Can Russia learn from its failures in Ukraine?

By | February 8, 2023

Dara Massicot writes:

Three months before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, CIA Director William Burns and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan met in Moscow with Nikolai Patrushev, an ultra-hawkish adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Burns and Sullivan informed Patrushev that they knew of Russia’s invasion plans and that the West would respond with severe consequences if Russia proceeded. According to Burns, Patrushev said nothing about the invasion. Instead, he looked them in the eye, conveying what Burns took as a message: the Russian military could achieve what it wanted.

Once home, the two Americans informed U.S. President Joe Biden that Moscow had made up its mind. Not long after, Washington began publicly warning the world that Russia would attack Ukraine. Three months ahead of the invasion, the Kremlin knew that the United States had discovered its war plans and that the world would be primed for an assault—yet Putin decided to deny his intentions to Russia’s own troops and most of its senior leaders. They did not learn of the invasion until several days or even hours before it began. The secrecy was a mistake. By orchestrating the attack with just a small group of advisers, Putin undercut many of the advantages his country should have had.

These strengths were substantial. Before the invasion, Russia’s military was larger and better equipped than Ukraine’s. Its forces had more combat experience than did Kyiv’s, even though both had fought in Ukraine’s eastern territories. Most Western analysts therefore assumed that if Russian forces used their advantages wisely, the Ukrainians could not withstand the attack for long.

Why Russia did not prevail—why it was instead stopped in its tracks, routed outside major cities, and put on the defensive—has become one of the most important questions in both U.S. foreign policy and international security more broadly. The answer has many components. The excessive internal secrecy gave troops and commanders little time to prepare, leading to heavy losses. Russia created an invasion plan that was riddled with faulty assumptions, arbitrary political guidance, and planning errors that departed from key Russian military principles. The initial invasion called for multiple lines of attack with no follow-on force, tethering the military to operational objectives that were overly ambitious for the size of its forces. And the Kremlin erroneously believed that its war plans were sound, that Ukraine would not put up much resistance, and that the West’s support would not be strong enough to make a difference. As a result, Russia was shocked when its troops ran into a determined Ukraine backed by Western intelligence and weapons. Russian forces were then repeatedly beaten.

But as the war drags on into its second year, analysts must not focus only on Russia’s failures. The story of Russia’s military performance is far more nuanced than many early narratives about the war have suggested. The Russian armed forces are not wholly incompetent or incapable of learning. They can execute some types of complex operations—such as mass strikes that disable Ukraine’s critical infrastructure—which they had eschewed during the first part of the invasion, when Moscow hoped to capture the Ukrainian state largely intact. The Russian military has learned from its mistakes and made big adjustments, such as downsizing its objectives and mobilizing new personnel, as well as tactical ones, such as using electronic warfare tools that jam Ukrainian military communications without affecting its own. Russian forces can also sustain higher combat intensity than most other militaries; as of December, they were firing an impressive 20,000 rounds of artillery per day or more (although, according to CNN, in early 2023, that figure had dropped to 5,000). And they have been operating with more consistency and stability since shifting to the defensive in late 2022, making it harder for Ukrainian troops to advance.

Russia has still not been able to break Ukraine’s will to fight or impede the West’s materiel and intelligence support. It is unlikely to achieve its initial goal of turning Ukraine into a puppet state. But it could continue to adjust its strategy and solidify its occupied holdings in the south and east, eventually snatching a diminished variant of victory from the jaws of defeat. [Continue reading…]

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