Most observers evaluating the Russian invasion of Ukraine remain perplexed that, as some have assessed, the world’s second strongest military is losing. Early indications were that lack of adequate planning contributed to Russia’s lackluster performance. That’s accurate, but let’s add four other reasons to explain Moscow’s failure to subdue the much smaller Ukrainian force.
Massive Failure of Intelligence
Poor pre-invasion and continuing ineffective operational intelligence has been the Kremlin’s Achilles’ heel. Russian military command and control have been unable to deal effectively with the surprise of a well-coordinated and highly motivated Ukrainian military and the willingness of civilians to fight valiantly alongside regular soldiers. Moscow’s leadership mistakenly thought Ukraine’s resistance in 2022 would mirror that of Kyiv’s defenders in the 2014 battles in the Donbas region and during the illegal annexation of Crimea. In both cases, Ukraine’s fighting forces performed poorly. “Those defeats would not be in vain. In 2016, [Petro] Poroshenko [Ukraine’s president at the time] enacted major reform of the Ukrainian military which addressed deficiencies such as planning, operations, logistics, and command and control,” wrote Rodrigo Aguilar, an analyst formerly with Chatham House and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
Russian intelligence failed to correctly assess Ukraine’s progress in developing and fielding a competent, reasonably well-equipped military force. Putin and his officials underestimated NATO and the European Union’s willingness to coalesce against Russia – even suborning their own countries’ energy interests to defend Ukraine. The Kremlin did not anticipate how quickly Europe, the United States, and countries like the United Arab Emirates would provide military, financial, and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
Russia Has a ‘Failure to Communicate’
Ground and air forces unable to communicate with the units in conflict will have severe problems, degrading real-time intelligence. Reports reveal Russian troops did not have the correct radio frequencies and were forced to break operational radio security to use personal cell phones. Ukrainian forces intercepted the calls and gained valuable tactical advantage. Moreover, contacts between Russian troops on the front lines and higher echelons have been faulty. “The ridiculous number of Russian generals to die in combat thus far also suggests that there are serious vertical communications problems, with senior officers either struggling to get orders down the chain or receive information up the chain,” explained security expert Dr. Robert Farley, writing for the military analysis website 19fortyfive. Modern warfare demands instant and secure communications. Without it, a military is ineffective.
Russian Military Is Not Organized for Unit Effectiveness
Even as Russia has begun the second phase of its invasion – having retreated from Kyiv, regrouped, resupplied, and built back units degraded in battle – its military still struggles. Putin’s unit organization does not allow for battlefield agility. “The Ukrainian military has stopped several Russian small-scale advances on the Donbas front and assesses Russian units as not properly organized and suffering from low morale,” is how US Special Operations Command evaluated the situation in its SOF News. Russian fighting units are organized into Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) of 600-1,000 men, integrating tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, and air defense in a single BTG. However, if one element is degraded, as has been the case with Ukrainians’ effective use of anti-tank weapons, the entire BTG becomes ineffective.
Russia Has Large Numbers of Soldiers Who Aren’t Trained or Motivated
In the last 20 years, Putin has spent a vast sum of money modernizing Russian equipment and military technology. Yet without trained, motivated soldiers, that equipment is just so much May Day parade window dressing. “Russian money and Russian kit can’t entirely make up for the deficiencies of a poorly trained, poorly led, and poorly motivated army that is disproportionately made up of conscripts,” a New York Post analysis put it. Putin’s draftees are conscripted for just one year, and many of the soldiers in the field wearing non-commissioned officer stripes are nothing more than “senior draftees” at the end of their tour of service. In an interview with Fox News, General David Perkins, former commander of the US Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, put it succinctly: “The Russian army is big, but it’s not very good.”
Poor intelligence, ineffective communications, improper organization, and generally poor-quality fighters have put Ukraine’s invaders at a disadvantage. The Russian military is by no means a paper tiger. It’s just not as ominous as previously thought.
The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.