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.