Army vehicles were so decrepit that repair crews were stationed about every 15 miles. Some officers were so out of shape that the military budgeted $1.5 million to modify the standard uniforms.
That was more than a decade ago when the Russian army invaded Georgia, the then defense minister said. Its shortcomings, big and small, were so noticeable that the Kremlin announced a complete overhaul of the military to build a leaner, more flexible, professional fighting force.
But now, nearly three months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that the Kremlin has failed miserably to create an effective fighting machine. Russian forces in Ukraine underperformed to an extent that surprised most Western analysts, raising the prospect that President Vladimir V. Putin’s military operation could fail.
Anyway, despite conquering territory to the south and east, the Russian army has taken a major blow in Ukraine. It has been forced to forgo what it expected to be a blitzkrieg to conquer the entire country in a matter of days. The troops were driven from the vicinity of Kiev, the capital. The flagship of his Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, was sunk; it has never mastered the air; and by some Western estimates, tens of thousands of Russians perished.
This war has exposed the fact that, to the detriment of Russia, much of the military culture and learned behavior of the Soviet era persists: rigidity in the chain of command, corruption in military spending, and the concealment of casualties and repetition of the mantra that everything goes according to plan. plan.
The signs of trouble were hidden in plain sight. Just last summer, Russia held war games that the Defense Ministry said was able to coordinate a deployment of 200,000 men from various branches of the military in a mock attempt to fight NATO. It would be one of the largest military exercises ever, he said.
Lieutenant General Yunus-Bek Evkunov, the deputy defense minister, told reporters that the exercises showed Russia’s ability to rapidly deploy joint forces in a way that “would make any enemy sober”.
The whole exercise was scripted. There was no opposing force; the main units involved had been practicing their choreography for months; and each exercise started and stopped at a fixed time. The number of troops participating was likely half the number advertised, military analysts said.
“It’s basically the Soviet military,” said Kamil Galeev, an independent Russian analyst and former fellow at The Wilson Center in Washington. “The reforms increased the efficiency of the military, but they only went half way through.”
When Russia tried to revamp its military after the 2008 Georgia conflict, the aim was to jettison the Soviet-era rigidly centralized army, which could supposedly muster four million troops in no time. Instead, field officers would be given more responsibility, units would learn to synchronize their skills, and the entire arsenal would be dragged into the computer age.
Many traditionalists opposed reform, preferring the old model of massive, concentrated power. But other factors also contributed to the military’s inability to change. Birth rates plummeted in the 1990s, leading to a reduction in the number of men available for enlistment. That, and continued low salaries, delayed hiring targets. Endemic corruption hampered reform efforts.
But the fundamental problem was that the Soviet Union’s military culture persisted despite the lack of people and resources to maintain it, analysts said.
“The Soviet military was built to generate millions of men to fill loads of divisions that had endless supplies of equipment,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. for World War III, the war with NATO that never came.”
Ultimately, the reform program stalled, leaving a hybrid version of the military somewhere between mass mobilization and a more flexible force, analysts said. It still prefers substantial artillery to infantry troops that can take and hold land.
The scripted way the military practices warfare, seen during last summer’s exercises, is telling. “No one is tested on their ability to think on the battlefield,” said William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ arms control program. Instead, officers are judged on their ability to follow instructions, he said.
Russia would like the world to see its military as it looks at the annual Victory Day parade — a well-oiled instrument of fit soldiers in dashing uniforms marching in unison and brimful of menacing weapons.
“They use the armed forces as a propaganda machine,” said Gleb Irisov, 31, a former Air Force lieutenant who left the military in 2020 after five years. He then worked as a military analyst for the official TASS news agency before leaving and leaving the country vehemently opposed to the invasion.
Senior military commanders claim recent expeditionary forces, especially in Syria, have provided real combat training, but analysts call that claim inflated.
Russian forces had no real opponent in Syria; the war was mostly an air force operation where the pilots could soar over targets at will. Russia has not fought a major land war since World War II.
Yet Russian leaders have exaggerated the country’s success. In 2017, Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, boasted at a meeting of fellow ministers in the Philippines that Russia had “liberated” 503,223 square kilometers in Syria. The problem is that the area that Mr. Shoigu claimed to have liberated from militants is more than twice the size of the entire country, Proekt, an independent news outlet, reported.
With about 900,000 people in total, just over a third of them ground troops, the Russian military is not that big, given that it has to defend a huge country spanning 11 time zones, analysts say. But the target of recruiting 50,000 contract soldiers each year, first set ten years ago, has not been met, so there is still an annual draw of 18- to 27-year-olds.
Mr Putin has not resorted to a massive military draft that would rally all able-bodied adult men for the war. But even if he did, the infrastructure needed to educate civilians en masse no longer exists. The consensus is that most of Russia’s available ground forces have already been deployed to Ukraine.
The rampant corruption has exhausted the resources for reform. “Everyone steals as much of the allocated money as is appropriate for their rank,” said retired Major General Harri Ohra-Aho, former intelligence chief in Finland and still an adviser to the Ministry of Defence.
Corruption is so widespread that some cases inevitably end up in court.
In January, Colonel Evgeny Pustovoy, the former head of the armored vehicle procurement department, was accused of helping to steal more than $13 million by falsifying contracts for 2018 to 2020 batteries, according to TASS.
In February, a military court in Moscow deprived Maj. Gene. Alexander Ogloblin of his rank and sentenced him to 4.5 years in prison for what the charges called fraud on a “particularly large scale”. Authorities accused him of embezzling about $25 million by vastly overestimating spending in state contracts for satellite and other equipment, the business news website BFM.RU reported.
Big contracts aren’t the only temptation. The combination of low salaries — a senior officer earns about $1,000 a month — and escalating budgets is a recipe for theft of all kinds, analysts say, leading to a chain reaction of trouble.
Commanders disguise how few drills they conduct and pocket resources budgeted for them, Mr. Irisov, the analyst. That exacerbates a lack of basic military skills such as navigation and shooting, even though the Air Force did maintain flight safety standards.
“It is impossible to imagine the extent of the lies within the military,” Irisov said. “The quality of military production is very low because of the race to steal money.”
One in five rubles spent on the armed forces was stolen, the chief military prosecutor, Sergey Fridinsky, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper, in 2011.
Mr Irisov said he had encountered numerous examples of insufficient equipment: the vaunted Pantsir air defense system incapable of shooting down a small Israeli drone over Syria; Russian-made light bulbs on the wings of SU-35 fighter planes melt at supersonic speeds; new trucks that break down after two years.
Overall, Russia’s weaponry lags behind its automated Western counterparts, but it’s usable, military analysts said. However, some new production has been limited.
For example, the T-14 Armata, a “next generation” main battle tank, unveiled in 2015, has not been deployed in Ukraine because there are so few of them, they said.
Russia has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in its military and has produced a stream of new aircraft, tanks, helicopters and other equipment as part of its state armaments program. According to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, military spending has not fallen below 3.5 percent of gross domestic product for most of the past decade, at a time when most European countries struggled to maintain 2 percent of GDP. to invest. part of the Russian military budget.
This kind of financial investment has helped Russia achieve the profits it has in Ukraine.
Johan Norberg, a Russia analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, said Russia and its military are too vast to expect to solve every problem, even in ten years. The war in Ukraine exposed the fact that the Russian army is “not three meters long, but not two meters long,” he said.
Alina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.