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The Russian Paper Tiger Military

russian paper tiger military

The invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated what many of us have suspected for a long time.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brings back memories about the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1990. I remember all the discussion in the media leading up to the war about how many soldiers and tanks Iraq had. Friends in school told me that Iraqis would fight like fanatics akin to the Japanese in WWII. They would never surrender, but fight to the death, I remember getting told.

Yet Iraq collapsed like a paper tiger. The ease with which the US utterly crushed the Iraq military no doubt contributed to their later hubris, which led the US to invade Iraq in 2003 with the intention of toppling Saddam Hussein and finding his non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.

We are seeing something similar today with the Russian military. Like Iraq, it looks impressive on paper. Yet when facing the real world, it underperforms badly. However, this isn’t new. Russia performed badly in the Winter War with Finland, the Chechen Wars, and many others.

Why do they perform so badly every time?

One insight comes from an American army colonel, who relayed his experience with training Arab armies and how this training may explain why Arab armies consistently performed so poorly against Israel: Why Arabs Lose Wars: Fighting as You Train, and the Impact of Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness.

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One of the key observations was about differences in power hierarchies between different cultures. If you measure cultures by how hierarchical their power structures are, then Arab countries have the highest score. Israel is the opposite. It has one of the flattest power structures in the world.

Russia has a very similar problem to Arab countries. To much power hierarchy. Too many decisions are made at the top and those lower down the chain of command have limited autonomy. Questioning orders is frowned upon and power is centralized.

Since I wrote this article, a New York Times article has popped up which confirms my suspicions. Exactly like with Arab armies, military experts are pointing out that the Russian army is too centralized with too little autonomy among those in the lower ranks:

But a dissection of the Russian military’s performance so far, compiled from interviews with two dozen American, NATO and Ukrainian officials, paints a portrait of young, inexperienced conscripted soldiers who have not been empowered to make on-the-spot decisions, and a noncommissioned officer corps that isn’t allowed to make decisions either.

Russia’s military leadership, with Gen. Valery Gerasimov at the top, is far too centralized; lieutenants must ask him for permission even on small matters, said the officials

Strong and Tough vs Coordinated and Organized

It is easy to exaggerate Russian military effectiveness because many people have this idea that what makes a great solider is a bulky tough guy who can take any hardship. Yet anyone who has actually served in any real army should know that one of the most important things to be effective as a fighting unit is coordination and knowing well what to do. That you can do a lot of push-ups and take a lot of punches doesn’t necessarily make you an effective soldier.

I remember discussing differences in military training with a friend who served in the Lebanese army. Since his country had seen many real wars, I imagined that they had some real serious training. My native Norway has not seen a real war in ages and we generally live in a very peaceful country, where everybody is quite well off. In addition, we are all into soft values: humane prisons, gender equality, etc. In short, not exactly the kind of people you imagine make good soldier material. Yet in various missions abroad, Norwegian forces have generally performed well.

What was interesting when comparing notes with my Lebanese friend was the profoundly different approaches taken by each respective army. In Lebanon, one followed what you probably think of as the military: Get up real early and do lots of hard physical exercise.

My service was not like that. It was when I started asking him about the systems they learned that I realized how different our approaches were. I remember he laughed out loud when I asked him about what systems they used to pack their rucksacks. He said they just dumped the stuff at their feet and you had to figure out everything yourself. In Norway, a lot of time went into learning how to pack your bag according to army standard. Everything had a specific place. The same applied to your uniform. Every pocket had a particular item. The purpose of this was that if you ever needed to help a fellow solider or use any of their equipment, you would know exactly in which pocket to look on their uniform or bag.

Everything was about repetition of all sorts of details, so that you could do almost any task automatically. We would repeatedly assemble and disassemble our gun. We would learn exactly how to hold each part and pull things apart. Somebody had studied how to make the most effective and quickest moves for everything. The result is that you could pick apart a gun in full darkness and reassemble it quickly without any problems, and without losing a single piece.

A lot of our training involved learning skills like moving as silently as possible at night. Avoiding the use of light. Following specific procedures to avoid losing any particular parts. I could go on but the bottom line was that most of what I learned was really boring and mundane. Close combat training and shooting were a relatively small part of my training.

We would also train on things such as where to place yourself in the landscape to avoid getting spotted. How to quickly measure or estimate distances. This is very different from what you see in movies, which make the military look like it is only about running obstacle courses, pumping iron, and shooting while officers scream at you.

This is why I don’t think one should overestimate the fighting capability of Russian forces from seeing some crazy martial arts stunts, or guys that knock you out in one punch. Modern wars are not fought with fists. The effectiveness of a military is down to a lot of boring and mundane stuff. Do you have working logistics? Russian forces seem to have run out of both fuel and food, thus halting their progress. Trucks broke down because they were not maintained properly before the invasion.

Stuff like that was very strongly emphasized in Norway when I served over 20 years ago. We spent a huge amount of time on maintenance and inspection of equipment. It is not cool action stuff, but if you don’t get this kind of stuff right, your equipment will break down in war and you will run out of key supplies and components.

Coordination and teamwork is paramount. Some of that is cultural. I only have a small sample, but when playing online shooter games where team work is important, I always enjoy being on a team with Germans. They always seems to have a plan, communicate it effectively, and stay committed to carrying it out. Other people may be more prone to leave to be a hero doing their own thing. This has been written about in WWII as well. A lot of German effectiveness came from good coordination between troops. Russians downplayed this with their tanks. While Germans coordinated their tanks through radio communications, this was often not the case with Russian tanks.

This is a reoccurring pattern in the stories popping up about Russian advances in Ukraine. They fail to effectively coordinate their various units in attacks. It doesn’t matter if every one of your soldiers happens to be Rambo if you are not coordinated.

Moral and Politics

Hitler may have blundered a lot in his strategic decisions towards the end of WWII, but he understood something fundamental which Putin seems to have failed to learn. Hitler fired up Germany and the German people and made them ready for war. His soldiers were ready for the fight. Russians soldiers, by contrast, had no clue prior to the start of the invasion that they were supposed to invade Ukraine.

Let us also not forget that Putin ordered Russians to invade a brother people without any preparation. That is like American soldiers suddenly getting ordered to invade Canada today. No explanation given. Your officers just tell you that “we are going into Canada on an exercise!”

Alternatively, this is like Norwegian soldiers suddenly getting told to invade Sweden or Spanish soldiers suddenly told to invade Portugal. How would that work out? Terrible! You are told to attack people you consider friends and whom you have no hard feelings towards. That will not instill fighting spirit. An army needs something to inspire it. Putin has completely ignored this crucial component.

My first part was about the military organization, which does not seem to work for Russians. But the political side of things is even worse.

Ukrainians may be outgunned but they have extremely high morale and they are fighting for their democracy with a President who leads from the front and by example. Putin is sitting safe in Moscow and will instill minimal courage and loyalty among his soldiers.

Speculations on Outcome

The Red Army utterly messed up when invading Finland during WWII, yet Finland had to sue for peace in the end and give concessions to the Soviet Union. The same can happen in Ukraine. Even if they fight bravely and incur massive losses on Russian forces, Putin may still win due to sheer superiority of numbers.

However, he may not get the victory he wanted. His losses may be so heavy that he cannot settle with Ukraine in the way that he wished. I suspect both sides will have to compromise. Ukraine will eventually see that they cannot win in the end while Putin will see that the war is costing Russia far too much. Every day with massive foreign sanctions and heavy casualties is going to run up a huge bill that will undermine his future rule.

Putin needs a quick victory because every day at war is thus far costing an arm and a leg. If he can make peace with Ukraine, he has a chance of ending the crippling sanctions. The longer the war drags out, the longer he will have to deal with devastating sanctions and military losses.

Weaponizing a Refugee Crisis

Ukraine is 44 million people. Even if just a small fraction of Ukrainians flee the war, it will mean a massive refugee crisis in Europe. Putin may remember the Syrian refugee crisis and how that turned into political dynamite and the mounting difficulty of accepting a growing stream of refugees.

Putin may see this as a way of pressuring Europe to find a solution. Europe knows it cannot politically hinder refugees from coming into Europe, but if the numbers get too high, people will begin putting pressure on politicians to end the crisis. That will give Putin some cards to play.

The hope however is that the economic sanctions will begin to hurt Putin far more before this becomes a problem.

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