What is surprising to the military analysts in the West, is the ineptitude of Russian forces in a war that the Kremlin still insists on calling a ‘special military operation’.
London: As Russian forces retreated from the outskirts of Kyiv last week, outrage spread around the world at the images of bound bodies shot at close range and mass graves found in areas retaken from Russian troops. Tara Shapravsky, deputy mayor of Bucha, a town around 40 km northwest of Kyiv city, said 50 of some 300 bodies found after the withdrawal were the victims of extra-judicial killings carried out by the Russian soldiers. “Terrible things were done here by the Russians,” said Shapravsky, sharing images of victims discovered face down with their hands tied, and shot in the back of the head. India’s Ambassador to the UN, T.S. Tirumurti, on Tuesday condemned the killings of civilians in Bucha and called for an independent investigation. The Kremlin has categorically denied any accusations related to the murder of civilians, describing the numerous images and independent eyewitness reports as ‘fake news’, although intelligence intercepts reveal that the Kremlin is being economical with the truth.
But this is not a one-off atrocity by a bunch of Russian soldiers who have gone rogue— it’s very much how Russians conduct anti-partisan warfare. They carry out collective punishment and hold communities accountable for individual’s acts of resistance. Bucha is just one area in Ukraine to experience this brutality, which will become widespread as the war continues. The method was perfected in the Russian civil war a hundred years ago, and was repeated in World War Two, in Afghanistan, and again in Chechnya. Collective punishment is a doctrine embedded in the Russian manual of fighting.
So, no surprise at Russian barbarism. What is surprising to the military analysts in the West, however, is the ineptitude of Russian forces in a war that the Kremlin still insists on calling a ‘special military operation’. The fight for Kyiv started poorly and went downhill from there. With thousands of people dead and millions driven from their homes, President Putin’s plan to subjugate Ukraine in a few days has clearly collapsed, partly because of the remarkable resistance of the Ukrainian troops, but mostly because of the incompetence of Russia’s Ministry of Defence in preparing for the invasion.
As an example, the BBC last week pieced together the story of Russia’s 331st Guards Parachute Regiment, whose men regarded themselves as the pick of Russia’s army. “The best of the best,” a general tells soldiers of the 331st in a video posted online last May. The unit served in the Balkans, Chechnya, and the 2014 Russian intervention in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and regularly took part in Red Square parades in Moscow. It was also a showcase of Russia’s policy of replacing national service soldiers with contraktniki, soldiers under contract. From early March, reports began to circulate of deaths in the 331st, and later bodies began to return to Kostroma the home city, 300km north-east of Moscow. Its commanding officer, Colonel Sergei Sukharev, was killed in Ukraine on 13 March and was posthumously awarded the Hero of the Russian Federation medal. Before the 331st was ordered to pull back to Belarus on 29 March, it is believed that more than 100 members of this elite regiment were killed. Why so many?
The failure is largely due to what the Kremlin should have learned in Afghanistan decades ago – that in close-quarter battles, armoured vehicles designed to be light enough to be carried on planes, do not give much protection from enemy fire. Scraps of phone footage from defenders, who in many cases were simply local defence units or reservists, showed vast numbers of burnt-out or abandoned vehicles belonging to the airborne group. They had been hit by Ukrainian artillery, ambushes and infantry assaults during weeks of bloody combat.
For years, Western experts have analysed and reported on the Russian military’s expensive, high-tech modernisation. The Russians, they said, had the better tanks and aircraft, including the cutting edge SU-34 fighter bombers and T-90 tanks, with some of the finest technical specifications in the world. The Russians had also ostensibly reorganised their army into a more professional, mostly volunteer force, rather like the 331st Guards Parachute Regiment. They had rethought their offensive doctrine and created battalion tactical groups— flexible, heavily armoured formations that were meant to be the key to overwhelming the Ukrainians. This analysis, based on alluring but fundamentally flawed criteria, has now proved false. Firstly because it misunderstood the Russian military’s ability to undertake the most complex operations and the robustness of its logistical capabilities (remember the 40 miles of tanks stuck on the road to Kyiv), and secondly, predictions that paid too little attention to the basic motivation and morale of the soldiers who would be required to use the Russian military’s allegedly excellent doctrine and equipment.
Most modern militaries rely on a strong cadre of non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Sergeants make sure that vehicles are maintained and exercise leadership in squad tactics. The Russian NCO corps is today, as it has always been, both weak and corrupt. Without capable NCOs, even large numbers of technologically sophisticated vehicles deployed according to a compelling doctrine will end up broken or abandoned, just as we have seen in vast numbers scattered throughout towns and villages in Ukraine as the Russian forces retreated. Amateur phone videos have revealed repeated tactical blunders – vehicles bunched up on roads, no infantry covering the flanks, no closely coordinated artillery fire, no overhead support from helicopters, and panicky reaction to ambushes. Russia’s inability to concentrate its forces on one or two lines of attack or to take a major city has been striking. So too are its transparently massive problems in logistics and maintenance.
The Russian army operates with fewer support soldiers than other militaries. The US army, for example, deploys about ten support soldiers for every combat soldier, whereas the Russian army appears to have less than one to one. The Russian plan to dominate in long and fast initial pushes also stretched its supply lines beyond breaking point. A conventional approach would have been to plan a slow, steady advance, controlling air space and setting up secure mini bases, including repair depots, medical stations and stockpiles every 30 to 40 miles. The fact that they didn’t, reinforces the view that they expected a quick and easy victory. The Russian chain of command is also clearly confused and inept, resulting in at least fifteen senior commanders, including seven generals, being killed in the first four weeks of fighting.
Unfortunately, the Russian military is now doubling down on the one thing it does well – bombarding towns from a distance and killing civilians. This is what Russia did in Chechnya in the 1990s. When initial hopes of a lightning-fast victory faded, the military shifted to carpet bombing and besieging cities and towns. The result was a devastatingly costly war for both sides that left most of Chechnya in ruins. In Ukraine, particularly in the southern port city of Mariupol, the Russian strategy has at times seemed to mimic the playbook in Chechnya.
Having shifted gear and realising that it lacks the strength to pursue rapid offensives on multiple fronts, the Russian High Command has decided to focus on seizing parts of Ukraine’s East and South, particularly the so-called land-bridge linking Donbas with Crimea. According to Ukraine’s former Minister of Defence, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, this could signal “a prolonged conflict, increasing the stakes for both sides’ ability to raise troops and access weapons ammunition and supplies.”
Russian losses to date are high, up to 15,000 soldiers according to NATO estimates. Wounded soldiers who cannot rapidly return to duty, generally number about twice the number of dead, which means that Russia has lost about 45,000 troops in five weeks of conflict, approximately a quarter of the initial invasion force. The number of Russian vehicles which have been visually confirmed as destroyed or captured since the invasion began is now well over 2,500. This includes 450 main battle tanks and 825 armoured fighting vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.
Replacing the troops will be a challenge for the Kremlin as, although Russia has some two million personnel in its military reserve (some of whom have already been deployed in Ukraine), few are actively trained or prepared for war. Recent reports suggest that Moscow is transferring its troops from other conflict zones, such as Georgia and Syria, as well as trying to attract Chechen and Syrian fighters to build up numbers. A panicky Kremlin is even attempting to recruit former soldiers as old as 60.
Because its armed forces have performed so badly, even bombing its own units, Russia’s war in Ukraine is likely to turn into a grinding and costly stalemate that won’t end until the protagonists realise that they cannot achieve all their original goals and accept a less-than-ideal outcome. Russia will fail to achieve a compliant Kyiv, and Ukraine will not get Crimea back or full membership of NATO anytime soon. The real trick will be to devise a settlement that the parties will be willing to live within perpetuity, and not seek to overturn at the first opportunity. That will be a formidable challenge for both sides in the conflict, especially a chastened Vladimir Putin, who counted on a quick and easy operation and who is now guilty of a massive geostrategic miscalculation – and war crimes.
John Dobson is a former British diplomat, who also worked in UK Prime Minister John Major’s office between 1995 and 1998. He is currently Visiting Fellow at the University of Plymouth.