JHE COULD of the modern Russian military was meant to show the world that President Vladimir Putin had restored his country to greatness after the humiliation of the Soviet collapse. Instead, scant progress and heavy losses in Ukraine exposed deep flaws within Russia. For those threatened by Mr. Putin’s aggression, a reduced army is a relief. Unfortunately, that also leaves a nuclear power with a point to prove.
So far, the invasion of Ukraine has been a disaster for the Russian armed forces. Around 15,000 soldiers have been killed in two months of fighting, according to the British government. At least 1,600 armored vehicles were destroyed, along with dozens of aircraft and the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. The assault on the capital, kyiv, was a chaotic failure.
Leon Trotsky wrote that “the army is a copy of society and suffers from all its diseases, usually at a higher temperature.” The fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine over the next few weeks will not only determine the course of the war, but it will also determine how well the Russian military can salvage its reputation – and the reputation of society. that she embodies.
Our briefing this week shows how rotten the military has been. Russia’s defense budget, at more than $250 billion in purchasing power, is about three times that of Britain or France, but much of it is wasted or stolen. Mr Putin and his top commanders hid their invasion plans from senior officers, reflecting a crippling lack of trust. Disgruntled troops, fed on expired rations, deserted their vehicles. Units tortured, raped and murdered only to be honored by the Kremlin. Russia failed to take control of the skies or combine air power with tanks, artillery and infantry. Steeped in corruption, unable to foster initiative or learn from their mistakes, his frustrated generals abandoned advanced military doctrine and fell back on flattening cities and terrorizing civilians.
Ukraine’s highly motivated forces are a rebuke to these Russian failures. Although outnumbered and less well armed, they resisted the invading army by handing over decision-making to small, adaptable local units equipped with up-to-the-minute intelligence. Even if the Russian campaign, now led by a single commander, wins in the Donbass, it will do so mainly thanks to its mass. Its claim to be a sophisticated modern force is as compelling as a rusting tank turret in a Ukrainian field.
For Mr. Putin, this is a crushing setback. That’s partly because, although he controls a formidable propaganda machine to help stifle his critics, the loss of face threatens his standing at home. This is mainly because the use of military force is central to his strategy to make Russia count in the world.
Russia may be large, but it’s a medium-sized state that still aspires to be a superpower. Its population is between Bangladesh and Mexico, its economy between Brazil and South Korea, and its share of world exports between Taiwan and Switzerland. Although Russia enjoys some sympathy in non-aligned countries like South Africa and India, its soft power is waning, accelerated by its display of incompetence and brutality in Ukraine.
To bridge the gap between his power and his aspirations – and to resist what he sees as US encroachment – Mr Putin has repeatedly turned to the one area where Russia can still claim to be world-class. : military force. Over the past 14 years he has invaded Georgia and Ukraine (twice) and fought in Syria. Its mercenaries have deployed in Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan and now Ukraine. Mr. Putin is a global tyrant obsessed with his country’s shortcomings. Contrast that with China, which also has ambitions, but has so far been able to deliver results thanks to its growing economic and diplomatic clout.
The humiliation in Ukraine weakens Russia’s last claim to superpower status. The war may still go on forever, and while it lasts, Russia will not be able to mount major operations elsewhere. Equipment, ammunition and manpower are running out quickly. Restoring Russian forces to full strength and training them to avoid mistakes in Ukraine could take years. If sanctions were to be maintained because Mr. Putin is still in power, the task will take even longer. Russian missiles are full of Western components. The flight of talented and outward-looking Russians will weigh on the economy. All the while, the less military power Russia can project, the less it can disrupt the rest of the world.
It will be welcome. Yet the invasion of Ukraine also holds less comforting lessons. On the one hand, it shows that in pursuing this strategy, Mr. Putin is willing to take risks that for many others, including many Russians, make no sense. A further decline in Russian power could lead to even more reckless aggression.
Ukraine also shows that in future wars, if Russian forces cannot prevail on the battlefield, they will resort to atrocities. A weaker Russian army could be even more brutal. For those around the world facing Russian aggression, it is a terrible prospect.
Ultimately, weakness can lead Russia into the last area where it is still unquestionably a superpower: chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. Since the start of this war, Mr. Putin and his government have repeatedly threatened weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Putin is rational, in the sense that he wants his regime to survive, so the chances of their use likely remain slim. But as the Russian armed forces run out of conventional options, the temptation to escalate is sure to grow.
The message to the rest of the world is that Mr. Putin’s military opportunism in Ukraine must be seen as a failure by his own officers and strategists, who could then temper his next willful scheme. A stalemate in the Donbass would only prepare the next fight and it could be even more threatening than the one today.
Yet even if Mr. Putin is defeated, he will remain dangerous. The message for NATO is that he needs to update his tripwire defense. This is based on the idea that a Russian attempt to take over, say, the Baltic States might initially succeed, but would trigger a wider war that NATO would end up winning. This defense involves the risk of miscalculations and escalation, which are greater than ever if Russia’s conventional forces are weak. Better to have a large forward force that Russia would have a hard time defeating early on. The best way to be safe from Mr. Putin and his rotten army is to dissuade him from fighting. ■
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Read more about our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis