July 24, 2022

The Not-too-Mighty Russian Armed Forces

The Not-too-Mighty Russian Armed Forces
The charred chassis of vehicles line a road heading into Kiev. Ministry of the Interior of Ukraine.

February 24 seems like forever ago. But it is worth thinking back to what the world saw and expected five months before today.

Most keen Russia-watchers watched with dread as a blitzkrieg of advanced artillery, helicopters, tanks, and ships stormed into Ukraine's eastern borders, inundating the countryside. Troops flooded in from the border with Belarus, beelining toward Kiev.

Everyone seemed to expect that Russia – a huge country with a world-class military – would easily take out tiny Ukraine. It was only a matter of time before Kiev fell and the entire country would fall into Moscow's clutches. The daily deluge of news updates reported town after town falling to superior Russian forces. Kiev's forces were outnumbered five to one. How long could Ukraine hold out?

And then... nothing.

The siege of Kiev, which had promised brutal urban combat, petered out, and the Russian attackers retreated into Belarus. Attacks in the east of Ukraine also stalled. Since the end of April, the lines have remained largely the same (see the real-time Ukraine Interactive Battle Map). Russian "conquests" (in reality the flattening and earth-scorching) of the towns of Mariupol and Lysychansk have been hailed by the Kremlin as great victories, but in reality they have done little to make Russia's strategic picture brighter.

Ukraine battle lines
The situation as of mid-July, 2022. Red is Russia-held territory; blue is territory recaptured by Ukraine. | LiveUAMap.com

It seems that, instead, Russian forces have focused on consolidating the territory they already have. Economic ties between Russia and newly-conquered land have been shored up. Putin announced bureaucratic fast-tracking for Ukrainian citizens to get Russian passports: first only those in areas under Russian control, but this was later expanded to all Ukrainians. The people and land are becoming more integrated into Russia, but the capitulation of Ukraine isn't getting any closer.

Moscow predicted they could take the entirety of Ukraine in three days. It's now been almost five months. Putin says things are going to plan, but it's obvious they aren't. Early defeats were rationalized as an amateurish advance guard that would be followed up by the real soldiers, but the more professional reinforcement has failed to materialize. Each day that Kiev stands, each day troops don't move forward, Russia's military loses another measure of credibility.

Not even the experts could have predicted it. From the outset, Russia looked like a formidable foe. Its army was massive, its generals well-trained. Russia touts itself as a superpower, and supposedly has the weapons to back it up. If there was a time to flex its muscles, to show off all its cool gadgets, this would be it. But that hasn't quite happened.

For example, take the T-14 Armata tank, a state-of-the-art armored vehicle mounting impenetrable armor and bristling with sensors. It's been in development since 2014 and has been the star of Victory Day parades for years. But it's unlikely Russia has any that aren't just working prototypes. And with international sanctions preventing the import of many of the systems needed to build the T-14, it's all but guaranteed that new units will not be rolling off the production line anytime soon. Russia is stuck with older T-72s and T-90s. The T-72s, Soviet relics, have a habit of exploding when hit, instantly incinerating their crews and launching their turrets into the air. T-90s are more modern but ineffective for their price tag.

A Su-57. All that glitters... | Wikimedia Commons, Alex Beltyukov

Or the Su-57 "Felon" supermaneuverable stealth fighter jet, a fearsome-looking answer to America's F-22. It's purported to integrate all the latest developments of aircraft design, making it fast, hard to detect, and capable of taking on a multitude of combat roles. It's so badass that it starred as the climactic antagonist in the new Top Gun movie. But there are only sixteen in existence, ten of which are test units. Compare this to nearly two hundred operational F-22s in American service, and hundreds of other comparable fighters flying under NATO colors, and suddenly the Su-57's threat seems negligible.

If there's one piece of Russian military hardware waiting to be deployed, it's the BMPT "Terminator." Setting aside the irony of a Russian vehicle named after a popular American film franchise, the Terminator, unlike the T-14 and Su-57, has already been mass-produced and seen combat in Syria and Iraq. It's a tank support vehicle designed for urban warfare, shielding the big guns from attacks from infantry or smaller vehicles. But, while it's been deployed to Ukraine in small numbers, experts say that it's unlikely to make much of a difference against an organized and determined defender.

BMPT Terminator
... is not gold. A BMPT "Terminator." | Kirill Borisenko, Wikimedia Commons

All of these weapons systems looked flashy at trade shows and impressive on Red Square, but their actual impact has been negligible. The stats listed on Wikipedia inspire fear, but the actual machines have fizzled when put into practice.

So why has the attack on Ukraine stalled? What blunted Russia's seemingly unstoppable army?

Western help has undoubtedly played a role. Sanctions have put pressure on Russia's economy and the manufacturing sectors that produce things like planes and tanks. Washington has done a remarkably good job of providing just enough help to make an impact without provoking escalation. It was a good idea to reject plans for a no-fly zone, and the recent export of the HIMARS mobile rocket artillery system to Ukrainian forces has already caused consternation and confusion in the Russian lines. But America and NATO can't take all the credit.

Corruption, too, must have played its part. Even days before the invasion, Belarusians near where Russian forces were encamped, waiting to cross the border into Ukraine, reported troops coming into town to sell fuel for money to buy alcohol. It was little wonder, then, that once these same Russian troops got into Ukraine, a good deal of expensive military gear was going to be simply abandoned by crews. This is just a recent example; it's likely that systematic corruption, everything from selling military hardware to nepotism in the defense sector to bribery, on all levels – all the way up to Putin himself – has crippled Russia's performance more than almost anything. This YouTube video does a fantastic job of explaining the phenomenon of corruption and its consequences.

Lastly, a lack of planning for the operation may have doomed it from the start, which led to all those parts of war besides the sexy high-tech war machines falling through the cracks. Not only has Russia's unprovoked war taken much, much longer than anticipated; it also began in early spring, just when East European mud is at its worst. And the whole campaign seems to have been cobbled together. Reportedly, Russia was asked by China to delay its invasion of Ukraine until after Beijing's Winter Olympics so that it wouldn't steal the spotlight (Russia obliged). Logistical issues have plagued the Russian military since February; soldiers have been found with seven-year-old rations, and military vehicles have been breaking down or running out of fuel. Hence those videos of everyday Ukrainian tractors hauling away multi-million-dollar antiaircraft platforms. According to some, Russian jet pilots have even been resorting to using foreign-made commercial GPS units and cellphone apps for navigation because it's difficult to get high-quality Russian-built systems.

tractor pulling Russian milit equipment
A Ukrainian tractor pulling a Russian antiaircraft missile vehicle. | YouTube

All of these factors have made Ukraine a perfect storm for Russian military failure. A multitude of small missteps, the things not typically reported, culminate in the set pieces, like the failure of the siege of Kiev and the sinking of Russia's Black Sea flagship, the Moskva.

This isn't to say that Ukraine has had a walk in the park when facing off against Russian forces. They've been fighting tooth and nail. And the Russian military has turned, seemingly out of desperation, to tactics that border on war crimes. And poor discipline among the ranks has led to terror for the civilian population.

But the situation should give defense professionals pause. After fifty years of Cold War fear, maybe it's time to reevaluate the actual threat the Russian military poses. It's becoming more and more obvious that Western militaries, especially when working together, are more than a match for Russia.

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