Strange Debacle: Misadventures in Assessing Russian Military Power
Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine has befuddled most defense analysts and Russia experts. They expected Russia’s larger and better-equipped forces would quickly dispatch Ukraine’s military and force its government to surrender. Instead, Ukrainian resilience has bested Russian incompetence, creating an initial Ukrainian upset that has now settled into brutal, attritional combat in the Donbas. After over 100 days of the most intense combat Europe has seen in decades, the outcome remains very much in doubt.
I recently appeared on an episode of the War on the Rocks podcast along with two Russia experts — Michael Kofman and Dara Massicot — and military historian Gian Gentile to discuss how analysts misjudged Russia’s armed forces and their invasion of Ukraine. Several themes emerged from the discussion, including the difficulty of predicting combat performance, the corruption and “gun-decking” (falsification of reports) within the Russian armed forces, and the lunacy of the initial Russian war plan, which didn’t reflect their military strategy, doctrine, exercises, or past operations, or even basic military principles like having a single commander.
Others have taken a more critical approach. The historian Philipps Payson O’Brien, for example, wrote an article for The Atlantic early in the war comparing the Western failure to grasp Russian weakness to misguided assessments of French vulnerabilities prior to its defeat by Germany in 1940. He argued that Western analysts overlooked Russian weakness because they fixated on weapons systems and doctrine and ignored key factors like logistics, leadership, and morale. O’Brien is a serious thinker whose arguments merit engagement. He raises important questions about how analysts and policymakers assess military power. Yet he makes key errors and misjudges defense analysis and the Russian military experts.
Russia’s divergence from its doctrine and basic military principles noted during the podcast undercuts O’Brien’s comparison of Russian performance in 2022 to French performance in 1940. France failed in 1940 partly because it doggedly followed flawed planning and doctrine. Russian operations, by contrast, are failing because they appear to have thrown planning and doctrine out the window.
During the Battle of France, each side operated in ways that conformed with their pre-war thinking. France’s “methodical battle” doctrine was designed for deliberate attritional warfare like World War I, rather than rapid armored maneuver. German commanders conversely envisioned armor penetrating enemy lines and exploiting breakthroughs. As noted by Robert Doughty in The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine 1919-1939, analysts examining the coming conflict prior to 1940 predicted that the battle would turn on whether German forces could penetrate French defenses, then sustain and exploit that breakthrough.
Clarifying this issue is about more than historical pedantry. It gets to the heart of how defense analysts think about military power. Doctrine, corroborated with data from exercises, wargames, operations, and intelligence, helps analysts understand how an opponent is likely to operate. It is critical to understanding military effectiveness and predicting military performance. This helps explain why estimates of Russian performance in Ukraine have been wrong — they assumed Russian operations would follow their doctrine, and yet they mostly haven’t.
Russia’s battalion tactical groups exemplify this issue. O’Brien notes the failure of these units, which comprise infantry, armored vehicles, artillery, air defense, and supporting forces into a unit of about 800 troops. There’s a problem with this observation though: Russian forces don’t appear to have been operating in these groups during their worst engagements with Ukrainian forces. Instead, Russian commanders pushed small units forward without combined-arms support, with predictably poor results. Western defense analysts have long debated the efficacy of battalion tactical groups, but no credible analyst would have predicted that the Russians wouldn’t use them, opting instead to send unsupported small units into a gantlet of ambushes. When Russian forces have deployed in these groups, they’ve been badly understrength. This is just one of a host of unforced errors — from the failure to destroy the Ukrainian Air Force on the ground to the inadequate use of artillery fire and infantry to screen armored columns — that Western analysts failed to predict because they were so far outside expected Russian behavior.
O’Brien argues that Western analysts’ obsession with technologies and doctrine blinded them to flaws in Russia’s ability to execute complex operations. Instead, he believes analysts should focus on command and control, logistics, leadership, and morale — all of which he cites as critical to executing a complex operation like invading all of Ukraine. I strongly agree with these focus areas, but analysts have been paying attention to them for years. During a wargame several years ago, Massicot presciently cited command and control and logistics as factors that would limit Russia’s ability to execute complex operations against NATO. Kofman has argued that such limitations, along with Russia’s active defense strategy, would push Russia toward opportunistic strategic raids to upset the international order (while China becomes a new hegemon), rather than the sort of massed assault they’ve launched against Ukraine. If Western analysts erred regarding Russian logistics and command and control, it was in assuming Russia was aware of its limitations and would craft limited war plans to minimize them, rather than exacerbate them by launching a massive multi-pronged invasion of the second-largest country in Europe.
Leadership and morale are more difficult to assess. Western analysis has long questioned the quality of Russian leadership, especially at the junior level. Unlike western militaries, which devolve many responsibilities to professional non-commissioned officers, Russian officers oversee every aspect of their units. These demands place a heavy burden on junior leaders who, because of Russia’s recruiting difficulties, may not be up to the task. Likewise, these personnel challenges and persistent issues like hazing raise questions about Russian morale. However, Western analysts are reluctant to move from raising questions to basing assessments on leadership and morale. First, these issues are intangible and difficult to assess without firsthand knowledge. Second, morale is dynamic and contingent — the motivated Finnish forces that imposed heavy casualties on the Red Army during the Winter War, for example, became the cynical veterans of the Continuation War in Väinö Linna’s classic novel Unknown Soldiers. Third, modern analysts are hesitant to emphasize these attributes as it gets dangerously close to racist or essentialist descriptions of national character that have historically led analysts astray.
It is worth considering an alternative path of events. Russia pursues a realistic strategy to fatally weaken Ukraine, rather than rapidly seize it. It appoints one commander to lead the operation. It develops a plan to seize limited objectives like the Donbas that follows its doctrine and exploits its advantages in firepower and massed armor and minimizes its logistical shortcomings. It informs its troops about the upcoming operation and trains them realistically. It does, essentially, what it has belatedly started doing now after abandoning its initial plan. Russia might still have failed following this more reasonable course, but it likely wouldn’t have performed like a laughingstock.
This counterfactual sounds like a justification for flawed analysis, but it’s crucial to understanding warfare and how U.S. defense analysts think about it. When we design a wargame or build a computer model, we assume adversaries are competent. There are obviously gradations — Chinese leadership rates better than North Korean, for example — but we assume opponents will make reasonable, informed decisions if possible. This approach has downsides. It can overestimate competitors and lead to overallocation of resources. Alternatively, it can obscure exploitable weaknesses in enemy decision-making processes.
There are many reasons defense analysts assume competent foes, but three are salient. First, as Carl von Clausewitz famously said in On War, war is the realm of chance and uncertainty. Every military has good and bad days, so analysts focus on underlying strengths and weaknesses rather than more ephemeral qualities like individual leadership or morale. Second, defense analysis supports decades-long strategies and weapons purchases. The F-35 aircraft program, for instance, began when Boris Yeltsin was Russia’s president and will outlast Putin’s regime. These decisions can’t focus on ephemeral assessments based solely or even mostly on current events. Third, the defense analytic process tends to be cautious and conservative when assessing risk. Many Pentagon analysts reportedly assumed Russian forces were capable and competently led and that their equipment would work as advertised. They also assumed Russian plans would be sound and would follow the most likely or most dangerous course of action. Despite the likelihood that this perspective led them to overestimate Russian performance, this approach is preferable to the alternative. Overestimation of a foe leads to misallocation of resources or missed opportunities. Underestimation of a foe, as Russia is discovering, leads to catastrophe.
Nevertheless, Western analysts clearly overestimated Russia’s armed forces, which have demonstrated critical flaws and vulnerabilities. Some failings, like logistics, command and control, and coordination between air and ground units were known (but perhaps not fully appreciated) before the war. Others are more surprising, such as their inability to gain air superiority or use ground-based air defenses — a longstanding strength of Soviet/Russian forces — to prevent Ukraine’s air force from operating.
The relevant question now is, what lessons U.S. defense analysts should take from Russia’s disastrous performance? Answering this question is key to guiding strategy in the present conflict — particularly regarding war aims — as well as U.S. defense strategy moving forward. The obvious temptation is to discount the potential performance of Russian forces. While tempting, this would be foolhardy.
In the near term, this approach would likely underestimate Russia’s capacity to resist Ukrainian counter-offensives. Russian forces clearly lacked the logistical and command capacity to execute audacious regime-change operations, but these shortcomings will be less problematic in a defensive posture nearer Russian territory. A maximalist strategy to expel all Russian forces from pre-2014 Ukrainian territory might therefore be morally satisfying, but militarily infeasible.
Longer term, this perspective would undercut NATO solidarity and military investments needed to sustain post-war European security, stability, and prosperity. Russia’s armed revanchism has been so unsettling in part because Europe and the United States downplayed the Russian threat from 1990–2014. Underestimating Russia’s resilience and determination to achieve its security goals in the 1990s was perhaps understandable. Doing it again today would be inexcusable.
Beyond Europe, analysts and policymakers may be lured into underestimating the capability of China’s People’s Liberation Army, particularly its ability to invade Taiwan. Like Russian forces, the People’s Liberation Army has personnel shortcomings caused by a dearth of high-quality recruits. It uses equipment, doctrine, and an “active defense” military strategy like Russia’s. Its status as the army of the Chinese Communist Party has raised concerns about corruption. To make matters worse, unlike Russia’s military, the People’s Liberation Army hasn’t fought a war since its failed invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Analysts could be excused for seeing a paper tiger crouching amidst these flaws.
However, China is not Russia and the People’s Liberation Army is not the Russian military. China’s economic power and growing technical sophistication — aided by unprecedented industrial espionage — have given it an ability to build advanced weaponry at a scale far exceeding that of Russia. China is aware of its challenges in developing good leaders — witness its discussions of the “two inabilities” and the “five incapables” — and is taking steps to address them to include much more rigorous training and assessment. Chinese military reforms over the last 20 years, combined with President Xi Jinping’s counter-corruption policies, have created a more professional and accountable force.
And yet, like Russian forces prior to their invasion of Ukraine, the performance of the People’s Liberation Army remains a massive unknowable factor. Analysts can make informed assessments based on weapons systems, doctrine, exercises, and intelligence products, but these assessments will always struggle with uncertainty — and U.S. defense analysts tend to translate uncertainty into risk. There’s no way to eliminate this uncertainty, but there are steps that the U.S. intelligence and defense communities could take to reduce the area of uncertainty or at least better understand its borders.
First, U.S. analysts need to improve their understanding of adversary leadership and its potential behavior during a crisis or conflict. From my perch in the Pentagon, it seemed like analysis of Chinese or Russian leadership was “stove-piped” or divided into separate analytic streams. CIA analysts focus on national leaders, while the Defense Intelligence Agency and military service analysts examine military leadership: both key individuals and the leadership cultures of adversary forces. Few analysts, however, could combine these areas of expertise to represent Russian or Chinese leadership in a crisis simulation or a wargame. Instead, these efforts often rely on experts in adversary military forces and doctrine, which can lead to problematic assessments if, as in Ukraine, enemy leaders act contrary to their doctrine.
Second, analytical specialists should think more holistically — and in concert with generalists — about adversary military performance. On this point, I agree wholeheartedly with O’Brien’s critique. Too often, analysis focuses on a particular aspect of warfare, like air combat, and excludes the infrastructure and missions that support that aspect. Aircraft, ships, tanks, and missiles are just weapons. They need information, command and control, and logistical support to become combat capabilities.
Third, analysis should better account for real-world conditions. A common flaw in examinations of Russian and Chinese weapons systems is to use a maximum effective range to create a radius, draw a big red circle, and declare it a “no-go zone.” Such representations appear to be rigorous analysis, but tend to vastly overstate combat capability, especially where factors like countermeasures, weather, and confusion constrain system performance.
Fourth, analysts should expand their mental models to consider a wider range of potential conflict scenarios. One reason U.S. analysts misjudged Russian performance in Ukraine is that they primarily examine potential conflicts between Russia and NATO, such as a limited thrust into the Baltic states. U.S. understanding of Russian military performance was therefore specific to a different kind of conflict under different conditions. Expanding the set of conflict scenarios can broaden our thinking and expose overlooked issues.
Fifth, analysts should be explicit about their assumptions and the limitations of their understanding. In my experience, analysts were loath to revisit assumptions, which were often sensitive topics that required months or years of deliberation to develop. Opening them up for debate can feel like unraveling a precisely woven tapestry, but it’s key to uncovering potential flaws in our thinking. Likewise, being explicit about what analysis cannot or does not say is crucial. Senior policymakers often press for clear answers, and replying with “it depends,” or “I don’t know” can feel like failure, but it’s important for leaders to have a clear sense of the uncertainty they face.
The common theme of these recommendations, and of the discussion from the podcast, is humility. Warfare is an incredibly complex endeavor and boiling it down into a prediction through simplistic analysis has the accuracy of a stopped clock: occasionally right, but mostly wrong. Instead, the complexity of war is best understood through the synthesis of multiple factors using inclusive, multi-disciplinary approaches. Still, no methodology, no matter how effective, can overcome the uncertainty of warfare to arrive at the right answer. Instead, whether assessing the outcome of the war in Ukraine or a potential war over Taiwan, we must continually strive to be a little less wrong each day.
Chris Dougherty is a senior fellow in the Defense Program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Prior to that, Mr. Dougherty served as senior adviser to the deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development at the Department of Defense.