Russia’s war has already failed

The country’s credibility as a geopolitical power is eroding before our eyes, says our military analyst in the first of her weekly columns

March 10, 2022
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Image: ITAR-TASS News Agency / Alamy Stock Photo

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Two weeks into Russia’s war against Ukraine, Putin’s military operation appears strikingly unsuccessful when measured against what seem to be his objectives.

Expectations of a rapid advance, of an absence of significant Ukrainian resistance, and of the swift installation of a pro-Russia president have all faltered in the face of Ukrainian military, political strength and hostility to occupation. 

Ukraine continues to control almost all the major towns it held before the start of the war, and reports suggest that occupied areas are sites of continued resistance by Ukrainians. Advances on the ground have been halted or slowed and, even more surprisingly, Russia has still failed to achieve control of the skies despite its hugely superior air power. 

Putin’s decision to invade seems to have been based on a fundamental miscalculation concerning both the nature of the war he was starting and the people he was attacking—a staggering and almost incomprehensible failure of judgment.

Just as worryingly for the Kremlin, the poor performance on the ground has exposed a wide range of weaknesses in the Russian armed forces. This is concerning not just for this war but for the international credibility of Russia as a global military power.

Issues reportedly include very significant losses of both personnel and equipment; basic logistical failures leading to fuel and food shortages; communications failures; the use of conscripts; desertions; and poor preparation of troops who, in some cases, seem to have been unaware of the nature of the operation until after they had invaded. Some analysts suggest that one explanation for the underwhelming performance of the air force in particular is inadequate training.

Taken together, things look ominous not just for Russia’s ability to achieve even a moderately quick military victory; they signal a more fundamental set of problems that should deeply alarm the Kremlin. Since the military and political disaster of the first Chechen War in the mid-1990s, Russia has repeatedly announced waves of costly military reform. Particularly after its underwhelming performance against the tiny armed forces of Georgia in 2008, Russia has focused on military modernisation as a key pillar of its great power revival.

But both the operational and strategic failures recall the humiliation of the war in Chechnya that Putin has spent so much time and money—and so many lives—trying to erase. This raises questions not just about how wisely the Russian military budget has been spent since the start of the 2010s but of whether the armed forces are actually unwilling to learn from past blunders, despite the high costs of not doing so. The longstanding problem of corruption—a serious issue since the Soviet period—continues to stymie reform.

None of this means that the Russian war against Ukraine is likely to be lost quickly—or even in the long run. The Russian armed forces troop numbers and equipment remain superior and they continue to make progress on the ground, albeit slowly. Without enhanced military aid from the west it is hard to see how Ukraine can prevent Russia from ultimately achieving a military victory.

But even if this happens, three significant problems will remain for Russia.

The first is that a military victory will not resolve Russia’s problems in Ukraine. It seems unlikely that the Ukrainian population will simply accept the destruction of their independence and the installation of a puppet president. Ukrainians have a long history of protest and resistance, and the latest Russian invasion seems, so far, to be strengthening Ukrainian national cohesion and identity, even in traditionally more pro-Russian areas. An open-ended military occupation may be necessary, at huge military, economic and political cost. At least at the moment, it is possible to imagine a militarily victorious Russia attempting to preside over a Ukrainian version of late-20th century Northern Ireland—but one where a divided population has largely united in resistance, and where the population is not 1.5m but over 40m. It is very hard to see that being sustainable. 

The second is that the military and economic costs associated with an ongoing occupation will limit capacity in other areas of importance to Russia. There is understandable anxiety about whether Russia will move on to further operations against the post-Soviet states of Georgia and Moldova (both of which, like Ukraine, include breakaway regions hosting a Russian military presence). There is also anxiety about whether an emboldened Putin would seek to use military force against neighbouring Nato states. But as long as Russia is tied down in Ukraine, its capacity to coerce these states is reduced, and the weaknesses exposed in this war will erode its credibility. Far from enhancing Russia’s great power status, the war will continue to undermine it.

Finally, the disaster of the initial phase of the war has called Putin’s own credibility into question. Irrespective of the much-debated issue of his mental stability, his understanding of Russia’s nearest and most significant neighbour—and of his own military’s capabilities—appears fatally flawed. This would be a problem for any state but is disastrous for a personalised autocracy like Russia, where so much decision-making capability rests in the president’s hands. 

Whatever happens in the next weeks, in fundamental ways Russia’s war in Ukraine is already a failure.