Shocking Lessons U.S. Military Leaders Learned by Watching Putin's Invasion

Russia's military is weak and backwards.

Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine produced this paradigm-shifting surprise—one that should transform the West's view of Russia's prowess, the threat that the country represents, and the Kremlin's future in the global arena.

russian invasion ukraine military
The shocking lessons U.S. military leaders learned by watching Vladimir Putin's invasion. Ukrainian tanks move on a road before an attack in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

After just one day of fighting, Russia's ground force lost most of its initial momentum, undermined by shortages of fuel, ammunition and even food, but also because of a poorly trained and led force. Russia began to compensate for the weaknesses of its land army with more long-range air, missile and artillery strikes. And President Putin resorted to a nuclear threat—a reaction, U.S. military experts say, to the failure of Moscow's conventional forces to make quick progress on the ground.

Other military observers are flabbergasted that a Russian invasion force, fully prepared and operating from Russian soil, has been able to move just tens of miles into an adjoining country. One retired U.S. Army general told Newsweek in an email: "We know that Russia has a plodding army and that Russian military force has always been a blunt instrument, but why risk the antipathy of the entire planet if you have no prospect of achieving even minimal gains." The Army general believes that the only explanation is that the Kremlin overestimated its own forces.

"I believe that at the heart of Russian military thinking is how Marshall Zhukov marched across Eastern Europe to Berlin," a former high-level CIA official told Newsweek in an interview. Zhukov's orders were to "line up the artillery and ... flatten everything ahead of you," he says. "'Then send in the peasant Army to kill or rape anyone left alive.' Subtle the Russians are not."

In the short term, Russia's military failures in Ukraine increase the threat of escalation, including the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. But in the longer term, if escalation doesn't worsen and the Ukrainian conflict can be contained, Russian conventional military weakness upends many assumptions that geopolitical strategists—even those inside the U.S. government—make about Russia as a military threat.

For the United States and the West, the stumbling Ukraine invasion recalls the collapse of the Soviet Union, an eye-opening moment when it became clear that a supposedly unstoppable military shrouded a crumbling economy and a weak political and human base. It seems, three decades later, that few lessons have been learned. Moscow continues to invest in hardware at the cost of ignoring the human dimension of warfare (and the human dimensions of the strength of the nation state). Russian leaders have also ignored the reality that success in the information age—even military success—demands education, open initiative and even freedom.

"No dictator or authoritarian who wants to maintain power ever wants to instill too much skill in subordinate military leaders," the retired Army general wrote to Newsweek. Whether it be Saddam Hussein or Vladimir Putin, the officer says, too much skill on the part of military subordinates is seen as increasing the likelihood of a coup.

Ukraine troops on Russian vehicle in Kharkiv
An Ukrainian Territorial Defence fighter examines a destroyed Russian infantry mobility vehicle GAZ Tigr after fighting in Kharkiv, Ukraine on February 27, 2022. SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. military analysts and experts extracted several lessons as they watched Russia's invasion of Ukraine unfold last week. On Thursday at about 4:00 a.m. local time, Russia invaded Ukraine along four main axes, attacking Ukraine's capital Kyiv from Belarus in the north, just 70 miles away, and from Russian soil further east, moving westward towards the country's largest city (some 2.5 million inhabitants).

The second axis bore down on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second largest city (population 1.4 million), less than 20 miles from the Russian border. The third attack entered Ukraine from Russian-occupied Crimea and the Black Sea in the south, to the east of Odessa, Ukraine's third largest city (population 1 million). The fourth axis in the east pushed westward through Luhansk and attacked from Russian-dominated Donbas.

At the same time as the ground invasion, 160 Russian missiles attacked targets from air, land, and sea. Some 80 Russia bombers and fighter planes accompanied those strikes, attacking in two primary waves. Altogether in about 400 attacks in the first 24 hours, the strike force hit, according to U.S. intelligence sources and reports on the ground, 15 command control nodes and military headquarters, 18 air defense installations, 11 airfields, and six military bases.

It wasn't an overwhelming attack. But most Western analysts assumed that Russia just needed to pave the way for its ground forces to seize the capital and topple the government. And follow-on attacks would to be coming, especially given that only a small fraction of Russian air and missile forces were employed in the Day One attack.

By the end of the day on Thursday, Russian ground forces moved into Ukraine, backed up by their own shorter-range artillery and missile strikes. Russian special forces and saboteurs, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, showed up in Kyiv city center. Paratroopers were airlifted ahead of the main ground force into Hostomel airfield on the northwestern edge of Kyiv's suburbs. The greatest progress was made in the northeast corner of Ukraine, on a straight line from Russian Belgorod to Kyiv. It was a second axis pointing at the capital city, the Russian force starting about 200 miles away.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin
Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a press conference with his Belarus counterpart, following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on February 18, 2022. Sergei Guneyev/AFP via Getty Images

But then the weaknesses of Russia conscript army, its military equipment, and its over-optimistic strategy began to show. Perhaps most significant was the battle at Hostomel, the airfield north of Kyiv, and key to Russia's effort to quickly overthrow the democratic government of Ukraine and achieve "regime change." Russian airborne troops carried by helicopters landed at the airfield in the early morning hours on Thursday to create a stepping stone into the city. But by the end of the day, Ukrainian defenders had regained control.

Meanwhile, the forward edge of the main force of Russian troops got bogged down 20 miles north of Kyiv. Heading south along the west bank of the Dnieper river, which extends from the Belarus border and splits the Ukrainian capital, tanks and armored vehicles slowed the advance. Russian logistical resupplies faltered. Ukrainian ground defenders, as well as Ukrainian fighter jets, attacked the advancing force and scored unexpected victories. Russia's land army proved not up to the task, as numerous stories of confused and unmotivated soldiers emerged. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military and the Ukrainian people's defense exceeded all expectations. Babushkas armed with broomsticks were defeating the Russian Army: that became the dominant narrative.

With the exception of long-range strikes, almost everything about the initial salvos of the Russian invasion failed. Ukrainian air defenses were not disabled. Ukrainian airfields were not put out of action. Ukrainian defenders were able to hold their ground and move largely unfettered around the country. Ukrainian reserves and civilian defenders rapidly mobilized. Russian airborne and special forces inserted deep inside Ukraine were isolated from the main Russian force on the ground, cut off from the basics, especially ammunition resupply.

Importantly, Russia was not able to integrate any of the modern instruments of warfare—electronic warfare, cyber, space—into the military attack. In Ukraine, the electricity was also still flowing, and the telecommunications infrastructure (including the internet) was in full swing.

U.S. intelligence sources pointed out to Newsweek that while the Russian ground forces have been surprisingly sluggish and uncoordinated, they were also severely constrained in their initial attack by the Kremlin's strategy and objectives. "There's only so much civil infrastructure one can destroy if the intention is occupation of the country," says one U.S. Air Force officer who was involved in the planning for the 2003 Iraq war. Also, in arguing that Ukraine is an integral part of Russia, Moscow could not overtly and directly attack the Ukrainian people, military observers say.

Russia may have also been seeking to maintain some semblance of goodwill with the international community (and even with the Ukrainian population) in not intentionally attacking civilians or civilian objects. The Ukrainian government claimed that only 32 civilian objects were hit on the first day of attacks, almost all of them by accident. By the end of the weekend, that number was still low, and Ukrainian health officials said that some 300 civilians had died and another 1,000 were wounded. Though there have been numerous incidents where civilian objects were hit, none so far appear to be intentional; the proportion of civilian casualties and harm is on par with that of the United States in its high-intensity air wars.

A total of 150,000 Russian invaders may sound impressive, another analyst says, but that force pushed into Ukraine from about 15 different locations, dividing up the power of each individual attack. The analyst says that such a multipronged approach demonstrates another overestimation on the part of Moscow, that the country could be quickly occupied.

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Smoke rises from a Russian tank destroyed by the Ukrainian forces on the side of a road in Lugansk region on February 26, 2022. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

On Days Two and Three of the Russian invasion, the eastern attacks from Russia—where the strongest supply lines exited—continued to advance. Some 12 battalion tactical groups (about 11,000 troops) made it to Okhtyrka, about 100 miles from Kyiv. Tanks also entered the city of Kharkiv after extensive shelling, and then escalated attacks inside the city, hoping to take Ukraine's second city. The bulk of the Russian main force north of Kyiv, some 17 battalion tactical groups and supporting units (24,000 troops) operating on the west bank of the Dnieper, made limited progress. Forward elements made it into the northern suburbs by Saturday. By Monday, there was heavy fighting near the capital city center.

By the end of the first 72 hours, the bulk of Russian attacks shifted to long-range artillery and missile strikes, most from Russian and Belarussian territory, where the launchers are immune from retaliation.

The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense claims in three days of fighting that some 700 Russian vehicles were destroyed, disabled or had been abandoned, including 150 tanks. Some 40 Russian aircraft and helicopters were shot down (and some crashed). In one incident, a Ukrainian Su-27 "Flanker" fighter jet shot down a Russian transport plane carrying occupation troops into the country. By the end of Day Three, Russia claimed that the number of Ukrainian "aimpoints" at targets attacked had doubled to 820, including 14 airfields and 48 air defense installations. Russia also claimed that 87 Ukrainian tanks "and other targets" were destroyed on the battlefield.

In a message on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia's invasion into Kyiv had been repelled and that Moscow's plan to quickly seize the capital and install a puppet government had been thwarted. "The real fighting for Kyiv is ongoing," Zelensky said. "We will win."

While the equipment numbers can be stultifying, casualties amongst Russian and Ukrainian military units are more sobering and revealing. According to U.S. intelligence sources, about 1,000 Russian troops have been killed or severely wounded each day of fighting. Ukrainian military deaths are estimated to be the same (about 3,000 total), demonstrating the intensity of the ground fighting at the forward edge. The Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed on Sunday that 4,300 Russian soldiers overall had been killed, and over 200 had been taken prisoner. U.S. intelligence is beginning to observe desertions on the part of Russian soldiers and increasing reports of soldiers refusing to fight.

"In three days, Russia couldn't achieve what we did in three hours in Iraq in 2003," a senior retired Air Force officer says, somewhat hyperbolically. In three days, the officer says, the number of aimpoints Russia attacked is only one-quarter of what the U.S. hit in the opening airstrikes in Iraq (more than 3,200 aimpoints). Preliminary analysis from U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia delivered 11,000 bombs and missiles to precisely hit some 820 separate "aimpoints," or about a seven percent success rate (the U.S. equivalent in Iraq in 2003 was well over 80 percent).

Russia, forces, Crimea, conflict, Ukraine
Servicemen ride atop a Russian armored vehicle on February 25 in Armyansk, Crimea, annexed by Russia from Ukraine after an internationally disputed election held in 2014 as unrest first gripped the country. AFP/Getty Images

"The synergy of coordinated attacks, and the effects," the senior officer says, "have not been achieved." As an example, the officer says, the point of attacking air defenses is to hit the central nodes and connections between launchers and the early warning systems, so that the whole system collapses. "The Russians seem to be focusing on piecemeal attacks because the choreography of a coordinated attack seems too complex for them to pull off."

Another retired officer jokingly dismissed the Russian effort as "shock and awful," riffing off the "shock and awe" of Iraq, an attack mainly on Baghdad that sent the Iraq regime and command structure into disarray from which they never recovered.

On Sunday, Russian President Putin ordered Russia's nuclear forces to a "special regime of combat duty," a status that Western observers have taken to mean a higher state of nuclear alert. Putin said that the shift in nuclear forces' readiness was in response to NATO's "aggressive statements" and sanctions. A more accurate interpretation is that with Moscow's military failure, the nuclear threat was necessary to forestall any possible NATO intervention.

Putin's caution about potential failure can also be seen in the surprise meeting of Ukrainian and Russia officials at the Belarussian border, and their agreement to meet again in the coming days. Military observers say that the best that Putin might be able to salvage is holding on to three wedges of Ukrainian territory, citing Kyiv, Kharkiv and north of Crimea. These wedges could serve as bargaining chips in exchange for "security guarantees" regarding Ukraine, such as a pledge not to join the Western alliance or officially becoming a "neutral" country, eschewing NATO military links.

President Joe Biden's State of the Union address Tuesday night was dominated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine: Russia's unprovoked invasion, the valiant defense being mounted by the Ukrainian people, and the good news of alliance solidarity and tough sanctions. The President made no mention of Russia's nuclear threat. And the overall message was muddled.

"Let me be clear," the president said, "our forces are not engaged and will not engage in conflict with Russian forces in Ukraine." That downer, despite the grave situation and the upbeat words of global solidarity and Ukraine's defenses, was accompanied by a sobering timeframe for the war: "days, weeks, months" of fighting lie ahead, Biden said, a foreign policy crisis that will surely sap the administration's domestic agenda. Meanwhile Russia is escalating its attacks as Ukraine, and civilian casualties and damage are on the rise. Fear of further escalation might in the short term focus Washington and NATO on crisis decision-making, and provoke a reopening of the Cold War playbook, to react.

In the longer term, the recognition of Russian military weakness represents a fundamental challenge to U.S. strategy, spending priorities and even its firm hold on the world. It questions Washington's obsession with a supposed "peer" adversary and the U.S. emphasis on a larger military and ever-increasing defense spending to deal with Russia. Changing the narrative on the Russian military also fundamentally challenges NATO and its European members. Though there might be heightened awareness and even fear of Moscow's willingness to resort to extreme and even reckless behavior, the reality is that there doesn't need to be increased defense spending or a renewal of European ground forces.

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President Joe Biden takes questions after delivering remarks in the East Room of the White House, giving an update on the situation of Russias Invasion of Ukraine on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022 in Washington, DC. Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Though many will argue that the new focus needs to be the old focus—containment, economic warfare to weaken the state, and nuclear disarmament talks—the new reality from Moscow's point of view will likely solidify around their belief that their only true strength lies in Russia's nuclear forces: that they are more important than ever to preserve the State, or at least the current political system that rules the state.

For Washington, this display of Russian military weakness should be comforting in terms of Moscow's true military threat to Europe. At the same time though, it exposes the need for a different national security strategy, one that doesn't imagine Russia as a military equal, and one that doesn't push Vladimir Putin's back against a wall.

Update 3/2: This story has been updated to include the president's State of the Union address.