By Wes O’Donnell
Edge Managing Editor
The Russian invasion of Ukraine reveals a surprising truth about Russia’s conventional military forces: they are not nearly as formidable as Putin (and the West) believed.
In the 1990s, Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton blew the opportunity of a lifetime to assist in shaping the former Soviet Union into a functioning democracy. But understandably, they could not overcome their aversion to helping a former enemy. Instead, the West gave Russia an official capitalist card, said “Welcome to the club!”, and told the new Russian Federation to figure democracy out on their own.
Note: For an incredibly detailed breakdown of how the U.S. “created” Putin by treating Russia more like a vanquished enemy than a new ally, as well as expanding NATO in 1999, after promising we wouldn’t, check out Vladimir Pozner’s speech at Yale University.
Even Richard Nixon warned Bush Sr. in 1992 to help Russia with its transition or face the consequences later. In a remarkable bit of foresight, Nixon warned us about the power vacuum in Russia being filled by an autocrat if the U.S. didn’t step up.
How right Nixon was. Fortunately, he never lived to see his prediction come true.
Enter Vladimir Putin – relic of the Cold War and shirtless equine aficionado.
Russian Military Tech over the Past Decade
If you have been watching the news for the past decade, you have been subjected to stories of Putin’s Russia developing next-gen super weapons like hypersonic missiles and satellite-killing robots. While the U.S. was toiling away in the Global War on Terror with our allies, Russia was presumably hard at work modernizing their Army and Navy.
Indeed, China has been doing the very same thing. But unlike China, the public in the West was led to believe that Russian conventional forces were on par with their Western counterparts like the U.S. as well as the U.K. and other European nations.
This belief in a strong, modern Russian army and navy is perhaps the greatest irony of Putin’s despicable attack on Ukraine. The invasion has shown the whole world just how weak the Russian military has become since the days of the formidable Soviet Red Army.
Understanding Your Military’s Capabilities Starts with Being Honest about Its Strengths and Weaknesses
Being honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses is the first step in the journey to self-improvement. In the United States military, we recognize and acknowledge our weaknesses in battle. Self-improvement is the very foundation of the “debrief” in the U.S. Air Force and the “after-action report” in the Army.
After the mission, we ask:
- What went right?
- What went wrong?
- How can we improve for future performance?
This willingness to ask questions for self-improvement not only makes our military more efficient at its primary mission (to close with and destroy the enemy), but it also saves lives on the battlefield.
America learned long ago that vast numbers of soldiers don’t win wars. The war of attrition strategy that served Russia so well in the past is a concept long ago discarded by Western military planners in favor of high-tech weaponry.
By about 2010, Putin seemed to grasp this change in war fighting, at least conceptually. But he didn’t have the political will or economic means to mass-produce Russia’s recently developed weapons technology.
Granted, Russia’s fifth-generation fighter plane (the Sukhoi Su-57) and newest battlefield tank (the T-14 Armata) look great when they’re paraded through Red Square. But when it’s time to go to war, prototypes don’t win engagements.
Putin Is Using Outdated Equipment and Yes-Men as Decision Makers to Fight in Ukraine
So, in this attempt to annex a smaller country, what did Putin throw at Ukraine? His army is using 30-year-old Soviet equipment, with minor upgrades. This equipment has been so poorly maintained, that it’s a miracle Russian forces have made it as far as they have. As any U.S. Army motor pool soldier or USAF flightline maintainer will tell you, it takes a lot of work and money to keep modern military equipment in operable, warfighting condition.
The invasion has shown the whole world just how weak the Russian military has become since the days of the formidable Soviet Red Army.
Although, Russia’s “Buk” class of medium-range surface-to-air missile platforms are more modern, and deadly, it appears that the majority of Russian equipment currently being fielded in Ukraine was built when Yuri Andropov was General Secretary.
But the problems plaguing the Russian armed forces go deeper than old equipment. I imagine that Russia’s top generals paint a very rosy picture of their military readiness when they report to Putin, rather than tell him the truth and risk his ire.
This willingness to be yes-men shows the dangers of a country being led by an autocrat; everyone lies to the boss because no one wants to give him bad news. As a result, nothing gets fixed.
But Russia’s generals don’t just lie to the boss about the quality of their units. They lie to their soldiers just to get them to fight.
Right now, there are stories coming out of Ukraine of captured Russian soldiers who were told that they would be greeted as saviors and liberators when they rolled into Ukraine. Imagine their surprise and dismay when they were confronted by lethal resistance.
It’s as if their superiors set them up to fail. Indeed, one might almost feel sorry for the average Russian soldier if they weren’t targeting civilians.
The Russian Army Has Command and Control Issues, As Well As Poor Supply Chain Planning
It’s clear now that Russia’s army has serious command and control issues, as well as poor supply chain planning.
The U.S. military isn’t just made up of front-line combat troops. There is a massive support structure in place for those servicemembers, referred to as the “tail-to-tooth” ratio. Military historian Joseph Bond says that this “tail-to-tooth” ratio has changed a great deal from previous generations because the “tail” acts as a force multiplier.
The support structure includes:
- Communications and information operations (IO) personnel, who allow for coordination and precise devastation supporting indirect fire at the point of contact
- Medical personnel who provide a level of assurance to soldiers and returns experienced fighters back to the battlefield
- Logistics personnel who keep a steady supply of fuel, ammo, food and water flowing to everyone
- Technology personnel who remove some of the confusing fog of war and allow faster decision-making by theater commanders
In addition, giving your fighters clear instructions on objectives and rules of engagement reduces civilian casualties.
Take any of these support elements away, and the tip of the spear becomes much less effective — maybe inoperable.
Russia went into Ukraine with almost none of these support elements. According to Brett Friedman, a Marine Corps reserve officer and author of the book On Tactics, “The simplest explanation here is that the Russian military is bad! It was a paper tiger, and now the paper is on fire.”
But make no mistake, Russia is adept at one particular type of warfare: new-generation warfare (NGW) or hybrid warfare. This type of war combines:
- Military deception (known as “maskirovka” in Russian)
- Diplomatic threats against European energy markets
- The assassination of political opponents
- Widespread digital misinformation campaigns
In that sense, Russia is not completely outmatched by the West. Indeed, Russia may even surpass NATO in military deception. Hybrid Warfare was conceived by General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of Russian ground forces. It was Gerasimov who could be seen visibly wincing on camera when Putin announced upgrading Russia’s nuclear readiness posture.
Putin’s War in Ukraine Will Have Far-Reaching Consequences for Years to Come
Russia was a much more threatening country a mere week ago, before we saw how inept the Russian military is at solving routine battlefield problems.
The General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine reported that in its first week, Russia lost:
- 5,710 personnel
- 29 planes
- 29 helicopters
- 198 tanks
- 846 armored fighting vehicles
- 77 artillery systems
- 305 light armor transports
In response to this disaster of his own creation, Putin is now increasing the readiness of his nuclear deterrent, as if to remind the world that the “threat of annihilation” is much more potent a weapon than actual annihilation.
It’s still early in this conflict, but a few things are certain. First, the Russian army appears to be at least three decades behind the West in all areas except the most basic combat maneuver elements. This lack of preparedness means Putin will be unable to stockpile troops on someone’s border (maybe Finland?) under the threat of invasion to get what he wants in the future.
Second, it could take several years, perhaps even a decade, for Russia to recover from the devaluation of the ruble and sanctions on its central banks. The average Russian citizen might not realize it yet, but their standard of living is about to plummet for the foreseeable future.
This economic disaster will lead to even more domestic unrest and a possible regime change in Moscow. Make no mistake: the sanctions hitting Moscow now are like an economic nuke, compared to the spitballs that we hit Russia with before this conflict.
Third, America’s other geopolitical rival, China, is watching with interest to see how the West responds to Russia’s military adventurism. Everyone always focuses on America’s large military, but people seldom realize just how much economic power the U.S. has to absolutely collapse a rival’s economy, as is currently happening in Russia.
The very fact that China abstained on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, instead of vetoing it along with Russia, likely infuriated Putin and sends a message to the West that China wants no collateral damage from U.S. sanctions currently hitting Russia.
Lastly, with one fateful order, Putin has managed to wipe out all of the progress he made over the past 12 years at trying to fragment the EU and NATO. His brazen aggression has shaken the European continent and led to the creation of a more consolidated and formidable adversary.
Even Germany, the EU’s sleeping giant, has now pledged to ramp up its defense spending to above 2% of its gross domestic product, something that both Presidents Obama and Trump couldn’t accomplish. Finland and Sweden have now made promising comments about joining NATO. The entire Western world has united against Russia.
President Putin has made a fatal mistake; he believed his own hype and drank his own Kool-Aid. Now, his invasion is producing the exact opposite result from what he intended.
Right about now, he’s realizing that you can lie to the world about your military capabilities in the interest of projecting power, but it’s foolish to lie to oneself.
About the Author
Wes O’Donnell is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force for a total of 10 years of active-duty service. He has a bachelor of arts in international relations with a concentration in Russian Studies from American Military University and studied Russian language at the University of Oklahoma.