WHAT EVERYBODY GOT WRONG IN ASSESSING THE RUSSIAN MILITARY

MONDAY 30 MAY 2022

WAR ON THE ROCKS PODCAST, 5/30/22

What the experts got right and wrong about the Russian military.

Summary of points made during discussion.  Participants: Dara Massicot and Michael Kofman, Chris Dougherty and Gian Gentile

  • The Pentagon used a number of inputs to come up with a National Defense Strategy.
  • 2014 to 2018 there was a huge expansion in knowledge.  Russia had moved into Crimea. 
  • 1990s focus on Russian changed.  There was not a lot of interest in it.
  • Then, early 2000s focus started to shift.
  • 2008 Short war against Georgia.  They were successful, but it was embarrassing.  This kicked off a reform effort in Russia for the military.
  • The Russians wanted to modernize. 
  • There was no crisis and the US. Government was on focused on it.
  • A lot of people at the Pentagon were surprised with the 2014 invasion.
  • Ukraine is the major avenue of approach into Europe.
  • It was almost impossible to assess how the Russians would perform in a large-scale operation from their operations in the past.  This was one of the reasons the incompetence was unexpected. 
  • We assumed that the basic reforms were more extensive than they turned out to be. 
  • Making the force a professional enlisted force was thought to have changed things.  It is possible they didn’t know this about themselves.
  • They discover rot they didn’t know about.  They discover where the corruption is in their own system.
  • In 1943, the Soviets were pushing the Germans out.  In that area of Ukraine they had 1 million German soldiers and perhaps 1.5 million Soviet soldiers.  Now, there is something like 180,000 Russians.
  • There are things you just cannot tell about a military before you see them in action.  For example, the American military performed much worse in the invasion of Granada in 1983 than experts had expected.  This was an operation they should have been able to conduct in their sleep.  And this was done after substantial reforms. 
  • Instead, there were problems with friendly fire, there were casualties, significant problems with command and control, joint integration problems. 
  • This was a failure of the joint forces in Granada.
  • The Russian military was full of “gun decking.”  You can have a ship that looks great and sails around, but if no one is maintaining the equipment or doing the training exercises, it’s a problem.  Corners have been cut.  This can explain what we saw. 
  • If people are skimming, or failing to do equipment maintenance, or taking the money rather than doing training, it create a problem you find out about.
  • Coercing conscripts to sign up with a military contract, for example, is a problem that develops domestically and then the effects of it show up when you go to war.  (Note: There was another podcast relating the story of a mother who was told that her sons who had been in the Russian military only a few months, had signed long term contracts.  She protested and fought this since she knew they had not voluntarily signed up and the sons were returned because of the visibility of the push back.)
  • There are stories about military people meeting a quote of contracts by making conscript carry heavy boxes until they sign up, stand out in the cold until they sign up, etc.
  • Instead of deciding on limited ambitions as they did in Crimea, they went for the entire country. 
  • Why did the experts assume that the Russian military was any less corrupt than the rest of Russian society?
  • They changed their whole system to try to root out the corruption.  They, for example, started paying people electronically rather than in cash because cash encouraged people to steal.
  • In 2013, they went back to their old system.
  • There is push back on the notion that you can predict battle field outcomes from the state of the society ,for example, the degree of corruption.
  • In the first phase of the war, there was no unified command and launching five avenues of attack was absurd.
  • The Russians didn’t even let the military know that they were going to invade Ukraine.
  • A good military should recover from a bad plan and they didn’t. 
  • They have limited the Kyiv objective, then the Kharkiv objective, so they did make some changes based on what happened on the ground.
  • Western governments published the Russian plans and then they just went ahead with the same plan.
  • No one appreciated how incompetent the Russians would be or how good the Ukrainians would be.
  • The Russians saw 2014, not only did the West not intervene, but Ukraine did not resist their take-over of Crimea.  (Note: This further confirms the argument that the Zelensky government was something fundamentally different.  There was surely still corruption, but the election of Zelensky was an enormous step by the regular people of Ukraine, a decision to push for a more democratic government.)
  • It is “pure hubris” that the Russians went ahead and invaded.  They truly believed that the Ukrainians were inferior people who were going to just give up and surrender their government.
  • Many armies underestimate the opposition out of sheer racism.  Before WWII, for example, there were people advising the military who were arguing thar the Japanese were just in capable of pulling off a sophisticated air attack.  There were even arguments that the Japanese were incapable of doing this because of the shape of their eyes.
  • The Russians also underestimated the US support. 
  • They didn’t tell the troops they were invading until the day before the war.
  • The Ukrainian military was a young one and we didn’t know how they would perform.  We had dumped a similar amount of weapons on the Afghans. 
  • Argument: The Ukrainians had the morale advantage in 2014 as well but they didn’t fight.  (Note: This is another refusal to acknowledge the difference between the government in 2014 and the government in 2022).
  • Worried that the American lesson from this war will be to underestimate the Russians.
  • The Russians would fight differently if they were confronting the US or NATO.
  • When Shoigu and Gerasimov took over in 2013, everything with downhill with the military.  The Russian military reforms were eliminated.
  • 2008-2012 Ministry of Defense was run by somebody they brought in from the Tax Department.  There was an effort to modernize the military.  Let’s have a professional NCO corps.  Russians were not comfortable with this.  They downsized in a short span of time.  About 30% of Russian officers were let go.  If you weren’t “with the program” you were let go.  They made a lot of enemies letting these people go. 
  • Sergikov was trying to make reforms.
  • Around 2012 Sergikov was caught in a sex scandal.  He was ousted.
  • They within a year got rid of the professional NCO program.  Brought back the fired officers. 
  • Shoigu is a close friend of Putin’s.  Unwanted narratives about the military were criminalized.  It was a culture of silence. 

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