On the eve of war in Ukraine, US officials told Newsweek they believed Kyiv would fall within days of a Russian invasion, and the country’s resistance neutralized soon thereafter. They were so convinced of this outcome that they even offered to evacuate Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Driving this assessment was the fact that prior to the war, much was made of Russia’s vaunted military power, particularly its hardware—all those new weapon systems added since 2008—and on the overwhelming size of the Russian forces.
For instance, nine days before the invasion, a piece by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies offered an in-depth assessment of Russia’s new tanks, planes, warships, missiles, and artillery, providing an ominous picture of what the Ukrainians would face if war came. The “New Look” modernization program was said to make Russia “a far more capable military power today than at any time since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
As the war’s duration approaches three months, however, the Ukrainians have not only reversed the Russian military’s drive on Kyiv but, to the surprise of virtually everyone, forced it to withdraw from the entire northern part of the country. A subsequent attempt to narrow the Russian offensive to the east in order to encircle Ukrainian forces has likewise come to grief. Even overcoming the resistance of the small, beleaguered body of Ukrainian defenders in Mariupol took more than eighty days, required Russia to resort to appallingly destructive tactics, and can hardly be counted as the performance of a highly capable military force. Russian casualty numbers in these misadventures have been staggering. What’s more, Russia’s poor military performance has come at an extraordinary cost: only a month into the war, NATO estimated that up to forty thousand Russian troops had already been killed, wounded, or captured, or had gone missing.
These developments reveal that prewar analysis focused too narrowly on the Russian military’s new and modernized equipment, which was hiding ugly facts and conditions. An analysis of those realities, now on full display on Ukraine’s battlefields, provides a far better understanding of what analysts missed in their evaluation of the Russian army that invaded Ukraine. In effect, those gleaming new tanks and planes constitute a Potemkin army, an impressive facade designed to hide from Vladimir Putin the ugly truth that it was not ready for war.
While modern historians now contend that the story of Grigory Potemkin’s portable village deception of Catherine II is overblown, the way that the reality of Putin’s army was concealed from him—a reality on full display in Ukraine—constitutes a deliberate deception of gross negligence and deployment of an army unprepared for full-scale war.
Dismal Logistics and Vehicle Maintenance
General Omar Bradley famously (and perhaps apocryphally) said, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” This truism seems lost on Putin’s army. One of the most notable shortfalls of the invading forces has been the sheer number of vehicles the Russians have abandoned since the start of the war.
The military analysis site Oryx, which tracks the material losses on both sides in Ukraine through open sources, reports that Russia has lost thousands of vehicles of all types, including more than six hundred tanks, and hundreds more armored vehicles of many types. Scores of those losses are due to the Ukrainian military’s use of Western-supplied weaponry, such as the American FGM-148 Javelin and the British NLAW.
But it’s not only Ukrainian firepower stopping Russian vehicles. Satellite images revealed a major problem Russia has faced since launching the invasion is a breakdown of its logistical supply system. Within a few weeks of the war, images were shared widely that showed undamaged but abandoned vehicles littering Ukrainian roads, making clear that the Russian military is suffering from major maintenance problems likely due to shortages of spare parts and fuel.
Russia’s logistics woes are not just limited to poor planning and organization causing massive traffic jams. Trent Telenko, a former staff specialist with the Department of Defense and US Army vehicle auditor, has noted that images of Russia’s trucks and other vehicles reveal signs of a serious neglect of maintenance. In particular, images showing ripped-up tires and leaking wheel hubs expose a massive lack of the routine maintenance required to keep vehicles running—vehicles that are the primary means for transporting tons of supplies like food, fuel, ammunition, and spare parts to the war zone.
The Russian military’s logistics support appears severely limited in its capability to sufficiently resupply its forces. A widespread lack of maintenance, combined with bad Ukrainian weather and muddy roads, drastically limits that capability. What accounts for these maintenance and spare parts deficits? Poor planning? Yes. The tyranny of distance? Yes. And then there is the corruption of the Russian military and defense sector. In 2020, Transparency International’s Government Defence Integrity Index designated Russia’s defense sector as “at high risk of corruption, owing to extremely limited external oversight of the policies, budgets, activities and acquisitions of defence institutions.” Corruption extends even to the tactical level—Russian soldiers have a history of selling their own fuel on the black market, and Russian soldiers in Belarus have reportedly tried to sell fuel to locals both before and during the war in Ukraine.
The effect of all of this has extended all the way down to the Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) that Russian soldiers carried in their rucksacks into Ukraine. Many had expired in 2015, as captured Russian field rations in Ukraine show. The ration problem has reportedly gotten so bad that Russia has requested MREs from China.
Training and Experience Shortfalls
Another indicator that helps explain the Russian military’s poor performance so far in Ukraine is its training practices. This is especially relevant when it comes to combined arms operations. “So far, Russian forces have shown extremely poor coordination across the board, from basic logistics tasks, to coordination of airborne assaults with ground forces activity and arranging air defence cover for columns on the move,” Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, wrote at the beginning of the conflict.
Despite the Russian military’s recent experience in Syria, its initial advances in Ukraine showed poor proficiency in these kinds of operations. The first assault on Hostomel’s airport, for instance, was done almost entirely by airborne infantry and helicopters, with no long-range indirect fire and hardly any support from fixed-wing aircraft.
As a result, Ukrainian defenders, with the aid of armored vehicles, fixed-wing aircraft, and helicopter gunships, were able to rally, surround the Russians, shoot down some of the helicopters, and retake the airport for a short period of time—long enough to damage the runway and render it unusable even when Russian forces seized the airport a second time.
Had the Russians executed a combined arms attack that, in addition to the helicopter assault, included coordinated long-range missile strikes along with fixed-wing attack aircraft and suppression of enemy air defense operations, they could have successfully captured the airfield and destroyed any counterattacking forces, enabling Russian reinforcements to be flown in en masse just outside of Kyiv.
Subsequent fighting in the area saw Russian forces attempt to seize towns and cities with apparently no air support at times, reportedly leading to high casualties. One video posted by Ukraine’s intelligence service, for instance, shows the apparent aftermath of an ambush in Hostomel that wiped out an entire Russian platoon, including multiple armored vehicles.
A lack of rigorous training and relevant experience may explain the limited operations by the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS), one of the war’s ongoing mysteries. Despite a large modernization program in the last decade that added about 350 new and modern aircraft to its inventory and a force of about 300 combat aircraft usually stationed near Ukraine, the VKS has not conducted the type of large operations that were critical to NATO or allied successes in the wars in Kosovo, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
The VKS does fly over one hundred sorties a day, but a “good number” of those sorties “never leave Russian airspace or Belarusian airspace,” with Russian aircraft “not venturing very far or for very long into Ukrainian airspace,” according to a senior US defense official. Instead, the VKS has relied heavily on firing long-range standoff munitions launched from bombers and aircraft over Russia, Belarus, and the Black Sea, likely because Ukrainian air defenses cannot reach them there.
Though the VKS gained valuable experience in Syria, it usually only sent small formations on combat missions—often a lone fighter-bomber or two to four aircraft at one time. Even when different types of aircraft operated together, they generally only did so in pairs of two. Thus, the VKS does not have experience conducting operations with multiple types of aircraft flying together in formations of dozens of planes operating in a coordinated fashion to attack multiple targets.
Additionally, VKS pilots themselves receive less training than their Western counterparts, with the average Russian pilot conducting about 100–120 flying hours per year. By comparison, the average British and American fighter pilot logs around 180–240 flying hours per year. The type of training is also different, with US and British pilots utilizing advanced flight simulators, training in bad weather, and practicing attacks against live and simulated air and ground defenses within time constraints. “By contrast, most VKS frontline training sorties involve comparatively sterile environments, and simple tasks such as navigation flights, unguided weapon deliveries at open ranges, and target simulation flying in cooperation with the ground-based air-defence system,” according to Bronk.
The Paralysis of Centralized Leadership
The invasion has also brought new public scrutiny to the Russian military’s leadership structure, mainly because of the reported loss of so many general officers. According to Ukrainian officials, the death toll of Russian soldiers includes twelve general officers, a staggering number. A large number of lower-ranking senior officers have also reportedly been killed, including the deputy commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The Russian government has not confirmed all of the reported deaths, but, if genuine, they would represent the highest attrition rate among senior officers for Russia since World War II.
There are a number of reasons for these casualty figures, such as the reported usage of mobile phones and unsecured radio channels enabling Ukrainian intelligence to locate and target the generals. But the main reason is because the Russian command-and-control structure is highly centralized and top-heavy, which means that Russia’s senior officers have to be close to the front line simply to command their troops. This in turn puts them at considerable risk of being successfully located and targeted, a process that the United States has helped facilitate by providing actionable intelligence about their whereabouts.
The US system, by comparison, is much less centralized. While senior officers strategize and make the overall plans that guide operations, it is the strong cadre of junior officers, aided by a highly professional corps of noncommissioned officers (NCOs) with years of training, military education, and experience, who actually carry out those orders on the ground.
And while those US junior officers and NCOs obey orders from their superiors, the concept of mission command empowers them to make decisions themselves when executing those orders on the ground, with the authority to adapt and improvise. This is especially important, as it ensures a seamless transition of command decision-making in the heat of battle.
The Russian military has no such similarly empowered junior officers and NCO corps. As a result, unit cohesion is more difficult to maintain. Everything from logistics issues, morale problems, and panic on the battlefield cannot be addressed locally, but must wait for guidance from the top.
The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, has been attempting to model its military on NATO and US standards, including building up its own NCO corps through engagement in programs like NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme.
More Ugly Surprises Await Putin
While the above facts explain why Russia’s military has failed to achieve its main objectives so far, the war has entered a new phase, with Russian attention shifting from a large-scale invasion across multiple fronts on Ukraine’s border to a face-saving effort focused more narrowly on Ukraine’s Donbas region.
The shift to a narrower front has brought about a regrouping and reorganizing of the Russian military’s capabilities, as well as lessening the strain on its logistics networks, to enable better performance. In addition, the VKS has shown signs of increased activity, and the state of Ukraine’s air defenses may be weaker as almost three months of action and attrition may have reduced the stockpile of surface-to-air munitions.
But this will not be enough to cause a reversal of fortune for Putin and his military.
Ukraine continues to inflict heavy costs on those military forces, including last month’s sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship. Moreover, Russia’s “primary armored vehicle manufacturer appears to have run out of parts to make and repair tanks,” reports Fortune, constrained as a result of international sanctions. This is but one illustration of the impact sanctions have imposed.
The Ukrainians have revealed that the Russian military many believed to be the second strongest in the world has serious limitations. It has proven to be a facade of gleaming new tanks and planes concealing all of the performance and command problems noted above, until they had to fight.
This ugly surprise will not go away as Ukraine increasingly begins to look like a quagmire, entrapping Vladimir Putin and his Potemkin army in a military and diplomatic swamp.
Richard Shultz is a professor and director of the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.
Benjamin Brimelow is a research assistant in the International Security Studies Program at The Fletcher School, Tufts University.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: kremlin.ru, via Wikimedia Commons