War in Ukraine: why is Russia’s army so weak? | The Economist

Published 2022-05-09
As Russia celebrates Victory Day, our defence correspondent considers why the Russian army has performed so badly in Ukraine.

00:00 - The poor performance of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine
00:40 - Why has the Russian army struggled in Ukraine?
02:00 - What’s behind Russia’s brutal warfare?
03:27 - Donbas: the next frontier

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Russian soldiers appear to be dying in Ukraine at a remarkably high rate: econ.st/3yh6PF2

Putin is failing in Ukraine but succeeding at oppressing Russia: econ.st/3ykJsum

Russia’s army is in a woeful state: econ.st/3yeWZ6C

How rotten is Russia’s army? econ.st/3MR6m0l

Mariupol’s outnumbered defenders refuse to give in: econ.st/3MP3H7y

Fighting has intensified in the Donbas region: econ.st/3Pc1CET

Rob Lee on why attrition will be a critical factor in the battle for Donbas: econ.st/3MQazS7

Russia’s brutal mercenaries probably won’t matter much in Ukraine: econ.st/382xNG2

Artillery is playing a vital role in Ukraine: econ.st/3saHSY8

Russian rockets are falling indiscriminately on Ukrainian cities: econ.st/3sew3jT

The woes of the Russian war machine are big and real. Are they also temporary? econ.st/3P09YPt

Michael Kofman, an expert on Russia’s armed forces, explains why the Kremlin will seek regime change in Ukraine: econ.st/387XCEv

The curious case of Russia’s missing air force: econ.st/3MUgFRC

All Comments (21)
  • Frank S.
    When I was a young officer many years ago, most everyone of my senior NCO'S were my dad's age and been on active duty longer than I had been alive at the time. It never occurred to me that I needed to tell them what to do. I simply shared my advice and technical knowledge, removed obstacles and barriers to their success, provided the best equipment and supplies, and then stayed out if their way for some autonomy. Couldn't imagine doing it so well without NCO's.
  • Roger Forsberg
    At least a handful of the very astute commenters to this video have observed how critical it is for a modern army to have NCOs, i.e., noncommissioned officers. When I went through the US Army's OCS over 50 years ago I learned the quote from Ike, i.e., GEN Dwight Eisenhower about just how critical NCOs were to the day-to-day functioning of the US Army. Ike said that sergeants run the Army -- an observation which may not be true in principle, but which is completely true in practice.
  • maloclm Simmons
    You hit the proverbial nail on the head when you spoke of the Russian military lacking the layer of NCO's and that being an issue.
    I am a US Marine and served 2004-2012. One thing our superiors drilled into us from day one was the importance of small unit leadership and that comes from NCO's, E-4, E-5. We were able and trusted to make our own decisions to achieve the mission. The battle is fluid and rapid so decisions have to be made fluidly and rapidly. You have adapt to the changing battlefield more decisively and rapidly than your enemy. That cannot be achieved through layers of command. But for this to even be effective you have to trust your NCOs. I personally wouldn't trust any of the Russians to make decisions.
  • US intelligence knew about Russian military failures and miscalculations as early as 2017 in Syria. There, elite Russian forces along with the oft-feared private military contractor “Wagner Group” surprised US intelligence by making frequent mistakes. Most telling was the consistent failure of ground troops to work closely with artillery, and vice versa. Likewise it was also noted that forward operators failed to accurately direct artillery and air support.
    US intelligence agencies most certainly shared this with their Ukrainian counterparts and it shows, on the battlefield.
  • I think you are missing a key point when you say Russia may call up civilians if the next few weeks go badly. The could, but it would take months to equip and train them for battle. At the current attrition rate, Russia does not have months. They will run out of men and machines before they can put these forces into the battle. Also, outfitting these troupes, especially with tanks, armored personal carriers, etc. will not be easy if it is possible at all. They are running out of these items and making more is almost impossible given the current sanctions. Russia's main tank production facility has already shut down. In short, they are bleeding men and machines far faster than they can replenish them.
  • When troops are indisciplined and without effective supervision they will always behave badly. It doesn’t matter if they are Russian French German or British and the fact yard not in their own country means that they feel they do not think that they will be made to be accountable for the actions they have taken. It’s a given in every war when bad leadership is absent.
  • Sean Van Pelt
    Thank you for talking about Russia's lack of a strong N.C.O. Corps! I've been talking about this with people and they just brush me off like I don't know what I'm talking about. As an E-7 in the United States Army for 8 years, I know the value and importance of having strong and capable N.C.O.'s. In my opinion, this is one of the reasons for the high rate of Russian generals and high ranking officers being k.i.a.
  • Jeremy G
    I've watched documentaries about how poorly Russia has ignored there equipment's basic upkeep on there subs, battle ships, tanks and so on so it really doesn't surprise me with how well Ukraine is doing
  • Rest in peace, AN225, biggest plane in the world. I've never seen it but that death of the 225 is hearttouching for aviation fans🙏
  • Mark James
    I think some of the failure comes from Russia’s continuing focus on its victory over Germany in World War II (Afghanistan was a disaster but no one has ever done well trying to control that land). Russians have been taught that the Germans were repelled by bravery, sacrifice and skill. But they ignore two things 1) the Germans faced the same problems as Napoleon, natural obstacles anyone would face, and 2) there is a huge difference in morale, supply lines and other things when you are defending your own territory, as opposed to invading someone else’s. Now, Russia was able to dominate Eastern Europe, but after the war those countries were devastated and in no position to resist. Things have changed.
  • 1chish
    Unlike the diminishing and older resources available to Russia those available to Ukraine are massively increasing. And not only increasing but those resources are far more capable as the weeks go by.
    For example: Where Russia could lob artillery from 2 Kms away and take a few random hits in return from the Ukrainians with drones etc it now has state of the art British artillery radar that can trace incoming and lay counter fire resolutions from further away with larger howitzers. The war is changing and I can see gradual Russian losses in the East as Ukraine gains capability and training in that capability.

    What we will then see is even more evidence of the brutality and war crimes of these allegedly 'innocent' conscripts.
  • R Brown
    Speaking of undisciplined, nothings changed. My late Polish mother-in-law, who lived on a farm during WW II, said that Germans could be brutal but were highly disciplined and methodical. In comparison, the Russian “soldiers” that came later were wild savages. Years later, she and her husband saw no future for their children under communism and moved to Canada. It was a very brave of them, especially since they had to sell everything they owned, they only spoke Polish, and the family had 5 children, including a 10-month-old who eventually became my wife.
  • Roy W-G
    Reminds me of Japanese in WW2 where the army and Navy hated each other. If the Navy witnessed a US air attack heading towards a Japanese army base, they would not warn them as “that was the army’s problem”.
    The true definition of madness,” Einstein reportedly said, “is repeating the same action, over and over, hoping for a different result.” Unfortunately, many proposals for ending the war on Ukraine ask the Ukrainians to repeat the same actions they have tried over and over with disastrous results. Those advocating for trying these approaches yet again bear a heavy burden of explaining why this time would be different.
    Many outcomes that may sound plausible to those uninformed about Putin’s history quite rightly look disastrous to Ukrainians. For example, Putin has said he wants a neutral, “demilitarized” Ukraine. Russia had that beginning in 1994, when Ukraine surrendered the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees of its existing boundaries from Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
    Rather than allow this neutral, demilitarized Ukraine to live in peace within the longstanding boundaries Russia pledged to guarantee, Putin exploited Ukraine’s weakness to intervene in its politics and fix a presidential election for his deeply corrupt crony. When the Ukrainian people overthrew Putin’s puppet, Putin again took advantage of Ukraine’s weakness by seizing Crimea and a large part of Ukraine’s industrial heartland in the East.
    At some point, outsiders may tell the Ukrainians that they should accept a ceasefire at any price, even if it leaves Russian forces in their country. Ukraine did this after Russian’s 2008 invasion, with the promise of peace talks.
    Russia responded by stalling, shelling unoccupied parts of Ukraine, setting up two corrupt puppet regimes in its occupied territories — one of which shot down a Malaysian civilian airplane — and ultimately disavowing its agreement, to invade yet again.
    Nor are these isolated intrusions. Throughout the region, Russia has repeatedly seized parts of its neighbors’ territory, agreed to a ceasefire, and then continued its occupation without serious negotiations. It has occupied two regions of Georgia and one in Moldova for decades. Ukrainians know these “frozen conflicts” mean an indefinite loss of sovereignty, the indefinite subjugation of Ukrainians to Russian misrule, and a constant source of instability draining the country’s human and financial resources.
  • Chris Anderson
    I've heard the normal stay in the Russian army rarely exceeds 3 years due to poor morale, pay, bullying etc. It means there is little in the way of accumulated memory in the larger force outside the very top ranked officers, they have no way to teach or pass on any combat experience because it just doesn't exist, there are almost no 25 year veteran soldiers that carry on the memory of how to fight.
  • Todd Knode
    as a former US Marine who rose to the exalted rank of E3 I can't imagine how much of a shitshow my Company would have been if it were solely composed of 6 officers and 100 junior enlisted.
  • Paul Dehart
    It all comes down to training and discipline. You do that in basic, boot camp. Just because you have an army made up of draftees does not make it a bad army. It is the time in training and disciplining your troops. None found in the Russian military. There are a number of armies that are made up of draftees but very well trained and disciplined. South Korea for one. You just also have to look at the US military during WW1 through Vietnam. Mostly draftees but trained and disciplined. They hated being there but fought hard and won their battles.
  • Collector Cars
    Also worth noting is the lack of proper equipment across all areas (i.e. cheap quality tyres, radios etc, rations) due to years of high-level corruption where investments were siphoned off by those in charge.
  • Ri Do
    In WWII, the Russian lost a lot of soldiers not only as a result of the German invasion, but the lack of a well organized and caring army. Soldiers are expendable in the Russian army. They fight as ordered, even if it means a certain death. Self initiative is not encouraged in Russian society. The mentality hasn't changed since the USSR colapsed. Russian society was and still is the elite ruling over the common peasant.
  • Don't Care
    I'm no soldier but the series band of brothers had some really great scenes showing the importance of having multiple layers of leadership and men who make calls and change battle plans as long as the overall plan is achieved. Since it is based on true people I mention it because it provides interviews with the real men and the scene were the incompetent officer froze up and another nco took command and won the battle was a real event. I couldn't imagine being in a military that doesn't allow multiple of layers of leadership.