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Reviews | Russia’s Dysfunctional Military Culture Gives Ukraine an Edge

The war is far from over, but Ukraine’s triumph over Russian forces in the Battle of kyiv was an epic victory for the ages. We will remember the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, the Battle of Tsushima Strait in 1905 and the Battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 as examples of a smaller power defeating a more powerful power. opponent. How did the Ukrainians manage to drive out the mighty Russian army, which was widely expected to enter kyiv within days?

Much attention has understandably been given to high-tech weapon systems supplied by the West, such as the Stinger anti-aircraft missile and the Javelin anti-tank missile. But the Russians also have high-tech weapons. The real advantage of Ukrainians lies in the field of military culture – which, of course, is a reflection of society as a whole.

All the multiple shortcomings of the Russian military were brutally exposed during its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. These include corruption, brutality, low morale, poor planning, faulty logistics, poor intelligence, lack of coordination between units, excessive centralization and lack of initiative on the part of junior officers and sergeants. These are not new issues and they won’t be fixed any time soon. Indeed, a 1854 items in The Economist explaining Russia’s early defeats in the Crimean War – also fought primarily in Ukraine – reads oddly like an account of Russia’s current military difficulties. (A piece of my fedora for blogger Stephen Douglas for posting this article on Twitter.)

Two of the Russian weaknesses identified by The Economist stand out in particular. First: “Russian armies are often only armies on paper. … The colonels of the regiments and the officers of the commissariat have a vested interest in having as many as possible on the books and as few as possible in the field – inasmuch as they pocket pay and rations from the difference between this numbers. Second: “Private soldiers… do not like their profession and are not interested in the object of war. This was because the typical Russian soldier was “torn from his family and his land, drilled by the knout, neglected by his officers, fed black bread, where he was fed at all, always without comforts, often without shoes” .

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The Economist attributes these pathologies to “insufficient despotic power”. He noted that “cheating, bribery, embezzlement pervades the whole tribe of officials”, that “there seems to be no conscience, and not much concealment about it”, and that “respect for the truth or integrity has no part in the Russian character”. .”

What goes around comes around. A modern reader would assume that there is an unchanging Russian “national character”, but the rest of The Economist’s analysis remains relevant. This can be explained by the fact that Russia is still ruled, as it has been throughout its history, by a brutal and corrupt dictatorship.

Inadequacies in public administration help explain Russia’s dismal performance in conflict after conflict. Russia lost not only the Crimean War (1853-1856), but also the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), the First World War (1914-1918), the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989) and the first Chechen war (1994 -1996). Its major military victories – in the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – came only after an invader was mad enough to dissipate its forces across the vast Russian landscape and only when Russia was greatly aided by allies. Westerners.

The Ukrainian military, an outgrowth of the Red Army, was initially hampered by many of the same hardships as the Russians, but after 2014 the Ukrainian military and state reformed along western democratic lines. As Politico notes, the training the Ukrainians received from Western soldiers and their own experience of fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east overturned “the old Soviet model of top-down leadership that crippled Russian units. and “spawned a new generation of small units”. leaders and non-commissioned officers able to think and act independently.

The Financial Times’ Tim Judah offers a telling example of Ukrainian ingenuity and initiative in the battle for kyiv. He describes how “Moscow’s forces were thwarted…by pieces of foam carpet — the Ukrainians call them karemats — costing as little as [one and a half British pounds]. The mats prevent Russian thermal imaging drones from detecting human heat. “We held the karemat above our heads,” said [battalion commander Oleksandr] Konoko, explaining how his men moved stealthily in small groups at night. This way, soldiers armed with anti-tank weapons supplied by the United States, Britain and others could sneak up on the Russians, fire their deadly and accurate missiles, and then slip away.

The Russians may eventually muster new forces to fight in the Donbass region – even if it will take time – but they cannot change their mind-numbing military culture. That is why I expect Ukrainians to continue winning the war, provided they continue to receive the weapons and ammunition they need from the West. A superior military culture is Ukraine’s secret weapon.