What surprises Western military analysts is the incompetence of Russian forces in a war that the Kremlin still insists on calling a “special military operation”.
London: As Russian forces retreated from the outskirts of kyiv last week, outrage spread around the world at images of bound bodies shot at close range and mass graves discovered in areas recaptured from Russian troops. Tara Shapravsky, deputy mayor of Bucha, a town about 40 km northwest of the city of Kyiv, said 50 of the approximately 300 bodies found after the withdrawal were victims of extrajudicial executions carried out by the Russian soldiers. . “Terrible things have been done here by the Russians,” Shapravsky said, sharing images of victims found face down with their hands tied and shot in the back of the neck. India’s UN Ambassador TS Tirumurti on Tuesday condemned the killings of civilians in Bucha and called for an independent investigation. The Kremlin has flatly denied any charges related to the killing of civilians, describing the numerous images and reports from independent eyewitnesses as “fake news”, although intelligence intercepts reveal the Kremlin to be frugal with the truth.
But this is not a one-time atrocity committed by a group of Russian soldiers who have gone rogue – this is the way Russians wage anti-partisan warfare. They carry out collective punishments and hold communities accountable for individual acts of resistance. Bucha is just one of the regions in Ukraine to suffer this brutality, which will become widespread as the war continues. The method was perfected during the Russian Civil War a hundred years ago and was repeated during World War II, in Afghanistan and again in Chechnya. Collective punishment is a doctrine enshrined in the Russian combat manual.
So, no surprise in the face of Russian barbarism. What surprises Western military analysts, however, is the incompetence of Russian forces in a war that the Kremlin still insists on calling a “special military operation.” The fight for Kyiv started badly and went downhill from there. With thousands dead and millions driven from their homes, President Putin’s plan to subjugate Ukraine in days has clearly crumbled, partly because of the remarkable resistance of Ukrainian troops, but mostly because of because of the incompetence of the Russian Ministry of Defense to prepare for the invasion.
For example, the BBC last week pieced together the story of 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, whose men considered themselves the choice of the Russian army. “The best of the best,” says a general to the soldiers of 331st in a video uploaded last May. The unit served in the Balkans, Chechnya and during the 2014 Russian intervention in the Donbass region of Ukraine, and regularly participated in parades in Red Square in Moscow. It was also a showcase of the Russian policy of replacing national service soldiers with contractniki, contract soldiers. From the beginning of March, reports began to circulate of deaths in the 331st, and later the bodies began to return to Kostroma, the hometown, 300 km northeast of Moscow. Its commander, Colonel Sergei Sukharev, was killed in Ukraine on March 13 and was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal. Before 331st was ordered to withdraw to Belarus on March 29, it is believed that more than 100 members of this elite regiment were killed. Why so much?
The failure is largely due to what the Kremlin should have learned in Afghanistan decades ago – that in close battles, armored vehicles designed to be light enough to be carried on airplanes, do not offer much protection against enemy fire. Excerpts from phone footage of defenders, who in many cases were just local defense units or reservists, showed large numbers of burned or abandoned vehicles belonging to the airborne group. They had been hit by Ukrainian artillery, ambushes and infantry assaults during weeks of bloody fighting.
For years, Western experts have analyzed and reported on the expensive and high-tech modernization of the Russian military. The Russians, they said, had the best tanks and aircraft, including state-of-the-art SU-34 fighter-bombers and T-90 tanks, with some of the best technical specifications in the world. The Russians had also ostensibly reorganized their army into a more professional, mostly volunteer force, much like the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment. They had rethought their offensive doctrine and created tactical groups of battalions – flexible, heavily armored formations that were to be the key to crushing the Ukrainians. This analysis, based on seductive but fundamentally flawed criteria, has now been proven wrong. Firstly because it misunderstood the capacity of the Russian army to undertake the most complex operations and the robustness of its logistical capacities (remember the 40 miles of tanks blocked on the road to kyiv), and secondly, predictions that paid too little attention to the basic motivation and morale of the soldiers who would be required to use the supposedly excellent doctrine and equipment of the Russian military.
Most modern armies rely on a strong cadre of non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Sergeants ensure vehicles are maintained and exercise leadership in squad tactics. The Russian NCO corps is today, as it always has been, both weak and corrupt. Without capable non-commissioned officers, even large numbers of technologically sophisticated vehicles deployed to compelling doctrine will eventually be broken up or abandoned, just as we have seen in large numbers scattered across cities and towns across Ukraine as Russian forces were withdrawing. Amateur phone videos revealed repeated tactical errors – vehicles huddled on the roads, no infantry covering the flanks, no tightly coordinated artillery fire, no air support from helicopters and a panicky reaction to ambushes . Russia’s inability to concentrate its forces in one or two lines of attack or to take a major city is striking. The same goes for its obvious huge logistics and maintenance issues.
The Russian army operates with fewer support soldiers than other armies. The American army, for example, deploys ten support soldiers for every combat soldier, while the Russian army seems to have less than one against one. The Russian plan for dominance in long and rapid initial thrusts also stretched its supply lines beyond the breaking point. A conventional approach would have been to plan a slow and steady advance, control airspace, and set up secure mini-bases, including repair depots, medical stations, and stockpiles every 30 to 40 miles. The fact that they didn’t reinforces the idea that they expected a quick and easy win. The Russian chain of command is also clearly confused and inept, resulting in the deaths of at least fifteen senior commanders, including seven generals, in the first four weeks of fighting.
Unfortunately, the Russian military is now doubling down on the one thing it does well: bombing cities from afar and killing civilians. This is what Russia did in Chechnya in the 1990s. When initial hopes for a lightning-quick victory faded, the military turned to carpet bombing and the siege of cities. and towns. The result was an extremely costly war for both sides that left most of Chechnya in ruins. In Ukraine, particularly in the southern port city of Mariupol, Russian strategy has at times seemed to mimic the playbook in Chechnya.
After shifting gears and realizing they lacked the strength to pursue rapid offensives on multiple fronts, the Russian high command decided to focus on seizing parts of eastern and southern Ukraine, in particular the so-called land bridge connecting Donbass with Crimea. According to Ukraine’s former defense minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, this could signal “a protracted conflict, raising the stakes for both sides’ ability to raise troops and access weapons ammunition and supplies.”
Russian losses to date are high, up to 15,000 troops according to NATO estimates. Wounded soldiers who cannot return to duty quickly usually have about double the death toll, meaning Russia has lost around 45,000 troops in five weeks of conflict, about a quarter of the original invasion force. . The number of Russian vehicles that have been visually confirmed as destroyed or captured since the start of the invasion is now well over 2,500. This includes 450 main battle tanks and 825 armored fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers.
Replacing troops will be a challenge for the Kremlin because, although Russia has some two million people in its military reserve (some of whom have already been deployed in Ukraine), few are actively trained or prepared for war. Recent reports suggest that Moscow is transferring its troops from other conflict zones, such as Georgia and Syria, and trying to attract Chechen and Syrian fighters to boost their numbers. A panicked Kremlin is even trying to recruit 60-year-old former soldiers.
Because its armed forces have performed so poorly, even while bombing its own units, Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to turn into a crushing and costly stalemate that will only end when the protagonists realize that they are not may not achieve all of their initial goals and will accept a less-than-ideal outcome. Russia will fail to achieve a compliant Kyiv, and Ukraine will not reclaim Crimea or full NATO membership any time soon. The real trick will be to devise a settlement that the parties will be prepared to live with in perpetuity and not seek to overturn at the first opportunity. It will be a formidable challenge for both sides in the conflict, especially a chastened Vladimir Putin, who counted on a quick and easy operation and who is now guilty of massive geostrategic miscalculation – and war crimes.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in the office of British Prime Minister John Major between 1995 and 1998. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Plymouth.