Opinion | Russia’s dysfunctional military culture gives Ukraine an advantage

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The war is far from over, but Ukraine’s triumph over Russian forces in the Battle of Kyiv was an epic victory for the ages. It will be remembered alongside the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada, the 1781 Battle of Yorktown, the 1879 Battle of Isandlwana, the 1905 Battle of Tsushima Strait, and the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu as examples of a smaller power defeating a more powerful adversary. How did the Ukrainians succeed in driving off the mighty Russian army, which was widely expected to march into Kyiv within a few days?

Much attention has been paid, and understandably so, to the high-tech weapons systems supplied by the West, such as the Stinger antiaircraft missile and the Javelin antitank missile. But the Russians have high-tech weapons, too. The Ukrainians’ real advantage lies in the realm of military culture — which, of course, is a reflection of society writ large.

All of the Russian military’s manifold deficiencies have been brutally exposed during its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. These include corruption, brutality, low morale, poor planning, faulty logistics, bad intelligence, lack of coordination between units, over-centralization and a paucity of initiative on the part of junior officers and sergeants. These are not new problems, and they will not be fixed any time soon. Indeed, an 1854 article in the Economist explaining Russia’s early defeats in the Crimean War — also fought primarily in Ukraine — reads eerily like an account of Russia’s current military travails. (A tip of my fedora to blogger Stephen Douglas for posting this article on Twitter.)

Two of the Russian weaknesses identified by the Economist particularly leap out. First: “The Russian armies are often armies on paper only. … The colonels of regiments and officers of the commissariat have a direct interest in having as large a number on the books and as small a number in the field as possible — inasmuch as they pocket the pay and rations of the difference between these figures.” Second: “Common soldiers … have no love of their profession, and no interest in the object of the war.” That was because the typical Russian private was “torn from his family and his land, drilled by the knout, neglected by his officers, fed on black bread, where fed at all, always without comforts, often without shoes.”

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The Economist ascribed these pathologies to the “inadequacy of despotic power.” It noted that “cheating, bribery, peculation pervade the whole tribe of officials,” that “there seems to be no conscience, and not much concealment, about it,” and that “regard for truth or integrity has no part in the Russian character.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A modern reader would bridle at the assumption that there was an immutable Russian “national character,” but the rest of the Economist’s analysis remains relevant. That can be explained by the fact that Russia is still ruled, as it has been throughout nearly all of its history, by a brutal and corrupt dictatorship.

The shortcomings of public administration help to explain Russia’s dismal performance in conflict after conflict. Russia lost not only the Crimean War (1853-1856) but also the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War I (1914-1918), the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and the First Chechen War (1994-1996). Its major military victories — in the Napoleonic Wars and World War II — came only after an invader was foolish enough to dissipate his forces in the vast Russian landscape and only when Russia was greatly assisted by Western allies.

The Ukrainian army, an outgrowth of the Red Army, was initially hobbled by many of the same difficulties as the Russians, but after 2014, the Ukrainian military and state reformed themselves along Western, democratic lines. As Politico notes, the training Ukrainians received from Western soldiers and their own experience fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east overturned “the old Soviet model of top-down leadership that has paralyzed Russian units” and “spawned a new generation of small-unit leaders and noncommissioned officers who can think and act independently.”

The Financial Times’s Tim Judah offers a telling example of Ukrainian ingenuity and initiative in the Battle of Kyiv. He describes how “Moscow’s forces were thwarted … by pieces of foam mat — the Ukrainians call them karemats — costing as little as [one and a half British pounds]. The mats prevent Russian thermal imaging drones from detecting human heat. ‘We held the karemats over our head,’ said [battalion commander Oleksandr] Konoko, explaining how his men moved stealthily in tiny groups at night. In that way soldiers armed with anti-tank weapons supplied by the US, Britain and others could sneak up on the Russians, fire their deadly and accurate missiles and then slip away.”

The Russians may eventually be able to assemble fresh forces to fight in the Donbas region — although it will take some time — but they will not be able to change their stultifying military culture. That is why I expect the Ukrainians to continue winning the war, providing they continue to receive the weapons and ammunition they need from the West. A superior military culture is Ukraine’s secret weapon.

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