Wars are planned in offices but fought on the ground, and the Russian military’s strategic mistakes in the Ukrainian war are evidence in part of insufficient oversight of its rank and file fighters.
After the invasion of Moscow began on February 24, signals appeared that many Russian soldiers had no clear idea of the aims of the war, with some initially believing they were simply being rounded up for maneuvers.
“The Russian army is an army of lies,” General Thierry Burkhard, head of the French armies, told AFP in May. “People lied saying that the Ukrainian army would not fight, that the Russian forces were ready for war, that their leaders knew how to command,” he said.
Six months into the invasion, Western analysts still describe the Russian military as riddled with lies and corruption, and desperate to tell President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle what it wants to hear.
“Senior officers only think about their medals and how to take care of their careers. But the soldiers just want to survive,” said Alexander Grinberg of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.
“Putin demands results that are unrealistic, and no one tells him the truth, even in private,” said Grinberg, a former member of Israel’s military intelligence service.
“Is it possible that a brave officer dares to think outside the box? Certainly, but he will remain the exception and will not change much on the ground… except perhaps to limit the damage and save lives.
The extent of Russia’s losses remains uncertain. Ukraine claims 50,000 Russian troops were killed, with most Western sources saying that figure is likely too high, although the actual number is extremely large.
Ukraine’s recent counter-offensive, which caught Russian forces off guard, was marred by reports of desertions, refusal to carry out orders and poor morale suggesting serious breaks in the chains of command.
Deaths or injuries to Russian generals and officers have also taken their toll, experts say, as army training programs appear to have deteriorated in recent years, making it harder to recruit replacements. competent.
“They have a problem with the training of superiors, in particular because there are not enough non-commissioned officers” who have risen through the ranks and who should be “experts in their field”, told AFP a senior French military official on condition of anonymity.
Russia tends to give promotions mainly to older soldiers, he said, “and if your only relationship with your subordinates is one of power, when only the older ones get promoted… launching an attack becomes complicated” .
The effect on morale will only get worse as the conflict drags on, regardless of Russia’s advantage in terms of troop numbers.
“An army is the sum of its skills and capabilities. Without a solid infrastructure for recruitment, training and innovation, the Russian sum has shrunk considerably,” said French military historian Michel Goya.
“Russia’s ability to maneuver has been weakened, poorly replaced by smaller, less capable units,” he said.
Adding to the risks for Moscow, a culture of dishonesty seems to have penetrated the core of its military apparatus.
“Russian military officers frequently lie to their superiors about the status of their unit,” said military historian and author Chris Owen.
He pointed to Ukrainian interceptions of messages from Russian soldiers describing false reports of combat successes, “and subsequent attacks launched on the basis of false information”.
“By the time the reports reach the top of the chain – the leadership of the Russian Defense Ministry and Putin himself – they are most likely to be so distorted and inaccurate that the people running the war have a very unrealistic of what is happening on the ground.”
Contracts for convicts?
Ukraine’s surprise counterattack has reignited the debate over whether Putin will proceed with a general mobilization, which would make it clear that his “special military operation” in Ukraine is indeed a war.
Instead, the government seems to be pushing to hire more mercenaries, especially from paramilitary contractor Wagner, and also for more volunteers from the regular army.
A video circulating widely on social media allegedly shows Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally suspected of funding the Wagner Group, inside a Russian prison yard, offering contracts to convicts.
AFP has not confirmed its authenticity, but the man’s comments are telling: “If you serve six months, you are free. If you arrive in Ukraine and decide this is not for you, we will execute you.
For Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland, “while intensely frightening, it is also a sign of a massive crisis in Russian attempts to generate more soldiers”.