The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russia’s military is incompetent. That makes it more dangerous.

After serious mistakes early in the war, Russian forces are turning to riskier — and deadlier — tactics

Captured and damaged Russian tanks in the Sumy region of Ukraine this month, in a photo handed out by the Ukrainian military. Russia's military has failed to meet its initial objectives in the war in Ukraine. (Irina Rybakova/Press Service of Ukraine/Via Reuters)
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Last month, Russia’s position on Ukraine’s borders looked promising: Moscow had amassed an invasion force with nearly as many troops as Ukraine has in its active-duty military, had spent two decades modernizing its weapons and organization, and was ready to use the lessons learned fighting recent wars in Chechnya and Syria.

But the Russian military is not succeeding in Ukraine. Russia’s plans to conquer Kyiv quickly were delusionally optimistic, and commanders are struggling to fix their problems. Russian troops haven’t demonstrated basic combined arms proficiency — the ability to coordinate between air power, land power and long-range firing — have failed to control the skies, evidently lack stockpiles of precision-guided munitions and are even communicating on open phone lines. They’re looting food and other supplies. It’s possible they have experienced more combat deaths in two weeks than the United States did in the entirety of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Yet paradoxically for those of us who ardently hope Ukraine will prevail and push the invading forces out, the deficiencies of the Russian military are exacerbating the damage and risks of the war. And there’s reason to worry that the ineptitude and lack of professionalism that Russian forces have displayed in the first three weeks of the conflict are making fighting considerably more brutal for civilians than a more competent military would — and increasing the prospects that the war escalates.

Military effectiveness is much more than numbers of troops and weapons. The Russian military exhibits no cohesion: Soldiers have been sabotaging their equipment and deserting. That doesn’t happen if officers and noncommissioned officers, who often take the lead in heat-of-the-moment decisions, have control of their units. A lack of control frequently leads to increases in war crimes, as soldiers in the heat of battle lose discipline; in well-regulated militaries, officers are typically restraints on such behavior. In Russia’s military, officers may encourage it and participate.

Russia’s first resort to overcome inadequacies has been to shift its focus from attacking military forces to targeting civilian populations indiscriminately. Its military has shown no compunction in destroying Mariupol as it did Grozny and Aleppo, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s discredited claims that he intends to liberate fellow Slavs. Ukrainian cities that have been surrounded are being deprived of water and food, shelled unmercifully, and — in a signature Russian military move — having their hospitals destroyed. War crimes are not only actions undertaken by poorly disciplined troops; they are policy choices by a government whose military is incapable of achieving its objectives while adhering to the Geneva Conventions. Avoiding such atrocities may not even come into Russia’s thinking — the country partially withdrew from the Geneva Conventions in 2019.

Ukrainian civilian casualties appear to be blessedly low so far under terrible circumstances. Apartment buildings being shelled are largely unoccupied as residents have taken shelter in subway stations, and more than 3 million people have become refugees to escape anticipated Russian depredations. Ukrainians’ courage to protest day after day in occupied cities under the guns of Russian soldiers is profound; it is also notable that Russian soldiers have chosen not to fire on crowds or run over protesters lying down in front of vehicles to prevent their movement. But that restraint is likely to fade as the war grinds on.

Western governments say Russia has now moved its entire invasion force into the country. But Russian forces are so ineffective they’ll need far more troops to sustain the attack, much less conquer and control Ukraine’s major cities. As Stalin is believed to have said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.” But here the reverse is true: Given their quality, Russia doesn’t have the quantity of troops it needs. Russian law prohibits the use of conscripts outside Russian territory, but many of the invaders were conscripts anyway, and half of the Russian army is now committed in Ukraine. Putin claims that army leaders disobeyed him in their use of conscripts, but that charade is unsustainable. So Putin has recruited Chechen and Syrian soldiers, widening the war to involve other states directly. Belarus, a close Russian client state that’s been the base of some operations in Ukraine, may have also been asked for troops but hasn’t yet committed any; China, too, has been asked for support. If China were to enter the war on Russia’s side, the conflict would take on global dimensions — that is, it would become a world war.

Russia had no good reason to attack a nuclear power plant

Folding in foreigners often detracts from combat effectiveness. They often don’t speak the language or have compatible equipment, complicating communications and resupply. Sophisticated combined arms operations require significant training that host forces may not be able to divert attention from combat to provide. Putin is explicitly recruiting soldiers with reputations for brutality from Syria, Chechnya and the Central African Republic, which bodes ill for restraint in combat and occupation. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov claims to be sending 70,000 troops.

Russia seems to have bad on-the-ground intelligence operations in Ukraine as well. Military operations run on information: knowing where to go, what targets to prioritize, whether you’ve rendered them inoperable. The heads of Russia’s foreign intelligence service have been arrested and their agency raided by the Federal Protective Service (the successor to the KGB) in more than 20 locations, a strong indication that Putin is dissatisfied with their performance or is making them scapegoats for his own failures of judgment. Fear won’t improve the quality of reporting or the dearth of information Russian decision-makers are getting. Local sources become especially important during occupations; Russia clearly doesn’t have them, because it’s already resorting to collective punishments and “disappearing” elected officials to subjugate communities, brutalities that tend to fuel rather than quell insurgencies. Those recourses are likely to be widespread as Russian casualties increase in urban fighting.

Russia can defeat Ukraine, but it can’t hold the territory

Now Russia is conveying its willingness to expand the war geographically, another sign that its initial approach has failed. Russia attacked a Ukrainian military base 10 miles from Poland at which U.S. and other NATO troops trained recently. Attacks on weapons supplies flowing into Ukraine are likely if Russia can find them; but it probably can’t, which means strikes on border points through which weapons are being transferred may be more probable. Assaults on weapons-staging sites in NATO countries would be a major escalation, but Russia has declared the supplies legitimate targets.

Ukraine partisans are likely to operate from neighboring NATO countries, attacking Russian forces and then fleeing into refuge, as the Taliban did into Pakistan. Pressure from such ghost forces strains the discipline of militaries, and we could see Russian commanders disobeying orders and undertaking hot pursuit of their attackers, or the Russian government making a policy choice to target such insurgents or the communities that shield them.

The worse the war goes for Russia, the higher the risk of escalation to chemical or even nuclear weapons. Western intelligence is sounding the alarm that Moscow may attempt a “false flag” operation using chemical weapons, then blame Ukraine. That approach might prove politically useful as Putin wrenches the war narrative from “Russians greeted as liberators after a successful regime change” — which his military couldn’t effectuate — to “Russia must occupy a dangerous, hostile neighbor.”

Putin has several times darkly threatened nuclear escalation, and he’s commanded the military to put nuclear forces on a “special regime of combat duty.” Those threats seem mostly aimed at preventing Western intervention. But Russia’s military doctrine is to “escalate to de-escalate” by using nuclear weapons to force a pause by adversaries when its conventional forces cannot win. And Russia’s conventional forces are not winning. That means we could conceivably see the use of nuclear weapons. Ukraine’s troops are not operating in easily targetable masses — making cities the likely targets. If Russia’s military is forced to retreat, Putin or whoever succeeds him could salve their humiliation by torching a Ukrainian city with a nuclear weapon.

Russia’s military failures are likely to prevent the conquest and long-term occupation of Ukraine, but the invasion is exacting a terrible toll on the country’s people. The weaknesses of Russia’s military could drive the cost much higher — for Ukrainians and the countries assisting their brave defense. Failing militaries can be even more dangerous than successful ones.

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