Nine ways Russia botched its invasion of Ukraine

Road service workers clear debris around a burned Russian armored vehicle on a road west of Kyiv on April 7, 2022. (Genya Savilov/AFP/Getty Images)
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correction

An earlier version of this article misstated the ratio of soldiers to population an invading force should have. It is 20 soldiers for every 1,000 of a country’s population, not every 100,000. The article has been corrected.

The ineptitude displayed by the Russian military in its initial attempt to overrun Ukraine has astounded military professionals. The world’s second-most-powerful army has bungled almost every move since the first hours of the invasion. Now, seven weeks into a war that Russia as well as the West had expected would last only days, the Ukrainians have the momentum. They have forced the Russians to make a humiliating retreat from the north of the country and stalled or reversed Russian advances on most other fronts.

As Russia refocuses its energies on capturing Ukraine’s eastern region, the crucial question will be whether its military can redress the mistakes of the early assault. Here are nine of the most important mistakes identified by military experts.

1

Misjudging the Ukrainians

The biggest mistake of all was to underestimate both the will and the capacity of the Ukrainians to resist. Russia had planned for a swift and easy victory, expecting its troops to be greeted as liberators. Instead, the Ukrainians fought back ferociously, aided by weaponry from the West.

And it wasn’t just the army that fought back. Ordinary civilians also seized the initiative to thwart Russian advances, such as those in the farming town of Voznesensk who picked up hunting rifles and hurled bricks to help halt Russian soldiers along the southern coast.

Many of the setbacks Russia encountered sprang from this initial miscalculation — but not all.

2

Not preparing their troops

Testimonies of captured Russian soldiers suggest many troops had not been told they would be invading Ukraine. Some said they were told they were participating in a military exercise, others that they were being sent just to the eastern Donbas region. That meant they were psychologically unprepared to be shot at and blown up, as happened almost instantly, which took an immediate toll on troops’ morale, noted Jack Watling of the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

The enormity of the casualties Russia subsequently suffered has only exacerbated the low morale, he said. NATO put the number of Russian dead at 15,000 over two weeks ago, more than in the Soviet Union’s decade-long war in Afghanistan. Ukrainian officials say they have collected 7,000 Russian corpses from the battlefield, though Russia maintains it has lost only 1,351 soldiers.

3

Invading without enough supplies — or the right supplies

Russian units seemed wholly unprepared for the conditions and circumstances they encountered. Units expecting to roll unopposed into Kyiv and other cities brought just two weeks of supplies, and those quickly ran out. Videos quickly emerged showing Russian soldiers stranded on roadsides next to their vehicles because they had no fuel and hungry soldiers looting stores and stealing chickens.

Surprisingly, those troops also lacked some of the key tools of modern warfare, such as night-vision equipment, said John Spencer, who chairs the Urban Warfare Studies program at the Madison Policy Forum. Ukrainians have such equipment and were able to control the night, launching attacks and ambushes under cover of darkness against an enemy unable to see them.

Russia might not even have enough regular weapons to equip all the forces it is sending into battle. Some newly drafted soldiers on the eastern front have been issued rifles first developed in the 19th century and out of production for decades, according to witnesses quoted in a Reuters report.

4

Not recognizing their poor logistics

Military experts describe a massive logistical failure: When troops ran out of food and other supplies after the initial plan went wrong, their superiors had no plans for resupply. Tanks stalled, and the poorly maintained trucks that were then sent lost tires or broke down, contributing to the infamous 40-mile convoy-turned-traffic jam.

“Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics” is an oft-repeated cliche in military circles — and one that the Russians appear not to have heeded. The myriad elements behind the logistics failure are laid out in this detailed account by Washington Post reporters Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha.

Troop movement and

Russian-held areas in Ukraine

Feb. 24

As they invaded Ukraine, Russian troops entered the country from the north, east and south. They moved quickly toward Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Sumy

Kyiv

Lviv

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

Mariupol

Odessa

Kherson

ROMANIA

Black

Sea

March 10

Two weeks later, the quick operation Russia had expected was stalled. Its troops had been unable to enter into Kyiv or Kharkiv, and advances on the eastern front were very slow.

Kyiv

March 23

One month into the war, Russian troops had gained little ground beyond some areas in northeast Ukraine. Critically, they had failed to take Kyiv.

Kyiv

April 4

After Russia announced it would focus its forces on eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, the retreat of troops from other parts of the country revealed the horrors inflicted there.

Kyiv

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI's

Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Troop movement and Russian-held areas in Ukraine

March 10

Feb. 24

Two weeks later, the quick operation Russia had expected was stalled. Its troops had been unable to enter into Kyiv or Kharkiv, and advances on the eastern front were very slow.

As they invaded Ukraine, Russian troops entered the country from the north, east and south. They moved quickly toward Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Sumy

Kyiv

Kyiv

Lviv

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

Mariupol

Odessa

Kherson

ROMANIA

Black

Sea

March 23

April 4

One month into the war, Russian troops had gained little ground beyond some areas in northeast Ukraine. Critically, they had failed to take Kyiv.

After Russia announced it would focus its forces on eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, the retreat of troops from other parts of the country revealed the horrors inflicted there.

Kyiv

Kyiv

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI's Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

Troop movement and Russian-held areas in Ukraine

Feb. 24

March 23

April 4

March 10

As they invaded Ukraine, Russian troops entered the country from the north, east and south. They moved quickly toward Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson.

Two weeks later, the quick operation Russia had expected was stalled. Its troops had been unable to enter into Kyiv or Kharkiv, and advances on the eastern front were very slow.

One month into the war, Russian troops had gained little ground beyond some areas in northeast Ukraine. Critically, they had failed to take Kyiv.

After Russia announced it would focus its forces on eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, the retreat of troops from other parts of the country revealed the horrors inflicted there.

BELARUS

RUSSIA

Sumy

Kyiv

Kyiv

Kyiv

Kyiv

Lviv

Kharkiv

UKRAINE

Mariupol

Odessa

Kherson

ROMANIA

Black

Sea

Sources: Institute for the Study of War, AEI's Critical Threats Project, Post reporting

THE WASHINGTON POST

5

Failing to take out Ukraine’s air defenses

Military experts had expected a Russian bombing campaign to take out Ukrainian air-defense systems, bases and planes before troops would be sent across the border. Instead, the troops surged in without air support.

Perhaps this also can be explained by commanders’ initial miscalculation that they would encounter little resistance. But it confounds military observers that the Ukrainian air force is still flying, seven weeks on.

6

Attacking on too many fronts

The largest force assembled in Europe since World War II proved too small to fight — let alone hold — the vast arc of territory that Russia attempted to seize. The initial invasion was launched on four fronts: the north toward Kyiv; the northeast toward Kharkiv; the east; and the south from the annexed peninsula of Crimea.

Once the first push ran into resistance, the troops found themselves strung out along the country’s borders, stretching already inadequate supply lines. According to the “force ratio” rule used by military tacticians, an invading force needs 20 soldiers for every 1,000 of a country’s population. For a country the size of Ukraine, that calculation means 880,000 troops, as Michael Clarke, a visiting professor in the war studies department at King’s College London, told the Times of London. The United States invaded Iraq with a force ratio of 7, going up against a far less capable army than that of Ukraine. Russia invaded Ukraine with a force ratio of 4.

7

Using unsecured communications

Astonishingly, the Russians embarked on a major war using cellphones and old-fashioned radios to communicate. The Ukrainians were able to intercept messages regarding Russian movements on the battlefield and lie in wait for them with ambushes. At least some of the seven generals killed on the battlefield died because the Ukrainians intercepted messages about their locations, according to a Western official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive subjects.

So accessible are Russian military communications that amateur radio enthusiasts have been listening in and streaming them.

8

Proceeding without clear lines of command

Russia’s highly centralized military does not empower troops on the ground to make decisions or issue orders, experts say. Troops that quickly ran into difficulty were unable to shift gears to adjust to their new circumstances because they had to await orders from superiors in Moscow (over unsecured lines, as just noted).

Unlike U.S. and other Western militaries, the Russian military does not have noncommissioned officers. Troops are left floundering when their original orders don’t pan out, retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling, a former commander of the U.S. Army in Europe, told CNN.

9

Failing to have a Plan B

The Russians clearly weren’t prepared for a scenario in which they encountered resistance. When they did, they had apparently made no backup plan. Instead, troops pressed ahead as originally ordered, driving into ambushes and steadily getting killed by the Ukrainians. Armored convoys were dispatched without infantry support, making them easy targets for Ukrainians armed with portable antitank weapons such as the U.S.-supplied Javelins.

Overall, the entire plan was poorly conceived from the outset, from the size of the force to its preparedness and its ability to adapt to changing circumstances, military experts say. “The incompetence in planning command, control & communication (C3) is staggering,” Hertling said in a tweet.

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