One question I get repeatedly these days: What is wrong with the Russian military? Many in the West had a mistaken belief that the Russian war machine was a rough match for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and they are surprised at how much trouble the massive force is having subduing a much smaller and less-equipped neighbor, Ukraine.
During my time as NATO’s military commander, I spent time with the Russian military and the chief of its general staff at the time, General Nikolai Makarov. A congenial figure, Makarov told me about Russian efforts to modernize his forces, starting with professionalizing them and weaning the nation from a brutal conscript system. There were plans to improve offensive cyber capabilities, precision-guided weaponry and unmanned vehicles.
He seemed confident of progress, but from all I have seen in Ukraine, the decade-long effort has not been successful, and draftees abound. There is little evidence of the hardware improvements, either. The Russians present not as a sophisticated 21st-century army, but rather a blunt force in the style of World War II’s militaries.
Unlike in Syria, where Russian forces have been effective but are not fighting pitched battles against a serious standing military, today’s battles in Ukraine are showing the fissures in the Russian approach to training, equipping and organizing. Three key problems are worth highlighting, and none can be solved immediately, meaning they will continue to hobble operations in Ukraine.
The first is obvious: logistical failures. In the military, we often say that amateurs study strategy but professionals study logistics. Getting ammunition, fuel, food, heat, electricity and communications equipment to the troops is crucial. In particular, getting fuel forward has proven very challenging for the Russians, which is logistics 101 for a Western force.
The image of the 40-mile stalled tank and transport convoy outside of Kyiv is a good example of incompetence — any modern Western military would have developed the detailed plans to ensure that such a massive offensive weapon wouldn’t sit on highly exposed terrain for days. Supplying relatively small units in Syria is easy compared to providing sustenance for a 200,000-troop force.
A second challenge is perhaps less obvious but more insidious. A significant number of the troops invading Ukraine are conscripts or reservists. They are not a professional, volunteer force led by career senior enlisted cadres. There have been anecdotal examples of Russian soldiers who are literally unaware of the importance of their mission — some surprised to discover they are not on an exercise in Russia when captured by Ukrainians.
The third key misstep is the bad generalship on vivid display. The Russian plan encompassed attacking Ukraine from six different vectors, dividing their forces significantly. A battle plan that spreads forces over six axes is inherently flawed. This no doubt can be attributed to flawed assumptions and intelligence: The Russian generals must have expected the Ukrainians to welcome them with flowers and vodka, not bullets and Molotov cocktails.
Russian killed-in-action numbers are stunning. In 20 years of hard fighting in Afghanistan, the US suffered roughly 2,000 troops killed in combat. The Russians, in just over two weeks, have lost at least 4,000 and possibly twice that. This will haunt President Vladimir Putin even as he tries (but ultimately fails) to keep those numbers from his public.
In addition to blood, Russia is bleeding treasure. War is an expensive proposition, especially when your sources of hard currency are drying up due to Western sanctions. And much of the war chest that Putin counted on — more than $600 billion in reserves — has been locked down in Western institutions under sanctions.
Russia is reportedly sending its jets on 200 sorties a day, using a tremendous amount of fuel and spare parts that will be increasingly hard to come by given sanctions. Ukraine claims to have shot down more than 50 aircraft at $20 million to $50 million a pop. One recent estimate put the cost of the war at billions of dollars per day, and at that rate Putin will run out of money even before he runs out of public support.
For the Russians on the ground in Ukraine, the worst is still ahead. For Putin to subdue Kyiv, a city of nearly four million, he will have to throw a significant level of combat power into the fight. It took the US First Marine Division — the most elite combat troops in the world — nearly two months to conquer Fallujah, an Iraqi city about a tenth the size of Kyiv.
The locals know every corner and intersection of their city, are increasingly well armed by the West, and are motivated to fight with their families behind them or evacuated to Poland. It promises to be a long and bloody battle.
Here is the caveat: Despite the failures of the Russian military thus far, it is adapting and learning as the battle unfolds. The Russians have held cyberattack technology in reserve for the moment, probably to preserve certain capabilities to use against the West as sanctions increasingly kick in.
Moscow’s information warfare and decapitation strategies appear to be sharpening. At least two Ukrainian mayors have been kidnapped. Video of one being hauled off with a bag over his head was surely meant as an example to others. And the Russians have mass and sheer scale on their side, with more reserves upon which they can draw. This could be as many as several hundred thousand troops, depending on how much Putin is willing to move from elsewhere.
As of now, time is on the Russians’ side if they choose to simply grind down the Ukrainians and reduce the cities to rubble. But over a longer period, dissatisfaction at home, the coming of the spring mud and military failures will compound for Putin.
I do not detect an ounce of quit in the Ukrainians, particularly in their Churchillian leader, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He will address the US congress on Wednesday, and one of the topics upon which he will certainly touch are the tactical failures of the Russian military, coupled with fervent requests for more weapons and ammunition.
Barring a peace agreement, this war is likely to be a long haul. I suspect we will learn more about both the tactical failures and underlying weaknesses of the Russian military before it is over.