More than ten years ago, the Kremlin announced a complete overhaul of the Russian military. A slimmer, more flexible, professional force would be built. But now, almost three months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that the Kremlin has failed miserably to create an effective fighting machine. Despite investments of several hundred billion. How is it possible?
That eye opener That things did not go well with the Russian army came in 2008 with the invasion of Georgia. Army vehicles were so dilapidated that repair crews were deployed about every 15 miles. Some officers were so out of shape (read: so fat) that the army had to spend 1.5 million euros on just new uniforms.
But now, almost three months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that the Kremlin has failed miserably to create an effective fighting machine. Russian military forces in Ukraine have underperformed to an extent that has surprised most Western analysts, raising the prospect of Putin’s military operation failing.
After all, the Russian army has taken a major blow in Ukraine despite having conquered territory in the south and east. It has been forced to relinquish what would be expected to be a blitzkrieg to conquer the entire country in a matter of days. The Russian troops were driven out from near Kiev, the capital. The Black Sea Fleet’s flagship, Moscow, was sunk. Russia has never been able to control its airspace. And according to some Western estimates, tens of thousands of Russians have died.
War games that should make “any enemy sober”
This war has revealed the fact that much of the military culture and learned behaviors of the Soviet era continue: rigidity in the chain of command, corruption in military spending, and hiding victims and repeating the mantra that everything goes according to plan when it is not. the case at all.
The problems were actually hidden in plain sight. Just last summer, Russia hosted war games that employed 200,000 men from various branches of the military in a false attempt to fight NATO. It would, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, be one of the largest military exercises ever.
Lieutenant General Yunus-Bek Evkunov, the deputy defense minister, told reporters that the exercises demonstrated Russia’s ability to quickly deploy joint forces in a way that “would make any enemy sober.”
But the whole exercise was the script. There was not even a simulated opponent. The main units involved had been practicing their choreography for several months. And each exercise started and stopped at a fixed time. The number of troops that participated was probably not even half of what the Kremlin claimed.
Birth rates and low wages
When Russia tried to rebuild its military after the Georgia conflict in 2008, the goal was to reject its rigidly centralized Soviet-era military. Instead, field officers would be given more responsibility, units would learn to synchronize their skills, and the entire arsenal would be drawn into the computer age.
Many traditionalists resisted change and preferred the old model with massive, concentrated force. But other factors also contributed to the military’s inability to transform. Birth rates throughout the United States have dropped dramatically already in the 1990s, leading to a reduction in the number of men available for recruitment. That and continued low wages slowed employment targets. And then there was endemic corruption that hampered modernization efforts.
The basic problem
But the basic problem was that the military culture of the Soviet Union persisted, but with a lack of manpower and resources. The Soviet Army was built to generate millions of men – four million could be mobilized in no time, it used to be – to fill many divisions that had endless supplies of equipment for World War III, the war with NATO that never came.
Eventually, the urge for change faltered, creating a hybrid version of the military, somewhere between a mass mobilization and a more flexible version. It is still an army that, for example, prefers significant artillery over infantry troops that can take and hold land.
The scripted way the military practices warfare, seen during last summer’s exercises, is telling. No one is being tested on their ability to think on the battlefield. Instead, officers are still judged solely on their ability to follow instructions.
The target of recruiting 50,000 contract soldiers each year, which was first set ten years ago, has not been met
Russia, however, is eager for the world to see its army as it presents it at the annual Victory Day parade – a well-oiled instrument of skilled soldiers in handsome uniforms marching in time and an arsenal of spectacular, threatening weapons. It is an expression of how the Kremlin uses the armed forces as a propaganda machine.
Russian leaders also have an ability to exaggerate the country’s military success. In 2017, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu boasted at a meeting with Philippine ministerial colleagues that Russia had “liberated” 503,223 square kilometers in Syria. The problem is that the area Shoigu claimed to have liberated from militants is more than twice as large as the entire country.
Moreover, Russian troops had no real adversary in Syria; the war was mostly an air force operation where the pilots could hover over targets at will. Russia has not waged a major land war since World War II.
With about 900,000 people in total, just over a third of them land troops, the Russian army is actually not that big, considering that it has to defend a huge country that spans 11 time zones. The goal of recruiting 50,000 contract soldiers each year, first set ten years ago, has not been met, so there is still an annual “lottery” for enlisted 18- to 27-year-olds.
“Every soldier steals as much of the allotted money as is appropriate for his rank”
Putin has not (yet) resorted to a massive military draft that would bring all healthy adult men together for the war. But even if he did, the infrastructure needed to educate civilians galore no longer exists. It is agreed that most of Russia’s available land forces have already been deployed to Ukraine.
Widespread corruption has also depleted resources. Everyone steals as much of the money allocated as is appropriate for their rank, it says. Corruption is so prevalent that some cases inevitably end up in court. In January, Colonel Evgeny Pustovoy, the former head of the armored vehicle procurement department, was accused of helping steal more than 13 million euros by falsifying contracts for batteries from 2018 to 2020.
In February, a military court in Moscow stripped General Alexander Ogloblin of his rank and sentenced him to 4.5 years in prison for “particularly large-scale fraud.” Authorities accused him of embezzling around 25 million euros in government contracts for satellite and other equipment.
One in five rubles spent on the armed forces was stolen
Large contracts are not the only temptation. The combination of low wages – a senior officer earns about $ 1,000 a month – and escalating budgets is a recipe for theft of every kind, leading to a chain reaction of problems.
Commanders, for example, hide how few exercises they perform and pocket the resources budgeted for them. It exacerbates the lack of basic military skills such as navigation and shooting. One in five rubles spent on the armed forces was stolen, military chief prosecutor Sergey Fridinsky told Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper, in 2011.
There are also numerous examples of poor quality. The infamous Pantsir air defense system proved unable to shoot small Israeli drones down over Syria; the Russian-made lamps on the wings of SU-35 fighter jets melt at supersonic speeds; new trucks that break down after two years.
Hundreds of billions
However, Russia has invested hundreds of billions of euros in its army and has produced a stream of new aircraft, tanks, helicopters and other equipment as part of the state’s armaments program. According to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, military spending has not fallen below 3.5 percent of gross domestic product for most of the past decade, at a time when most European countries were struggling to achieve 2 percent of GDP. And that is only the public part of the Russian military budget.
In general, Russian weapons lag behind its automated Western counterparts, but it is useful according to military analysts. If there is enough of it. For example, the T-14 Armata, a “next generation” main tank, unveiled in 2015, has not been deployed in Ukraine because so few have been made to date.