Russia’s underperforming military capability could be the key to its downfall | Ukraine

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Considered solely in terms of the size of their formations and equipment, Russian ground forces in Ukraine still pose a serious threat on a number of axes. In practice, however, it is highly unlikely that the Russian military will be able to recover from its increasingly terminal trajectory on the battlefield, even if its defeat will take time and hard fighting. To understand why, it is necessary to look at the force beyond its equipment and personnel.

The United States assesses military capability through the abbreviation DOTMLPF. The fact that senior US officers routinely try to knock this out of language as an acronym may illustrate the military absurdity, but the abbreviation is somewhat redeemed by being fairly comprehensive. It means: doctrine, organization, training, equipment, leadership and education, personnel and facilities. Examining the Russian military in these categories reveals why it underperforms its potential and struggles to regenerate.

For starters, Russia’s strengths: Russian doctrine – the theory of how the military should fight – is clear, precise, well-researched, and conceptually elegant. Russian doctrine is often far ahead of Western military theory. This creates a methodological challenge for intelligence assessments of Russian operations, because if carried out as described in higher military orders, the conclusion is often that they will succeed. Practice, however, rarely matches theory.

Russian hardware is generally exceptionally well designed and adequately built. To take a specific example, the Orlan-10, which is the main drone flown by the Russian forces, is cheap and simple to use. It is unsophisticated, but because it flies too high to be targeted by short-range air defenses and is too inexpensive to justify the use of long-range air defenses, it is designed to be very difficult to destroy, while giving its operators a sufficient view of the battlefield to identify targets.

The weakness of Russian hardware tends to be that it is inflexible – designed to perform a specific task well – and multiple generations of systems in use simultaneously make maintenance difficult. This problem has been massively exacerbated in Ukraine as the Russians increasingly pull generations of equipment from storage to replace losses.

The Russian army also benefits from its facilities. The Russians have an efficient rail network optimized for moving combat equipment. They also have many factories to produce munitions, with the companies involved being directly under government control, and access to the most needed raw materials. Where the West has sought efficiency at the expense of resilience, the Russians still have excess capacity in their production lines. This is much less true for precision weapons, since Russia does not have an advanced microelectronics industry and therefore has to import critical components.

However, these strengths do not compensate for the significant shortcomings of the Russian army. For starters, organization: the Russian military was designed to fight short, high-intensity wars. Without full national mobilization, it is too small, its units lack logistical means and its equipment is unsuitable for a prolonged war. When the Russian military issued orders to its troops in the fall of 2021, it estimated that they needed to be deployed for nine months. They are now reaching that limit. The Ukrainians, on the other hand, have been organizing their army since 2014 precisely for this type of war.

One of the biggest shortcomings of the Russian military is leadership and education. The culture of leadership is dictatorial and imposed by fear. Corruption is structurally encouraged by the Kremlin so that civil authorities have the threat of legal action against military commanders. Corruption, however, is taking its toll on Russian logistics. Fear of punishment has created an army in which soldiers stubbornly carry out orders even when they no longer make sense. For example, Russian artillery units routinely pursue targets in the order they receive fire missions, with no contextual prioritization. Even when new intelligence indicates that a target has moved, Russian units will often engage the previous location and then the new one, giving the target time to move once more.

Poor leadership also means that Russia has serious problems with its personnel. There is a limited career path for long-term soldiers. This leads to retention issues that have caused the Russian military to continue to rely on conscripts.

With a rapidly aging population, Russia lacks young recruits. The low standard of living in much of the country produces troops unfamiliar with most modern technologies. Moreover, in the absence of a clear ideology or strong leadership in the units, the troops are largely demotivated, do not work effectively as a team, and are unwilling to risk their lives for each other. The Russian infantry therefore lacked offensive combat power. These problems worsened as the number of victims increased. Again, this is an area where Ukraine has clear advantages.

However, perhaps one of the biggest weaknesses of the country’s military system is training. First of all, it just doesn’t do enough. At the start of the war, for example, there were fewer than 100 fully trained Russian pilots on the border with Ukraine, although Russia had at least 317 combat aircraft deployed in theatre.

Second, Russian soldiers tend to receive training closely related to the task assigned to them. This makes these troops inflexible, lacking situational awareness of what is happening around them and unable to cover each other’s tasks.

Third, the Russians do most of their training in their units. As the units are in Ukraine, there is very little capacity to train new recruits before they are sent to war.

This severely hampers mobilization efforts and the generation of new units. Ukraine struggles to train because, unlike Russia, its facilities are under missile attack – hence the importance of training in the UK – but the training provided is far superior.

Despite its superiority in equipment over Ukraine at the start of the conflict, Russia clearly underperformed compared to its potential. Moreover, institutional weaknesses make his army much less adaptable. Now that Russian troops are outnumbered, demotivated, and their equipment deteriorating, the Kremlin’s prospects are rapidly diminishing.

Jack Watling is Senior Land Warfare Researcher at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)


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