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Russian Military History: In Context

In the pilot episode of our new Russia in Context podcast series, host Jeff Hawn sits down with New Lines’ own OSIG Manager Aram Shabanian; Kirill Shamiev, visiting Fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations; and Sim Tack, an analyst for Force Analysis. These Russia experts discuss the evolution of Russian military capability, its contrasts with the West, and the successes and failures of the Russian military.

Jeff Hawn:

Hello and welcome to Russia in Context, a series of New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policies Contours podcasts. This is your host, Jeff Hawn.

Three decades ago, the Cold War ended with the red flag being lowered over the Kremlin. The USSR was dead, and Russia was reborn, but history did not end. And over the last quarter-century, Russia has once again become a persistent challenger to US global leadership. How this happened and why is what we seek to answer in our new subseries of the Contours podcast, Russia in Context.

Today, we’ll be discussing the Russian military from 1990 to the beginning of the war in Ukraine in 2022. Joining me today are Aram Shabanian, our open source information gatherer and manager at New Lines Institute. He uses a mixture of modern open source technology and traditional research methods to keep a finger on the pulse of ongoing and upcoming global events. His areas of expertise are West Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Also joining me today is Dr. Kirill Shamiev, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations. In January 2023, he defended his PhD in political science on civil military relations and defense policy in contemporary Russia. He is currently an analyst of Russian Politics and Defense Affairs, and the Russian diaspora at the European Council of Foreign Relations.

Sim Tack will also be joining us. He’s a military analyst for Force Analysis, where he studies defense policy and operational aspects of armed conflicts. He’s also a GEOINT and imaging analyst with extensive professional experience in monitoring the activities of the Russian Armed Forces.

Thank you all for being here today. Hopefully, we’ll have a very good and productive discussion. Now, our first question, there’s been a lot of talk about the Russian military, the supposedly second most powerful army in the world and its poor performance in Ukraine. But to understand that, let’s go back to when the Russian military first emerged, and even let’s go further back. Sim, can you give us an overview of what was the Soviet military doctrine and design? What was the objective of the Soviet military?

Sim Tack:

Hi, thanks for having me, by the way, Jeff. So let me actually start by tackling that question by emphasizing a little bit why it’s important to also focus on the Soviet history of the Russian military and the transformations that went through during the 90s and then during the Putin era. Of course, people have had this perception of the Russian army, of the Russian military capabilities, which has largely been based on the Soviet threat during the Cold War. But obviously, I think as we all know, and we’ll try to explain, there’s a very big difference between what that Soviet Army was and what the Russian military today has become.

So to answer your question more directly, the Soviet military’s first and foremost duty was of course preparing for conventional war with NATO forces in Europe. So that mission really defined its shape, the type of equipment that it constructed or that it assumed into its military, as well as the types of operational plans and structures that the Soviet military adopted. So, in a more practical sense, a lot of the Soviet military was focused on fighting wars, crossing a lot of the rivers in Europe, fighting in areas that may have been the target of nuclear strikes ahead of that. So that very, very obvious Cold War or World War III type scenario that Russia, as well as others in the world feared during the Cold War.

Now, one of the important things, of course, is that when we start to talk about what the Soviet Army became after the Soviet Union, is that it ends on a very, very difficult point where the Soviet military withdraws from its operations in Afghanistan where it was deployed from 1979 until 1989. And this left a little bit of a trauma in the mind of both Russian policymakers and the Russian military. And then, it actually enters an even more tumultuous period of those 1990s that are essentially marked by, on the one hand, the economic crisis that Russia is facing in the post-Soviet era, as well as the different military operations throughout the former Soviet Union at that point. And I’m thinking of the operations and Transnistria, Abkhazia, Armenia, Tajikistan, et cetera, and of course, the Chechen wars where essentially Russia is fighting to maintain control over its own territory, as well as maintain its influence within those territories of the former Soviet Union.

So yeah, the combination of those, what you could coin as internal conflicts, as well as the economic crisis took a very, very heavy toll on whatever remained within the Russian military, which was in itself already only a segment of that former Soviet Army.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you very much, Sim. So that was the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin and the collapsing Soviet Union. But as we know, in 2000, Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as his chosen successor and was elected president of Russia, and part of his campaign was the revival of Russian military power. Kirill, can you tell us about what the plans were under the Putin administration and how far those veered from reality?

Kirill Shamiev:

Yes, sure, Jeff. Thank you so much for having me. So I would say that during Putin’s time the periods in Russian military development can be divided in two segments. The first segment was from 2000 to approximately 2007, 2008. This is when Vladimir Putin, despite public declarations and significant financial increase of support for the military, tried to reform the Armed Forces, but with no apparent success. The forces still struggle with the same problems that we saw in the 90s related to inter-military violence, poor combat readiness, and the willingness of the Russian citizens to serve, to enlist, general, just wellbeing of officers in disastrous state of the infrastructure, of the post-Soviet infrastructure. Not to mention the lack of modern equipment.

But from 2007, 2008, the Kremlin kicked off a significant structural military reform under Minister Serdyukov. Officially started in 2008, October, November after the five-day war with Georgia, but in fact, they started conducting experiments in developing defense plans back in 2007 already. That’s what I noticed when I was doing my PhD. They reformed the Serdyukov reform. This is how it is usually called in. Well, now, we already can say Russian historiography that was happening till 2012, basically created the skeleton or the structure of the military that we have seen in Crimea in 2014 and Eastern Ukraine starting from 2014, and of course in Syria. It created a more agile force, better equipped because this reform was also supported 2011 onwards with significant rearmament efforts unprecedented since the fall of the Soviet Union, all branches of the Russian military started receiving modernized or new types of equipment. And then it created capabilities that basically allowed Russia to annex Crimea to start this hybrid, whatever you call it, war in Eastern Ukraine and also deploys forces in Syria.

So when, for example, after the full scale invasion and the problems that the Russian military faced, people started talking about the failure of analysts, I would say as an academic, that we should be more careful with our analysis because making conclusions on one single case of the full scale invasion, a very serious and well as all of us think, say is unprecedented since 1945 would be analytically incorrect because we’ve had conflicts where the Russian military was involved and was involved relatively successfully, both by the analysis on the Russian side and western analysts and planners.

And then maybe we can move to the discussions later of the full scale invasion. The military that was reformed by 2012 suffered significant problems with the development of this innovation and modernization during the 10 years from 2012 to 2022, luckily for Ukrainians.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Kirill. And so, the post-Soviet military has fought a number of conflicts as our first two guests mentioned. Even before the collapse of the Soviet Union was complete, the Russian military was involved in the Moldavian-Transnistrian conflict, in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, Chechnya. Aram, how would you characterize the performance of the post-Soviet Russian military in these different conflict zones, and how does that differ from the kind of operation they were trying to conduct in Ukraine in 2022?

Aram Shabanian:

Yeah, so first off, thanks for having me on, but to address the question, the Russian military in the immediate collapse or aftermath of the Soviet Union was essentially a shell of the Soviet Army, of the Red Army. It was attempting to maintain the mass mobilization aspects of the Soviet Army and the mass conscription aspects of the Soviet Army when it had significantly fewer resources, significantly less money and less of a population and industrial base to draw on than the Soviet Union had.

And so, we saw the problems with that kind of a strategy play out in the wars that you mentioned, even the wars that were more successful for the Russians, namely Transnistria, wherein they weren’t ever forced to leave the area. They weren’t exactly successful either. They didn’t get everything they wanted, they essentially froze these conflicts in place, and it looked a lot like they were being put on the back burner to be dealt with later, when Russia was stronger and more financially and militarily capable.

As things progressed into the 2000s and into the mid-2000s, it looked like the Russian army was starting to arm itself back up. They were able to be more successful in Georgia. They could have taken more of Georgia had they tried. And so, as the years went on, the Russian army slowly stood back up from the collapse of the 90s. But really what we saw in the 90s was that the army of the Soviet Union collapsed away and melted away, and Russia was left with a shell of what they had initially had. And so, they’ve had to make good on that. And part of what set the Red Army apart from the NATO armies was that the NATO armies were always predicated on an economically viable option, whereas the Red Army was more based on everybody in society is paying into this. Now that the Russians are facing the same constraints economically as the West, they’ve had to adopt more of a western style military. And that’s what we’ve seen today.

Jeff Hawn:

All right, so let’s take a step back for a second and discuss the Russian military more broadly because we talked about just in broad terms, the Army, but when we stay focused on the Russian conventional forces, we have the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and each of these branches has experienced its own challenges in modernizing and reforming and emerging from that post-Soviet legacy. So I’d like to hear from our panel about what those particular challenges are and what other challenges the Russian military has faced in terms of doctrine, culture, leadership, and logistics. Sim, I think you had your hand up there.

Sim Tack:

Yeah, thank you. And I wanted to respond to one of the things that Aram was saying, and I think it leads into your question as well. One of the additional big challenges that the Russian military had during the 90s, of course, in addition to the economic constraints, the budget constraints, the problems of mobilizing, et cetera, one of the big problems they had as well, that as a result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the defense industrial infrastructure behind this powerful army was also very rapidly collapsing. Of course, some of those industries were still accessible to Russia. Ukrainian military defense industry, for example, continued to work on a lot of Russian military programs until obviously those relations turned sour much more recently.

But the fact that the Russian military defense industry was facing all of these problems was also one of the reasons that the replenishment of military equipment, and I would say pretty much across all of the different branches, that this was the case. This caused them to have very limited amounts of modern equipment, which eventually, of course, leads to that massive re-equipment drive that was initiated officially in 2010, 2011 that Kirill also referred to.

So all of these problems caused the Russian military coming out of the Soviet Union to have to do with a lot less. And the narrative also gradually started to focus on budget cuts, on reorganizing the military, cutting forces, which initially was being imposed on the military leadership of the Russian military, which at the time, still held the posts of Ministry of Defense, et cetera. It’s only under Putin that Russia actually shifts to having those civilian Ministers of Defense, which turned out to be a little more effective or a little better placed, I would say, to actually enforce these kind of budget cuts and reforms.

So it took a lot of time for Russia to get to the point to actually start to address all of those problems that it had inherited out of the Soviet collapse.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Sim. And Kirill, what did you have to add to this?

Kirill Shamiev:

Yeah, I just wanted to follow up on what we’ve been discussing about the problems in the 90s that indeed the Russian military not only suffered problems with the deployment to the combat zones, for example, but they had two other issues related to civil military, post-Soviet civil military relations.

First that I think we haven’t named before is the return of forces from Europe, from Western, Central and Eastern Europe and other ex-Soviet Republics to the Russian Mainland. And that created just basic practical problems with, for instance, building new regiments and bases for the ground forces and including houses and providing housing to the family members, wives, kids, and so on. For example, there were several programs that were co-funded by the German government for the Russian forces being returned from Eastern Europe to Russia. And the German government co-funded the buildup of buildings, houses, canteens, social infrastructure inside Russia because basically the Kremlin didn’t have enough money to implement what was politically needed with the return of forces to Russia.

And second, when we compare the Soviet military with Russian military, it’s important to know that some of the parts or shells, as we said before, also remained in the former Soviet republics. And some of these regimens, of course, excluding nuclear forces, strategic missile forces, Russia received not the best regimens, not the best equipment that the Soviet Union fully possessed. So it was sort of more dispersed across the former Soviet republics.

And the final issue that Russia faced with the post-Soviet civil military relations is the politicization of the officer corps in the late 80s and 90s. There was a problem when Gorbachev started this campaign for democratization of the Soviet Union, which is unbelievable to analyze from 2023, some of the military regimens actually allowed former officers to run for political offices based on committee formed on the basis of the military, military base. And this created breeding ground for the politicization of some officers.

And we saw these military political leaders. Of course, they had to retire, they’ve become politicians, but still with the significant military background in the 90s that were also involved, for example, in the relations with Chechnya, they sat in the Duma, some of them supported Yeltsin and some of them opposed Yeltsin in the 90s. And this, of course, complicated the development of the Russian military in that period.

But over time, Putin paid significant attention to the depoliticization of the military to the increase of the civilian supremacy in Russia civil military relations, did some important structural and legal changes. And now, the Russian military legally and culturally, in my view, politically, very much obedient to civilian authorities. So this trend has faded away. But in my view, it undoubtedly affected the pace of development, and that’s why the Russian suffered so long with changing its military from the Soviet kind of style to a more capitalist dependent on the economic development military force.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you. Aram?

Aram Shabanian:

Yeah, and so I wanted go over some of the more technical aspects of the change from the Soviet Army to the Russian Army. And two of the big ones I wanted to hit on were namely the Air Force. And so, part of what the Air Force’s issue was in the 90s and 2000s was that the Soviet Air Force had always been predicated on the idea of supporting ground forces and supporting ground forces locally like in Europe, so they didn’t need to have a ton of tankers, a ton of AWACS aircraft, a ton of long-range fighters because all of the fighting that the Soviets were going to engage in Europe in a potential war, in a World War III scenario in Europe would be within range of their bases or within range of bases they could capture.

The opposite side of that, of course, is the United States Air Force, which would have to at least fly across an ocean to get to the combat zone and fighters would need to be refueled along the way, things like that, which means the US military has gotten really good at logistics and long distance logistics. And that’s really what the US military does better than any other military in the world, is logistics. If you look at the Libya intervention, in 2011, there were a number of countries that were willing to offer up military assets, but not many countries had strategic tankers and reconnaissance aircraft. The Russians suffer from the same lack of attention to those theaters up until more recently when they’ve started really investing a lot of time and money into things like aerial refueling and airborne reconnaissance.

The other side of this has been Russia’s traditional difficult access to high tech. The Russians are capable of designing high-end technologically based systems just like any other advanced society is capable of doing. But the problem that they run into is that the tolerances in this technology are so high. When the US military buys computer chips for their missiles, they buy the most high-end chips that are not available to the rest of the world. They’re not even manufactured in the rest of the world. Intel won’t allow them to be manufactured in China. They can only be manufactured here in the US. And so, the Russians are added a marked disadvantage from the get-go because even if they can get those advanced chips, they can’t get them in the mass numbers that the Western states can get them in.

And so, as they’ve transitioned from a mass mobilization army into a more elite, smaller fighting force, they’ve run into a lot of difficulty maintaining their stockpiles of really high-precision weapons. And we’ve seen that play out in Ukraine a bit.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Aram. And that’s actually one question I think we should touch on for our listeners, is this difference between a professional contract army and a mass mobilization force. Sim, looks like you have some thoughts on that.

Sim Tack:

Yeah, indeed. And again, following from what Aram was saying, so as the Russian military tried to transform itself into this professional and elite force, because that was obviously the goal, but I personally would argue that they haven’t been entirely successful at that. But as they tried to do that, there were also some very significant changes in the organization of the Russian military, as well as the doctrine or operational concepts that the Russian military was trying to apply. And this is important in terms of how Russia came to those.

A very big change in how Russia approached those different affairs was actually caused by the Russian role in the conflict in Georgia in 2008, where even though on paper, Russia is listed as having achieved its goals there, or having returned victorious from maintaining that control over South Ossetia from Georgia, the reality is that in Russia, when military leadership and political leadership looked at the performance of the Russian military in Georgia, they were completely appalled. The Russian military heavily underperformed based on what the actual expectations had been.

And some of those specific things, for example, Aram referring to the role of Soviet aviation, also came back to haunt them in the conflict in Georgia, where specifically actually the intelligence preparation for the application of air power turned out to be one of the big problems that they were facing, which then, at the time, was a responsibility or an implied responsibility of Spetsnaz forces. But those Spetsnaz forces had become much less focused on their… sorry, I mean to say the GRU forces, not the Spetsnaz, but the GRU forces had become a lot more focused on special operations Spetsnaz-type engagements rather than the intelligence role that they were supposed to have.

So the Russian Air Force ran out of targets very early on in that war, meaning that they became cut short a little bit. They could have potentially had a much bigger role in the conflict, a much bigger impact, but they did not have the intelligence feed to continue to give them targets. And that eventually led to Russia making some very big changes into the organization of their special operations command, taking the special operations role away from GRU, pushing GRU back into a more intelligence-focused role.

So all of these things combined with, of course, the continued emphasis on reequipping the forces, reorganizing the divisions into brigades, et cetera, all of that got another kick in the back from that Georgia conflict, which means that essentially, between Georgia and Ukraine, so a period of only six years or even less, the Russian military was trying to make a really, really strong pivot. And six years is simply too short of a time to really change the way that you are conducting these kind of operations at these levels throughout an organization of this scale. And I think, I don’t want to shoot ahead to the points that you’ll want to discuss later on on the performance of the Russian military in Ukraine itself, but I think a lot of what we actually saw happen is partially due to Russia still being in a position of transformation, not yet at a finalized point, not yet ready to present its new military, so to speak.

Jeff Hawn:

Very interesting. And then, my follow-up question to that though would be the intervention in Syria is generally viewed as a success in military terms. Obviously, there was a high degree of civilian casualties and a number of clumsy incidents there, but the Russian military was able to conduct a fairly sustained operations far from its bases in another country. My question to you guys is what do you think contributed to that perceived success? But then my follow-up question is also the involvement in Syria is when we started to see the emergence of paramilitary or so-called mercenary or PMC forces, what brought that about? Was it a lack of capability, a lack of political will or something else?

Aram Shabanian:

I think there’s a couple of reasons that Russia’s intervention in Syria were viewed as a success. And part of that was the Russians were pretty good at selling their operation and propagandizing their operation. A lot of people are under the impression that when Russia deployed its aircraft carrier, the Kuznetsov, to the Mediterranean to fight in Syria, that the Kuznetsov took part in the fighting. According to all the open source information we have, the only air to ground munitions that were on the aircraft carrier at the time of the operation were cluster bombs that the Russians claimed they weren’t using in Syria, but there were no precision-guided munitions on the aircraft carrier. And so, at best, they were dropping cluster bombs on either Islamic State or Syrian opposition positions. And that’s the other side of what we saw was that a lot of their targeting was of the Syrian opposition and the more moderate elements of the Syrian opposition prior to attacking Islamic State.

And so, that’s part of what made them successful is that they were willing to do things that the United States and the West would just not be willing to do in a war because they were looking for more of a short-term success, a defeat of the opposition. Long-term, the stability in Syria has been shattered, and Syria will not be to its pre-war state for quite some time. So the long-term successful nature of Russia’s intervention is questionable.

But another side of Russia’s intervention that we really saw in Syria, part of the reason they were so successful and able to carry out attacks that they’ve really struggled to do in Ukraine with regards to precision striking on underground hospitals and things like that, it’s simple, it’s the Syrian opposition didn’t have any anti-aircraft capabilities. And so, when your opponents can’t shoot back at you, it’s pretty easy to precisely drop a bomb on their location. Whereas when they’re shooting missiles and anti-aircraft artillery at you, that’s when the real pilots come out. And that’s when the training that the West puts into its pilots and the jamming equipment, the countermeasure equipment, the Wild Weasel aircraft, all come into effect for the west. The Russians haven’t caught up to that yet. All the lessons the US learned in Desert Storm were applied by 2003. The Russians are learning their Desert Storm lessons now.

Jeff Hawn:

Kirill?

Kirill Shamiev:

Yeah, if I can jump in, I agree with what Aram said, but maybe just a few more details from me. I think part of the reason why a lot of people consider the Russian military reparation in Syria as a success because Russia’s political objective was to support Assad’s regime. This is the number one guiding principle they needed, so that there was no change of power in Syria. There was one that’s remaining small post-Soviet base in Syria that they expanded, and then opened up a few other spots on the territory under the regime’s control. And so, by that standards, they achieved their political goal. Assad is still in power, despite the fact that Syria basically is a fragmented country and the regime doesn’t control all of its territory, and of course together with the other forces, they were partially fighting the Islamic State and other religious extremist groups in the region.

At the same time, it was still perceived as the first relatively successful overseas operation for the Russian military because we’ve still remembered the problems with what Russia faced in Georgia and especially in Chechnya. And then thanks to again, what Shoigu had put a lot of efforts in the Russian both domestic and foreign propaganda for its military efforts, the military has shown itself as a relatively effective fighting force and also learning force. They emphasized a lot that they basically use Syria as a playground for testing different weapons systems and tactics. And they use this for the further development of the military, which actually could be problematic for the future use of the Russian military in Ukraine in 2022.

And the question you asked about the gradual increase of the use of private military forces on the ground, from my analysis, what I’ve seen from basically people who Russians, who were in Syria, what they posted from open source evidence, they quickly come to a realization that they couldn’t rely fully on the official, the regime Syrian Armed Forces. They were heavily criticized for being basically not wanting to fight, very low morale, corrupt force and not to mention their combat skills. And they realized that in order to still control some of the needed territories, towns and positions, they needed actual boots on the ground and that were not only private military forces, but for example, famously Russian artillery was their special forces, special alterations command, Russian kind of style special alterations command. Russian military police were also providing some support on the ground. So this limited use of Russian ground forces was also spotted there in Syria.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Kirill. Sim?

Sim Tack:

Yeah, I’d like to add on to the discussion there about the use of private military organizations, which of course has become very famous throughout the Ukraine conflict, as well as Russia’s activities in Africa over the past decade. So, I think it’s important to consider that even though we only first saw those organizations really be engaged in combat in Syria, the reality is that the Russian military command and Russian politics had already been working on these concepts of applying private military forces since, at least back in 2010, right?

So as part of Russia in the post-Georgia timeframe, as they were rethinking how does the Russian military work, how should it work, trying to build this model for a lean and rapidly deployable force with high levels of efficiency, they were also seeing at the same time what the West was doing in its operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there, of course, we’ve all seen the very heavily publicized role of companies like Blackwater and others. The Western militaries started to depend for a lot of different aspects of their operations, both the kinetic elements, as well as logistical support elements, planning and intelligence roles. They started to rely on private military actors for quite a lot of those aspects.

So automatically, this was something that Russia was interested in, trying to understand how that was playing out to the advantage of the West and how they could emulate the same thing. And I think that this also goes hand in hand with perhaps one of the more controversial developments, or at least in my eyes, it’s controversial because I tend to not subscribe to what I guess is the mainstream view of that. But I’m talking about the concepts of hybrid warfare.

So a lot of people have talked about hybrid warfare as the new style of warfare that Russia adopted in Ukraine in 2014. I don’t want to go on a long rant about that, but let me just briefly say, I think that the things that we are labeling as hybrid warfare are in fact things that we can see throughout Russian military history, as well as the military history of other actors. But the use of nonofficial forces, the role of information warfare, all those things are not necessarily new, right? We do have a new name for them now. So with that being the case, we can call it hybrid warfare. But the term hybrid warfare, where it originates, and I think that’s a much more important point, especially with relation to the role of private military organizations, is the term hybrid warfare came from a paper written by General Gerasimov, today, more well known as the second hand of Shoigu.

So Gerasimov wrote this paper on hybrid war, which has been interpreted by some as a concept of operations describing how to conduct hybrid warfare. I think if you read the paper more carefully, it actually is an analysis of the Western operations in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. And when you read it, essentially what Gerasimov is describing is that there is a spectrum of intensity in warfare, which is not a new concept in itself. In the West, we have a long history of categorizing conflict all the way from low-intensity conflict to peer-to-peer conflict. So Gerasimov was applying that same kind of thinking to the different phases that he saw conflicts going through as the West entered conflicts in Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan.

So essentially, he describes a period at the early stages of those conflicts where there is no official military commitment, there is no official declaration of war, even though declarations of war don’t necessarily mean what they mean historically. But he saw that period being dominated by intelligence operations, information warfare, and of course, the use of special operations forces and private military actors. And I think that’s one of the main reasons that thinking, even though the paper came after the initial actions that Russia took to start to figure out how to set up these private military companies, I think it reflects the kind of thinking that was going on in Russian military leadership where they were trying to figure out what different steps they had to take and what instruments they have to develop to be able to themselves conduct this kind of operations in that spectrum of hybrid war, if that makes sense.

Jeff Hawn:

It does. So as we’ve discussed, the Russian military has really been undergoing a constant transformation and attempts to reform over the last 30 years, shifting from the Soviet colossus, which was designed to fight a very conventional but perhaps short-lived conflict in Europe against NATO forces to a military that is trying to sustain all sorts of different types of operations, both in the near and far abroad. Now, we will discuss the failures of the Russian military in our next episode, but for our final thoughts here, I want to ask each of you in turn, what do you think was the fundamental flaw in Russia’s ability to reform? Was it poor political leadership, lack of vision, or are there holdovers in culture and leadership from the Soviet period that have just inhibited Russia’s ability to transition its military into a truly capable fighting force? Why don’t we start with Aram and go down our panel?

Aram Shabanian:

Well, I think part of the problem that the Russians are running into in Ukraine today is that one, they tried to do too much too fast in terms of military advancement. They didn’t give their military the time to let those new tools and toys basically filter into every soldier’s understanding of how war works. But beyond that, they’re fighting a war that isn’t like anything the US fought. I mean the Iraq War in 2003, yes, Iraq still had a potent military, but it had been ground down, first of all, by Desert Storm and then by 12 years of constant airstrikes during Operations Northern and Southern Watch in Iraq. And so, the comparison falls flat there.

Ukraine had one of the largest air defense networks in Europe, pre-war, and one of the largest militaries in Europe prior to the war. Now, they of course have much larger military and air defense forces. That is to say the Russians may have bitten off more than they can chew before they were ready to digest it, but that may have also been because they were running out of time, financially, economically and whatnot, that they launched their operation when they did.

So hindsight is 20/20. We’ll never know for sure if another 10 years would’ve made the Russian military more effective when they had gone into Ukraine or not, but it looks to me like it was a little bit premature to expect that tools that really started coming out in 2011 and 2012 for the Russian military would be something that’s ready to go and capable by 2023, or 2022, rather.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Aram. Kirill?

Kirill Shamiev:

Yeah, I would say when it comes to the development of the Russian military, in my view, a fundamental problem with Russia’s military development is a very nascent and poor level of development of monitoring and evaluation mechanisms within the Russian military, both within the structures of the Ministry of Defense and the general stuff. Basically, it gives the information to the senior command that is not fully reliable, not fully objective, limited, and basically the problems we as external analysts have in analyzing the Russian military, surprisingly, Russian politicians and senior chief-level military decision-makers, they face similar problems as well, maybe to a lesser degree in some aspects, but actually can be even more problematic in another aspect because of the political influence and corruption and other vested interests that can muddy the waters for the more objective military buildup as I think all countries with the relatively professional militaries try to do.

This is a structural problem that the Russian military has suffered, and in my view, there is actually just basically a lack of expertise on how to build this monitoring and evaluation system in an authoritarian setting because authoritarian leaders are always interested in having an obedient military force, and that requires putting decision makers and leaders that are personally loyal to the supreme leader and his subordinates within the branches, and unifying these two aspects is a problem for, and it will be a problem as long as the regime remains as personal as it is today.

When it comes to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I think I would say the first, probably I will just follow what Aram has said is the quite inadequate political strategy developed before the invasion. It was founded on unrealistic expectations about the Ukrainian society, about the presence and the readiness to act of basically Ukrainian like Russian agents or Ukrainian traitors, depending on how you want to look at this. I think it was also on the willingness of senior Ukrainian leadership to retreat or to fight the Russian forces. And of course, just sheer chance because we feel if you analyze from open-source evidence, the first months of the full scale invasion, you can see, and the Ukrainians also acknowledge it already, that if, for example, the Russian forces have chosen another road to start the offensive against Kyiv or to conduct another set of strikes, again, these are the targets, or for example, to start the invasion a few days before, I think the picture would’ve been different just because they could have struck more valuable political targets or inflicted way more casualties on the Ukraine and military surrounding the capital of Ukraine.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Kirill. Sim?

Sim Tack:

So first off, I want to agree with the points that Kirill was making on the way that the structures of leadership, the flow of information within the Russian military, and I think to a degree also, the awareness of Russian leadership, both political and military, of the actual capabilities of the Russian military, I think those were things that have really harmed Russia in its entire reform process, honestly.

I think another important factor that we can’t deny even today, even though Russia is no longer in a severe and economic crisis as it was in the 90s, or at least, let’s say, between 2001 and 2022, it wasn’t, I think. I’m not an economist, I won’t make an assessment of how poor their current position is related to the 90s. But even though there was a revival in the 2000, I think there was still severe restrictions on Russia’s ability to actually scale the military developments that they were making, the military technical developments that is, because even though we saw new weapons systems coming out, very few of those weapons systems were actually widely spread across the Russian military.

One big example is the T-14 tank, for example, which was actually part of the much bigger Armata vehicle family, which would essentially have all the different classes of armored vehicles in the Russian military based on the same platform with the same single logistical train behind it. That vehicle was initially, I think, announced in about 2014, 2015 when it was first shown as a prototype. We are almost 10 years later, and there’s still not a single actual operational unit using those tanks in combat, right?

But even with other systems that have seen combat, the development of newer models of Russian fighters in the Air Force have only seen very limited use, the use of precision-guided munitions. Even though Russia has developed those systems, and they have developed them decades ago, their ability to actually use them, both due to the availability of those weapons themselves, as well as the lacking experience or procedures within, for example, ground forces to be able to interface with the Air Forces to guide those kinds of strikes, those are all essentially causing the Russian military to perform well below the level of those prototypes and announcements that they are making.

Jeff Hawn:

Thank you, Sim, and thank you all for joining me for this episode. I’ve been your host, Jeff Hawn, and this is Russia in Context. Please tune in to Contours for other series and subseries on the geopolitical challenges of today.

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