June 16, 2022

Strange Debacle: Misadventures In Assessing Russian Military Power

By Chris Dougherty

The article was originally published by War on the Rocks.

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.

Russia’s botched invasion of Ukraine has befuddled most defense analysts and Russia experts.

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.

Read the full article from War on the Rocks.

  • Podcast
    • August 10, 2022
    The Latest Phase of the War in Ukraine, with Mike Kofman and Jeff Edmonds

    Has the war in Ukraine reached a critical turning point? Mike Kofman and Jeff Edmonds join Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Jim Townsend to discuss the evolution of the military situ...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Michael Kofman & Jeffrey Edmonds

  • Commentary
    • May 11, 2022
    Sharper: The Authoritarianism Challenge

    Autocratic leadership is on the rise globally. Even in democratic nations, leaders are eroding checks on their power and weakening institutions. The use of illiberal technolog...

    By Anna Pederson

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Affairs
    • May 9, 2022
    Can Ukraine’s Military Keep Winning?

    Ukraine’s military has undergone a radical transformation over the past eight years, thanks to intensive reorganization and reform efforts and billions of dollars in Western s...

    By Margarita "Rita" Konaev & Polina Beliakova

  • Commentary
    • Politico
    • May 5, 2022
    Is Russia Better Off Without Putin? The Answer is Changing.

    To figure out whether we would be better off without Putin, though, we first need to weigh something else: How would Putin’s departure from power affect Russia? Would a leader...

    By Andrea Kendall-Taylor & Erica Frantz

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia