Russia’s attack on Ukraine has dragged on for three months, a duration that is likely a surprise to the Russian troops who were told they were being sent on a short operation to topple Ukraine’s government and to many around the world who expected Russia’s military to overwhelm its smaller neighbor.
The Russian military has so far failed to achieve any of its primary objectives, suffering tens of thousands of casualties and losing hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles, and aircraft.
The lack of progress and heavy losses can be attributed in large part to Ukraine’s military, which has stalled and in some places turned back Russia’s offensive, forcing Moscow to lower its ambitions in the conflict.
Ukraine’s success can be attributed to the determination of its forces and leadership, their knowledge of the battlefield, and to their shrewd combination of weapons and training provided by the US and European countries.
The poor performance of Russian troops has displayed to the world in the many videos that have emerged from battlefields in Ukraine.
The Russian military was touted as a near-peer competitor of the US, but its performance in Ukraine suggests it is anything but. The videos show Russian forces lacking discipline, exhibiting woeful operational security, and simply having poor tactics — ample evidence that Russian forces aren’t able to perform at the level Western countries expected of them before the war.
In one instance of an individual misstep, a Russian soldier spots a Ukrainian drone and runs directly back to his unit, apparently without considering that doing so would guide Ukrainian forces to the Russian position. As would be expected, the Ukrainians shelled his unit with artillery.
In another instance illustrative of broader issues, a Russian resupply convoy in Mariupol heads down a single-lane road with no apparent avenues of escape. To make matters worse, the convoy is made up of unarmored civilian cars rather than armored vehicles.
The Ukrainian forces ambush the convoy, taking out the first and last vehicles and begin picking off the Russian troops who have bunched together around their vehicles. In an ambush, huddling together is the last thing a professional force would be expected do, as it makes it much easier for its opponent to wipe it out.
There are several potential explanations for Russian troops’ poor performance in Ukraine.
“Morale plays a big part, especially if a military isn’t wholly professional. The Ukrainians are literally fighting for their land, their women and children. They are fighting for their homeland and their freedom. That is a powerful motivator and can push ordinary troops to great lengths,” a retired Delta Force operator told Insider.
The videos show that Ukrainians forces are “very familiar” with the operational environment and with how that environment looks to both attacker and defender, according to the retired operator, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of ongoing work with the military.
“The Ukrainians also know the battlefield and use that knowledge to their advantage,” the retired operator said.
Ukrainian forces have showed that they can effectively deploy mobile anti-tank teams to take out Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles.
The Russians also have dispersed their vehicles improperly — long convoys traveling single-file down Ukrainian roads were a common sight in the early weeks of the war. Russian troops in the convoys frequently bunched together, making them easy targets for an artillery barrage, drone strike, or Ukrainians with anti-tank weapons.
Despite having superior equipment, at least at the outset of the war, the Russians “have experienced significant negative impacts from low morale with troops on the front line,” retired Marine Raider Maj. Fred Galvin told Insider.
“Russian military leaders confused enthusiasm with capability and have run into the Ukrainian Army and militias who have stood their ground,” said Galvin, who wrote an account of the first Marine Special Operations combat deployment to Afghanistan and how it overcame attacks from all sides.
The Russian military’s “lethargic logistics” coupled with “low morale” among both frontline troops and the senior officers who were struggling to achieve President Vladimir Putin’s demanding orders “has led to [Russian] objectives being diminished or denied,” Galvin added.
The retired Delta operator said the fighting in Ukraine so far reflects the concept of “relative superiority.”
“You can have fewer troops than your opponent across the board, but if you achieve relative superiority in certain key places, then you can win or at least be more effective,” the retired operator said. “The Ukrainians are doing that very well.”
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.
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