Is the Russian Military a Paper Tiger?

This week, the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced the onset of what he called a new phase in his country’s war on Ukraine, which appears to consist of a focus on Ukraine’s east and a more gradual speed of attack than that of the failed strikes of late February and early March. Lavrov cast this tactical shift as a natural outgrowth of Russia’s so-called special military operation, but it has only highlighted the country’s previous miscalculations. To better understand what went wrong with the Russian approach, I called Joel Rayburn, a retired Army colonel and former U.S. special envoy for Syria, who is now a fellow at New America, a think tank in Washington, D.C. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what Rayburn learned about the Russian military from his involvement in Syria policy, the biggest mistakes the Russians have made in Ukraine, and whether the failures stem from poor decision-making or corruption.

Do you have an overarching theory for why the Russian military has seemingly underperformed in Ukraine?

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.

They didn’t do any of that well in Georgia, and they’ve embarked on what was supposed to be a reform program, which in the last several years has been spearheaded by General [Valery] Gerasimov and Defense Minister [Sergey] Shoigu. And they were supposed to have reorganized the army and to have overcome relevant shortcomings. While this reform program was going on, they carried out operations in Syria. They also had operations in Libya and in the Caucasus. And they looked kind of effective in doing that. But, in retrospect, we can see that those were very small operations. They never had to rotate into Syria more than a few thousand troops of any kind at a time. And so it looked like they were able to carry off the kind of logistics, resupply, and planning and integration of air and ground operations that you need to have at that scale in Syria. 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.

You listed a bunch of things, but what do you think the major failures have been in Ukraine? And how have they specifically manifested?

I think, over all, the campaign design was flawed from the start. It was an invasion force that was too small for the task, just in straight numbers—in the numbers of combat units, combat formations they were able to put on the battlefield. That task was essentially to dismember Ukraine and change the regime in Kyiv, and the force was too small for that purpose.

But then they didn’t have sufficient logistics in place to support even that force. Their capacity was such that they could not support a force that was penetrating into enemy territory and had to bring its own logistics with it: ammo resupply, food and water, fuel, parts, replacement troops, all of that.

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Do you have a sense of whether that failure was because they just don’t have the ability to do it or that there was a misjudgment about what would be needed?

They made misjudgments, but also just institutionally they don’t have the capacity. What we can now see is that they simply do not have the institutional capacity to support offensive operations deep into enemy territory and aren’t able to give units supply and combat support of all kinds: artillery support, air support, air-defense support. With an already weak logistics base, it was an enormous mistake for them to chop their main offensive into four major axes that were widely geographically dispersed. They don’t have enough trucks. They don’t really have expeditionary logistics. So they were going to need to resupply from logistics bases. They don’t have logistics bases in Ukraine—Ukraine’s a country that they’re invading. So they had to rely on logistics bases that are in Russia and Belarus, and then transport everything forward—what they would do in World War One, they would hope to have railroads and railheads where you can just put everything on a train and send it to your forward operating area.

And they don’t have that. They don’t have usable rail lines that go into Ukraine, so they put everything on trucks. They don’t have enough trucks in their entire military to be trucking all the time. And then, obviously, the Ukrainians destroyed or disabled their trucks. So they did not have the ability to keep sending the supplies that the forward units need to stay alive.

What else do you think should be stressed here besides logistics?

There are the qualitative aspects—which is that before you go past logistics and campaign design, you have to ask, “What kind of general staff do you have that designs a campaign like that?” It has to be a general staff that really does not know what it’s doing, that 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 the force. They were driving trucks into Ukraine that were breaking down because they were old, because there had been slipshod maintenance or no maintenance done on these vehicles and they were being operated by troops that didn’t know how to operate and maintain them. That’s why so many of these vehicles were breaking down and being left by the side of the road. That tells you all kinds of things. It tells you, for example, that they had units that were not doing maintenance properly, probably for years or ever. And they weren’t training their soldiers on how to be mechanics and repair stuff on the spot. They didn’t have combat-ready maintenance units that are able to get disabled vehicles running again, or recovered and evacuated from the front lines to be taken back someplace where they can be repaired—or just off the road so that their convoys can continue.

We were seeing photos and videos of trucks that are disabled by the side of the road, seemingly nothing wrong with them, but you can see that they’re leaking fluids out of their wheel wells or that their engines have failed. That means those trucks were probably just sitting there for months or years, without anyone turning on the engine, without anyone replacing the gaskets. Think about heavy vehicles and all the suspension systems, hydraulic systems, and so on. In the mid-nineties, I was in an armored unit in Germany in the U.S. Army, where we had a five-day workweek and four of the days we had to be in the motor pool, maintaining our vehicles, because they were just that maintenance-intensive.

Then there’s the kind of equipment that’s showing up on the battlefield. The Russians are exporting T-90 tanks and marketing Armata tanks, supposedly the latest generation with all the bells and whistles. And then they’re showing up on the battlefield in the axis of advance toward Kharkiv and Chernihiv and Kyiv with Cold War-era, non-modernized, armored combat vehicles—both infantry vehicles and tanks. And it’s like they took these things out of mothballs. So it seems that Russia’s military industry was geared toward export 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 war in mind than the one in Ukraine? Or do you see the failure being broader than that?

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