War Stories

No, You’re Not Imagining It: Russia’s Army Is Inept

But superior firepower still gives it an edge in the short run.

Smoke rises from a busted tank on the side of a road
A Russian tank destroyed by Ukrainian forces in the region of Luhansk on Saturday. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

After four days of fighting, the Russian military is bogged down in Ukraine. In part this is due to the valiant resistance of Ukraine’s army and civilian defense forces. But it’s also due to the fact that the Russian army just isn’t very good.

News reports, tweets, videos, and emails from the battlefields show Russia’s armored vehicles abandoned for lack of fuel, its soldiers foraging for food, its transport planes shot out of the sky, its various military elements—tanks, infantry, aircraft—unable to coordinate their aims.

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Michael Kofman, a military analyst at CNA, an Arlington, Virginia–based think tank, who has been following the battle closely, tweeted late Sunday afternoon, “It’s taken me a while to figure out what [the Russian military is] trying to do, because it looks so ridiculous and incompetent.” B.A. Friedman, a military historian and tactician, went further: “This isn’t a good army executing a bad plan. It isn’t a good army executing outdated or out-of-context tactics. It’s a bad army!”

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None of this should be overstated. Four days of fighting might seem an eternity when viewed through the prism of round-the-clock cable news, but, in retrospect, a month from now, it will seem like the blink of an eye. Even the best armies take a while to get going. That said, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been particularly sluggish and flawed.

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In one sense, this was predictable. Over the past decade, the Russian armed forces have greatly improved, especially in the numbers of troops and quality of weapons. However, some of their age-old weaknesses haven’t been fixed at all.

The Russian army has always been bad at setting up and sustaining supply lines. Gen. Omar Bradley once said about different types of military officers, “Amateurs talk strategy, professionals talk logistics.”* In that sense, Russians are amateurs. This is well known. It is why Ukrainian soldiers explicitly attacked the Russian supply lines. It’s why so many tanks and other vehicles have been spotted stuck on the side of a road.

This weakness might not matter so much if an army makes rapid progress at the start of its offensive. Its troops could plunder the places they conquer for fuel, food, and other supplies. But the Russian army isn’t cut out for lightning strikes. Troops are trained in rote set pieces, with no time devoted to improvising if things don’t go as planned. One reason for this is that junior officers are not allowed to take initiative. This is deliberate; it’s part of the top-down command system dating back to Soviet times, if not earlier. In politics and in warfare, the small elite on top doesn’t want subordinates to get too creative—if they did, they might take over.

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And so, as the Russian invaders met resistance, they didn’t quite know what to do. Military operations designed to take place sequentially—Step 1, then 2, then 3, etc.—fell apart, catastrophically. If Step 2 hit a big obstacle, the by-the-book soldiers moved on to Step 3 anyway. Therefore, large troop-transport planes tried to land, even though the airport hadn’t been completely secured and Ukrainian air defense systems hadn’t been destroyed. As a result, two Il-76 transport planes, each carrying 100 airborne troops, were shot down.

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Similarly, tanks aren’t supposed to roll through hostile territory all alone. They need to be escorted by infantry troops alongside or by combat planes from above, to avoid getting ambushed. Yet, in this invasion, Russian tanks are rolling all on their own or providing protection for reconnaissance scouts, but getting no protection for themselves. So, as might be expected, lots of Russian tanks are getting ambushed.

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Nor have the Russians established air superiority, even though their air force far outnumbers Ukraine’s. As a result, Ukrainian drones have been picking off Russian convoys with impunity.

There is a larger factor here: The Russian army is composed, by and large, of one-year conscripts, who are poorly trained (even within the confines of Russian military training), badly treated, and uninspired by ideology or any other motivating spirit. Hence the stories of captured Russian troops who had no idea why they were in Ukraine. At least a few didn’t even know that they were in Ukraine—they thought they were still doing exercises in Belarus. Others have reportedly been found knocking on village doors for food or, in one case, asking a local police station for fuel.

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All this aside, it is still possible—even likely—that, if the fighting goes on much longer, the Russians will overtake the Ukrainians, capture Kyiv, and possibly oust the current government. They’ve sent in only about two-thirds of the troops and weapons that had been poised on the Ukrainian border. Convoys of tanks are rolling in—however slowly—from the north, west, and south. They are joined, or are about to be joined, by Belarusian troops and Chechen special forces. As the resistance mounts and as the Russians’ offensive is thwarted, Putin and his generals can be expected to turn up the heat, shelling—and, recently, bombing—cities, destroying whatever they can destroy, for destruction’s sake. This is what the Russian military has done elsewhere, notably in Chechnya, when its officers feel frustrated. At some point, superior firepower will win out, at least in the short run.

But this doesn’t mean they will win in the long run. The resistance will continue, especially now that practically every nation in NATO is supplying Ukraine with weapons. Putin’s invasion has rallied Ukrainian nationalism, stiffened the West’s spine, and sent his own economy into a tailspin. Chaotic destructiveness can only go so far. It is not a winning technique for the long run against organized defenses. And the more Putin resorts to chaotic destructiveness, the more organized the defenses become.

Correction, Feb. 28, 2022: This article originally misidentified Gen. Omar Bradley as British. He was American.

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