Waging war against a developed industrial nation with substantial and sophisticated armed forces is always a perilous business. If said nation is also rather large (say, the second largest European country), substantially inhabited (say over 43 million citizens), had ample warning and quite some time to prepare for an enemy attack, things get even more complicated. If the will to fight is also present within the famous trinity government-army-population, the potential aggressor finds itself in a less than enviable position. And if the nation is also helped by sympathetic powers with military and non-military aid as well as direct economic actions against the aggressor, it does have a strong chance at success. The above observations are truisms for pundits of strategic affairs, and have been voiced repeatedly in the early days of the current Eastern European war, perhaps with the exception of the segment concerning the will to fight, which could have only been assessed after hostilities had started. In short, it has been clear to expert observers that a Russian invasion of Ukraine would face very serious obstacles.
But few pre-war analysts of the strategic situation have paid sufficient attention to other dimensions of Russian military weakness.
Except for its strategic nuclear forces (with a special nod to fixed and mobile land nuclear forces and with significant qualifications concerning air and in particular submarine assets), Russian military power is not impressive. While within the last decade or so some of its operations have enjoyed a certain degree of success (particularly in Crimea in 2014 and in Syria since 2015), these were waged in particular circumstances that have little to do with full-scale conventional war. The local success of Russian mercenary forces in the Central African Republic and the experiences of similar groups in the Libyan civil war are, again, not relevant examples for the current conflict. While substantially hyped by certain Western media outlets–of which most famously a RAND Corporation’s 2016 Research Report predicted a very quick victory against the Baltic states– Russian military forces are simply too small, ill equipped, badly trained and logistically unable to wage a fast, successful war on a large scale against a substantial opponent.
A short analysis of the concentration of Russian forces in the last few weeks before war began on 24 February 2022, even taking into account the biggest figures provided by Western intelligence sources, highlights the fact that the numbers were not on Russia’s side. The 190,000 soldiers mobilized against Ukraine, which account for almost half of regular Russian land forces, include troops that cannot be used for actual territorial control (such as the sailors and air force personnel) but, more importantly, they include logistic personnel, numbering in the tens of thousands. Moreover, as events unfolded, Russian forces were divided along no less than four attack axes: from the North towards Kyiv, from the northeast towards Kharkiv and then against Kyiv in the pincer movement so dear to Russian and Soviet military planners, from the southeast against the Ukrainian forces defending the unoccupied regions of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts and from the south, with one direction against Kherson and another to help the southeastern front. None of the directions could possibly boast an overwhelming number of troops. When attempting such an operation with so few forces, something else was supposed to be in place in order for victory to be achieved quickly and assuredly.
And that particular thing is actually one of the keys of contemporary industrial warfare, ever since the days of the Second World War.
In order for a quick advance by land forces to be effective, air superiority must be achieved fast and maintained throughout the course of the operations. Mobile land columns unsupported by aviation are vulnerable not only to flanking attacks and ambushes that could otherwise be engaged by helicopters, but also by enemy drones and fighter-bombers. The Russian army has engaged in a four-pronged invasion of Ukraine with the initial purpose to seize the capital, destroy the eastern Ukrainian armed forces and occupy the country at least to the east of the Dniepr. It has done so without focusing on a complete destruction or at least a substantial degradation of Ukrainian air force and air defense abilities. Certainly, the Russian military planners could not expect to destroy every Ukrainian small unit carrying Stinger missiles and MANPADS (other types of man portable air defense systems). But if they were smart in the pursuit of their deplorable objective—the “decapitation” of the Ukrainian regime—then they should have made sure the Ukrainian sky is cleared of Ukrainian fighters, fighter-bombers and the darlings of the strategic analysts ever since they were credited with the Azeri success against Armenia in November 2020, the Turkish Bayraktar attack drones.
Five days into the war Ukrainian air assets continue to engage Russian air and land forces in central and eastern Ukraine, in the process making sure that supply lines in the West of the country are relatively secure. This means, for the moment, relatively unimpeded Ukrainian troop movement in the west of the country, perhaps to the help of the beleaguered capital. It also means Western shipment of aid, lethal or not, can move with relative ease into the country. It also means Russian military planners paid little attention to a strategic imperative reinforced during the Israeli-Arab wars of 1956-1973, the Gulf War of 1991 and, in a less known but relevant example, in the 1995 Croatian assault on the Republic of Serbian Krajina: to destroy the enemy’s air force and air defense assets or prepare for a protracted, costly war—something it does not appear Putin has done.
From a “realist” geopolitical perspective, it helps, perhaps, to mention that Russia does not have a great military record in conventional, large-scale conflict against countries it perceived as inferior, at least not since the early 1900s. Its war against Japan in 1904-1905 ended in a defeat so severe it shook the empire to its core and almost overthrew the imperial dynasty. The Bolshevik attempt to seize Poland in 1920 ended with the “miracle at the Vistula” resulting in a severe defeat for the young communist state. The initial stage of the Winter War against Finland in 1939 went seriously bad for the Soviet state. And, of course, the memory of the bitter defeat in Afghanistan in the 1980s has been brought back to life by the abrupt Western exit from the same country last August.
Two of these lost campaigns resulted in some form of regime change in Russia. The first nearly brought on democracy, with a parliament and something akin to a responsible government in place. The second led to a decade with free press, a multiparty system but also the rampant corruption and economic collapse that gave us Vladimir Putin. If a similar defeat in Ukraine would result in a third regime change, one may only hope for it to bring lasting freedom to the citizens of Russia. Peace and security for itself and for Europe largely depend on that.
Andrei Miroiu teaches International Relations at the National University of Political Studies and Public Administration in Bucharest, Romania. His latest book is Political Theory of Armed Groups. Armed Groups and Social Order, Cham: Springer, 2020.