Tactical errors, logistical problems, poorly motivated troops… the Russian invasion of Ukraine launched on February 24, 2022 largely damaged the reputation of the second army in the world and demonstrated the blindness of Russian military intelligence.
Very few military experts would have bet on such a scenario at the start of the “special operation” launched by the Kremlin on February 24, 2022: one year after the outbreak of hostilities, the world’s second military power is struggling. in Ukraine, not even controlling all of the regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in the East, despite colossal material and human losses.
From the sinking of the flagship ‘Moskva’ to the withdrawal from Kherson to the deadly Ukrainian New Year’s strike at Makiivka, the Russian army has experienced a series of bitter failures both operationally and symbolically. In Russia, “hawks” and commentators close to the Kremlin no longer spare an institution now facing competition from the rise in power of the paramilitary group Wagner.
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Praised by Russian power for its hypersonic capabilities or its nuclear deterrent, the military tool has been a central lever of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy for two decades: invasion of Georgia in 2008, hybrid war in the Donbass since 2014 or intervention in Syria in 2015. The holding of large-scale military exercises, Vostok and Zapad, also contributed to maintaining the myth of a modern and powerful army ready to engage in a high-intensity conflict.
“The war in Ukraine showed in reality that it was probably ‘Potemkin demonstrations’ more than military exercises as we understand it in our armies. We realized that in practice, the level performance of the Russian army on a large scale was weak, in particular with regard to combined arms combat (synergy between infantry, tanks, artillery, etc.) or even 3D coordination, i.e. say between the actions of the land forces, the aviation, the anti-aircraft defense”, details Philippe Gros, researcher at the foundation for strategic research (FRS).
“There was finally a form of double intoxication: Westerners had a distorted image of the effectiveness of the Russian armies and the Russians themselves overestimated their own power”, analyzes the associate professor at Paris-Sorbonne and specialist in defense issues, Guillaume Lasconjarias, who underlines that the short duration of the engagement as well as the weak opposition encountered in Georgia or in Syria had offered only few indications on the real Russian military capacities.
In the Ukrainian trap
Faced with determined Ukrainians, well informed and armed with ammunition and Western weapons, the master of the Kremlin embarked on an otherwise perilous adventure in one of the largest countries in Europe.
“Undoubtedly, Putin was intoxicated by his successes,” says military historian Stéphane Courtois, author of the book “The Black Book of Vladimir Poutine” (ed. Robert Laffont). “In this increasingly personal dictatorship, Putin only surrounds himself with people who give him the speech he wants to hear. He was completely misinformed by his services, which promised him the capture of Kiev in three days”.
On the ground, nothing goes as planned. Contrary to the fantasies fed by Moscow, the Ukrainians do not welcome the Russian tanks with flowers, but with Molotov cocktails. The general resistance is a surprise for the Russian army which, despite its numerical superiority, fails in its attempt at a blitzkrieg.
“Contrary to the military logic of concentration of effort, the Russian General Staff launched seven axes of attack around Ukraine. The Russians thought that by dispersing their forces in the battle, they would dilute the Ukrainian response and that the whole was going to collapse”, notes Guillaume Lasconjarias.
“What will always continue to puzzle me is how this invasion began,” said Nicolo Fasola, a specialist in Russian military issues at the University of Bologna. “Russian doctrine normally emphasizes seizing the initiative and engaging suddenly and massively to surprise the adversary and achieve rapid territorial gains. Yet the Russians spent months building up their forces on the borders of the ‘Ukraine thus totally losing this element of surprise,’ the researcher wonders.
“The first month of the war was a massacre”
Added to tactical wanderings and the bankruptcy of military intelligence are major communication dysfunctions within the chain of command. Officers thus find themselves forced to expose themselves on the front line to pass their orders. At the end of March 2022, Ukraine claimed the death of seven senior Russian officers on the battlefield, highlighting the weakness of the supervision of the troops by non-commissioned officers.
“In all Western armies, the non-commissioned officer is the sinews of war. He is the man who makes the link between the officers, those who give the orders, and the base troops”, summarizes Stéphane Courteous.
The degree of unpreparedness of the Russian army surprises even the Western chancelleries. Difficulties symbolized during the first weeks of the offensive by the erratic progression of a huge column of armored vehicles from Belarus. “From a military point of view, it was absolute madness. It was enough to fire the first tanks to immobilize the entire column which then became totally vulnerable”, points out the military historian.
“Most of the Russian soldiers had also been deployed for several months on the borders of Ukraine and their equipment was already partially worn out”, recalls Philippe Gros, researcher at the FRS. “The first month of the war was a massacre in terms of equipment and personnel. The Russian army probably never recovered from these first five weeks of operation.”
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According to an estimate by the head of the Norwegian army communicated on January 22, the clashes in Ukraine since February 24, 2022 have left nearly 180,000 dead or injured in the ranks of the Russian army, 100,000 on the Ukrainian side.
The weight of the Soviet legacy
According to military experts, the war in Ukraine revealed the failure of the Russian army modernization enterprise launched in 2008. “It was a process copied from that of Western armies, which consisted of reducing the part of conscription for more professionalization, trying to acquire a body of non-commissioned officers or even insisting on the transformation of technologies”, details the specialist in defense issues, Guillaume Lasconjarias.
“However, from the point of view of doctrine, the Russian army remained Soviet. On the one hand, there was an attempt at Western-style modernization and reorganization, but on the other, Soviet use of the military tool favoring the effect of mass and intensity”, analyzes Nicolo Fasolo, according to whom this hybrid version of the Russian army makes it ineffective on the Ukrainian ground.
On the contrary, all the old faults of the Soviet heritage have come to light: faulty logistics, endemic corruption, low price placed on the lives of soldiers and chronic under-equipment, as shown by the use of means of unencrypted communications in Ukraine making spotting Russian units a breeze for Kyiv forces.
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The image of the Russian army has also been tarnished for a long time by the massive bombardments on civilian populations, considered as possible “war crimes” by the West, as well as by the extreme brutality and indiscipline of certain units.
“When you know how the Red Army behaved, I was not surprised for a single second by what happened in Boutcha,” says historian Stéphane Courtois. “Killings of civilians, rapes, tortures, looting… This is the Stalinist model of war”.
Looking for a second wind
While the front has stabilized for about two months, speculation is rife about a new offensive by the Russian army from the east or launched in the north from Belarusian territory.
According to the Ukrainian authorities, Russia is preparing to send to the front by the spring around 200,000 conscripts from last autumn who will have been previously trained and trained.
“However, we can doubt their level of efficiency, because we have the impression that the Russians lack everything; equipment, armament and supervision. We have an army that seems to be odds and ends but which nevertheless remains dangerous”, underlines Guillaume Lasconjarias.
Between the weakness of human resources and operational wear and tear, many experts doubt Russia’s ability to regain control in the conflict. “I do not believe in the prospect of a major offensive in the near future. On the other hand, they will be able to hold the front line by maintaining a strategy of attrition”, advances Nicolo Fasola, specialist in Russian military questions at the University of Bologna.
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“It can be safely argued that the Ukrainians have six to eight months to achieve a decisive victory, that is to say an offensive like that of Kharkiv, but on a much larger scale which would cause a collapse of the Russian posture and would lead the Kremlin to understand that he will no longer be able to restore the situation,” said Philippe Gros. “After this window, it is possible that the Russians will manage within a year to really achieve a form of war economy which would increase their capacity to manufacture and maintain equipment and no longer allow the Ukrainians to dislodge them from their position”.
Source: France 24