Moscow's Early Missteps Have Left The Russian Army Weakened, For Now

Moscow’s Early Missteps Have Left The Russian Army Weakened, For Now

The Russian army that crossed the border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has been largely destroyed. Poor planning and execution, combined with a critical inability to adapt to changing combat conditions, have decimated its ranks and depleted its equipment. Moscow’s forces, once considered to be the second most capable army in the world, are now widely viewed as the second most capable army in Ukraine, one that is all but incapable of conducting offensive operations on a significant scale.

British intelligence estimates that in the first year of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has suffered up to 200,000 casualties, with up to 60,000 killed. The latter is a figure that is four times larger than the number of Soviet soldiers who were killed over the course of 10 years of fighting in a losing effort in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Prior to the invasion, the battle plan that the Russian military ultimately followed had been widely previewed in the Western press. Although the attack came as no surprise, Western military observers were shocked by the inexplicably poor performance of Russian forces.

“We realized in retrospect that the Russian military exercises that we’d studied in minutia for years weren’t really exercises,” George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek. “They were choreographed ballets with tanks.”

“Exercises are supposed to stress units, to bring them to their breaking point, to help them learn new operational concepts, to help them find pain points so that they can iron them out and get good at fighting,” he explained.

“That’s what we thought the Russians were doing,” Barros added. “But we didn’t understand how hollow the exercises had been until we actually saw the First Guards Tank Army come up against a real life adversary.”

A Russian soldier walks amidst the rubble in Mariupol’s eastern side where fierce fighting between Russia/pro-Russia forces and Ukraine continues to rage. The battle between Russian / Pro Russian forces and the defending Ukrainian forces led by the Azov battalion continues in the port city of Mariupol, 2022
Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
In addition to poor execution, poor planning was also a factor. One of the main reasons why pre-war predictions of Russian military success proved to be so far off the mark was because the Russian military did not fight the way the Russian military probably was capable of fighting.

“Based on Russian military doctrine, we were expecting them to wage an unrelenting, 72-hour air campaign aimed at crippling critical infrastructure and destroying as much of the conventional Ukrainian military as possible,” Barros said.

“Instead, the air and missile campaign lasted for only around six or seven hours,” he added, “and they didn’t really destroy anything of consequence before sending in ground troops, who in a lot of cases didn’t seem to be expecting to meet actual resistance.”

It remains unclear exactly why Russian troops were so unprepared. For weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, characterized the commencement of hostilities as “imminent.” Even as embassies evacuated Kyiv and as some commercial airlines stopped servicing the country, Western shipments of military aid, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, were landing in Ukraine around the clock.

“We’ve studied [Head of the Russian General Staff Valery] Gerasimov, and we actually hold him in fairly high regard as a military professional,” Barros said. “Given how dramatically the Russian invasion plan violated Russian doctrine and operational concepts, either we grossly overestimated his abilities, or else we overestimated his professionalism to call out a flawed plan, or else this plan was produced with significant interference from the Kremlin or the Presidential Administration.”

The political influence of Vladimir Putin has served to weaken his country’s war effort in another way. After plunging ahead with his self-described “special military operation” despite clear, repeated warnings from Western officials that Russia would face immediate economic and diplomatic punishment, and that Western military aid would continue flowing across Ukraine’s border by land for as long as Kyiv was prepared to keep up the fight, Putin demonstrated an overabundance of caution when it came to making military decisions which had the potential to negatively affect his domestic standing.

“Since the start of the war, Putin has actually been risk averse to the point that it’s done tangible harm to the Russian war effort,” Barros explained. “The military situation in May already demanded that, if Russia actually still wanted to achieve its goals, mobilization needed to start going forward.”

“Instead, they resorted to ineffective half-measures like trying to get by with volunteers, and the result was the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv in September,” Barros added. “It wasn’t until Putin was faced with the prospect of actually losing the war that he finally decided to do what military logic dictated he should have done four months prior.”

Although a partial mobilization has since swelled Russia’s ranks by as many as 300,000 men, the fresh forces are significantly less capable than the professional Russian units that were all but destroyed in earlier stages of the fighting. As ongoing low-scale offensive operations around Bakhmut and Vuhledar continue to take a toll on Russia’s more experienced troops, the result is likely to be an army which will soon be forced to go strictly on the defensive.

“What they’re doing in the east right now is simply burning combat power that they’re going to wish they had once the Ukrainians start counterattacking closer to the spring and summer,” Barros said.

The Institute for the Study of War does not anticipate that the fall of Bakhmut, if it were to occur, would constitute an immediate threat to other Ukrainian cities.

Still, with hard numbers on Ukrainian reserve forces hard to come by, only time will tell whether a combination of Ukrainian will and Western armor is capable of pushing Russia’s degraded forces out of the Ukrainian territories they still occupy.

“The Russians are not defeated,” Barros cautioned. “They’ve shown that they can take losses, both in manpower and in territory, and continue to fight. Even if they can’t take any more territory, there’s every indication that they are going to continue fighting.”

While Russian losses have been enormous—quite possibly already higher than the 58,220 U.S. soldiers killed over the course of more than a decade of fighting in Vietnam—there is no sign that the rising death count will slow anytime soon.

Survey data released on March 2 by Levada Center, an independent Russian polling agency, registered 77% support for “the actions of the armed forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine,” a figure that has barely shifted since February 2022. Even if much of that “support” is tepid at best, the almost total absence of open opposition suggests that the status quo in Russia itself remains stable.

“Most people really believe that everything is going to continue to be okay, at least for them,” Andrei Nikulin, a liberal political consultant based in Moscow, told Newsweek. “There was some genuine fear in the fall after mobilization was announced, but once everyone who wasn’t called up understood that they were safe, they simply went right back to ignoring the reality of the war.”

A boy climbs a destroyed Russian tank on display in Kyiv’s Mykhailivskyi Square,  » …
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