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The Russian Military is Incompetent – And That Makes Them More Dangerous

By Wes O’Donnell
Edge Managing Editor

Last week, I published an article that communicated my shock and surprise that the modern Russian army invaded Ukraine with [mostly] 30- to 40-year-old Soviet-Era military equipment. What’s more, these vehicles and weapon systems appear very ill-maintained.

Right now, the intelligence apparatus of the United States spy community is no doubt frantically updating their all-source analysis to reflect how bad Russia is at modern warfighting.

But two weeks into what I’m calling #putinsfolly, something else appears to be dragging down the Russians that hurts much worse than just using old military vehicles and weapons.

Note: The U.S. uses old equipment as well. While serving in the U.S. Air Force, my aircraft was the E-3 Sentry AWACS, which is built atop the Boeing 707 airframe. To put that in perspective, the President’s plane, Air Force One, was a Boeing 707 during the John F. Kennedy Administration! The difference is that the U.S. puts billions of dollars into modernization programs every year to keep old equipment lethal.

To understand the current Russian military dumpster fire, we first must understand what professionalism means in the profession of arms.

Broadly speaking, American military professionalism is grounded in principles like the subordination of the military to civilian authority, a commitment to political neutrality, and an ethical institutional culture. These principles are further enshrined in everyday values that all branches of the military (yes, even the Coast Guard) work hard to instill in their fighters:

Discipline, commitment, and skill.

These everyday values are the very foundation of successful warfighting.

Seriously… Without them, everything else that the Russians have failed at – effective communication, command and control, logistics – is all moot. These are fundamental.

All compromise is based on give and take, but there can be no give and take on fundamentals. Any compromise on fundamentals is a surrender. For it is all give and no take.

Mahatma Gandhi


Prior to my four years in the U.S. Air Force, I served for six years in the U.S. Army (four of those six years were in the infantry). I’m not going to sugar-coat my infantry experience or look back with fond nostalgia – it sucked, plain and simple. Sure, I’m glad I did it as it gave me some very real advantages that will be with me for life: Composure under pressure, habitual goal orientation, and a diversity mindset, to name a few.

But imagine spending six hours obsessing over a uniform to ensure that every badge and insignia is positioned correctly down to the millimeter. Then imagine doing pushups until you vomit because one of your insignia was a quarter of a millimeter off.

The Army infantry’s noncommissioned officers didn’t do this simply because they were sadists – they were, but that’s beside the point. They did this to illustrate the value of “attention to detail” which is something that takes discipline to do correctly.

Discipline is arguably the very first lesson in basic training, boot camp, or the service academies.

A French soldier who deployed to Afghanistan alongside U.S. Army soldiers during the Global War on Terror was shocked at the American’s level of discipline:

“Beyond the wearing of a combat kit that never seems to discomfort them (helmet strap, helmet, combat goggles, rifles etc.) the long hours of watch at the outpost never seem to annoy them in the slightest. On the one square meter wooden tower above the perimeter wall, they stand for five consecutive hours in full battle gear and night vision goggles, their sight unmoving in the directions of likely danger. No distractions, no pauses, they are like statues nights and days.”

A French Soldier’s View of U.S. Soldiers in Afghanistan

From what we’re seeing in Ukraine, the Russians, on the other hand, seem to be undisciplined in terms of following orders, maintaining weapons, and using a precise amount of force when required.

Russia’s lack of discipline, either because their fighters are primarily conscripts, young, inexperienced, rushed through training, or a combination of all, shows by their utter lack of regard for life and property – not just Ukrainian life and property, but their own!


Military professionalism also depends highly on commitment: to oneself, the country, your branch, your unit, and to your fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, guardians, or Marines.

As defined by the U.S. Army, commitment is “the resolve of Army professionals to contribute Honorable Service to the Nation, to perform their duties with discipline and to standards, and to strive to successfully and ethically accomplish the mission despite adversity, obstacles, and challenge.”

Put more simply, war is hard. Will you have the commitment necessary to complete the mission honorably and ethically, without quitting when things get tough?

This commitment is further exemplified in the oath that we all must recite at our enlistment or commissioning. It goes something like this: “I, Wes O’Donnell, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Most of the Russians who are currently invading Ukraine have no such commitment. Many are deserting, sabotaging their own vehicles, or getting shot by their fellow soldiers when they refuse orders to fire on civilians. Leaked radio messages suggest invading troops are ‘in complete disarray’ and ‘crying in combat’.

Sure, some Russians may be committed… to committing war crimes. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear: Putin fielded perhaps the least committed ground force since America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Although that quagmire wasn’t the soldiers’ fault, it was the politicians’ fault.


Finally, “skill” is where the rubber meets the road. Skill is what makes you good at your job, whether your job is loading bombs onto a Hornet on the deck of an aircraft carrier or cooking a killer omelet at the chow hall.

Unlike raw talent, skill is something we can actively improve with discipline and commitment to our trade. In the infantry, we went to the range every other day until we could confidently engage moving targets with small arms, repeatedly, at ranges of 50, 250, and 300 meters.

Lacking skill in the profession of arms means death; yours or someone you love – full stop.

An Air Force flightline maintainer who lacks skill while repairing an AWACS jeopardizes the lives of fifteen Americans who are depending on you so they can get home safely.

For the Russians in Ukraine, skill is a little more difficult to discern. For instance, are they firing on nuclear power plants and civilians because they lack basic soldiering skills? Or are they just being jerks? Regardless, without discipline and commitment, skill is hard to come by.

Military professionalism is the basis for how individuals act to perform their job.

There can be no skill without the discipline to train.

There can be no discipline without the commitment to endure.

There can be no commitment without skill to complete the mission.

Thus, one cannot neglect one, without losing all of what it means to be a military professional.

The sloppiness with which the big, scary Russian military is currently executing its invasion of sovereign Ukraine shows a level of military incompetence that has blown up in Putin’s face. Unfortunately, a lack of Russian military professionalism means more civilian deaths, more property damage, and more prolonged suffering.

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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