The army that Russia took into Ukraine in February 2022 was clearly not fit for purpose, even if neither Moscow nor Washington recognized it at the time. The limits of the Kremlin’s force of arms were laid bare.
The invasion exposed Russia’s boast that it had the second-strongest military in the world, and the initial phase of the war saw massive failures across the chain of command, including dysfunctional logistics and repeated evidence of poor training and equipment. A planned blitzkrieg-like seizure of Kyiv dissolved into a hard-fought battle in which the Russians failed to seize the critical Hostomel airport and were subsequently routed despite a seemingly decisive numerical advantage.
The early phase of the invasion saw the rapid unraveling of the myth that the Russian army was modern and capable of matching Western standards. Other assumptions about its operational planning and tactics also melted in the heat of battle. Having failed in the early stages of the war, its commanders reverted to a traditional Soviet-era approach to warfare, using massive artillery bombardment coupled with the wanton expenditure of soldiers’ lives in mass wave attacks.
Notwithstanding its much-touted modernization, the incompetence and corruption of the Russian military leadership, poor weapons maintenance and logistical blunders revealed that Moscow’s armed forces had not changed much since the Soviet era, especially its land forces.
The much-vaunted Serdyukov reforms, named after Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, saw a major structural reorganization of Russian forces which began in 2009. They built on the Soviet-era experience in Afghanistan and used battalion tactical groups (BTGs) of approximately 800 troops, which were deployed as combined-arms maneuver units and reportedly kept at high readiness. Serdyukov wanted to fold BTGs into standing brigades while also reducing the size of the army, shrinking the command structure, standing up a professional NCO corps, and improving readiness.
His dismissal in November 2012 initiated a debate in Moscow about the future of these reforms. Until the 2022 full-scale invasion of Ukraine, changes instituted by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu amounted to little more than corrections to Serdyukov’s plan, and not an overall revision of its contours.
The Serdyukov reforms, alongside the performance of Russia’s military in Chechnya and Syria, help to explain why the Russian defense establishment appeared to believe the military was up to the task of invading its neighbor. The seizure of Crimea in 2014 reinforced this view among Vladimir Putin’s inner circle and claims about Russian weapons systems, especially the modernization of its nuclear capability, new ballistic missile submarines, and improved armor — including the new generation T-14 Armata tank — helped cement this confidence. (In 2021, Russian sources claimed the military had fielded more than 2,000 T-14s, though the evidence suggests it was closer to a few dozen prototypes still in development.)
And yet, despite the evident failures of 2022, it would be a mistake to underestimate the resilience of the Russian military, or even dismiss its capabilities altogether. Although no match for the Ukrainian military when it comes to training and morale, the Russians have gone to school on the Ukrainians and have been learning quickly. The 2023 Russian army is a different beast from the 2022 Russian army from the early stages of the war.
Russia has demonstrated that it can both fight and mobilize at the same time, with its initial force of 300,000 now augmented by the call-up of as many as 400,000 contract soldiers (kontraktniki.) The Russian military has been able to tie down a large Ukrainian force in and around Bakhmut, forcing the Ukrainians into a war of attrition and inflicting serious casualties, albeit with the reinforcement of a private mercenary group. It has also shown itself capable of building in-depth defenses and maintaining public support for the war.
Putin’s military has demonstrated that, at least for now, it has the requisite staying power at a time when Western resources, especially weapons and munitions supplied to Ukraine, are rapidly becoming depleted and it is scrambling to step up production levels.
While the war has highlighted the need for assumptions about Russia to be verified, it has also confirmed some truths, especially when it comes to the way the Kremlin uses military power. It has driven home, for example, the importance of armor, long-range precision fire, and air defense for conventional large-scale warfare. These verities faded into the background in most Western militaries over the past 20 years as forces were reformatted for overseas contingency operations. The Russians have shown there is no substitute for quantity and mass, especially when it comes to munitions. They have put even obsolete Soviet-era equipment to effective use, draining Ukrainian stocks of ammunition in the process.
The Russian military has recognized its subpar performance and in January Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov responded with another round of reforms. Under his new plan, an army corps will be added in Karelia, on Finland’s border, to counter the country’s entry into NATO.
The Gerasimov reforms will also see the re-establishment of two military districts — Moscow and St. Petersburg — which were merged in 2010 to become part of the Western Military District. Gerasimov also said Russia would add three motorized rifle divisions in Ukraine as part of combined arms formations in the occupied Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. Gerasimov declared Russia was making these changes in its force posture because it was now at war with the “collective West” — an echo of statements made by Putin.
It is too soon to draw definitive conclusions, but it is clear the Russian army that rolled into Ukraine last year is a thing of the past (not least because it has lost so much equipment, including more than 2,000 tanks and 4,000 armored fighting vehicles) and that Moscow is grappling to find a new format that reflects the military’s experience in the past year. Historically, Russia’s military has proved itself to be resilient, capable of coming back after serious defeats and pushing forward. While it lacks the morale of the Ukrainian forces, it has considerable resources at its disposal.
Most of all, Putin appears determined to stay in this fight for the long haul, having shifted the Russian economy to a wartime footing. This will, for a time, remain an unfolding story. The West must pay attention.
Chels Michta is a Nonresident Fellow with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). Chels is a former CEPA Title VIII Fellow and is currently a military intelligence officer serving in the US Army.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Army, the US Department of Defense, or the US government.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.