Moscow's Early Missteps Have Left The Russian Army Weakened, For Now

The Russian army that crossed the border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022 has been largely destroyed. Poor planning and execution, combined with a critical inability to adapt to changing combat conditions, have decimated its ranks and depleted its equipment. Moscow's forces, once considered to be the second most capable army in the world, are now widely viewed as the second most capable army in Ukraine, one that is all but incapable of conducting offensive operations on a significant scale.

British intelligence estimates that in the first year of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia has suffered up to 200,000 casualties, with up to 60,000 killed. The latter is a figure that is four times larger than the number of Soviet soldiers who were killed over the course of 10 years of fighting in a losing effort in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.

Prior to the invasion, the battle plan that the Russian military ultimately followed had been widely previewed in the Western press. Although the attack came as no surprise, Western military observers were shocked by the inexplicably poor performance of Russian forces.

"We realized in retrospect that the Russian military exercises that we'd studied in minutia for years weren't really exercises," George Barros of the Institute for the Study of War told Newsweek. "They were choreographed ballets with tanks."

"Exercises are supposed to stress units, to bring them to their breaking point, to help them learn new operational concepts, to help them find pain points so that they can iron them out and get good at fighting," he explained.

"That's what we thought the Russians were doing," Barros added. "But we didn't understand how hollow the exercises had been until we actually saw the First Guards Tank Army come up against a real life adversary."

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A Russian soldier walks amidst the rubble in Mariupol's eastern side where fierce fighting between Russia/pro-Russia forces and Ukraine continues to rage. The battle between Russian / Pro Russian forces and the defending Ukrainian forces led by the Azov battalion continues in the port city of Mariupol, 2022 Maximilian Clarke/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

In addition to poor execution, poor planning was also a factor. One of the main reasons why pre-war predictions of Russian military success proved to be so far off the mark was because the Russian military did not fight the way the Russian military probably was capable of fighting.

"Based on Russian military doctrine, we were expecting them to wage an unrelenting, 72-hour air campaign aimed at crippling critical infrastructure and destroying as much of the conventional Ukrainian military as possible," Barros said.

"Instead, the air and missile campaign lasted for only around six or seven hours," he added, "and they didn't really destroy anything of consequence before sending in ground troops, who in a lot of cases didn't seem to be expecting to meet actual resistance."

It remains unclear exactly why Russian troops were so unprepared. For weeks leading up to the Russian invasion, U.S. officials, including President Joe Biden, characterized the commencement of hostilities as "imminent." Even as embassies evacuated Kyiv and as some commercial airlines stopped servicing the country, Western shipments of military aid, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, were landing in Ukraine around the clock.

"We've studied [Head of the Russian General Staff Valery] Gerasimov, and we actually hold him in fairly high regard as a military professional," Barros said. "Given how dramatically the Russian invasion plan violated Russian doctrine and operational concepts, either we grossly overestimated his abilities, or else we overestimated his professionalism to call out a flawed plan, or else this plan was produced with significant interference from the Kremlin or the Presidential Administration."

The political influence of Vladimir Putin has served to weaken his country's war effort in another way. After plunging ahead with his self-described "special military operation" despite clear, repeated warnings from Western officials that Russia would face immediate economic and diplomatic punishment, and that Western military aid would continue flowing across Ukraine's border by land for as long as Kyiv was prepared to keep up the fight, Putin demonstrated an overabundance of caution when it came to making military decisions which had the potential to negatively affect his domestic standing.

"Since the start of the war, Putin has actually been risk averse to the point that it's done tangible harm to the Russian war effort," Barros explained. "The military situation in May already demanded that, if Russia actually still wanted to achieve its goals, mobilization needed to start going forward."

"Instead, they resorted to ineffective half-measures like trying to get by with volunteers, and the result was the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kharkiv in September," Barros added. "It wasn't until Putin was faced with the prospect of actually losing the war that he finally decided to do what military logic dictated he should have done four months prior."

Although a partial mobilization has since swelled Russia's ranks by as many as 300,000 men, the fresh forces are significantly less capable than the professional Russian units that were all but destroyed in earlier stages of the fighting. As ongoing low-scale offensive operations around Bakhmut and Vuhledar continue to take a toll on Russia's more experienced troops, the result is likely to be an army which will soon be forced to go strictly on the defensive.

"What they're doing in the east right now is simply burning combat power that they're going to wish they had once the Ukrainians start counterattacking closer to the spring and summer," Barros said.

The Institute for the Study of War does not anticipate that the fall of Bakhmut, if it were to occur, would constitute an immediate threat to other Ukrainian cities.

Still, with hard numbers on Ukrainian reserve forces hard to come by, only time will tell whether a combination of Ukrainian will and Western armor is capable of pushing Russia's degraded forces out of the Ukrainian territories they still occupy.

"The Russians are not defeated," Barros cautioned. "They've shown that they can take losses, both in manpower and in territory, and continue to fight. Even if they can't take any more territory, there's every indication that they are going to continue fighting."

While Russian losses have been enormous—quite possibly already higher than the 58,220 U.S. soldiers killed over the course of more than a decade of fighting in Vietnam—there is no sign that the rising death count will slow anytime soon.

Survey data released on March 2 by Levada Center, an independent Russian polling agency, registered 77% support for "the actions of the armed forces of the Russian Federation in Ukraine," a figure that has barely shifted since February 2022. Even if much of that "support" is tepid at best, the almost total absence of open opposition suggests that the status quo in Russia itself remains stable.

"Most people really believe that everything is going to continue to be okay, at least for them," Andrei Nikulin, a liberal political consultant based in Moscow, told Newsweek. "There was some genuine fear in the fall after mobilization was announced, but once everyone who wasn't called up understood that they were safe, they simply went right back to ignoring the reality of the war."

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A boy climbs a destroyed Russian tank on display in Kyiv's Mykhailivskyi Square, on February 23, 2023. Roman Pilipey/Getty Images

Despite a few examples of worried talk on Moscow's Kremlin-controlled airwaves, the mood in Russia remains depressingly calm.

"Propaganda has started to discuss the possibility of a Russian loss," Nikulin said, "but more often the message is that we are ready to suffer any hardship for the sake of victory."

"The fact is though, not many people are actually suffering, at least not in larger cities," he added. "The economy functions, salaries are paid, and Russians can still comfortably ignore the fact that Russia is waging war in Ukraine, just as they previously ignored corruption, political falsifications, and all the other indignities Russian life."

On the Ukrainian side, the suffering has been impossible to miss. While the Russian economy is estimated to have shrunk by somewhere between 2.5% and 4% in 2022, Ukrainian GDP contracted by 30.2%, according to the country's Ministry of Economy. For the soldiers themselves, the year has been a long one, and many of them are tired. While they remain committed to defending their country against continuing Russian aggression, at this point, they are an army that could use the morale boost of a victory.

"At the start, it was impossible to have any idea where things were headed or when or how it would end," Serhiy, an IT professional who volunteered for military service in the Ukrainian army on February 24, 2022, told Newsweek. "In my unit, all we had were rifles, maybe one Soviet-era RPG, a few grenades, and that's it. There were Javelins around, but we didn't have any of them."

As ever more Western kit started to pour into the country, however, and as a combination of Russian missteps and overwhelming Ukrainian courage halted the invader's advances, the mood in Serhiy's unit dramatically improved.

"More substantial help started coming in from the West, and every month it felt like the situation was improving, especially after the liberations around Kharkiv and Kherson," Serhiy said. "I even got to take part in the military trainings in England."

When Serhiy returned, however, the Battle for Bakhmut was already raging. He was sent to the front, where a combination of grenade-dropping Russian commercial drones and old fashioned heavy artillery took their toll on his unit, both physically and mentally. Serhiy is currently recovering from wounds sustained in the fighting.

"The Ukrainian people are paying an enormous price for Bakhmut," he said. "I have too many friends who lost their lives simply because the command was given, 'not one step back. Hold the position.' How can you hold a position when it has been bombed to nothing?"

"I sincerely hope that the reason why we were not rotated off the front for rest was because there is a force being prepared for offensive operations this spring," Serhiy continued.

"I also hope that the reason why we were not given sufficient ammunition to defend ourselves is because it was being rationed for such an operation," he added. "But speaking honestly, when I think back on all of my friends who are no longer here, I have nothing positive to say about any of this."

While there is a general expectation, both in the West and in Ukraine itself, that the spring and summer will see Kyiv's forces make substantive territorial gains against the weakened Russian army that ISW analyst Barros described, a failure to repeat last year's victories around Kharkiv and Kherson could threaten the fighting spirit that has sustained Ukraine throughout the war thus far.

With the arrival of hundreds of Western-made tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, there is every reason to hope that such gains will be made. But if in the coming months Ukrainian forces fail to break through Russian lines, most likely in the direction of Melitopol, their prospects for doing so next year are unlikely to be any better than they are right now—and perhaps not as good.