The Russian military has performed far worse in Ukraine than anyone could ever have predicted. After failing to take Kyiv, Russian troops have now been forced to focus on the Donbas region. Despite this greater concentration of forces, they are still struggling to make any major gains beyond the final capture of Mariupol, which had been under siege since the first days of the invasion without resupply or relief.
For Vladimir Putin this represents a grand humiliation. But for the West, Russia’s struggling campaign offers an unrivalled opportunity to understand Russia’s capacity to pose a future military threat. Key to this will be working out how many of Russia’s current failings are down to the specific circumstances in Ukraine, and how many are due to systemic problems within the Russian military itself.
Some of Russia’s most catastrophic losses occurred during the first few weeks of its invasion of the north of Ukraine in the suburbs of Kyiv, as well as around Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv. Elite airborne, spetsnaz (special forces) and marines units were put in positions far ahead of advancing ground units, and most were rapidly destroyed or captured; tanks advanced without infantry support into defended urban areas with predictable results; Rosguardia units more suited to riot control than frontline combat operations hit Ukrainian defence lines ahead of regular forces; the Russian Air Force largely stayed on the ground; and units ground to a halt in long traffic jams along mud-bound roads as those in front were destroyed, abandoned their equipment or ran out of fuel and ammunition.
Alongside exceptional Ukrainian courage and professionalism, these glaring military failures were largely the result of two factors which were specific to the context of this Russian invasion of Ukraine. First of all, the entire plan presented to the military by the Kremlin’s security apparatus was based on fundamentally flawed assumptions about the military and morale strength of Ukraine.