World·Analysis

Putin's army is stumbling in Ukraine. Did the West get Russia's war machine wrong?

Russia's road to victory in Ukraine has been blocked by angry civilians, its broken-down tanks dragged off (and mocked) by farmers in tractors, its soldiers targeted by surprisingly successful Ukrainian resistance.

It seems Russia’s worst enemies have been its own overconfidence and under-preparedness.

A Ukrainian soldier looks through binoculars at a military check point, in Lityn, Ukraine, March 16, 2022. (Rodrigo Abd/The Associated Press)

Russia's road to victory in Ukraine has been blocked by angry civilians, its broken-down tanks dragged off (and mocked) by farmers in tractors, its soldiers targeted by surprisingly successful Ukrainian resistance.

But one month into the invasion, it seems Russia's worst enemies have been its own: overconfidence and under-preparedness.

The Russian invasion has devastated major cities and driven more than 10 million people from their homes, according to the United Nations, and thousands of civilians are believed to have died. And yet, Ukraine hasn't fallen. 

"Unrealistic political aims and timetables have driven an unsound [Russian military] strategy," tweeted Russia expert Michael Kofman, while think-tanks and military observers conclude that Ukrainian forces have "defeated the initial Russian campaign of this war." 

And Russian leader Vladimir Putin, described by U.S. President Joe Biden as "a worthy adversary" before the invasion, is now dismissed at the White House as a "war criminal" and a "brutal dictator." 

How did the West get Russia so wrong? 

Mistakes based partly on misinformation: analyst

"The history of war is replete with the bigger side getting their asses kicked," said Carleton University's Stephen Saideman, director of the Canadian Defence and Security Network. 

Saideman points to mistakes made by Putin, based partly on misinformation fed to him.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets the audience as he attends a concert marking the eighth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on March 18, 2022. (Ramil Sitdikov/AFP/Getty Images)

Putin sits in the Kremlin, bitterly denouncing Russian "traitors" and reportedly issuing arrest orders for spy chiefs responsible for delivering intelligence before the invasion. On Wednesday, it was announced that one of Putin's top aides, Anatoly Chubais had resigned.

At a rally in support of Russian forces last week, Putin recited Orthodox scripture and reached back to 18th century military victories. The storms of war "will contribute to Russia's glory," he told the crowd at the Moscow Stadium.

"He was led to believe that the Ukrainians would fold immediately," said Saideman, adding he suspects no one dared tell him Russian forces wouldn't prevail. "It's very difficult for authoritarian regimes to assess themselves because there's a culture of lying and a lack of accountability because there are serious consequences to disappointing Putin."

That seems to have had an impact on morale all the way down to the troops on the ground, who were initially led to think theirs was no more than a training mission. 

'We did not really believe that we would enter Ukraine's territory'

"We were told that we would have joint drills in Belarus. That's it," said Dmitry Astakhov, a Lieutenant-Colonel with a Russian police rapid deployment force. He spoke to media earlier in March after being captured. "We did not really believe that we would enter Ukraine's territory."

"The Russian command didn't have trust in Russian soldiers, and their will to fight against Ukrainians," concludes Konrad Muzyka from this. He is a military analyst with Rochan Consulting based in Poland. "Russians consider Ukrainians to be their brothers, and find it difficult to fight them."

So far, approximately 200,000 Russian troops have been ordered in. On Wednesday, NATO estimated that 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed so far. That's more than double the number of Americans killed in two decades of fighting in Afghanistan.

An earlier report in the pro-Putin Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda said 9,861 soldiers had died and 16,153 were injured. These figures were quickly removed, as Moscow has been trying to portray the invasion as a Russian success.

Across Ukraine, there have been many local reports of Russian soldiers simply walking away from their tanks and armoured carriers. Military analysts like Patrick Fox have also noticed an unusual number of high-ranking Russian officers — including brigadier generals — leading from the field, when they would normally be in distant command posts. 

A Ukrainian National guard soldier inspects a Russian damaged military vehicle in Kharkiv, Ukraine, March 16, 2022. (Andrew Marienko/The Associated Press)

That suggests they don't have confidence their troops are properly trained or motivated enough to fight, said Fox, a U.S. Air Force veteran. "They're saying, 'OK, I'm literally going to stand over my brigade commanders' shoulder and I'm going to instruct his people how to do this'."

At least four of these generals have been killed by Ukrainian forces, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A member of his inner circle told the Wall Street Journal Ukraine has a team dedicated to finding and targeting senior Russian officers, using equipment and intelligence supplied by NATO.

PHOTOS | WARNING: This gallery contains a graphic photo:

Equipment, co-ordination challenges

For Russia, equipment has been a challenge. Tanks and trucks have broken down, apparently from poor maintenance. And the logistics of resupplying its force has been "absolutely terrible," said Fox.

Tanks low on fuel are shown on social media pulling up at regular gas stations (and ridiculed for it). Russian soldiers have been captured looting grocery stores on CCTV as military rations run dry.

"We're seeing things break down," said Fox. "Their troops aren't eating, they're running out of ammo. They're running out of gas, and then they're abandoning vehicles."

All this points to invaders who "didn't actually prepare themselves to fight a long war," said Muzyka.

WATCH | Putin won't be able to break the will of the Ukrainian people, analyst says:

Russia in for 'bitter, protracted' fight to win in Ukraine, says analyst

4 months ago
Duration 9:36
Russian President Vladimir Putin may be able to achieve Russia's military objectives in Ukraine, but he won't be able to break the will of the Ukrainian people, says British defence analyst Nicholas Drummond.

Perhaps most puzzling for military analysts has been Russia's apparent inability to co-ordinate its forces. Tanks have been targeted by Ukrainian soldiers using shoulder-fired missiles, with no Russian ground troops to protect them. Stalled convoys, like the one which stretched for more than 60 kilometres outside Kyiv for more than a week, have been left especially vulnerable to ambushes. 

"Their combined arms capability, which is crucial in any modern war, is much less robust than we thought it would have to be in order to carry out this kind of operation," said Fox.

Much of the communication and co-ordination has been done over cell phones or easy to monitor unencrypted transmissions that have been routinely intercepted by Ukrainian forces, foreign intelligence agencies, and even amateur short-wave radio operators

Air power has also been lacking. Analysts like Muzyka assumed Russia would start the invasion by wiping out Ukraine's fighter fleet and its air defences to give Moscow free rein to protect its ground forces and launch attacks at will. It didn't.

"Russia and the Soviet Union have always been proud of themselves in having a very robust air capability. And what we are seeing now is completely opposite," said Muzyka. "I have no idea why this is happening."

Weeks into the invasion, the U.S. Pentagon says Ukraine still has a significant part of its own air defence system, and the space over the country remains "contested." Russian helicopters have taken some spectacular direct hits, providing Ukraine with useful propaganda.

Many fear further escalation is coming

Some Western analysts have warned against writing off Russia's bigger and traditionally stronger military, saying this war is far from over and expecting the Kremlin to learn from early mistakes. They point to similar Russian tactics in Chechnya and Syria, where long, grinding campaigns flattened cities and eventually succeeded — though at a high human cost.

But from what we know of its performance in Ukraine so far, Russia's conventional war machine appears to have stumbled, failing to live up to the expected image of a superpower.

Many fear that out of desperation, Putin may turn to more drastic measures. He already has, killing civilians with imprecise bombing when his forces can't defeat military targets in shattered cities like Mariupol. 

WATCH | Could Russia use chemical weapons in Ukraine? 'They're capable:'

'They have the capability'

4 months ago
Duration 1:02
Patrick Fox, a U.S. Air Force veteran and military analyst, describes the likelihood and consequences of Russia deploying chemical weapons in Ukrainian cities such as Kyiv.

An escalation to far more horrific nuclear alternatives is also feared, A "bone-chilling development" U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said is "within the realm of possibility".

Chemical weapons would be even likelier "if [Russian forces] encounter serious resistance in cities like Kyiv," said Fox. This approach would be used to demoralize the population, as well as causing massive casualties.

"We're going to end up with a weakened Russia here," said Paul Maddison, Canada's former High Commissioner to Australia and now director of the UNSW Defence Research Institute. "And that will lead us into dangerous times." 

He sees Putin as relishing the role of "disruptor" — especially now that his reputation as warrior is questioned.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.

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