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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

How Russia Planned For The Wrong War — With The Wrong Army

Russia is losing in Ukraine not just because of Putin's madness and the heroism of Ukrainians, but also because Russia's army is built for rapid invasion and occupation, not for the type of grinding war it is now fighting in Ukraine.

Photo of a Russian Western Military District soldier inside a tank during a mission in Ukraine on March 7

Russian Western Military District soldier inside a tank during a mission in Ukraine on March 7

Yuri Fedorov

In the early days of the Russian invasion, both Moscow and the West predicted Ukraine would quickly be defeated.

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On Feb. 26, 2022, the American Institute for the Study of War wrote: “Russia will likely defeat Ukrainian regular military forces and secure their territorial objectives at some point in the coming days or weeks if Putin is determined to do so and willing to pay the cost in blood and treasure.”

Events, however, took a different path.


Commentators are quick to pin the Russian army’s inability to claim victory in Ukraine on the gross miscalculations of Russia’s secret service (FSB), Putin's absurd belief that Ukrainian statehood would collapse at the first blow of the Russian military machine — and the many errors in political and military planning that resulted.

This implies that if Russia had made wiser decisions, the weak Ukrainian army would not have survived.

The army of 2014

Right up until Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian government officials and society were convinced that there was no real military threat to the country's security. Neither Western countries nor Russia were considered as potential adversaries, and so it was considered pointless to boost national defense spending.

The warnings of those who understood Moscow would inevitably hope to restore the Russian empire were ignored.

But the shock of 2014-2015 changed the situation dramatically. After the annexation of Crimea and hostilities in Donbas, Ukraine stepped up efforts to strengthen the armed forces.

By the beginning of 2022, Ukraine had one of the largest armies in Europe. They numbered some 200,000 soldiers and officers, almost 900 tanks, 1176 artillery pieces and another 1680 multiple launch rocket systems. They were saturated with anti-tank weapons, both Soviet and Ukrainian-made. Still, Russia had about three times as many soldiers and twice as much artillery.

Ukraine’s tanks were mainly obsolete vehicles that could not withstand a direct collision with more modern enemy vehicles. Ukraine’s weakest point was in the air: just 124 combat aircraft, about 10 times less than Russia.

\u200bUkrainian soldiers walking in Kyiv, on Feb. 24

Ukrainian soldiers in Kyiv, on Feb. 24

Kay Nietfeld/dpa/ZUMA

Ukraine outnumbered, but not outfought

The Ukrainian Armed Forces’ advantages were not in weapons and equipment, but in people and management. Ukrainian commanders have relied on the moral, psychological and professional training of military personnel, cohesion and combat coherence of units and formations, and the creation of a modern system of communications, command and control.

Even some of the weaknesses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine turned into an advantage.

Ukraine also carefully studies the theater of future military operations, primarily in Donbas. Possible moves for enemy and friendly forces were discussed and gamed out during exercises and military games, as well as informal discussions. The low-intensity armed conflict of 2015-2022 allowed Ukraine’s command staff to gain experience in real combat operations. In other words, most of Ukraine’s officer corps was morally, psychologically and intellectually ready for a war with Russia.

During the hybrid war, almost half a million Ukrainians took part in the hostilities in Donbas, and 200,000 of them regularly did military training and joined the operational reserve by the end of 2018.

Even some of the weaknesses of the Armed Forces of Ukraine turned into an advantage. The lack of funds for the maintenance of a large professional army led to an outflow of trained personnel, and new ones had to be constantly trained. “However, there was a benefit to this situation,” the British Royal United Services Institute for Defense Studies noted in a 2022 report. “The Ukrainian reserves and society as a whole consisted of a very large number of people who had military experience and were trained for special tasks. One of the main mistakes of Russian planning was the underestimation of the number of reservists in Ukraine.

Russia's blitzkrieg army

In the first week of the invasion, it seemed the saddest predictions were coming true. But by the end of March, the situation at the front began to change. Ukraine pushed Russian troops out of the three northeastern regions, and lifted the siege of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy. The attack on Nikolaev and Odessa was stopped. The Ukrainian army achieved all this before Western allies began to provide long-range artillery.

Qualitative factors of military potential — good communications, reliable command and control, real-time intelligence information from allies, modern high-precision Western weapons (although not enough), the moral and psychological state of the troops, the operational skills of the command — these all allowed Ukraine to compensate for Russia's superiority in weapons and firepower. What happens next depends on the range and volume of Western aid. The larger it is, the sooner Ukraine's victory will come.

Russia's failure to succeed in the first weeks of the war makes its defeat inevitable. In 2008-2020, Russia rebuilt its armed forces as a blitzkrieg army, planning to win with “little blood, mighty blows” — and, of course, on “foreign soil.” But drawn into a long war, this army faces severe problems and is defeated. If the war is expected to end in weeks, there is no need to create a mobilization reserve, plan a durable logistics system, establish wireless communications and so on. But if the war drags on, the lack of trained reserves and ammunition supplies, and overall lack of reliable logistics will lead to defeat.

Ukrainian soldiers training for combat near Kyiv on Feb. 23

Kay Nietfeld/dpa via ZUMA

How Russia planned for the wrong war

Russia's strategic position dictated its focus on a blitzkrieg army. Its military-political ambitions were concentrated in the South Caucasus, in the Baltic region, with access to Central-Eastern Europe, and in Ukraine.

In the South Caucasus, Russia was preparing, first of all, for a war against Georgia, in which the main role could be played by strike units located at Russian military bases in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, as well as the 7th Airborne Assault Division stationed in Novorossiysk, Stavropol and Anapa. It is an hour's drive from the South Ossetian border to the Georgian capital Tbilisi, so one would expect Russian forces to capture the city overnight, before the West could take political or military action to preserve Georgia's sovereignty and independence.

Moscow, apparently, planned to end a war with NATO in the Baltic region in a few days. European and American military and civilian observers wrote about this with great concern. The Rand Corporation concluded that NATO could not effectively protect its most vulnerable members: "To reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals, Tallinn and Riga, Russian troops could take a maximum of 60 hours."

It became clear that a long war lay ahead, and the Russian army was not ready.

As a result, NATO would be faced with a choice: admit defeat, or attempt a counter-offensive under the threat of escalation and the use of nuclear weapons by Russia.For the war with Ukraine, as is now clear, Moscow allotted a couple of weeks. Airborne troops were supposed to capture the key centers of state administration and military command in Kyiv and the Baltic capitals in a few hours. Therefore, Russia invested in building up combat power: eight special forces brigades, 45,000 airborne troops and 35,000 marines. They were supposed to crush the enemy in the shortest possible time.The threat of using strategic nuclear forces against the United States and other Western countries was expected to deter them from taking decisive action.

Ground forces, motorized infantry and tank units, designed to capture and hold territory, played only a secondary role in such scenarios. It is no coincidence that in Russia they made up just 28% of the armed forces personnel. In other armies, including China and most European countries, they usually make up about half.

But Ukraine broke this calculation. By the end of the summer, it became clear that a long war lay ahead, and the Russian army was not ready. There were no reserves prepared. Elite airborne units were forced to turn into assault infantry, and suffered heavy losses. Poor communication and logistics created confusion. There were not enough command personnel with military experience — not to mention combat experience — to create new units and formations from the hastily mobilized.

One year later

NATO needs to pack up and go to the 1997 lines,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov proclaimed before the invasion. It seems that the Kremlin was looking forward to demanding NATO “demilitarization” as victorious Russian armies occupied Kyiv and drove to the Polish border.

A year has passed. The armed forces of Ukraine withstood the onslaught of the Russian military machine and stopped it. Finland, which shares more than a thousand kilometers of common border with Russia, is about to join NATO.

In Ukraine, Russian troops left the Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy and Kharkiv regions as well as Kherson, which they occupied in the first weeks of the war. Now, they are exerting all of their strength to re-occupy the Donetsk and Luhansk regions and maintain a land corridor to Crimea.

Politically, Russia has already lost the war. It is possible that in the end it will be Moscow that will have to “pack up” and withdraw from Ukraine, back to the borders of 1991.


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