Ukraine’s continuing rout of Russian forces in the east has exposed fundamental problems within the Russian military, including deficiencies and power struggles in its command structure and gaps in intelligence gathering and processing. Though Russia’s early failures and difficulty recruiting enough soldiers for the front line have been clear for months, the latest operation shows the depth of the disarray and stasis in Russia’s armed forces.
Ukraine’s lightning strike operation in the Kharkiv region demonstrated the Ukrainian military’s ability to take advantage of those deficiencies to recapture not just territory, but strategically important transport and resupply hubs for the Russian military’s eastern front. Although the war is far from over, and Russia still controls around 20 percent of Ukraine’s territory, the Kharkiv operation provided a strategic and moral win for Ukraine, and revealed a Russian military seemingly unable — or unwilling — to learn from its previous errors.
Fighting continues in southern Ukraine near Kherson and in the Donbas, where Russia had sent its more experienced soldiers prior to the Kharkiv blitz. While it’s impossible to predict how the fighting will play out there, Ukraine’s ability to take the battlefield initiative and exploit Russian weaknesses — as well as materiel, financial, and intelligence support from Western countries — put Ukraine’s military in a stronger position.
Since the beginning of the war, Russian failures — its inability to achieve its initial goal of a short, surgical operation to remove Ukrainian leadership, its withdrawal from Kyiv and reorientation toward the south in the spring, and numerous tactical blunders — have been surprising. Earlier, devastating campaigns in Syria and Chechnya, as well as sophisticated military doctrine and strategic shows of force, successfully burnished the Russian military’s image, but in a large-scale ground war against a well-equipped and organized adversary, that same organization is buckling under serious miscalculations and a chaotic military structure.
Strikingly, the Ukrainian military’s recent victories have even forced the Russian media to acknowledge that “there are setbacks,” Rita Konaev, deputy director of analysis at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told Vox.
“Of course, there’s still a message of, ‘We will stay in it until we reach our goals,’ although the goals continue to evolve and shift and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has demonstrated that he is able to re-articulate the goals to fit the changing reality on the ground without suffering much,” she said. “He doesn’t have to comply with reality” when it comes to his messaging on Ukraine, she continued.
The Russian military’s command structure is a mess
While neither Russia nor Ukraine disclose official military death tolls, the losses on each side are likely in the tens of thousands. An August estimate from the US Department of Defense put Russian battlefield injuries and deaths at “70 or 80,000 casualties in less than six months,” undersecretary of defense for policy Colin Kahl said. The death toll specifically was estimated to be around 20,000 — 15,000 of which were regular troops, and about 5,000 private mercenaries like those from the Wagner Group, the New York Times’s Helene Cooper reported at the time.
In the past week, reporting on Russian efforts to recruit soldiers both for regular units and for the Wagner Group has shown the military’s difficulty in attracting qualified troops to fight in Ukraine. A New York Times piece by Christiaan Triebert studied a leaked video of a man resembling Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin’s and long rumored to be Wagner’s head, trying to recruit shock troops at a penal colony in Yoshkar-Ola, about 400 miles east of the Russian capital of Moscow. The man in the video promises prisoners their freedom in exchange for a six-month tour of duty in Ukraine; while it’s unclear when the video was filmed, experts assess it was made sometime in the past three months, indicating that the recruitment efforts are not new.
“To turn somebody who is a convicted felon with, as far as we know, no real military — or at least combat — experience, to marshal hundreds of thousands of men to the front line of what is arguably one of the most important wars in Russia’s modern history, tells you something about the mentality in the Kremlin right now,” Candace Rondeaux, the director of Future Frontlines at the New America think tank, told the Times.
It’s also an indication of the Kremlin’s continuing desire to shield the Russian people from the realities of the war, although the armed forces are also trying to bring in volunteers from the civilian population — touting high wages and leaning heavily on patriotism and hyper-masculine posturing to do so, Reuters reported Sunday.
Even if the Russian armed forces somehow solve the recruitment problem, the intertwined issues of leadership and training remain. “We’ve seen such high levels of Russian officer casualties, and the officers coming are even less experienced,” Mason Clark, the Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, told Vox. “We’ve seen cadets rushed out of Russian military educational institutions early and sent to the front lines, and the replacements are not getting the full training that they would if the Kremlin pursued large-scale mobilization. It’s just pushing forward largely unfit personnel to replace initial losses.”
That played out in the Kharkiv offensive in early September, when Russian forces fled in the face of oncoming Ukrainian troops, as opposed to a planned, orderly withdrawal, John Spencer, the chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum, told Vox. “Organizationally, it means they don’t even have the capability to do a measured withdrawal,” he said. Though the units that fled around Kharkiv aren’t representative of the whole Russian military, their strategy — or lack thereof — does point toward a potentially force-wide problem that can play to Ukraine’s advantage.
“Ukrainians have been attacking Russian sources of power — their ammunition supply, their command and control networks — because they don’t have a flexible command and control network,” Spencer said. “So if you take out their control cells and their generals, it weakens the enemy.”
There’s also a political element to the disarray in leadership, Konaev said. Not only do the armed forces lack qualified leaders because they’re being taken out on the battlefield, they’re also “being purged continuously from within,” she told Vox. “We’ve seen a lot of turnover in who has the military districts, who’s the head of the airborne forces, the VDV — they’re elite forces — the commander of the Black Sea fleets, and a bunch of junior commanders have all been continuously replaced,” causing a lack of “institutional knowledge, lack of trust, not enough time to prove any sort of an independent concept of how they would reorient and regroup or perform better — there’s not enough time to implement it.”
The culture of fear is also “likely further impeding the willingness [of commanders] to take risks or plot effective operations,” Clark said, making a tactical shift next to impossible.
So while Ukraine is attacking Russia’s command structure on the battlefield, the Kremlin and personal politicking at the highest levels are doing plenty to push that process along.
“A lot of this starts with the problems at the top,” Konaev said. “There’s a bit of a tension between vying for power and trying to avoid responsibility” for Russia’s failures on the battlefield. “So you always have these levels of command who want more leadership and prestige and power, but at the same time, nobody wants to be the last one standing, caught responsible for all of these failures.”
The challenges of intelligence collection are amplified
Another major area of weakness is Russia’s reconnaissance capabilities, which leaves Russian forces vulnerable and has also caused havoc on the front line, as Clark told Vox. After the fast and continued successes of the Kharkiv offensive, he said, “there’s been a lot of exaggerated reports from Russian sources of imminent Ukrainian attacks all along the line” — a testament to the demoralizing nature of the attack, but also units’ inability to get good information.
Part of Russia’s challenges with intelligence collection are apparently due to the heavy losses that some of its elite teams — including reconnaissance units — have suffered due to poor planning and lack of heavy armored support, according to a recent report from the Congressional Research Service. Ukraine has also destroyed and captured Russian surveillance drones like the Orlan-10, according to reporting from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Moscow has reportedly lost 918 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) during the war, both surveillance and attack varieties, according to the Kyiv Independent and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.
But it’s not just a problem of collecting intelligence, Konaev told Vox; intelligence analysis and dissemination on the Russian side also suffer from disorganization, mistrust, fear, and failure of command and control, leading to “institutional incapacitation.” It’s a fundamental question of “who is in charge of the intelligence gathering, processing, and coordination, on which front, and are they speaking to each other,” she told Vox.
Adding to the confusion, Putin in May switched responsibility for intelligence gathering in Ukraine to the GRU, the military intelligence unit, after repeated failures on the part of the FSB, the state security services, prior to and in the early stages of the war. “There’s a lot of conflicting, and often rivaling, intelligence bodies and groups that are active there,” Konaev said. “And this multi-layered, disorganized, and incoherent approach to intelligence collection, analysis, and coordination has undermined them at every part of the war.”
“Intelligence is notoriously difficult to get right and to coordinate, especially when you have a country like Russia where the intelligence services have accumulated so much power,” Konaev explained. Intelligence services have significant influence at the political level, as well as “massive amounts of control over information that they can disclose or choose not to disclose, but at the same time, they still very much fear the consequences of disclosing something that might dissatisfy Putin.”
Doctrine and practice are two different things
Ultimately, Russian military doctrine — the planning, systems, and strategy that are supposed to underpin how it conducts war — hasn’t been particularly effective in Ukraine. Hybrid warfare, a vaunted aspect of that doctrine, has broken down, to the extent that it was even used in this conflict. Russian military parades and shows of force aren’t the same as doing battle with an adversary. It also seems as though Russia is operating from a Soviet-era personnel playbook that doesn’t function in the current landscape.
“One of the hallmarks of the Russian, and before that the Soviet, system was they effectively designed around the fact that their baseline infantrymen were not as skilled as in the US or NATO, or, in World War II, the Axis powers,” Clark told Vox. “But the intent was that the officers were competent, and the overall operational minds were very effective, and they sort of played to their own strengths.” Under that logic, pushing inferior troops onto the battlefield would still be operationally useful because they’d be operating under strategically superior leadership executing a well-designed battle plan. “We’re not seeing that here,” he said.
That sense of stasis permeates the whole structure, top to bottom, with the “paralysis in the Kremlin’s decision-making,” since the spring, Clark said, resulting in a “Russian approach to the war [that] has not really changed since then,” to its own detriment.
It’s also unclear to what extent Russian war gaming, such as it is, has tested the pain points of its operational strategy. Though Russia is part of its own military alliance, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, and conducted war games just this month, “the public war gaming that we see, that is essentially a show of force,” Konaev said. The covert war gaming — in which militaries are supposed to probe their own weaknesses and strengthen or otherwise compensate for those areas — are kept under wraps for a reason. If the Kremlin did conduct these kinds of stress tests, it’s not clear what lessons were learned, if any.
“At a certain point, you can, in theory, understand a certain miscalculation,” Konaev told Vox. “Everyone, even much better-equipped, -trained, and -learned organizations like the US military make mistakes and make incorrect assumptions about their enemy, and miscalculate their levels of commitment and resistance. But the fact that [the Russians] have continuously made mistakes throughout the war that are of a very similar kind is unforgivable, from that standpoint.”