Start with the Political: Explaining Russia’s Bungled Invasion of Ukraine

Many of us who analyze the Russian military for a living were shocked to see Russian forces fumbling around the way they did in Ukraine. There are already some heated calls for analytical accountability, most notably from Eliot Cohen and Phillips Payson O’Brien how the group of Russian military analysts could so misunderstand the Russian military. There’s no doubt that the Russian military has fared much worse than most expected, and it’s important to understand why. However, observers should be wary of jumping to simplistic, overarching conclusions about Russian military power on a grand scale.

One can divide the failures of the Russian military into two broad categories: those related to the current conflict and circumstances of the invasion, and those inherent to the Russian military. Based on my experience as a Russian military analyst and former member of the National Security Council during the Obama administration, I focus here on the former: those contingent political factors that contributed to the Russian military’s poor performance. I plan to add another article to this article about the failures of the Russian armed forces.

The stage was set by Moscow’s inaccurate and jingoistic assumptions about Ukraine, its leaders, military and people. When these assumptions are coupled with a desire to keep the invasion plans secret from the tactical ranks charged with carrying them out, we can begin to understand the disastrous Russian military operations during the opening days.

In the days leading up to the invasion, the Kremlin signaled limited intentions toward Ukraine while surrounding the country with troops from three directions, while Putin belittled the notion that Ukraine was a legitimate and sovereign country. When orders were finally given to advance along multiple axes, entailing an invasion of half the largest country in Europe, the Russian military staff had little time to prepare. False assumptions by the Russian political and military leadership about the ease of an invasion of Ukraine, coupled with a desire to keep the invasion secret, denied the Russian military the ability to prepare for war in the way it had trained countless times before.

The fundamental mistake made at the top management level and spreading to the lowest ranks was an underestimation of the efforts that the leadership, military and people of Ukraine would make to defend it. Apparently, Putin’s speech about the nature of Ukraine and its current leadership, which is said to be made up of drug addicts and neo-Nazis, was not just propaganda. It betrayed at least some of his true thoughts: that the Ukrainian state was little more than an aberration, unable to withstand Russian might. The Russian leadership seems to have believed that Ukraine’s national character was little more than a house of cards in need of a little nudge. Had Putin and Sergei Shoigu, his defense minister, believed that Ukraine would put up a fierce resistance, they might have used the considerable power of the Russian military as intended, with thorough planning for complex warfare involving phased and coordinated operations across all domains.

Carl von Clausewitz, in In war, discussed the need to understand the war one is engaging in and the difficulty in reconciling political and military objectives coupled with the challenge of defining the scope and effort required for a military campaign. Given the haphazard manner in which Russian operations were conducted in the first few weeks, the leadership expected a very different type of war than that which Russian forces have experienced to date. Clausewitz also notes that the final calculation of the effort required is not objective, but relies on “the qualities of mind and character of the men making the decision.” It would be difficult to find a better example of how one person’s flawed views could so directly lead to the initial failure of an operation than Putin and his invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s false assumptions likely justified his decision to keep the invasion largely secret from the Russian people, and likely many in the leadership. Furthermore, the unprecedented public release of information about the impending invasion by the United States and other countries may have complicated Putin’s timing and planning. If this invasion were to be easy, a quick result would obviate the need to prepare the populace for an extended conflict. The logic would be that this would also limit Western responses as any punitive measures would be retrospective and lack credibility and sustainability. The installation of even a partially legitimate puppet government in Kyiv would both support the narrative being conveyed to the Russian native population and thwart attempts by the West to impose severe penalties on Russia.

On a more fundamental level, the soldiers themselves were probably shocked to suddenly find themselves, first, at war, and second, against a capable opponent. Interviews with captured Russian officers and enlisted personnel suggest that the operation and its scope were unlikely to have been shared at the tactical level. For those of us who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, every soldier, staff, and commander understood where they were going, the dangers they faced, and at least the broad outlines of the types of missions they would undertake. While there are endless surprises in war, we all knew we would fight. Looking at the past experience of the Russian military in Ukraine, it is obvious that this process of emotional and mental preparation for war was absent.

The lack of understanding and mental preparation of the Russian troops, coupled with the early results of the campaign, seems to provide some impetus for some desertion within the Russian military. This is not to say that the Russian military is preparing to disband and retreat to Russia. A degree of desertion, soldiers in twos or twos, should not be unexpected, especially in a war between two countries with such deep ties. It’s another problem for the Russian military when we start seeing sets of vehicles that represent a whole small unit, fully fueled and operational, but without a crew.

At the time of this writing, Russian forces have withdrawn from Kyiv and are concentrating on operations in the east. Faced with an inability to achieve his initial strategic goals, Putin has likely decided that consolidating and expanding the Separatist-controlled areas to the east is the best he can do, while still giving the Russian people the semblance of a successful narrative. Russian operations in the east will benefit from shorter, safer logistics, a small geographic area to concentrate combat power, and a clearer and more efficient command and control structure with the reported appointment of General Aleksandr Dvornikov as Russia’s supreme commander in Ukraine. However, this general will rise to the challenge of cobbling together a low morale force that has suffered heavy casualties and coordinating disparate units into an operational whole with a clear mission.

There is much speculation as to how the rest of the Russo-Ukrainian War will unfold. Will this turn into a protracted stalemate in the East, or will Russia be able to recover from its initial failures and use its new operational situation to achieve the Kremlin’s revised strategic goals? What is Ukraine’s strategic goal after surviving Russia’s ruthless attempt to wipe out its existence? Motivated by its recent victory in the defense of Kiev and the bloodbath of Russian forces, will Ukraine seek to drive Russian forces out of the east entirely? Perhaps in the coming weeks or months Russia will have an exhausted military peaking without even meeting Putin’s minimalist goals – whatever they may be. As Cathal Nolan observes, it is often “the exhaustion of morale and material, and not the finality of battle,” that decides the outcome of wars.

Russian military analysts are busy trying to explain the early failure of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. I have attempted to provide an explanation of how some of the contingent political factors contributed to the poor performance of the Russian military. Part of the failure is the result of incorrect policy assumptions that constrained military planning and operational expectations. But that doesn’t explain almost all failures. What appear to be inherent weaknesses in the Russian military that warrant further analysis are a definite lack of effective command and control, an overly shy air force, and poor tactical performance on basic unit-level skills, to name a few. The obvious second half of this analysis is the performance of the Ukrainian military. While this article has focused solely on Russian operations, the successful Ukrainian operations to stop Russia’s attempt to conquer most of Ukraine must be examined in detail.

Given that this is not the war Russia has been planning and training for, it is difficult to say how it would have behaved in a conflict it was preparing for – one against the United States and NATO. This is just the beginning of understanding and adequately preparing for future Russian military power – or lack thereof – and the impact it will have on the United States, NATO and countries neighboring Russia.

Jeffrey Edmonds is Senior Analyst of CNA’s Russia Studies Program. Prior to CNA, he served as director for Russia on the National Security Council staff during the Obama administration. He is a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserve and has served on active duty and in the reserves for over 25 years. The views expressed here are his own.

Image: President of Ukraine on Flickr Start with the Political: Explaining Russia’s Bungled Invasion of Ukraine

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