The Russian ground forces in Ukraine, in terms of the number of their formations and equipment, still pose a serious threat in a number of areas. In practice, however, it is extremely unlikely that the Russian military will be able to recover from its increasingly finite trajectory on the battlefield, although his defeat would take time and fierce fighting. To understand why, it is necessary to study forces beyond their equipment and personnel.
The United States evaluates military potential through the acronym DOTMLPF. That high-ranking U.S. officers regularly try to roll it off the tongue as an acronym may be an example of military absurdity, but the acronym somewhat makes up for it by being quite comprehensive. This means: doctrine, organization, training, technique, leadership and education, personnel and facilities. A look at the Russian armed forces in these categories shows why they are not using their potential and are struggling to revive.
Let’s start with Russia’s strengths: Russian doctrine—the theory of how an army should fight—is clear, precise, persuasive, and conceptually elegant. Russian doctrine is often far ahead of Western military theory. This creates a methodological problem for intelligence assessments of Russian operations, because if they are carried out as described in the highest military orders, then they are often concluded to be successful. However, practice rarely matches theory.
Russian technology is generally exceptionally well designed and adequately built. To take a concrete example, the Orlan-10, which is the main drone of the Russian forces, is cheap and easy to operate. It is not complex, but because it flies too high to be targeted by short-range air defenses and too cheap to justify long-range air defenses, it is designed to be completely inconvenient to destroy while still providing it to operators sufficient view of the battlefield to identify targets.
The weakness of Russian technology is usually that it is inflexible, designed to perform one specific task, and the simultaneous use of several generations of systems makes maintenance difficult. This problem has escalated sharply in Ukraine as the Russians pull out more and more new generations of equipment from the warehouses to make up for the losses.
The Russian military also benefits from its facilities. The Russians have an efficient rail network optimized for the movement of military vehicles. They also have many munitions factories, the companies involved are directly controlled by the government, and have access to most of the raw materials they need. Where the West has sought efficiency at the expense of sustainability, the Russians still have excess capacity on their production lines. This is much less true for precision-guided weapons, as Russia lacks an advanced microelectronics industry and therefore has to import critical components.
These strengths, however, do not compensate for the significant shortcomings of the Russian army. Let’s start with the organization: the Russian armed forces were created to fight short but intense wars. Without full national mobilization, it is too small, its units lack logistics support, and its equipment is not suitable for a protracted war. When the Russian military issued orders to its troops in the fall of 2021, they assessed the need to deploy them within nine months. Now they have reached this limit. Ukrainians, by contrast, have been organizing their armed forces since 2014 precisely for such a war.
One of the biggest shortcomings in the Russian military is leadership and education. leadership culture is dictatorial and fueled by fear. The Kremlin is structurally encouraging corruption, so civilian authorities face legal action against military leaders. However, corruption is hurting Russian logistics. Fear of punishment has created an army in which soldiers will stubbornly follow orders, even if they no longer make sense. For example, Russian artillery units typically fire on targets on a first-come, first-served basis without any contextual prioritization. Even when new intelligence indicates that a target has moved, Russian units will often attack the previous point and then a new one, giving the target time to move again.
Poor leadership also means that Russia has serious personnel problems. There is a limited career path for long term soldiers. This leads to retention problems that keep the Russian armed forces dependent on conscripts.
With a rapidly aging population, Russia lacks young recruits. The low standard of living in most of the country means that the troops are unfamiliar with many modern technologies. Moreover, in the absence of a clear ideology or strong leadership within the units, troops are largely unmotivated, do not work effectively as teams, and are unwilling to risk their lives for each other. Therefore, the Russian infantry lacked offensive combat power. These problems have worsened as the number of casualties has risen. Again, this is an area where Ukraine has clear advantages.
However, perhaps one of the weakest aspects of the country’s military system is training. First, it simply isn’t enough. At the beginning of the war, for example, there were fewer than 100 fully trained Russian pilots on the border with Ukraine, despite the fact that Russia had at least 317 combat aircraft in the theater.
Secondly, Russian soldiers, as a rule, receive training that is closely related to the task assigned to them. This makes these troops inflexible, lacking situational awareness of what is happening around them and unable to cover each other’s missions.
Thirdly, the Russians do most of the training in their units. Because the units are based in Ukraine, they have very little opportunity to train new recruits before they go to war.
This seriously complicates the mobilization and formation of new units. Ukraine struggles with training because, unlike Russia, its facilities are under rocket fire – hence the importance of training in the UK – but the training provided is much better.
Despite its technical superiority over Ukraine at the start of the conflict, Russia fell far short of its potential. Moreover, institutional weaknesses make its military far less adaptable. Now, with Russian troops outnumbered, unmotivated and deteriorating, the Kremlin’s prospects are rapidly diminishing.
Jack Watling is Senior Fellow in Ground Warfare at the Royal Combined Arms Institute (Rus).