With the invasion of Ukraine well underway, the Russian military has performed abysmally. It is apparent that the reforms undertaken by the Kremlin to modernise its armed forces have been a failure.
In his seminal work The Last Tsar, Edvard Radzinsky wrote that “Great and terrible events in Russia are usually due to someone’s stupidity or laziness.” On Thursday February 24th, this phenomenon occurred yet again. On that fateful day, Russian soldiers crossed into Ukrainian territory and launched a full-scale invasion of the country. In the build-up to the conflict, intelligence leaks, statements by experts, and other sources declared that Ukraine would capitulate in a matter of days. The narrative was one of fatalism and of certainty. Despite this, Ukraine’s army, territorial defence, citizens, and even its air force continue to stall the Russian juggernaut.
The prevailing narrative leading up to the invasion committed the double error of underestimating the capabilities of the Ukrainian army while overestimating its Russian counterpart. In an almost laughable instance of short-sighted ignorance, the Russian Siloviki and military planners were lazy enough to assume that an overwhelming, yet uncoordinated invasion would be effective. At the same time, they were stupid enough to assume that Ukrainian resistance would crumble instantaneously. This has proved to be disastrous for the Russian aggressors. For Vladimir Putin and his “securocrats”, the war has now stalled and will require more time, effort and manpower than any of them had wanted. Of course, the real victims of Russia are the young boys of the country’s army, who are being sent to their deaths in a meaningless, brutal act of aggression.
This catastrophe has illustrated many things to the world. The West is more aligned than Russia believed and the need for NATO is as strong as ever. It is also clear that the security system established after the Cold War is all but over. However, a less well-known revelation is that the Russian military’s reforms after 2008 have been an abject failure.
The origins of these reforms can be traced back to the invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008. From an outside perspective the invasion of the country was a success. In only a matter of days, the Georgian forces were overwhelmed and the Saakashvili administration was forced to the negotiating table. However, the truth was that the Russian army performed abysmally. Russian soldiers had little effective communication with their officers while air support was uncoordinated. At times, it was even totally unable to cover Russian ground troops. After this conflict, Putin and the Kremlin began investing more heavily in defence and the armed forces. Additionally, greater effort was made to both streamline and professionalise the Russian military overall.
Nothing more than a pipe dream?
Personally, these reforms have always been taken with a grain of salt. For one, Russia has a small economy relative to its size and population. Additionally, its economy is terribly inefficient due to corruption, inequality, and centralisation around natural resources. This all challenges the country’s ability to create and maintain a modern army capable of competing with the likes of China and the United States. This is made clear by the various pieces of equipment that the Russian army either has rolled out or plans to use. For instance, in the mid-2010s the Russian military unveiled a new tank, the T-14 Armata. This was supposed to represent a new generation of battle tank with a fully remote turret. However, during the rehearsals for the Victory Day parade in 2015, one of them broke down. As of writing, this tank has yet to see any action in Ukraine, the largest conflict the Russian army has participated in since 1999. This example helps illustrate how, despite its desires, Russia simply does not have the economic abilities to field an army on the same technological level as the US or China.
There is also evidence to suggest that on a cultural level the reforms have fallen short. For instance, the military continues to tolerate the infamous practice of dedovshchina. This term refers to the brutal act of hazing that veteran conscripts of the Russian military often perform on their younger counterparts. The unfortunate truth is that this practice has been present for decades. The Moscow Times reported that there were over 1000 criminal cases related to the abuse of power and violence among military personnel in 2018. While the practice has become less extreme, the fact that it is still relatively common showcases that the Russian military’s culture has remained stuck in its traditional mentality even after the war in Georgia.
The harsh reality
The ongoing invasion of Ukraine has truly brought all these shortcomings to light. Of course, the Russian army is far more well supplied than it was previously. It has also seen an increase in the use of modern equipment. However, the reforms have failed to address serious core issues that have sometimes been part of the Russian army for centuries. The Russian high command still believes in utilising overwhelming force to simply overpower a smaller state (similar to the invasion of Georgia). Additionally, conscripts seem to be bearing the brunt of the fighting, with the exception of a small number of operations carried out by elite airborne troops. Based on reports from Ukraine, these soldiers are confused, underfed and ill-informed. This contributes to the low morale that has plagued the Russian army since the First Chechen War. Finally, a seeming lack of intelligence has caused the military to pursue a clumsy and half-hearted strategy that has led to the deaths of thousands of Russian soldiers.
This inept beginning to the Russian onslaught has given the courageous members of the Ukrainian armed forces time to not only stall their opponent but also allow the country to fully mobilise its population. However, the Russian General Staff is a professional and trained body and it will change its tactics. Additionally, I fear that Russian soldiers will soon abandon the sympathy they seem to have for their Eastern Slavic brothers and sisters as the conflict wears on. As casualties increase and resistance refuses to buckle, the men on the ground will undoubtedly lash out against the civilian populace. Whilst the war has already claimed thousands of lives, it has not yet even approached its likely zenith of violence.
Daniel Jarosak does contract work for the US government. He was a former Researching Editor for New Eastern Europe and has an educational background in Eastern and Central Europe.
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