The collapse of the Russian military machine

Putin-era attempts at modernizing Russia’s armed forces have failed. The disastrous battlefield results in Ukraine signal geopolitical problems for the Russian state.

Russia’s president and defense minister Russian military power
The track record of the Putin regime offered insights that should have given pause to the Western conviction that a modern Russian war machine had emerged. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The Russian military machine has suffered devastating damage
  • Its weaknesses stem from the inevitable limitations of autocratic systems 
  • Repairing the country’s image of strength internationally will be a tall order

Western intelligence on Russian military capabilities is being tested again as Russia unleashes its full military power to seek a victory over Ukraine in the eastern Donbas region. And this time, too, the likely outcome is that the Ukrainian defenders will surprise analysts by inflicting sufficient casualties to force a Russian retreat. 

When the Kremlin made its original move on February 24, the outcome was commonly expected to be a swift and devastating Russian victory. When the Ukrainian ambassador to Germany asked for help, he was politely informed that there was no point in sending weapons since the war would be over in 48 hours.

Reality check

One month into the war, the tables had been turned. The Ukrainian side had inflicted massive losses on the aggressor and taken the initiative in successful counteroffensives. Badly battered, Russian forces withdrew from northern Ukraine. The implication is that, while Ukraine’s ability to resist had been underestimated, the capability of the Russian war machine had been even more seriously overestimated.

Indiscriminate terror bombing of civilians has become Russia’s only real option for continuing the aggression.

And now, based on early developments on the ground, it seems increasingly likely that the Russian offensive in Donbas will meet the same fate as the failed ambition to take Kyiv. If this turns out to be the case, Ukraine will win the war, albeit at a horrible price. Given that the Russian side will not be allowed to yield until it has little to fight with, one can predict that Russia will emerge out of the war with a badly damaged military force. Such a scenario would have profound long-term implications.

The bravery and military prowess of the Ukrainian side have already made their mark in history. What remains to be explained is how Russia’s war effort could fail so abysmally in achieving its original objectives, so much so that indiscriminate terror bombing of civilians has become Moscow’s only real option for continuing the aggression.

What went wrong?

A tentative answer might be that the war was planned and launched by the Kremlin and its security services rather than the professional military. Adding that the Kremlin’s advisors likely had been fearful of informing their masters about the sorry state of the military, it is tempting to conclude that those who launched the war had fallen victim to their own propaganda, a malaise typical to authoritarian political systems.

While there is probably much truth to such an analysis, it still fails to capture the main lessons of the Kremlin’s failure: the breakdown of essential logistics, the failure of command and control, the decrepit condition of much of the hardware and the poor accuracy of precision-guided munitions. This disastrous battlefield test indicates the presence of substantial systemic failures.

At the time of the invasion, Russia had amassed close to 200,000 men and an extensive collection of armor and heavy equipment along the borders of Ukraine. Its arsenal of long-distance missiles looked sure to cripple the Ukrainian air force and air defenses. And the security services were believed to have recruited enough Ukrainian traitors to put in place a pro-Russian government.

Perhaps the most symbolic manifestation of the ensuing debacle was an early loss of a column of troops from the Kremlin’s National Guard, the Rosgvardiya, that drove toward Kyiv in lightly protected vehicles. The unit, equipped with riot control gear – helmets, shields, batons – had been tasked with patrolling the streets of captured Kyiv. These men proved easy targets for the Ukrainian defenders.

Any attempt to assess whether Russia can score more success in Donbas and whether it will be able to rebuild its badly battered military after the war must begin with addressing two critical issues: what made it descend into such a sorry state, and how Russian spin could convince all sides that Russia had emerged as a serious threat to NATO.

Missed history lessons

The answer is twofold. The Russian attempt at a military reform failed to shape a modern force structure and then explain how endemic, massive corruption had hampered the attempted modernization of military hardware. But first and foremost, the track record of the Putin regime had offered ample insights that should have given pause to beliefs in the emergence of a modern Russian war machine.

The second Chechen war, fought from 1999 to 2009 under Vladimir Putin’s rule, may be viewed as a precursor to the second phase of the Ukraine war.

A pattern for what has played out in Ukraine was provided by the two wars that Russia fought to suppress a radical Islamist insurgency in Chechnya. The first Chechen war, fought under President Boris Yeltsin from 1994 to 1996, may be viewed as a precursor to the first phase of the Ukrainian invasion. Based on an ill-founded belief in a lightning strike, it was shattered by Chechens’ fierce resistance, resulting in heavy losses and Russian withdrawal.

A Russian soldier in Grozny in 2020 Russian military power
Capital city of Grozny was turned into rubble in the second phase of Russia’s long war against a radical Islamist insurgency in Chechnya. © Getty Images

The second Chechen war, fought from 1999 to 2009 under Vladimir Putin’s rule, may, in turn, be viewed as a precursor to the second phase of the Ukraine war. Having learned that urban warfare would result in massive casualties, Russia resorted to hefty artillery bombardment that transformed the capital city Grozny into rubble.

While the second war in Chechnya was still being prosecuted, Russia went to fight against Georgia in 2008. That war, too, was marked by logistical chaos and a failure to conduct combined arms operations. The latter resulted in friendly fire incidents, including shootdowns of own aircraft. The invasion succeeded in the end only due to overwhelming numbers.

Failed reforms

The Kremlin’s response to these debacles was the military reform launched in 2009 under Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov. The main thrust was to scrap the old force structure of five million men mobilized into more than two hundred WWII-style divisions.

The reconstituted ground forces were supposed to consist of 89 “readiness brigades” – all of them fully staffed, equipped for autonomous action and ready to deploy “within one hour.” To ensure that the new force structure would be leaner but meaner, the reformers devised a program for military modernization, priced at a staggering $600 billion.

Over the decade that followed, Russia conducted well-rehearsed large-scale military drills, staging the highest-profile shows in the Western military district. These games, held every four years, involved Russian forces in Belarus, and the 2009 exercise notably showcased a simulated nuclear strike against Warsaw. In between the war games, Russia also conducted “snap inspections” to test the readiness for rapid deployment.

Missed signals

Astute Russian military observers warned that these spectacular wargames contained characteristic elements of the classic Russian Potemkin facade. But military-industrial interests in the West eagerly soaked up the Russian projections, clamoring for increased funding.

Once the new-style readiness brigades had failed abysmally, the military command resorted to its tried tactics of using missiles and artillery to transform civilian housing into rubble.

Early notice of what was coming to Ukraine was served when Russia entered the war in Syria. Seeking to prop up the faltering regime of President Bashar al-Assad, it orchestrated a campaign of indiscriminate bombing. The outcome was like in Grozny, with the rebel stronghold Aleppo reduced to rubble. Ominously for Ukraine, poison gas was used to force defenders out of basement positions so that they could be killed in the open.

Beyond its ruthlessness, the Russian side did not impress. Having been dispatched to support the air campaign, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov demonstrated its uselessness, as warplanes taking off from its deck could not return and had to land in Syria. Also, the much-feared Wagner mercenary group took massive casualties when engaged by American forces.

The combination of inefficiency and murderous brutality that marked the campaigns in Chechnya, Georgia and Syria also characterizes the invasion of Ukraine. The Russian military command failed to ensure air superiority, came up short on command and control and suffered considerable attrition of senior officers, including generals and admirals killed in Ukrainian strikes.

Once the new-style readiness brigades had failed abysmally, the military command resorted to its tried tactics of encircling cities and using missiles and artillery to transform civilian housing into rubble.

Systemic failures

The hardware’s poor performance, including the misses of supposedly precision-guided munitions, may be linked to endemic corruption in Russia’s military sector. Official auditors have suggested that a fifth of the Russian defense budget is defrauded every year; this may still be an underestimation.

An important reason why advancing Russian forces have been unable to drive off-road in Ukraine was that contractors given funds to purchase top-of-the-line Western tires opted to acquire poor quality Chinese products, pocketing the difference. Similar evidence pertains to vehicle batteries with extremely short service lives, leaving equipment without power. Evidence from captured Russian supplies, in turn, has shown food rations that expired in 2007. Again, some contractors had made a bundle, leaving Russian tank crews to consume inedible food or starve, or engage in looting.

It is symptomatic that when the Russian military command sought to compensate for battlefield losses by bringing tanks out of storage, it discovered that in many cases vital hi-tech equipment like gyros and target finders had been stripped and gone missing. Entire engine blocks had been removed; for example, in Boguchar, Voronezh Oblast, 40 percent of the equipment in long-term storage proved inoperable. Tellingly, agents of the Federal Security Service (FSB) sent to Ukraine to recruit pro-Russian elements for a new government reportedly had pocketed the funds provided and submitted false reports, causing U.S. intelligence to warn about success in such endeavors. The operation of the dreaded Russian agency thus proved to be another house of cards.



Looking forward, the prospects for Russia rebuilding its military capabilities are dismal. The software constraint could be overcome; it might also be possible to restore professional leadership and, over time, rebuild morale among troops that have been through hell. However, what may prove decisive, rebuilding military hardware promises to be a steep uphill battle.

Conceivably, some European nations will seek to force Ukraine into a compromise that will end the war on Russian terms, presumably to open the door to lifting sanctions and resuming business as usual. However, as the scope of war crimes committed against Ukrainian civilians has become public knowledge, moral condemnation of Russia is so profound that democratic governments will find it nigh impossible to do away with the sanctions.

This situation has four sets of implications. The first concerns financing. As Russian exports of oil and gas to Europe are being phased out, pipelines for gas to Europe will soon become obsolete. Finding other markets will be possible, but at discounted prices and higher transport cost. Following the debacle in Ukraine, the prospects for Russian arms exports will also plummet, with China likely to take over much of the Russian market shares in the developing world.

The second implication is that vital subcontractors of the defense sector have been lost for a long time. Moscow could not use Ukraine’s military enterprises after 2014, and now the German ones will have to break all ties. It is symptomatic that Russia’s largest maker of tanks – Uralvagonzavod – has ceased operations due to a lack of components. The hopes that China will step in may not materialize, given that Beijing is concerned about Western sanctions against its own economy.

The third implication is that brain drain may accelerate. As educated young Russians move out of the country and foreign firms fold their tents there, the quality of human capital needed for hi-tech military development could deteriorate dramatically.

The fourth and most important consequence is that, as the war drags on and Russia weakens economically and militarily, and the Kremlin is forced to withdraw whatever troops can be “harvested” from other deployments, other actors are likely to be emboldened. 

Azerbaijan has already resumed its offensive in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Georgia may be eying the recapture of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and Moldova could decide to tackle the breakaway Transnistria. Turkey may take a more resolute stance against Russia in both Syria and Libya. And after the humiliation in Ukraine of the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, Russia might even be drawn into a third Chechen war.

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