The incompetent dictator theory versus the hollow army theory
A new story from the Financial Times gives a map and video summary of the Russian military campaign thus far, including speculation as to why Russian forces appear to be stubbornly pursuing original plans to capture major Ukrainian cities despite the failure of this campaign. Over most of the territory under Russian control, Russian tactics have produced not only a territorial stalemate, but also such severe Russian equipment losses that most current Russian efforts appear to be focused solely on consolidating what is left.
The Financial Times article wonders, as we all do, why the Russian military continued to execute initial orders despite the apparent failure of the strategy – the most famous being depicted, at this stage, by Russia which continues to add vehicles to the already bottled and convoy of several tens of kilometers in danger north of kyiv. One theory is that Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin personally issues the orders, so his generals couldn’t change their strategy even if they wanted to; while this fits nicely with historical tales of obsessed dictators crushing their own armies in nationwide attempts to create all the imaginary victories that Dear Leader has shaken around his own head, it’s still not as likely as the other major hypothesis: an institutional failure.
It’s not that the Russian military is stuck following orders from an incompetent micromanager, this theory goes. It’s that the Russian army literally gives everything it has to give, and can not support alternative strategies. Supply chains do not exist. Replacement equipment is not there. The planes are not attacking half-heartedly out of Russian caution, but because a good portion of those planes are unairworthy to begin with – and because Russia was unable to defeat Ukrainian air defenses.
We have little evidence for the micromanaging dictator theory, but we have great masses of evidence alluding to the paper tiger theory. The apparent non-existence of large-scale Russian tactical maneuvers baffled outside military analysts; abandoned Russian equipment is eloquent testimony to the country’s inability to find fuel to send just a few miles across its own borders.
That doesn’t absolve Putin, of course. It was his kleptocratic rule that priority to corruption and sycophant loyalty on competence and expertise, insofar as the Russian army is enslaved to this corruption rather than above.
All sides expect the next phase of the war to resemble past Russian campaigns. Rather than making tactical moves, the only effective Russian military attack strategy was to use artillery to level towns so that there were no civilians left to resist – a strategy that is now applied to Mariupol. This is a strategy that best allows Russian military leaders to ignore their military’s inability to fight effectively in real combat; as Russian troops take up the defensive positions their battlegroups are designed for, commanders can level civilian population centers from afar, achieving “victory” by obliterating whatever they are meant to capture while easing the burden of the occupation by forcing residents to flee as refugees.
But it is not and never has been a strategy. This is simply the only path the Russian military has been able to take, over the past decades, to achieve anything beyond minor tactical victories. This was long taken as evidence of the Russian military’s particular cruelty and predilection for war crimes, but now we see that it may have become Russian doctrine only because corruption within the armed forces is so serious that it has rendered the army unable to do anything else.
This tactic has not, however, been tried against a Russian enemy who themselves have enough military prowess to potentially dislodge these artillery positions. It has been used against cities whose military protection has been far thinner than the Ukrainian defenders have offered, and we don’t know with absolute certainty that even this rote Russian maneuver won’t collapse on its own.
Supply lines to kyiv are long and Ukraine has its own artillery moving into position. Ukrainian air defenses are strong and Russian planes are at great risk on every sortie. And Ukraine has shown considerable success in recent days in repelling, and even potentially surrounding, Russian forward positions.
The Russian army seems to have only one turn left: total devastation. But it doesn’t just rely on defending artillery positions, but defending the long, long lines of supply bringing food and ammunition to the troops firing those guns. Even Russian generals may be worried, at this point, about what will happen to their war crimes assets north of kyiv if the Ukrainian defenders manage to retake some of the ground. behind them.