Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight. He has written a definition of new Russian warfare and a study of Kremlin activity in eastern Ukraine.
One of the surprises of this war is the underwhelming performance of Russia’s military. Why? The simple answer is that, despite significant advances in military thinking, structural reform and equipment, the scale of the task in Ukraine has stretched it beyond its capabilities.
From the early 2000s, Russia’s political leaders and the General Staff, the ‘brain’ of the army, instigated a period of significant reform, reevaluating the strategic threats the country faced and the armed forces it needed.
The result was the 2014 Military Doctrine. It confirmed the central characteristic of modern conflict as the integration of military and non-military tools – hybrid war – with the military often used in a supporting rather than lead role. Other doctrine confirmed the West as a physical and psychological threat to Russia.
From 2008 to 2020, the Kremlin reinvested heavily in its conventional armed forces under the New Look reforms and a national rearmament programme. The structure of the Armed Forces changed. Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) became the main, combined fighting ‘unit’, not larger, unwieldy brigades, bringing them more into line with Western thinking.
The bloated officer class was slimmed and contractniki professional soldiers replaced conscripts, although the Russian army still lacks depth in quality non-commissioned officers, the backbone of the British army. A new National Defence Management Centre, effectively a wartime command and control (C2) system for not only the military but the entirety of government, was established in Moscow.
The Syrian war was used to test kit, officers and C2. It was considered successful. Putin’s intervention ensured Bashar Assad’s victory and, by outmanoeuvring the West, he delivered a diplomatic and propaganda coup. However, it was a limited operation with limited numbers of troops: primarily air power, special forces, logistics and info ops. With hindsight, it flattered to deceive.
So what has gone wrong for Putin in 2022 in Ukraine? First, one should be careful not to under-estimate the Russians. The picture is more complex than that presented. What appears true is that complacency, undoubtably fed by Putin’s contempt for the Ukrainian state, damaged Russia’s approach.
The Russians – allegedly – attacked with low supplies in the hope that the battalion groups would quickly break into Kyiv. The highly publicised claims of invasion by the US and NATO were an impressive, and successful, attempt to deny Russian surprise and control of the strategic narrative.
Since the invasion, the Russians have failed to find offensive momentum, which has sat at the heart of their thinking about war since the 1920s. Images show examples of ill-discipline under fire. Initiative and morale remain low, a sign of the continued lack of investment in the individual soldier. Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russian security affairs, believes that it has not yet put in place a single, operational-level command for the war – shocking if true.
This operation has exposed that the Russian reforms, whilst valuable, have not gone deep enough to withstand the pressure of major conventional war. That the Kremlin is now mobilising poorly trained Interior Ministry and National Guard troops is a bad sign for the Kremlin. It will need those troops against street protests in Russia.
What is also clear is that Ukraine’s fighting spirit and tactics are superior. Ukraine, notwithstanding gaps such as air power, is fielding a better army in many ways. Again, an astonishing thing to be saying.
First, Ukrainians have the will to resist and fight. Second, the Ukrainian army, certainly at unit level, is a learning army. Indeed, at the tactical level, Ukrainians are outmatching their Russian opponents, provided they continue to receive kit. The UK has helped with this, through the Op Orbital training programme and our Anti-Tank weapons programme, although it is thanks to Ukrainian innovation that they have been able to make use of this battle-winning kit at such short notice.