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POLITICS

Top ten problems of Russian troops in Ukraine that won’t be solved by mobilization

Veaceslav Epureanu

The Insider takes a look at the top ten problems of the Russian Armed Forces identified during the war with Ukraine - from obsolete equipment and personnel shortages to low morale and flaws in the command structure – and assesses the extent to which mobilization will help solve them.

ALL CARDS
  • Failed planning and command

  • Logistical problems

  • Heavy metal instead of protected communications

  • Shortage of manpower

  • Obsolete equipment and ammunition

  • Corruption

  • Ineffectiveness of long-range weapons

  • Low morale

  • The soldiers' low level of training and morale

  • Lack of clear purpose

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Failed planning and command

The military campaign in Ukraine, as far as can be seen, has gone on for a long time without a unified command and proper coordination between separate formations in different parts of the theater of operations. In February 2022, troops were moving in nine operational directions at once with no apparent cooperation as part of the overall plan.

For a long time it was not at all clear who was in charge of the military operation. According to some reports, Colonel General Mikhail Mizintsev (recently appointed Deputy Minister of Defense for Logistics), head of the National Defense Management Center, was in charge directly from Moscow. According to others, each military district was assigned its own area of responsibility and acted at its own risk.

The anarchy could be traced not only at the level of general conceptualization, but also in the actions of the main organizational units of the Russian Armed Forces, the battalion-size tactical groups (BTGs). A certain lack of coordination is easy to explain in a situation where commanders take the initiative and make independent decisions, but in the Russian army the BTGs are built into the centralized chain of command (which largely makes no sense when it comes to such use of manpower and equipment in combat situations).

In the early stages of the war the command was unable to combine air and ground forces for any significant length of time or on any appreciable scale to fulfill such tasks as protecting and covering mechanized troops and supply columns. Even after a significant reduction in the scope of the theater of operations, when the Russian side concentrated on the Donbass and the southern direction (Nikolaev and Zaporizhzhia), no major military operation involving inter-brunch cooperation has ever succeeded.

Scattered actions and errors in planning have repeatedly led to completely inexcusable situations where police units of the SOBR and Rosgvardiya, armed with small arms, batons, helmets and shields to disperse demonstrations, were hit with heavy weapons.

Chaos in management is well illustrated by the documented losses of high-ranking officers. According to open-source reckoning, more than 1,100 officers, including 300 having the rank of major and above, have been killed since the start of fighting in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian military campaign provided dozens (if not hundreds) of examples of blatant disregard for the fundamentals of military art and monstrous miscalculations in planning, which made the names of the corresponding population centers legendary: for example, Bilohorivka (while crossing the Seversky Donets river the Russians managed to lose about a hundred units (!) of equipment and almost half a thousand (!) servicemen) or Chornobaivka (an airfield near Kherson which saw about three dozen (!) effective Ukrainian strikes on equipment and manpower).

The defeat at Bilohorivka is one of many examples of the outstanding incompetence of the Russian command in the war with Ukraine

The combination of poor tactics at lower levels, limited air cover, a lack of flexibility, and an inexplicable stubbornness of the command which is ready to repeat its mistakes time and time again has resulted not only in high death toll but also in a multitude of cases when junior officers refused to follow suicidal orders.

Most surprisingly, commanders guilty of dramatic losses of manpower and equipment are not being punished. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Denis Lapin, commander of the 1st Tank Regiment of the 1st Tank Army, managed to lose half of his T-72B3M tanks in three weeks of combat. Instead of a court martial, Lapin received an award for bravery and heroism shown during the operation in Ukraine. True, the award was given to him by his own father, Colonel General Alexander Lapin, who by happy coincidence was the commander of the Center group in Ukraine.

Will mobilization help? Unlikely. During the war in Ukraine the commanders responsible for the operation, commanders of separate groups and branches of troops have already been changed several times, and there have been reshuffles at the level of the Ministry of Defense, but no fundamental changes are visible. The mobilization is not accompanied by any organizational and staff-related measures which would suggest otherwise.

It is possible that the explanation for the failure of the command lies in President Vladimir Putin's way too deep personal involvement in military decision-making. If The Guardian is to be believed, the Russian leader determines where individual formations should be located (which is the level of responsibility of a colonel or a brigadier general). The New York Times claims that Putin recently banned troops from leaving the right bank of the Dnieper River and surrendering Kherson, despite the serious risks of those forces being defeated.

Logistical problems

Even before the invasion of Ukraine, social media were filled with photos and videos of soldiers sleeping on the ground near the border. The command did not take care to provide them with decent living quarters and did not even give them packed rations. At the time, the exhausted and hungry soldiers seemed to be the best proof that the Kremlin was bluffing and had no intention of attacking Ukraine at all.

Frostbite accounted for a notable share of casualties in some units in the initial phase of combat operations. According to CIT's source, in a single unit, only 20% of the personnel were provided with winter uniforms, which were partially purchased by the contract servicemen at their own expense. Many soldiers may have frozen to death in the spring.

The problem was not only the poor performance of the rear units, but also the regular destruction by the Ukrainians of supply convoys – gasoline trucks, trucks with ammunition and provisions, which traveled unguarded. By summer, as the nature of the war changed and the line of contact narrowed, supply convoys were no longer easy prey for the AFU, but difficulties with logistics did not disappear.

They include expired dry rations, civilian GPS navigators, Chinese smartphones with mapping applications in fighter jet cockpits, decommissioned rotten flak jackets with rusty armor plates, and even propaganda shells from the Chechen wars.

The saddest and, without exaggeration, the deadliest are the meager and hopelessly obsolete contents of the army first-aid kits and army field medical bags.

That’s what standard Russian (top) and Ukrainian (bottom) first-aid kits look like

Will mobilization help? On the contrary. Conscription of additional 300,000 people (according to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu), or even a million or more (according to the independent media) will be a challenge for the already overstretched army logistics system. In recent days, social media have been filled with numerous videos where mobilized citizens are being told to buy uniforms, equipment, medicines at their own expense and given useful advice such as replacing blood-stopping medicines with sanitary tampons.

Heavy metal instead of protected communications

After the war began, it turned out that the Russian military has no modern means of protected communications, so they use Chinese-made civilian radios (often purchased with funds raised by volunteers) and even ordinary cell phones.

Not surprisingly, Ukrainians easily tap and intercept conversations and jam communication channels with heavy metal.

The number one communication tool of the Russian military in Ukraine - Chinese Baofeng tourist radio

According to Ukrainian sources, high-ranking officers, unlike soldiers, are not required to hand over their cell phones before being sent to the war zone, which makes it easy to track their location and launch an artillery strike.

Moreover, it seems commanders are being disciplined for the loss of communications kits, so they choose to gather up their communication devices and carry them around in their command vehicles.

Will mobilization help? No. The solution to the problem of secure communications, as well as the construction of effective military communications and command and control systems, requires systemic changes in military planning, research and development, and the work of specialized enterprises in the military-industrial complex.

Shortage of manpower

Before the February 24, 2022 invasion Russia concentrated between 150,000 and 190,000 men in 120 battalion tactical groups on the Ukrainian borders, including in Belarus and Crimea.

Apparently, during the entire conflict, the total number of troops engaged in the Ukrainian theater did not exceed 200 thousand people, including units and formations of the “LNR” and “DNR”, the Rosgvardiya, volunteer units and private military companies (PMCs).

The Americans assume the Russian forces have lost 80,000 people (dead, wounded, taken prisoner or missing). The British also agree with these estimates.

With such losses it is not surprising that the Russian command used the units with limited combat effectiveness, consisting of professionals, volunteers and PMCs, in various proportions in the less important theaters of operations. The results of the decision were demonstrated by the “regrouping” operation in the Kharkiv direction.

The war with Ukraine in general has shown an acute shortage of personnel for the BTGs. The professionalization of the Russian army turned out to be half-hearted at best: there are not enough contract servicemen to fill all the positions on the manning chart, hence the need to recruit soldiers of non-core military specialties and conscripts.

Despite Putin's repeated statements that conscripts were not supposed to participate in the war, it turned out that they made up more than half of the crew on the sunken Black Sea Fleet flagship, the guards missile cruiser Moskva.

During the conflict, the Russian troops began losing not only “two hundreds” (killed in action) and “three hundreds” (wounded in action), but also “five hundreds” (as people who refused to be sent to the combat zone or who filed for resignation (quite legally due to the legal status of the so-called special military operation) were called).

According to CIT estimates, about 20-40 percent of servicemen who had been in Ukraine refused to be deployed again to perform combat missions. The Wall Street Journal reported on hundreds of servicemen being simultaneously dismissed from individual units.

An arm patch worn by one of the Russian PMC fighters killed in Ukraine

The large number of “five hundreds,” in turn, made it impossible to carry out the rotation of units in the combat zone. Partly because the commanders feared taking the soldiers to Russia, where they could refuse to return and write a resignation letter.

As far as can be judged, measures such as posting pictures of refuseniks on the disgrace boards did not bring any result, because of the mass scale of the phenomenon. Eventually, stacks of applications of soldiers refusing to fight were discovered at the front – inside the headquarters of the defeated Izyum group of the Russian Armed Forces.

The Defense Ministry tried to compensate for the initial shortage of personnel and current losses by transferring military personnel from the Caucasus and Tajikistan, recruiting on short-term contracts (targeting, among others, the homeless and patients at a psychoneurological clinic), and engaging volunteer regional battalions.

Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported personally to Putin that 16,000 volunteers, principled opponents of nationalism and fascism from the Middle East, were ready to fight in Ukraine. So far, nothing is known about whether any of the Middle Eastern anti-fascists have made it to Ukraine.

But there are definitely fighters from private military companies, such as the Wagner PMC belonging to the businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, who recruited at least 6,000 prisoners in penal colonies, and there are representatives of the Chechen security agencies, collectively dubbed “tik-tok troops” in the press for a series of crazy staged videos they shot.

It is noteworthy that the Wagnerians and Chechen “tik-tok troops” are not primarily engaged in solving military problems but rather provide PR support for the activities of Yevgeny Prigozhin and Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov respectively.

Will mobilization help? On paper, yes. But judging by the way the mobilization is going, in reality there will be more problems. So far it is not obvious that those with combat experience, relevant military specialties or a strong motivation to fight have been the first to receive summonses.

A few hundred thousand recruits would in any case help to create several lines of defense in the already occupied territories. And with one million mobilized, it is possible to think about an offensive. What’s questionable is the level of training and equipment of the reinforcements.

According to Western estimates, Russian forces had a 12:1 advantage over Ukraine on the Kyiv front in March. In Severodonetsk, Russia achieved a 7:1 advantage. In the former case, it still had to retreat, while in the latter it managed to occupy the city only through overwhelming superiority in artillery.

Of course, if you send random people to the units at the front after one day of preparation, neither an offensive nor the creation of a stable defense is possible.

Obsolete equipment and ammunition

Since 2000, according to various estimates, Russia has spent about $1 trillion on its military. Putin said that the proportion of modern weapons was 71% in the army, and 68% in the Air Force. The Defense Ministry reported annually on the transfer of hundreds of new military equipment to the troops: missile systems, armored vehicles, aircraft and helicopters.

But no modern weapons or military equipment are visible on the battlefield in Ukraine. Judging by the known photo and video materials, the active troops have not been provided with next generation military vehicles such as the Armata, Kurganets, or Boomerang.

Russian strike aircraft in the Ukrainian campaign rely on free-fall bombs and pull-up bombing, rather than precision-guided weapons such as guided missiles and guided drones.

The clearest illustration of the failure of the modernization of the armed forces is tanks. Back in 2015, the Kremlin-loyal Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies wrote:

The main Soviet tanks of the T-64/T-72/T-80 generation finally discredited themselves during the civil war in Ukraine by their low survivability and, as a result, high crew losses. As for the T-72's, their low survival rate on the battlefield and high loss of crews (due to their ammunition’s tendency to detonate when hit by anti-tank weapons) was demonstrated in almost all conflicts in which those vehicles were used (including both Chechen campaigns).

Needless to say, Russian troops in Ukraine have been mostly using the “finally discredited” T-72 and T 80 tanks? More than 1,200 tanks have been documented to have been lost during the fighting, 90% of them being various T-72 or T-80 modifications.

The helplessness of Russian tanks against anti-tank weapons (Javelin, NLAW) is highlighted by attempts to artificially armor the vehicles with logs, sandbags or stones, and metal grates. Wooden protection has also been seen on other armored equipment and trucks, and dynamic protection designed for tanks has been placed on APCs and armored vehicles.

That’s what wooden protection for Russian armored vehicles looks like

Even pro-government experts say it’s “disgraceful” that not a single tank in the Russian army in Ukraine is equipped with active protection systems, although such systems were first introduced in the USSR.

As the regular equipment is being withdrawn from service, the military has to reactivate old weapon systems like the “Tochka-U” missile defense system, T-62 tanks, “Hyacinth” and D-30 artillery guns.

Will mobilization help? Apparently not. At the Army forum in August 2022, the Ministry of Defense signed contracts for the supply of 3.7 thousand brand-new combat vehicles. However, in the beginning of 2022 the ministry planned to supply only 400 tanks, APCs and IFVs to the ground troops. This is enough for about 10 BTGs, while 300,000 mobilized personnel make up 400 BTGs.

It is unlikely that the Russian military-industrial complex in the face of unprecedented sanctions will be able to increase production by an order of magnitude. Nor should one count on allegedly bottomless Soviet-era reserves and stockpiles. According to an estimate based on open-source data, Russia has only 6,000 tanks in storage bases, of which only half are in repairable condition. According to other data, there are even fewer mothballed tanks available for shipment to Ukraine.

Corruption

The problems with logistics in general and communications equipment in particular, as well as the chronic shortage of personnel, are largely due to trivial corruption.

Western experts have always suspected that a significant portion of Russia's defense budget is spent inefficiently, but the true scale of the theft has come as a real shock. The May 2022 commentary by the respected Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies (RUSI) begins with these words:

Corruption is endemic in Russia and is pervasive within its defense industrial sector and armed forces. Evidence from Ukraine suggests that it is costing Russian lives.

The war with Ukraine showed that the Russian army massively equipped military wheeled vehicles with cheap Chinese tires (instead of expensive military modifications), soldiers went to fight in oversized uniforms, because the popular sizes had been sold on Avito (Russia’s eBay), and marched in shoes with their soles falling off.

More serious examples of corrupt practices are the stories about the Orlan-10 unmanned aerial vehicle and the Azart radio.

What a $100,000 Russian drone is made of

The Ukrainians shot a video of the “unpacking” of one of the Orlans they captured. That’s how the world found out that the drone, which costs around $100,000 apiece, has a Canon camera attached by sticky tape instead of special imaging equipment, and an ordinary plastic bottle instead of a fuel tank.

Things got even worse with the Azart radio. The advanced communication systems priced at 300,000 rubles apiece completely lost the competition among the military to the Chinese Baofeng radio (which costs 2,000 rubles). The Main Military Investigative Directorate of Russia’s Investigative Committee is investigating the theft of 6.7 out of 18 billion rubles allocated for the purchase of the radio sets.

Will mobilization help? No comment.

Ineffectiveness of long-range weapons

Since the start of the invasion, the Russian Armed Forces have fired more than 3,500 missiles at Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia has so far failed to suppress Ukrainian air defense and missile defense assets and gain air supremacy, nor has it destroyed key transport infrastructure such as bridges and railroad hubs.

One problem is the poor quality of target reconnaissance and target assignment. The absolutely ridiculous examples of strikes on toilets, amusement parks, bus stops, cucumber greenhouses, and garage cooperatives can at least in part be explained by this. Despite the obvious misses, such strikes are usually presented by the Ministry of Defense as hits on identified targets (for example, that’s what happened with the strike on the supermarket located near the Kharkiv Tractor Plant).

Cucumber greenhouse destroyed by a Russian missile

Another possible explanation is the poor performance of Russian missiles. U.S. estimates of the failure rate for high-precision cruise missiles are as high as 50-60%. Such failures not only prevent targets from being hit, but also pose a danger to the crews themselves.

Pro-Russian experts admit that because of the “shortage of mass cheap high-precision munitions,” the Russian army has to rely on ultra-concentrated artillery fire, turning the targeted territories into a lunar landscape without a single intact building.

Will mobilization help? No. The solution requires a restructuring of the entire military machine. In addition to the fact that a number of munitions are obsolete or misused, in some categories the Russian army has nothing at all at its disposal. For example, the Air Force has no cheap and mass-produced guided aerial munitions, ideally an analogue of the Western Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) system, which allows upgrading old-style unguided aerial bombs. In addition, there are insufficient numbers of COMJAM and ESM aircraft, reconnaissance and attack UAVs, and space reconnaissance satellites.

Low morale

The attempt to conduct the military campaign in secrecy as a special operation has turned into a cruel joke: it appears that a significant number of Russian soldiers were not really prepared for war and had not the slightest idea of the goals and objectives in Ukraine.

Self-congratulatory sentiments in the spirit of “take Kiev in three days,” if they had been widespread among the troops, were fairly quickly replaced by mass refusals to fight and disappointment in military service as such.

A Russian serviceman in Ukraine

Frank accounts of war participants from the Russian side which have been gradually appearing in the media give the same picture: organizational mess, corruption, incompetence of officers, general lack of order, fatigue and apathy of servicemen.

Will mobilization help? Probably. At the initial stage, recruits, especially those who voluntarily presented themselves at enlistment offices, will be able to raise morale, but whether the morale will last is a moot point.

The soldiers' low level of training and morale

The Ukrainian campaign demonstrated how low the human capital of the Russian Armed Forces is. Many years of negative selection and recruiting manpower mostly from depressive regions, where military service is seen as a social elevator, have led to disastrous consequences.

This can be seen by the places where the Russian army has been and by what it has left behind, and it is not just the obvious war crimes, such as the murder of civilians, rape, and looting.

Many private homes and apartments in the occupied territories were vandalized without any apparent rational purpose, with offensive inscriptions with spelling errors left on the walls.

An inscription left in one of the apartments in Bucha

The Russian soldiers` signature is to leave human excrement in visible places. After the Russians had left, Chernobyl workers who returned to their workplaces were surprised to find excrement in almost every office (read about similar messages in a Mediazona compilation that has the appropriate title “They shat where they slept”).

Will mobilization help? Not as far as one can tell. Judging by the many video testimonies of people who have been mobilized, the moral qualities of the enlisted leave much to be desired.

Lack of clear purpose

The Russian military campaign in Ukraine has not earned the reputation of a “strange war” for nothing. The officially stated goals are so vague, and the actions on the ground are so disconnected from them, that it is extremely difficult to understand whether military successes and failures are driven by political rhetoric or vice versa.

At the outset, Russian forces invaded Ukraine on nine operational fronts at once, apparently counting on lightning strikes to stun the enemy and force him to surrender. The operational plan, based on the “shock and awe” model, was built on a combination of high-precision weaponry strikes, special forces and airmobile forces, and the movement of mechanized columns.

Despite successes in the south, where it had managed to reach Nikolaev without significant losses and occupy a land corridor to the Crimea, the army had to withdraw from the north at the end of March.

The second phase was expected to be a large-scale battle for Donbass: the plan was to encircle and defeat the most combat-ready units of the AFU with the help of units relocated from the north. But the battle as such did not materialize - the Russian army advanced extremely slowly due to the overwhelming superiority (super concentration) of artillery, destroying the captured Lysychansk-Severodonetsk agglomeration.

During the third phase Ukrainian forces managed not only to halt the enemy's sluggish offensive thanks to long-range Western artillery, but also to launch a counteroffensive, seizing the strategic initiative in the Kherson and Kharkov directions.

The fourth phase of the war, which appears to have been announced with the beginning of partial mobilization in Russia, will obviously be a war of attrition in the literal sense of the word.

No one fully understands at what point Putin will consider that the objectives of the SMO have been met. Will it happen when Russian troops have fully occupied the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions? Or when the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions have also been occupied? Or will they need to capture Odessa, reach Transnistria and deprive Kyiv of access to the Black Sea? Or even dismantle the existing political regime in Ukraine? Apparently, Putin himself does not know.

Will mobilization help? No comment.

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