Why The Russians Are Struggling

As the sun goes down in Kyiv, the city has not yet fallen to the Russians. This is unquestionably a defeat for Vladimir Putin. It’s important to not get carried away here: The Kremlin is still favored to win this fight…. 

However, the last five days of combat should put a serious dent in the reputation of this new Russian army. We should, however, try to understand why the Russians are struggling. First, the Russian army’s recent structural reforms do not appear to have been sufficient to the task at hand. Second, at the tactical and operational level, the Russians are failing to get the most out of their manpower and materiel advantage.

There has been much talk over the last ten years about the Russian army’s modernization and professionalization. After suffering severe neglect in the ’90s, during Russia’s post-Soviet financial crisis, the army began to reorganize and modernize with the strengthening of the Russian economy under Putin. First the army got smaller, at least compared to the Soviet Red Army, which allowed a higher per-soldier funding ratio than in previous eras. The Russians spent vast sums of money to modernize and improve their equipment and kit — everything from new models of main battle tanks to, in 2013, ordering Russian troopers to finally retire the traditional portyanki foot wraps and switch to socks.

But the Russians have also gone the wrong direction in some areas. In 2008, the Russian government cut the conscription term from 24 to twelve months. As Gil Barndollar, a former U.S. Marine infantry officer, wrote in 2020:

Russia currently fields an active-duty military of just under 1 million men. Of this force, approximately 260,000 are conscripts and 410,000 are contract soldiers (kontraktniki). The shortened 12-month conscript term provides at most five months of utilization time for these servicemen. Conscripts remain about a quarter of the force even in elite commando (spetsnaz) units.

As anyone who has served in the military will tell you, twelve months is barely enough time to become proficient at simply being a rifleman. It’s nowhere near enough time for the average soldier to learn the skills required to be an effective small-unit leader.

Yes, the Russians have indeed made efforts to professionalize the officer and the NCO corps. Of course, non-commissioned officers (NCOs) have historically been a weakness of the Russian system. In the West, NCOs are the professional, experienced backbone of an army. They are expected to be experts in their military specialty (armor, mortars, infantry, logistics, etc.) and can thus be effective small-unit commanders at the squad and section level, as well as advisers to the commanders at the platoon and company level. In short, a Western army pairs a young infantry lieutenant with a grizzled staff sergeant; a U.S. Marine Corps company commander, usually a captain, will be paired with a gunnery sergeant and a first sergeant. The officer still holds the moral and legal authority and responsibility for his command — but he would be foolish to not listen to the advice and opinion of the unit’s senior NCOs.

The Russian Army, in practice, does not operate like this. A high proportion of the soldiers wearing NCO stripes in the modern Russian army are little more than senior conscripts near the end of their term of service. In recent years, the Russians have established a dedicated NCO academy and cut the number of officers in the army in an effort to put more resources into improving the NCO corps, but the changes have not been enough to solve the army’s leadership deficit.

Now, let’s talk about the Russian failures at the operational and tactical level. It should be emphasized again that the Russian army, through sheer weight of men and materiel, is still likely to win this war. But it’s becoming more and more apparent that the Russians’ operational and tactical choices have not made that task easy on themselves.

First, to many observers, it’s simply shocking that the Russians have not been able to establish complete air superiority over Ukrainian air space. After five days of hostilities, Ukrainian pilots are still taking to the skies and Ukrainian anti-air batteries are still exacting a toll on Russian aircraft. The fact that the Russians have not been able to mount a dominant Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) campaign and yet are insistent on attempting contested air-assault operations is, simply put, astounding. It’s also been extremely costly for the Russians.

To compound that problem, the Russians have undertaken operations on multiple avenues of advance, which, at least in the early stages of this campaign, are not able to mutually support each other. Until they get much closer to the capital, the Russian units moving north out of Crimea are not able to help the Russian armored columns advancing on Kyiv. The troops pushing towards Kyiv from Belarus aren’t able to affect the Ukrainians defending the Donbas in the east. As the Russians move deeper into Ukraine, this can and will change, but it unquestionably made the opening stages of their operations more difficult.

Third, the Russians — possibly out of hubris — do not appear to have prepared the logistical train necessary to keep some of their units in action for an extended period of time. Multiple videos have emerged of Russian columns out of gas and stuck on Ukrainian roads.

In the Russians’ defense, everything is hard in war. It’s extremely difficult to keep an army supplied in the field while on the move. What Karl von Clausewitz called “friction” envelops the battlefield. Friction, Clausewitz wrote, is “the concept that differentiates actual war from war on paper.” In combat, friction is what makes “even the simplest thing difficult.” So we shouldn’t be surprised that some Russian units are running low on supplies. What’s surprising is the scale of the Russians’ apparent logistical problems.

Finally, and in my opinion, most glaringly, there is the tactical level. There is a strange, counterintuitive law of modern war that says for men to win in a fight against steel and heavy weapons, you must close with the enemy. A corollary to this law is that, if both sides are equipped in a similar manner — in this case, mechanized infantry and tanks — the side that is willing to dismount, get out of its infantry fighting vehicles, and serve as a relatively exposed infantry screen to the armor, is going to have a tremendous tactical advantage. Tanks and armored vehicles are incredibly vulnerable to modern anti-tank missiles. As the Ukrainians have proved, a two- or three-man team armed with a Javelin or NLAW anti-tank-missile system can wreak havoc on a mechanized column if it is allowed to get close enough to make kill shots.

This video shows a Ukrainian soldier carrying a British-made NLAW after an engagement with Russian mechanized assets.

You can see how light and portable the missile system is. These are deadly serious anti-tank weapons.

The key to countering such weapons is to operate as a combined-arms team: Mechanized infantry must be willing to, on a moments notice, receive the order to dismount, leave the perceived safety of an infantry-fighting vehicle, and serve as a screen for the armor. The infantry can neutralize the anti-tank missile teams. The armor can then provide covering fire, supporting the infantry as they move up, while knocking out any heavy weapons a defender might emplace. The point is that the infantry and the armor must work as a team. And this takes trust. And a hell of a lot of training. Because it’s counterintuitive to leave the safety of the vehicle to close with the enemy, you must drill and drill and drill what the U.S. military calls “immediate actions.”

Marine Lieutenant Colonel B. P. McCoy described this dynamic in his book The Passion of Command, which documents his battalion’s march to Baghdad in 2003. When 3rd Battalion 4th Marines was ambushed by elements of the Republican Guard on Iraq’s Highway 6, this is how McCoy describes the Marines’ response: “The enemy has initiated contact from as close as 30 meters, peppering the column with small arms fire and rocket propelled grenades” but “Bravo’s infantry platoon comes roaring up in three Armored Amphibious Vehicles (AAVs), slamming to a halt at the edge of the kill zone.”

The colonel continues:

Their heavy M2 .50 caliber machine guns and Mk-19 40 millimeter automatic grenade launchers open up to cover the Marine infantry rushing down the back ramps of the 26-ton vehicles, as a volley of RPGs is unleashed by the enemy, some sailing high while another ricochets off the hull and spins and hisses on the ground without detonating.

What happens next is pure violence, yet elegant in its harmony. Thirty-five US Marines of Kilo Company’s 3rd Platoon rush out of the gloomy confines of their AAVs and into the teeth of the enemy fire. They know nothing of the enemy’s strength or disposition. All they know is that this is a “contact right” battle drill, and this is what we do in “contact right.” Private First Class Dusty Ladendorf, one of the platoon’s riflemen, is less than a year out of high school. In an after-action review he makes this comment on the firefight: “You come out of the back of the track and just do it like you were trained. Execute your battle drill, take cover and fire, cover your buddy’s move, and move yourself when he covers you. Find the enemy, close in on him, and kill him. Keep moving and keep killing, until it’s over.”

Allow me to quote a little more from McCoy’s description of the fight:

The platoon rushes straight into the teeth of the fire and gains a foothold in the palm grove, taking advantage of the protection provided by every subtle fold in the ground and clod of dirt. An untrained observer may look at this scene and think it no more organized than a riot. Actually, to us it is ferocious poetry. Every weapon system joins the fight, each supporting the other: machine guns, rifles, grenade launchers, and rocket launchers systematically suppress and then kill the enemy. We are now gaining fire superiority. Soon it is for the enemy to question the prospect of survival.

To survive and win, this is what mechanized infantry must do in a force-on-force fight. But by all accounts, the Russians appear to be “noticeably reluctant” to dismount and close with the Ukrainian defenders. We should be careful to not paint with too broad of a brush here. There are examples of Russian troops performing well in the fierce combat of the last three days. But there is clearly a pattern developing.

This is a morale problem, a training problem, a leadership problem, and a will-to-fight problem. None of these are factors that can be easily or quickly fixed. It takes months of training and trust both across the ranks and up and down the command structure to work effectively. The private must believe that, if he gets out of his vehicle and pushes forward, his mates in the tracks will have his back. Hanging back in perceived safety leads to defeat. Counterintuitively, it makes you more vulnerable to enemy fires.

None of this is easy or simple. There’s a reason that every Marine infantryman learns from day one of boot camp that the mission of the rifle squad is to “locate, close with and destroy the enemy by fire and maneuver, or repel the enemy assault by fire and close combat.”

Unfortunately for the Russians as they advance into Kyiv, every part of what I described above becomes immeasurably more important when the terrain transitions from woods, fields, and roads to urban combat in a major city.

Urban combat is hell. And as the Russians are learning, fire can come from all sides. The fog of war becomes all-enveloping. As nerves are frayed and exhaustion sets in, trigger fingers get touchy. Every window, doorway, and sewer drain is an “aperture” that can house a rifle or a medium machine gun. Streets and buildings constrict the lateral movement of an attacking force. In urban combat, units tend to drift towards the path of least resistance and “easy” avenues of approach such as major roadways — which can play right into the defenders’ hands by funneling the attackers into overlapping fields of fire.

It takes tremendous courage and discipline to initiate a “movement to contact” operation in an urban setting. It takes effective communication both within a unit and with the units on your left and right. There can be no shortcuts. Each time a unit crosses a road or moves to a new building, it must set up its movements in the correct sequence: First, an element must possess local security. Then, once local security is achieved, the next element can provide covering fires, achieve fire superiority, and suppress the enemy. Only then can the assault element cross the street without being gunned down. Get the order of operations wrong — and a unit’s flanks will be exposed or the assaulting element will reenact “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”

As the Marines say, “Movement without suppression is suicide.” The Russians do not appear to be good at the details, and their failures at the operational and tactical levels have made an inherently difficult task much, much harder. This is why they are struggling. It’s why they will now turn to brute force to try to smash their way into the capital.

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