Even more than looking into Vladimir Putin’s soul, trying to figure out just what’s been going on with Putin’s armed forces is a deep, dark, murky pool. It’s tactical, operational and, above all, logistical failures are so many and plain to see that simply cataloging them will challenge a generation of military encyclopedists. But what if these shortcomings are not just simply sins of execution but sins of conception? Have the Russians misread the nature of the modern battlefield—or at least misunderstood the war they’ve been forced to fight rather than the one they wanted to fight? And have they developed a military doctrine and created military organizations that are fundamentally flawed?
The answers to these questions are important not merely for understanding what’s gone wrong for Russia, but how difficult—verging on impossible—it will be for the Russians to fix their mistakes in a rapid way. And, perhaps more important, could these be the kind of mistakes that the American and allied militaries might also be prone to?
The incompetence of Russian forces makes it hard to come to grips with underlying questions. The army has been poorly manned.The Ukrainians recently captured a Russian infantry fighting vehicle and found the passports of the crew, which included three lieutenants, none of whom was a combat-arms officer; in the U.S. Army, commanders of Bradley fighting vehicles are either staff sergeants or, occasionally, senior sergeants. Russian units—which were supposed to consist mostly of longer-service “contract” soldiers, but actually include many short-term conscripts— have been fleshed out with ad hoc harvests from across the entirety of Russia and clearly lack much cohesion. The Russian retreat from Kyiv has revealed that common soldiers were living in filth, the eternal index of bad leadership and nonexistent training.
As a tidal wave of videos and photos from the war demonstrates, the combat equipment of the invading forces is poorly designed and poorly maintained. The tank fleet seems to be principally variants of the T-72, which first entered service in 1971; even some 1960s-era T-64s have been seen. Even the addition of extra, reactive armor has not solved the basic design flaws of these tanks: When penetrated, the exposed ammunition still often cooks off, blowing the turret out of the hull. The failures of support units are even greater; they have been unable to deliver beans, bullets, or fuel. The residue of the Russian retreat has also underscored the “fetch-and-carry” nature of Russian logistics, reliant, as in World War II, on manpower and ignorant of the standardized, automated and much more efficient practices of Western militaries. We have not seen pictures or videos of standardized containers, palletized loads or forklifts, just stacks of wooden boxes.
But it also is increasingly apparent that the Russian defeat at Kyiv and Kharkiv and even their struggling progress in southern Ukraine is likely to be a product of bad ideas as well as poor execution. In particular, the Russians seem to be infected by two powerful strains of the virus of “military transformation” or the “revolution in the military affairs” so popular with avant-garde analysts since the end of the Cold War.
The first of these was a concept formulated by late-Soviet doctrine. In response to the new and powerful systems fielded by U.S. forces as part of the Reagan defense buildup and the counteroffensive Army-Air Force doctrine of “AirLand Battle,” the Soviet general staff believed they had discovered an emerging “reconnaissance-strike complex,” wherein advanced sensors, integrated and advanced information technology, and longer-range precision-guided weapons would make more traditional forms of maneuver warfare—which the Red Army had embraced since World War II—a relic of the past. Indeed, the reckoning that they could not compete with this new Western way of war and trumped their conventional threat to NATO contributed substantially to the collapse of the Soviet empire.
The second of these is also the revival, under the rubric of “hybrid” (or sometimes “gray zone” or even “asymmetric”) warfare, of the old Soviet idea of political warfare, developed in the revolution of 1917 and most conveniently defined by George Kennan in 1948 as “the employment of all the means at a nation’s command, short of war, to achieve its national objectives.” Russians have long emphasized covert action and propaganda, which we are now obliged to call “information warfare.” As can be imagined, these theories are tailor-made to appeal to a man like Vladimir Putin, the KGB agent and Russian imperialist in a hurry and on a low budget.
These two strands have congealed into what is now popularly known as the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” for the now-all-but-invisible chief of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. While the general is more Putin political crony than theoretician, his 2013 speech to the Academy of Military Sciences has been framed as a succinct expression of Russian military reform and modernization. His claim that “a perfectly thriving state can, in a matter of months and even days, be transformed into an arena of fierce armed conflict, become a victim of foreign intervention, and sink into a web of chaos, humanitarian catastrophe, and civil war,” seemed, in the wake of the 2014 annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas, to be prescient. Nonetheless, its roots in late Soviet doctrine were plain: “Broad employment of precision and other types of new weapons, including robotic ones, will be fundamental characteristics of future conflicts. The enemy’s economy and state command-and-control system will be the priority targets. Besides traditional spheres of armed struggle, the information sphere and space will be actively involved.”
Much of this can be regarded as timeless wisdom expressed in modern mumbo-jumbo. Robots, otherwise called drones or even just “smart munitions,” have been increasingly prevalent on many battlefields for several generations. Attacking an adversary’s economic sources of military power would not be new to William Tecumseh Sherman; paralyzing opponents’ command and decision-making networks no surprise to Heinz Guderian; information warfare became serious during the Reformation, with Gutenberg’s Bible and news broadsheets. But the Russians systematized these ideas, organizing their forces in ways that locked in their 2014 experience (along with their centuries-long love of artillery barrages—multiple-launch rocket systems weren’t called “Stalin organs” for nothing) in ways that maximized efficiency at the expense of flexibility.
There is no better example of this than the much-touted Russian army “battalion tactical group,” the principal tactical organization of the current war. This takes the “transformational” enthusiasm for “breaking the phalanx”—so to say, the command level at which combined-arms effects (ground maneuver plus supporting fires, be they from artillery or aircraft) can be generated—to a new level. These “BTGs” are relatively small units of about 800 personnel—and, in practice, they were probably manned at only 500 to 600 before the war, hence the need for so many additional troops to fill them out just before the invasion began.
Because they were imagined as formations for this hybrid kind of war, they lack mobile firepower and infantry; they were designed to work alongside the militias of the Donbas separatists and to act primarily as a screen behind which lots of artillery could be placed. According to U.S. Army studies, each battalion has but one company of tanks and two to three of infantry, accounting for less than half the manpower; it is likely that the shortages of personnel are felt most keenly in these units, with companies at 60 or 80 troops rather than 100 or more. The infantry is mounted in a variety of vehicle types, with as many light-skinned, lightly armed wheeled vehicles as heavier fighting vehicles. The BTG does, however, boast three batteries (that is, company-size units) of artillery; again, each battery is equipped with differing types of either cannons or rockets. Finally, the BTG includes a large measure of electronic warfare gear, but a relatively small measure of logistics support. In sum, this is a formation for a relatively static battlefield.
One could geek out over this almost endlessly, and Western analysts and officers will no doubt do so, as they should. But the Russian monomania for BTGs—the Ukraine invasion force was chopped into about 150 of them—means that Putin’s toolkit is overflowing with screwdrivers (and poorly machined ones) and lacks hammers. This may explain why the Russians have lost so many senior colonels and general officers, who may well have exposed themselves not to exploit opportunities but to fix snafus. It also means that, in trying to weld together a force for the upcoming fight in the Donbas, this is what the Russians are stuck with, and they will continue to be chewed up in bite-size portions. It also means they will have to rely on the terrorizing power of their artillery and aircraft fires—if they can get them into position, which they could not do completely around Kyiv or Kharkiv. Finally, it suggests that encircling the Ukrainian army in the Donbas, where the most experienced units are positioned, is unlikely.
Finally, the sheer incompetence of the Russians may serve to blind the United States and its allies to these questions. The ideas of a “transparent” battlefield (where enemy movements and actions are quickly revealed), and about the value of precision strike and the effectiveness of “hybrid” warfare have been very much on trend in the West through the post-Cold War period. As secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld promised to “skip a generation” of weapons modernization; prosecuting the post-9/11 irregular campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan within the limits of an otherwise-diminished defense budget has left the U.S. military reliant on aging Reagan-era systems with nothing ready to replace them.
In a rush to respond belatedly to China’s long-term military build-up, the Biden administration is doubling down on the fix-it-tomorrow strategy. For example, in the next few years the Air Force—like the other U.S. armed services, already operating at an unsustainable pace—will divest itself of approximately 1,500 fighters and other aircraft while procuring just 500. The Marine Corps, an organization with a deep-seated and existential paranoia about its role in U.S. defense strategy, has hopped on the lighter-faster-better bandwagon, apparently with minimal discussion with the other, allegedly “joint,” services, ditching its tanks and other measures of combat power (which the Marines don’t have a lot of, anyway) to become something like amphibious BTGs, hopping from island to island in the Pacific, harassing the People’s Liberation Army. In response, a number of past Marine commandants and other generals, along with former Navy Secretary James Webb, have gone public with complaints, but the transformation train, rolling at last, will be hard to stop. However, it’s not clear that it’s headed in the right direction, or that we even understand where it’s going.