitant and largely ineffective, allowing the Ukrainian air force to continue operating, while Ukraine’s ground-based air defences have taken a steady toll of Russian aircraft.16 Insufficient air support partly explains faltering Russian advances on the ground.
Thirdly, the Russians failed to coordinate ground and air operations in a mutually supporting manner. Instead, the timid air offensive has seemed haphazard and often unrelated to ground operations, resorting to less risky, but also less precise, night-time punishment strikes on infrastructure targets. In part, this may reflect the VKS’s limited ability to conduct effective suppression of enemy air defences and close air support, which inherently reduced its usefulness in bolstering the ground offensive.17 Subpar air–ground coordination was identified as a weakness after Russia’s attack on Georgia in 2008, and was thought to have since been rectified as part of Russia’s reform effort, but this seems not to have been the case.18
At the tactical level, the Russian army did not appear to fight as it trained in the annual strategic exercises shown off to foreign observers and the media. The use of mechanised and combined-arms warfare in large formations was widely considered a strong point of the Russian ground forces, especially as compared to Western armies that have focused on counterinsurgency for 20 years. But Russian forces conducted little high-tempo, combined-arms warfare with brigades or divisions, or even more rudimentary combined-arms operations, above the level of battalion tactical groups (BTGs). Urban combat tied down and depleted significant Russian forces. As in Grozny and Aleppo, Russian forces resorted to massive amounts of indirect fires – artillery, long-range missiles and airstrikes – to level centres of resistance, but so far with limited military success.
Eight years ago, many Western analysts saw BTGs as an innovation offering agile yet powerful units that could quickly be used for interventions and local contingencies. In parallel, Russian planners emphasised brigades and divisions in the peacetime military establishment, arguably in preparation for a major conflict with a near-peer adversary. However, when circumstances in Ukraine seemed to call for divisions and brigades, the Russians still fielded their forces as BTGs, committing them piecemeal to battle.19
Given Russia’s personnel deficits, it is perhaps not surprising that the Russian army has conducted a large-scale land war using myriad BTGs. Since Russia is unable to staff more than a handful of its manoeuvre formations with 100% contract personnel, it effectively had to choose among deploying BTGs independently; deploying under-strength regiments and brigades with one or two BTGs each under command; or backfilling front-line units to full paper strength by adding BTGs generated from formations elsewhere in Russia. It is more puzzling that the Russian military failed to effectively use larger formation headquarters to control and coordinate BTGs. While it is possible that the BTGs in Ukraine are independently reporting to Combined Arms Army headquarters directly, officer casualties indicate the presence of regimental, brigade and divisional headquarters in the field. This suggests that Russia has tried to employ intermediate-formation headquarters to control multiple BTGs below army level, but without obvious success. Their battlefield failure is probably attributable to staffing and quality issues in both the BTG headquarters themselves and the higher-formation headquarters.
Additional deficiencies included small-unit tactics, fieldcraft and morale, which are usually the purview of junior and non-commissioned officers (NCOs), but are also heavily affected by the standards set by the service as a whole. Many perhaps expected units of experienced kontraktniki to effectively lead the assault. Instead, there were numerous reports, some supported by videos, of ill-prepared soldiers (including conscripts) abandoning vehicles, units running out of fuel or food, trucks and weapons-carriers breaking down due to poor maintenance, and unprofessional tactics of advancing Russian units under ambush. Small-unit leaders have not been able to break with the Soviet tradition of passively waiting for orders, which discourages initiative and punishes mistakes. One contributing cause of the battlefield loss of several Russian generals is that senior officers often had to go to the front to sort out problems and urge soldiers on, thus placing themselves within reach of Ukrainian snipers and artillery.20
In rough terrain, the Russian advance has been largely restricted to roads that determined defenders can block fairly easily. Bluntly illustrating this was the 64-kilometre Russian convoy that was stuck for nearly two weeks north of Kyiv. While tracked vehicles might be able to move alongside the road where the terrain is reasonably permissive, trucks carrying ammunition, fuel or food cannot, which has crucially impeded the Russian advance. In the air domain, the VKS displayed several problems, notably including a surprisingly low sortie rate. Pilots were reportedly unskilled at ground strikes, especially to support ground forces, possibly due to limited flying hours and a lower training priority accorded to ground strikes than to airto-air combat. Contributing factors included a dearth of specialist teams on the ground to guide pilots to targets, too few precision-guided munitions and technical limitations of Russian aircraft with respect to target acquisition. In combination with a low cloud cover, this compelled Russian pilots to conduct low-level attacks in order to acquire targets visually, which is risky and costly.21 Relevant Russian space assets and other target-acquisition capabilities were scarce, and targeting cycles inadequate. For air defence, Russia notably deployed some VKS Pantsir short-range air-defence units, perhaps as protection against Ukraine’s Turkish TB2 drones, which the Russians reportedly fear.22 But these units apparently have not been particularly successful, and at least three have been captured after being abandoned.23
Finally, before the war, many Western analysts were impressed by the modern gear that Russia exhibited, ranging from soldiers’ kits and close-in protection systems for tanks, to electronic-warfare and air-defence systems, to long-range precision-strike and hypersonic missiles.24 However, many of these capabilities have failed to materialise, or failed to impress when they did. Far from all Russian soldiers have modern kit, and many have been taken prisoner or found dead with Soviet-era personal equipment, notably in units from the Eastern Military District, which also used tanks thought to have been taken out of active service, such as the T-72A/AV.25 Russian tanks again proved vulnerable to fire not only from tanks or aircraft but also from Western anti-armour infantry weapons, even if decades old. As of late April, visually confirmed losses of Russian tanks came to more than 500, of which more than half were destroyed. While this figure includes tanks from the separatist army corps and not only those from the Russian Armed Forces proper, the latter’s proportional loss from its pre-war inventory would be only slightly lower.26 This comes to some 20% of the tanks in Russian or Russian-allied standing forces – roughly equivalent to one tank army – lost. Russian close-in defence systems for tanks (for instance, Arena and Afghanit) have either not been fielded or not had a noticeable effect. Tactical communication was identified as a weakness after the war in Georgia in 2008, and new modern and secure communications systems had since reportedly been developed and fielded. Instead, the lack of secure and dependable communications has remained an Achilles heel for the Russian forces in Ukraine, frequently causing them to resort to signalling in the clear or using mobile phones. This may help explain the high loss rate of Russian senior officers, as signalling in the clear may have disclosed their positions close to the front.27
During the war in Syria, Russia showcased and tested its new precisionstrike weapons, including both long-range cruise missiles and air-dropped missiles and guided bombs. While Russia expended over 1,900 short- and medium-range missiles in Ukraine during the first two months, performance and effect has been so-so, with a reported daily failure rate of up to 60% for some types.28

What went wrong?

Three suggested explanations for the Russian shortcomings merit attention. The first is that the invasion was based on political wishful thinking in the Kremlin regarding the public mood in Ukraine, Ukrainian versus Russian military capabilities and the reaction of the West. The result was a conviction at the top that if the door was kicked in the whole building would collapse.29 Alternatively, the Kremlin was so convinced that Ukraine and the West would yield to a threatening military build-up that no proper invasion plan had been worked out, and had to be hastily improvised after coercion had failed.30
The second explanation is that Russia’s military leadership had overdosed on ideas of next-generation warfare, whereby subversion and psychological operations in combination with long-range precision strikes would weaken the enemy so that little conventional force would be needed. Western alarm about ‘Russian hybrid warfare’ after the successful annexation of Crimea in 2014 plus the fielding of long-range precision weapons may have made Russian military leaders overconfident. The General Staff might therefore have overestimated the efficacy of the tools at its disposal, aggravating poor judgement in the Kremlin.31
The third possible reason is that the rot in the Russian Armed Forces revealed by the Russo-Georgian War in 2008 was never removed, but simply painted over.32 That rot would include the systemic effects of graft and embezzlement from top to bottom, and corruption in terms of false reporting, sleaze, cynicism and brutality.33 In a bid to hide the real state of affairs, and to shore up its claims to remain a global power, the Russian military may have created a false image of military prowess – a Potemkin village of powerful armed forces with glitzy new weapons – and successfully sold this tableau to domestic and Western audiences.34 Of course, if Putin and his coterie of advisers had possessed a clear understanding of the ongoing extent of the problems within the military, the expectation of success in Ukraine would be even more perplexing. It may be more plausible to suggest that the Potemkin village was as much, or more, the product of self-deception as it was of deliberate policy.

Drivers of delusion

At the outset of the war, many observers – again, ourselves included – thought that Russia’s mighty military would destroy Ukraine’s armed forces.35 But as the attack against Kyiv was stymied, and Russian forces in Donbas failed to break through, it became apparent that Ukraine had denied Russia the expected walkover victory. Political meddling and wishful thinking in the Kremlin arguably undermined Russia’s nominal military superiority.
Planning was mainly done not by the General Staff but by the FSB, based on flawed intelligence fed to the Kremlin by intelligence officers eager to please.36 Russia’s failed initial operation against Kyiv forced Moscow into a de facto war of attrition that proved very costly. The strong and united Western reaction – including crippling economic sanctions on Russia, increases in European defence spending and supplies to Ukraine of increasingly longrange weapons – compounded Russia’s woes.37 A sign of Putin’s anger with setbacks were the purges in the FSB Fifth Directorate, which was responsible for Russia’s pre-war assessments of and undercover preparations in Ukraine.38
In addition, Russia’s command arrangements in the first six weeks of the war were extremely unclear. The absence of a publicly appointed military commander suggested that Putin managed the war himself.39 As of mid-April 2022, he reportedly still received hourly briefings about the war’s progress.40
Wishful thinking also undermined planning for logistics. Fuel, ammunition and food for advancing forces were either insufficient or failed to arrive in time to keep up with troop movements. Stretched lines of communication made it difficult to transport wounded soldiers to hospitals, probably increasing the death toll unnecessarily.41 Eventually, the harsh reality of the initial setbacks forced Russia to change its approach. On 25 March, Russia announced that it would focus its war efforts on eastern Ukraine.42 A few weeks later, Putin appointed Army General Aleksandr Dvornikov to be in charge of the war in Ukraine.43 This willingness to change track and pay the political price for early tactical defeat to preserve combat power indicates adaptability.44 Whether Putin has learnt from his initial mistakes or will continue to micromanage, however, remains an open question.45
Political meddling cannot, of course, explain every shortcoming of the Russian Armed Forces. Western notions of a ‘Gerasimov Doctrine’ of ‘hybrid warfare’ have been resoundingly debunked.46 While Moscow may have been giddy with the success of the bloodless annexation of Crimea, little suggests that the Russian military has adopted and applied such a doctrine. Even if it is assumed that such an approach has been applied to complement a more traditional blood-fire-and-steel doctrine, it played a minor role in Ukraine. Yes, there were elements in the initial attack that one might expect: cyber attacks, attempts at false-flag operations, efforts to kill the Ukrainian leadership and missile strikes against selected targets.47 But they were sloppily and haphazardly executed, and had no paralysing effect. This could indicate that Russian military planners gave less weight to such means of warfare. Another possible inference is that Russian planners were simply overconfident about the effects of a limited use of these new means of warfare.48 The caveat here is that with few observable data points and inconclusive evidence, this explanation has limited value thus far.
Neither political meddling nor esoteric doctrine can account for many of the problems Russian forces faced once war began. Most notably, these included a shortage of soldiers and supplies, and poor tactical- and operational-level performance. Troop morale was low, unit-level leadership subpar, coordination within and between various services lacking, and conduct unprofessional to put it mildly. These phenomena may be attributable to the systemic corruption in the Russian military, which probably affects both the quantity and training of forces, as well as the marshalling and allocation of resources needed for war fighting.49 For individuals, opportunities to abuse power, cheat or line their own pockets is a perk, and it is easy for them to assume that the resulting deficiencies will never be exposed by war. They are able to hide the rot and make the force look good on paper. Subordinates send rosy situation reports and padded personnel rosters to superiors, which creates a false picture and undermines decision-making. The fact that deficiencies are hidden makes it hard for external observers to identify and gauge the effects of corruption, and Russia’s authoritarian political system compounds the dysfunction. Furthermore, negligence, corruption’s cousin, affects equipment maintenance, among other things. This is an essential task in any military force. Here too, there are enough cases of equipment breaking down due to poor maintenance to indicate that in the Russian Armed Forces the problem is structural.50
War itself, of course, readily reveals cheating. For instance, where have all the soldiers gone? Russia appears to have fewer trained, combat-ready soldiers than most observers thought before the war. As of late 2020, the Russian Armed Forces’ peacetime establishment was nominally some 900,000 servicemen, with an army strength of 280,000 including conscripts.51 The latter figure – representing main ground forces – is the one most relevant for Ukraine requirements. Conscripts are not preferred for combat. According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, conscripts in the Russian Armed Forces overall numbered 225,000 versus 405,000 contract soldiers as of March 2020.52 Assuming that ratio roughly applies to ground forces, about 160,000 combat-ready contract soldiers would have been available for deployment in Ukraine. In early 2022, US sources put the Russian force poised to invade Ukraine at around 200,000.53 But the ‘169,000 to 190,000’ the Pentagon cited explicitly included personnel from the National Guard and in the two separatist army corps in Donbas. The actual total number of Russian forces in theatre prior to the invasion was less than 150,000, and some of that total included administrative and conscript personnel assigned to peacetime garrisons in Crimea and Russian oblasts neighbouring Ukraine, and who were not used for combat operations.54
Additional information suggests that Russian peacetime forces were thin for the Ukraine mission – a modern military version of Nikolai Gogol’s dead souls.55 Russia had to draw on forces from all of its military districts.56 Also demonstrating the paucity of Russian forces, Russia redeployed soldiers from other ongoing operations in parts of Russia’s near abroad such as Armenia, Georgia and Tajikistan, and actively sought other sources for soldiers in places such as Syria and poor areas of the former Soviet Union or Africa.
The Russian military has appeared unable to replace losses of about 20,000 killed and at least as many wounded, according to Ukrainian sources.57 A peacetime army establishment of combined-arms armies, divisions and brigades appears in the field as scattered BTGs. Thus, the BTG may not be a clever tactical innovation, but simply what a peacetime brigade or regiment can actually field in a war.58
In addition, tactical-level underperformance of Russian units suggests structural problems. Since 2010, the Russian Ministry of Defence has held major annual military exercises, regularly including several hundred thousand participants, including ground, air and naval forces, as well as personnel from other Russian ministries and agencies such as the FSB border troops and Rosgvardia national-guard units, all ostensibly training jointly under one operational plan.59 More than a decade of such annual exercises should have made the Russians quite good at inter-service, interagency and combined-arms operations, and given service members at all levels good opportunities to train in war fighting.
While exercises never fully simulate war, the conduct of the Russian military in the Ukraine operation revealed several cases in which arms of the Russian ground forces did not operate in tandem, suggesting difficulties in exploiting the full potential of combined-arms operations. Many commentators have noted the half-hearted performance of Russian naval and air forces, including coordination with ground forces.60 War-crimes accusations against Russian soldiers for murder, rape and looting indicate either a breakdown of unit-level command or, far worse, soldiers just carrying out criminal orders. Putin’s statements about the non-existence of the Ukrainian nation, in combination with state media and others framing the war in genocidal, civilisational and apocalyptic terms, suggest that the brutality was intentional.61 If so, this reopens a dark chapter in European history thought to have been closed in 1945.
In sum, the war suggests that the recruiting, equipping and training of forces in the past 10–15 years yielded neither the quantity nor the quality of forces the Russian Ministry of Defence had boasted of and many abroad believed existed.62 Mounting evidence suggests that systemic rot played a key role in this drama.63
None of the three explanations by itself accounts for all of the shortcomings of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine, but collectively they cover many. Political meddling explains poor preparations for the war. Overconfidence in doctrine may explain befuddling force employment. Systemic rot plausibly undermined the generation of military forces before the war, as well as supply efficiency and equipment quality during the war.
During Russia’s well-financed military-reform process, under way since 2008, Russia touted an increasingly impressive image of Russia’s military. Ever larger exercises and presentations of various Wunderwaffen made Russia’s armed forces look better and bigger.64 This portrayal enabled Moscow to cast Russia as a great power to domestic audiences and thus gain legitimacy. It also served to deter, intimidate or coerce real and potential adversaries, allies and neutrals. As long as forces are used in those ways, the effect of the rot can be hidden and matters less. The decision of Russia’s political leadership actually to go to war exposed the full effects of systemic cheating on Russia’s armed forces.65 War is a brutal examiner that exacts the truth.

Reassessing the balance of power in Europe

Prior to the war in Ukraine, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the RAND Corporation and the Swedish Defence Research Agency, among others, conducted war games or campaign analyses on how NATO would fare in a short, sharp conflict against Russia.66 The scenarios and assumptions varied; importantly, the IISS scenario-based study assumed that the United States had withdrawn from NATO, while the other two assumed US participation. But each exercise had similarly gloomy results: Russian forces would likely defeat NATO and national troops in Northern Europe, at least during the first phase of fighting.67 Even a critique of the IISS scenario-based study, meant to demonstrate that Europe could indeed defend itself, argued that NATO would probably face partial defeat initially but could then successfully counter-attack.68
The headline finding of these studies – that Russia could prevail against NATO in a short, sharp and geographically limited war – may still be valid, as the scenarios analysed were, at least on paper, less daunting than the occupation of all of Ukraine. But several of the assumptions underlying the studies nonetheless need to be revisited.69 A thorough scrub could have vital implications for, among other things, the debate on whether Europe can defend itself against Russia with limited backing from the United States.
Crucially, all three studies to varying degrees assumed that the VKS would be able to contest air superiority over the Baltics and that Russian ground-based air defences could hold Western airpower at risk.70 However, given the high attrition rates of both fixed- and rotary-wing Russian aircraft in Ukraine, their inability to suppress the Ukrainian air force or air defences, and the high attrition rates of deployed Russian air-defence assets, this assumption needs to be reassessed. This is key, as the duel between Russian ground-based air defences and NATO airpower could prove decisive in a war in, say, the Baltics. To illustrate, the effect of Western airpower on Russian convoys such as those in Ukraine could quickly evolve into a situation reminiscent of the Highway of Death in the First Gulf War.
Secondly, all three studies note that Russian ground forces are larger and heavier, with better protection and firepower, than NATO forces on its eastern flank. Likewise, they have stronger artillery, ground-based air defence and electronic-warfare units.71 Accordingly, they were assumed to be difficult to stop, confront head-on or even slow down. However, the poor performance of even elite Russian armoured and mechanised units against Ukrainian ground units without air support (except armed drones) raises serious questions about how swiftly the former could be expected to advance against defenders who are dug in and well equipped, especially in urban areas or difficult terrain. Specifically, systems such as advanced antitank weapons, man-portable air-defence systems, armed drones, artillery, mines and engineering measures have proven valuable in delaying or even stopping advancing mechanised units. As plausible Russian road maps to victory in a conflict with NATO would favour a short conflict, bringing advancing units to a halt would be key.
Russian artillery remains a significant threat, but its electronic-warfare measures do not seem to have been effective. Instead, it is Russian troops that have struggled with secure communications, and hence command and control. Even comparatively simple Ukrainian drones seem to have exacted a significant toll on deployed Russian air defences and logistics. Hence, procuring low-end strike drones off the shelf could be a useful stopgap measure for Western forces.
Lastly, the morale and tactical acumen of Russian troops have at times been substandard, as illustrated by high defection rates, high failure rates of key equipment and slipshod performance in the field. While difficult to quantify in a net assessment, contrary to the premises of the pre-Ukraine analyses, it is doubtful that Russian and NATO battlegroups are equivalent.
Overall, Russia’s performance so far in Ukraine suggests that the balance of power in Europe is less daunting for NATO than previously thought, and that comparatively minor investments in key weapons systems could further improve it. With a weakened Russian army, possible NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, and major increases in European NATO defence budgets – particularly Germany’s – European powers may not remain as dependent on US support as they have been historically, although several critical gaps remain.72
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A crucial conclusion is that fighting back has paid off for Ukraine in existential terms, and for NATO in providing critical insight into the state of Russia’s armed forces. In contrast to the seizure of Crimea in 2014, Ukraine’s resistance did not crumble immediately. Without its initial steadfastness, Western powers’ supply of critical weapons systems could not have helped Ukraine to fight to survive, as it has done. Furthermore, the weaknesses of the Russian Armed Forces most likely would have remained hidden.
The first two months of the war in Ukraine significantly weakened Russia’s standing military forces and partly depleted key capabilities, but without prompting a wider mobilisation of Russia’s nominally sizeable military reserves. Reconstituting Russian military power will be costly, timeconsuming and technically challenging.73 While the Russian military did notably worse than Western observers expected, however, this should not be considered a strictly reliable guide to future assessments. For instance, when Russia invaded, the Kremlin had kept its intentions secret even from large portions of its military, severely inhibiting preparations.74 Russia probably would not repeat this mistake in future conflicts. Furthermore, while military organisations are often conservative, losing a war or performing embarrassingly badly can spur dramatic change. Adolf Hitler famously discounted the fighting abilities of the Red Army after its poor showing in the Winter War against Finland, but learned otherwise on the Eastern Front.
More broadly, Western analysts need to examine more scrupulously and critically what the real purpose of the Russian military is. A common assumption is that the ability to fight wars is the raison d’être of military forces. But states can also maintain them for other reasons, such as habit, national pride or industrial policy. Perhaps the main priority of Russia’s armed forces has not been to be able to fight a large-scale war, but to underpin Russia’s claim to being a great power, and to facilitate the coercion of weaker neighbours, at times through smaller wars.
In future assessments of Russia’s military capabilities, understanding the causes of its current malaise are vitally important. If the main cause was political meddling by the Kremlin, handing back the reins to the General Staff would help resolve it considerably. If the initially botched operations were due to overreliance on esoteric doctrine, returning to tried and tested methods would rectify the problem. However, if the poor performance is due to systemic corruption in the armed forces and deep-seated attitudes in Russian society, deficiencies could prove much harder to correct, especially in the short term and with Russia’s current political leadership.
In any case, the main threat from Russia is not its conventional capabilities per se, but its brutality, appetite for risk and nuclear weapons. As long as the Kremlin behaves like a geopolitical gremlin, wreaking havoc on its habitat rather than accepting relatively modest standing, regional security and stability will be elusive.
Finally, how well Western forces would perform if similarly challenged remains to be seen. Some of the flaws exposed within the Russian Armed Forces may well lie dormant within Western military forces too. Several reports indicate that European forces are hollow in several respects, such as personnel strength, equipment, supplies and training.75 The war so far has been a merciless inquisition for the Russian military. But it has also revealed flawed assumptions within the Western military-analytical community that may take years to fully disentangle and rectify. Such misapprehensions can also affect the West’s assessments of its own military capabilities, even though transparency partially mitigates that risk. While optimism and Schadenfreude on NATO’s part are emotionally understandable, they should be tempered. The West may yet face its own brutal examination.


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