One Thing We’ve Learned From Ukraine

The Russian army is seriously over-rated

Nearly everyone I have spoken with possessing a professional military background is of the same view: the performance of the Russian military in Ukraine is surprisingly poor and borders on incompetent. A few old colleagues had offered the view even before Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s invasion this past February 24th that the Russian military was overrated, and that Ukraine’s military was very likely more capable than expected. That judgment has proved to be quite prescient.

Back in 1990, when I commanded a US field artillery unit in Europe, we were surprised in early November to learn that we were being deployed to be part of Operation Desert Shield, at the time the defense of Saudi Arabia. As is well-remembered, after our arrival, greatly enhancing the lighter American forces that had been rushed to Arabia after Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait, we then had the necessary forces to turn the defensive Desert Shield into the offensive Desert Storm, the “shock and awe” operation that drove the Iraqi army from Kuwait.

As one senior leader quipped, in four days our ground offensive — covering nearly 400 miles — turned “the fourth largest army in the world into the second largest army in Iraq.” The ground success was empowered and enabled by a 37-day air campaign that had weakened, frozen in place, and dispirited even the Iraqis’ very best units, their Republican Guards.

US army artillery in Desert Storm, courtesy of the author

Military analysts and historians frequently drop an old phrase about military operations: “The amateurs talk about tactics; the professionals talk about logistics.” I have never actually been much of a fan of the comment as both are necessary for modern military operations. But the Russian move into Ukraine shows that their military is competent in neither tactics nor logistics.

All conflicts have their distinct characteristics involving the mission, the enemy, the terrain, the forces present, the weather, and the time available to complete a mission. Direct comparisons, given these numerous and differing items, always mean that such efforts need to be viewed with a degree of skepticism. But, probably less so in this case.

For Desert Storm, even though they were likely unaware of it, the Iraqis were facing the best “desert army” in the world. And it was ours. Beginning in the early 1980s the US army had developed a very demanding program of realistic training that it conducted in the California desert at Fort Irwin, a location known as the National Training Center — the “NTC.” The training was force-on-force, it was intense, and it was highly instrumented. At the NTC the army learned how to fight, how to communicate, how to coordinate its various operating systems, and how to integrate all its components.

The laser system used on all vehicles at the NTC made the exercise itself into a huge — but quite serious — game of “laser tag.” When a vehicle, or even an individual soldier was “hit,” an alarm or light went off meaning you were out of the fight. Equipment had to be dragged away and “repaired,” and “wounded” soldiers had to be taken to aid stations and “treated.”

The units going to the NTC faced what was called the “OPFOR,” standing for “opposing force.” The OPFOR had modified vehicles that gave them a distinctive appearance, roughly like the vehicles of the Red Army. Since the OPFOR fought all the time in Ft. Irwin’s desert, it was, as one noted observer called it, the “best Soviet motorized rifle regiment in the world.” And it was. Indeed, it still is. With no exception I ever heard, after Desert Storm our soldiers who were NTC “veterans” commonly stated that, “the OPFOR was a lot tougher than the Iraqis.”

US army training at NTC, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Russian army in Ukraine has not demonstrated any tactical competence even slightly mirroring that of the OPFOR. The confused and rag-tag nature of their convoys reveals as much. Moreover, they have violated a precept of the famous Prussian military theorist, Klaus von Clausewitz, in that they entered Ukraine without a clear understanding of the type of war they were undertaking, assuming the Ukrainians — both their armed forces and their people — would just roll over. This strategic miscalculation has combined with their tactical ineptitude to create the mess they are in.

But as mentioned earlier, it is in the logistical area that the Russian military has placed its incompetence on full display. For Desert Storm, in four months the US military logistical team moved the equivalent of the population of Alaska some 6,000 miles to a desolate and barren theater where it had no bases and had never before operated. Certainly, there were some failures in that massive effort. The supply parts system — known in the army as Class IX supplies, never functioned properly. But some very talented and creative mechanics and material soldiers worked through this challenge with clever improvisation as well as the controlled cannibalization of equipment — sacrificing less important equipment to keep the more important ones working and in the fight.

But the truly important classes of supply, Class I (food and water), Class III (fuel), and Class V (ammunition) functioned quite well. No soldier ever missed a meal — indeed when the cease-fire was declared we fed the Iraqis; no unit ever ran out of ammunition — from small arms to artillery shells and rockets; and no vehicle ever ran out of fuel — not even the gas-guzzling M-1 Abrams tanks. All of this, as mentioned, in a theater where the US army had no bases, no infrastructure, and no history. And as anyone who has ever seen the desert of northern Arabia can testify, living off the land is hardly an option.

Contrast that with what we have so far seen from the Russian army. There are numerous reports of Russian soldiers asking Ukrainians for food as theirs has run out and not been replaced. Reports come in of Russian vehicles being abandoned after running out of fuel. And this in a country adjacent to Russia, itself a major producer of fuel. Plus, the Russian army operated bases in Ukraine for decades. Moreover, where the American army in Desert Storm travelled nearly 400 miles to find and destroy the Iraqi army, Kyiv is a mere 150 miles from the Belarus border — where much of the Russian army attack originated, and Karkiv is a mere fifty miles from the Russian border.

An army running out of food and fuel after traveling such a relatively short distance is indisputable evidence that the Russian army logisticians are even less talented than the tacticians they are supposed to support.

But a serious question remains: does it matter? The Russian army has quite clearly shown itself to be only moderately capable, but as an authority once noted, “Numbers have a quality all their own.” And the Russians have the numbers — in troops, tanks, fighting vehicles, and most importantly artillery.

The Soviet’s Red Army was always a very heavy artillery organization. Whereas American artillery was trained to be mobile, to quickly mass fire from different locations, and to identify and locate specific targets, the Russians — and the Soviets before them — simply mass a huge force of artillery and rockets and fire at a large area target, such as Kyiv or Karkiv. They may be better than in the past, but the Russian artillery approach has always emphasized this massing over precision. That was the Soviet tactic in World War II, and an approach recently seen in Georgia, Chechnya, and Syria.

Russian rocket barrage in WW II courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In short, the Russian army has neither a heritage nor a preference for anything other than mass fires causing mass destruction. And they can get away with it in Ukraine for, despite the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people, their lack of air support and their inability to locate and aim counter-fire on Russian artillery and rocket forces has also been on full display.

The outcome in Ukraine is still unknown. And even if the Russian army eventually captures Kyiv, Karkiv, Odessa, perhaps even Lviv in the far west, it will inevitably find itself facing a spirited and determined resistance, one certain to extract a continuing toll, perhaps for years. The Russians will find that keeping up the effort in Ukraine will be lengthy, costly, and dispiriting. They are just starting down that road.

But the Russian army faces another challenge as does the leadership of Vladimir Putin. The Ukraine “special operation” has shown that Russia has a political leadership that is ruthless and reckless, uninterested in the well-being of either its neighbors or its own people. But it has also shown that it has a military that is incapable and incompetent. Unless the Russian military launches an immediate and comprehensive reform effort — an effort that will take decades, it will remain inferior to western militaries and in no way a match for the NATO forces that are now much closer to the Russian border — and in greater numbers.

Of course, there remains one other dimension of serious concern: nuclear weapons. Unlike the United States which sees nuclear weapons mainly as an instrument of deterrence, the Russians — and Chinese — see them as an instrument of coercion. Vladimir Putin has recently put that concept on full display with his thinly veiled reference to their use, and by putting his nuclear force — allegedly — on heightened alert. Nuclear weapons, especially those designed for either theater or tactical use, are the ultimate in wide-area destruction. It may be that by rattling his nuclear saber Putin seeks to signify that even if his armed forces are only marginally capable, he can still resort to nuclear force.

Hinting at such an option in even the vaguest terms is a source of serious concern. Many are already speculating that to save face and restore some degree of military respect, Putin may use a tactical nuclear weapon to stun the western powers into accepting his barbaric invasion. Some describe this as “escalating to deescalate.” We can only hope it will not come to that. But given the Russian army’s amateurish performance so far, suggesting a resort to nuclear weapons may be Putin’s only remedy for making NATO and others take future Russian military threats — and the Russian army itself — seriously. After all, NATO has numbers as well. And they are now likely to be increased.

It is worth remembering that in all past conflicts where a Russian structured, equipped, and trained military has faced off with a western opponent, the western force always wins. That was seen in the Arab-Israeli wars of the 1950s and 1960s, and even in the brief conflict between Syria and Jordan in 1970 — with the Jordanians being significantly outnumbered. And the Desert Storm operation adds an exclamation point. The only slight exception would be Egypt’s successful crossing of the Suez Canal in 1973, but a major Israeli counterattack placed the Egyptian army east of the canal in great peril, and only the diplomatic efforts of the United States averted an Egyptian military disaster.

The Russian army has provided the latest evidence that their military concept is seriously deficient on many levels — from the soldier level to the strategic. They have no capacity for military subtlety, and evidently no desire to employ it if they did. In addition, there seems to be no line of indecency they are unwilling to cross. Even if the Russians eventually prevail in Ukraine, their military reputation, not to mention their basic humanity, will be a major casualty.

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Tom Davis

Tom Davis

Tom Davis is a 1972 West Point graduate with a Master’s degree from Harvard University. He is author of the Cold War novels “Conclave” and “Empty Quiver”.