Russia Is Weak, and That’s a Problem

One of the unintended consequences of Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine is that it has exposed how weak the Russian military is. Over the past couple of months I can’t tell you how many analyses I’ve read pointing out the massive incompetence revealed by the invasion of Ukraine. Here’s one from a couple of weeks ago, from the New Yorker. The speaker is Joel Rayburn, a retired Army colonel and former U.S. special envoy for Syria.

They have a lot of systemic and institutional weaknesses that had been masked because they had not operated on this scale in a really visible way, at least not for quite a while. You’d have to go back to their invasion of Georgia, in 2008, to find something approaching the scale that they’re operating at now. And that 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 officer corps; very poor quality of campaign design and ability to plan. They also have very poor integration within and among the armed services, including the synchronization of air and ground operations.

Rayburn goes on to say that after Georgia, the Russian military announced a massive reorganization of the military to address these problems. And they seemed more effective in Syria and in some other military actions, but these were much smaller actions. “But then when they had to scale it up to an operation that was, let’s say, forty times the size, then all of these weaknesses came out and they’ve been pretty shocking.”

The whole analysis is interesting, but Rayburn says that what he sees is more than just miscalculation. Russia just plain doesn’t have the military capability to invade Ukraine as it is trying to do. And apparently military experts in the West didn’t realize that until they saw how the Russian military has bumbled around in Ukraine. Things that Russia was supposed to have spent a lot of money improving turned out not to have been improved, and Rayburn suspects that a lot of Russia’s military budget has been eaten up by corruption.

And, Rayburn says, as badly as Russians are doing against Ukrainians, if they had tried to take on just one NATO power, they would have been wiped out fairly quickly.

The problem with Russian weakness is that it accounts for why troops in Ukraine have fallen back on commiting atrocities against civilians. It’s all they can do. They have no direction, and Russian military discipline is obviously a joke.

In mid-March there were reports that the heads of Russian intelligence services had been arrested and several of their locations raided by the Federal Protective Service (the successor to the KGB). Obviously, Putin was unhappy with their results. But one wonders how Russian intelligence gathering could possibly have improved since then. Probably, it hasn’t. Ukraine, on the other hand, has benefited from help from the U.S. This is from the Sydney Morning Herald, April 28:

America helped foil Moscow’s efforts to take Kyiv and repelled its advances elsewhere by sharing such detailed intelligence that Ukraine knew exactly when and where Russian bombs would fall, it has emerged.

In an unprecedented information-sharing operation, US spy agencies divulged the co-ordinates of Russian forces and aircraft to Ukrainian troops, allowing them to pre-empt attacks.

And then there is the celebrated Russian cyberwar capability. It turns out that freelance hackers have been shredding Russian cyber security and “liberating” huge amounts of Russian data. See Hacktivists Stoke Pandemonium Amid Russia’s War in Ukraine at Wired and Russia Is Losing a War Againsts Hackers Stealing Huge Amounts of Data at the Intercept. However, there are concerns that Ukraine-supporting freelance hackers could do as much harm as good; for example, by accidentally exposing western intelligence operations.

One thing the smart people on the teevee have said all along is that Putin will not accept a defeat. One, Russian leaders who are defeated tend to be deposed. And two, Putin is all about showing the world how strong he is. It’s his entire purpose. He is not going to accept defeat even if he is defeated. For that reason, IMO there’s a real possibility that he will resort to nuclear weapons. See Putin is inching towards his nukes, threatening to annihilate the world if he fails to capture Ukraine, says foreign affairs expert. But you can find smart people declaring Putin wouldn’t use nukes, along with those who say he could.

There is new reporting also saying that the war in Ukraine could turn into a years-long conflict that just goes on and on without resolution. And that’s because no credible diplomatic track exists that Russia would accept, other than “Russia wins.” But Russia appears to be using up resources, and conscripts, with remarkable speed, while Ukraine is being assisted by several countries. The only thing that might keep the war going is if China begins shipping arms to Russia. A month ago there was a flurry of news reports saying that China might send economic or other aid to Russia. There’s been little in the news about China’s support of Russia since then, though, and I’m hoping that Xi Jinping will not want to get his country entangled in Putin’s blunder.