The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How do you like the Russian military now, Senator Cruz?

Destroyed Russian military vehicles in the Ukrainian settlement of Borodyanka on March 3. (Maksim Levin/Reuters)
5 min

In recent years, many on the American right have deified Vladimir Putin as a “genius” and his armed forces as invincible conquerors because they are not burdened by Western liberal pieties.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) typified the trend last year when he linked to a TikTok video showing a muscular Russian soldier doing pushups, parachuting out of an airplane, and using a rifle. Cruz contrasted this Kremlin propaganda unfavorably with a U.S. Army recruiting video featuring a female corporal who was raised by two mothers. “Holy crap,” Cruz tweeted: “Perhaps a woke, emasculated military is not the best idea…” He went on to blame “Dem politicians & woke media” for trying to turn U.S. troops “into pansies.”

Well, how do you like the Russian military now, Sen. Cruz? The Internet is full of videos showing Russian troops running out of fuel and food in Ukraine, weeping after surrendering, and complaining that they are being used as “cannon fodder.” There are reports of Russian soldiers sabotaging their own vehicles rather than fight in a war they want no part of. The Russians are even leaving their dead on the battlefield — a shocking thing to see for U.S. soldiers, whose creed contains the line, “I will never leave a fallen comrade.”

I have spent decades covering the U.S. military, including numerous visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the lack of competence and morale displayed by the Russian military is simply impossible to imagine on the part of U.S. troops. U.S. personnel are far better equipped, trained, motivated and led than their Russian counterparts. It’s not even close. If the Russian military were ever to face the U.S. military in battle — something that we must fervently hope will never happen because of the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides — I doubt the Russians would last any longer than the Iraqi army (which was trained and equipped along Soviet lines) did in 1991 and 2003. Indeed, in 2018, U.S. air power pulverized Russian mercenaries who attacked a U.S. outpost in Syria: The U.S. troops suffered no casualties while the attackers lost 200 to 300 men.

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Cruz and other Republicans who glorified the Russian armed forces are dupes — “useful idiots,” the communists called them — who did Putin’s bidding by enhancing the Russian dictator’s aura of power. To be sure, we still don’t know the outcome of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It’s quite possible that, despite early setbacks, the Russians could still pound Ukrainian cities into rubble and claim at least a temporary victory. But one outcome is already clear: The myth of Russian military power has been shattered.

There has been much talk in recent years about Putin’s rebuild of the Russian armed forces, which included changing it from a mostly conscript to a mostly volunteer force and equipping it with high-tech weapons systems, such as cruise missiles. The buildup appeared to pay off during earlier interventions in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria. But it is now obvious that those forays gave a highly deceptive image of Russian capabilities. Putin’s “little green men” quickly took over Crimea in 2014, largely because they had the support of the local Russian-speaking population. His air force was able to bomb Syrian cities with ease because the rebels didn’t have antiaircraft missiles.

That is a very different task from invading and occupying a country of more than 43 million people with a battle-hardened military equipped with Western-supplied weapons and backed by a large citizen militia. The invasion of Ukraine is laying bare all the corruption, inefficiency, and incompetence of the Russian military machine, which is all too reminiscent of the old Red Army.

As one retired U.S. general quipped, the Russians may have been trying to emulate U.S. “shock and awe” tactics from 2003, but their efforts are more like “shock and yawn.” The Russians have proved utterly incapable of coordinating air and ground operations or keeping troops supplied on the march. They can’t even maintain truck tires. A week into the war, the Russians still haven’t established control of the skies — something that the United States routinely does in the early hours of its wars. Analysts are wondering what happened to the Russian air force. Russia has a lot more aircraft than Ukraine, yet Russian ground troops have often been left to attack without air cover. The Russians fired fewer missiles in the first six days of the war than the U.S. did in the first night of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.

At least 2,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed — and likely a great deal more. That’s almost as many as the United States lost in 20 years in Afghanistan. A retired Australian general commented that the early days of the invasion are indicative “of professionally corrupt and incompetent military leaders who are literally throwing away the lives of their soldiers.”

It’s still possible, of course, that the Russians could bombard Ukraine into submission. Never underestimate Putin’s barbarism. But it’s doubtful that Putin can ever extinguish Ukrainian resistance — or resurrect the myth of Russian military competence. American right-wingers such as Ted Cruz look foolish for being taken in by Russia’s Potemkin village armed forces. I’ll take our “woke military” any day.

Russia expanded its assault on key cities in Ukraine on March 2, marking one week since the deadly attacks began. (Video: Alexa Juliana Ard/The Washington Post)