Is the Russian army a paper tiger?
This week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the start of what he called a new phase in his country’s war against Ukraine, which appears to be a focus on eastern Ukraine. Ukraine and a more progressive attack speed than that of the failed strikes of late February and early March. Lavrov presented this tactical change as a natural consequence of Russia’s so-called special military operation, but he only highlighted the country’s previous miscalculations. To better understand what was wrong with the Russian approach, I called Joel Rayburn, a retired colonel and former US special envoy for Syria, who is now a member of New America, a think tank in Washington. , DC. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what Rayburn learned about the Russian military through its involvement in Syrian politics, the biggest mistakes the Russians made in Ukraine and whether failures stem from poor decision-making or corruption.
Do you have an overarching theory as to why the Russian military apparently underperformed in Ukraine?
They have a lot of systemic and institutional weaknesses that had been masked because they hadn’t operated on that scale in a really visible way, at least not for quite a while. You would have to go back to their 2008 invasion of Georgia to find anything close to the scale at which they operate today. And this one didn’t go well. They were showing the same kind of problems back then: this disunity of command; logistical weaknesses; poorly trained, poorly motivated, poorly led troops; very poor quality of the officer corps; very poor quality of campaign design and planning capacity. They also have very weak integration within and between the armed forces, including the synchronization of air and ground operations.
They didn’t do any of this well in Georgia, and they embarked on what was supposed to be a program of reform, which for the past few years has been led by General [Valery] Gerasimov and Minister of Defense [Sergey] Shoigu. And they were supposed to have reorganized the army and overcome the relevant shortcomings. While this reform program continued, they conducted operations in Syria. They also had operations in Libya and the Caucasus. And they seemed pretty good at doing it. But, in retrospect, we can see that these were very small operations. They never had to rotate in Syria more than a few thousand soldiers of all kinds at a time. And so it looked like they were capable of carrying out the kind of logistics, resupply, planning and integration of air and ground operations that you need on this scale in Syria. But then when they had to expand it to an operation that was, say, forty times bigger, then all these weaknesses came out and they were pretty shocking.
You listed a lot of things, but what do you think were the main failures in Ukraine? And how did they specifically manifest?
I think overall the design of the campaign was flawed from the start. It was an invasion force that was too small for the task, just in numbers – in the number of combat units, combat formations they were able to put on the battlefield. This task was basically to dismember Ukraine and change the regime in kyiv, and the force was too small for that.
But they didn’t have enough logistics in place to sustain even that force. Their capacity was such that they could not support a force that penetrated enemy territory and had to provide its own logistics: supplies of ammunition, food and water, fuel, spare parts, replacement troops, all that.
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Do you know if that failure is because they just don’t have the capacity to do it or there was a misjudgment as to what would be needed?
They made errors in judgment, but also, institutionally, they lack the capacity. What we can now see is that they simply do not have the institutional capacity to sustain offensive operations deep into enemy territory and are unable to provide combat supply and support units. of all kinds: artillery support, air support, air defense support. With an already weak logistical base, it was a huge mistake for them to cut their main offensive into four geographically dispersed major axes. They don’t have enough trucks. They don’t really have expeditionary logistics. They would therefore have to restock from the logistics bases. They don’t have logistics bases in Ukraine—Ukraine is a country they’re invading. So they had to rely on logistical bases which are in Russia and Belarus and then transport everything forward – which they would do in the First World War, they hoped to have railroads and heads of line where you can just put everything on a train and send it off. to your forward operating area.
And they don’t have that. They don’t have usable railroads going to Ukraine, so they put everything on trucks. They don’t have enough trucks in their entire army to truck all the time. And then, of course, the Ukrainians destroyed or disabled their trucks. So they didn’t have the ability to keep sending the supplies forward units needed to stay alive.
What else do you think should be emphasized here besides logistics?
There are the qualitative aspects, i.e. before you get beyond logistics and campaign design, you have to ask yourself: “What kind of staff do you have that designs a campaign like this -the ?” It must be a staff that really doesn’t know what it’s doing, has never had to do this kind of thing before and really doesn’t know how to do it. So that raises some red flags. But then you get into the qualitative aspects of strength. They were driving trucks in Ukraine that were breaking down because they were old, because there had been sloppy maintenance or no maintenance had been done on those vehicles, and they were driven by troops who did not know how to operate and maintain them. This is why so many of these vehicles broke down and were left on the side of the road. It tells you all kinds of things. It tells you, for example, that they had units that weren’t being maintained properly, probably for years or never. And they didn’t train their soldiers to become mechanics and fix things on the spot. They had no combat-ready maintenance units capable of getting broken down vehicles up and running again, or picked up and evacuated from the front lines to be brought back somewhere where they can be repaired – or just off the road so that their convoys can continue.
We’ve seen pictures and videos of trucks being disabled on the side of the road, apparently nothing wrong with them, but you can see they’re leaking fluids from their wheel wells or their engines have failed . That means these trucks probably sat there for months or years, with no one turning on the engine, no one replacing the gaskets. Think of heavy vehicles and all the suspension systems, hydraulic systems, etc. In the mid 90’s I was in an armored unit in Germany in the US Army, where we had a five day work week and four of the days we had to be in the fleet, servicing our vehicles, because they were just that maintenance intensive.
Then there is the type of equipment that appears on the battlefield. The Russians export T-90 tanks and market Armata tanks, supposedly the latest generation with all the bells and whistles. And then they show up on the battlefield in the axis of advance to Kharkiv and Chernihiv and kyiv with unmodernized armored fighting vehicles of the Cold War era – both infantry vehicles and chariots. And it’s like they got these things out of mothballs. It therefore seems that the Russian military industry was export-oriented instead of equipping its own ground forces with modern equipment.
Could the Russian military say, in its defense, that the military modernization project was done with a different kind of warfare in mind than the one in Ukraine? Or do you see failure being broader than that?