In the spring of 2022, as the West watched Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unfold, one of the greatest surprises was what it revealed about Russian military strength. When the assault began, many Western leaders and analysts assumed that Ukraine would be quickly overpowered by Russia’s vast army, powerful air force, and deep reserves of major weaponry. Instead, Russia’s ground forces proved to be disorganized, poorly trained, and lacking crucial supply lines, while Russian planes failed to gain control of Ukrainian airspace. It took weeks for the West to fully recognize these weaknesses and help Ukraine exploit them.
In recent months, there has been a similar misreading. In the weeks after Ukraine’s slow counteroffensive began in June, many commentators dwelled on the strength and depth of Russian defenses. Some expressed pessimism about Ukraine’s ability to break through them at all; others warned that Moscow could order a second mobilization, bringing hundreds of thousands of new troops into combat. Yet by late August, Ukraine was making solid gains, with Biden administration officials acknowledging “notable” progress, including against Russia’s second line of defenses.
This pattern is not new. For decades, Western analysts and policymakers have consistently overrated Moscow’s military strength. In part, this has been the result of a lack of reliable information. Although Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) has fought in many wars, there have been few examples of Moscow facing off against resolute and well-armed enemies, and Russian propaganda and repression by the Kremlin have effectively limited independent analysis inside Russia. But another factor may be even more important: in assessing Russia’s strength, U.S. and other Western experts have tended to focus on quantitative assessments of weapons systems—tanks, planes, and missiles—and raw manpower, rather than on the qualitative and psychological characteristics that often determine a military’s performance on the battlefield.
In fact, on many qualitative measures, Russian forces have been woefully lacking. Moscow lacks the kind of highly trained officer corps that has proved essential to the world’s best armies. Relying in part on conscription that is imposed unequally across the population, it suffers from low troop morale. Many of Russia’s best young minds have sought to avoid service altogether or have fled the country. And because of Russia’s autocratic system and pervasive corruption, it has proved difficult to bring the kinds of innovation, adaptability, and versatility that tend to produce the best outcomes on the battlefield.
Paradoxically, the West is acutely aware of qualitative issues when assessing other militaries. Take the cases of Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. Although their per capita defense outlays are among the highest in the world, few analysts would rank the effectiveness of their armed forces at a similar level: it has long been demonstrated that they lack sufficient training, morale, discipline, and experience in operating under demanding and adverse conditions. Yet because of Russia’s historic reputation as a superpower, analysts have tended to view its armed forces differently, concentrating on material strength while neglecting crucial intangibles such as the quality and experience of its troops—and, more specifically, the way that Russia has built up its manpower. As a result, the United States and its allies may be foreclosing more effective policy responses to the war or even inhibiting Ukraine’s warfighting strategy.
SUPERPOWER OR SUPER HYPE?
The overestimation of Moscow’s military goes back at least to the mid-twentieth century. Following World War II, experts often overrated Soviet forces, with major consequences for U.S. national security policy and, particularly, defense spending. Perhaps the best known example was the so-called missile gap controversy of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Along with influential Cold War commentators such as Joseph Alsop, then Senator John F. Kennedy argued that the Eisenhower administration had become complacent about keeping up with Russian missile programs. During Kennedy’s presidency, his military advisers, fueled by that debate, seriously overestimated the quantity and quality of Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles and advocated for increased defense spending, leading the Soviet leadership to conclude that Kennedy was a dangerous extremist. Much the same happened two decades later, in the early years of the Reagan administration: inaccurate assessments of Soviet military advances by the U.S. intelligence community pushed Washington to reevaluate its defense policies and increase military outlays.
Nor did this pattern end after the Cold War. Most Western security experts fully appreciated the decline of the Russian military after the failure of the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Moscow’s defense reforms, especially once the armed forces were rebooted in 2008, were misjudged by most Western military analysts. Many concluded that Russia’s military had developed powerful new weapons, improved training, and become an effective fighting force that could pose a serious challenge to the world’s top armies.
Those miscalculations, combined with other assessments over the past decade, led directly to the West’s overvaluation of the Russian armed forces’ likelihood of success in Ukraine. By 2022, most analysts believed that by possessing one of the largest standing armies in the world and having equipped it with a variety of sophisticated weapons systems, Russia would inevitably have a natural advantage over Ukraine’s much smaller defense forces.
Western analysts have been too ready to take information from Russia at face value.
Four reasons go a long way to explaining these misjudgments. First, Western military observers have tended to rest their assumptions on flawed evidence. For instance, many seemed to interpret Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in Syria in 2015 as demonstrations of the success of its post-2008 defense reforms. In Crimea, however, there was almost no fighting involved and some of the local population was pro-Russian; and in Syria, Russia’s air force could carry out major bombing campaigns in the virtual absence of air defenses. In other words, these conflicts said little about how Russian forces would perform in a conventional land war against a resolute and well-armed enemy. It was thus surprising to many of these same analysts that Putin’s army was unable to take Kyiv in 48 hours in 2022. They had not accounted for the fact that Russia now faced the very different situation of a city of three million people spread out over 330 square miles and split by a large river with tributaries, and whose population was overwhelmingly hostile.
Second, Western analysts have been too ready to take information coming out of Russia at face value. For example, Russian reports about its large-scale military exercises convinced many security experts that Moscow’s army had vastly improved its logistics, communications systems, air support of ground operations, and, more generally, joint operations between different branches of the armed forces. Skepticism should have been warranted: Russian defense analysts could hardly be expected to admit that their country’s military reform was a failure or that corruption was a pervasive cancer on the system of armaments acquisition. Yet when Putin began massing troops on Ukraine’s border in late 2021, many Western analysts feared an overwhelming onslaught. A third problem relates to the nature of contacts between Russian military and security experts and their colleagues in the United States and NATO in the years before the war. These Russian experts, who cultivated ties to the West, tended to be urbane, westernized, multilingual, and smart, but they also had close ties to the Kremlin and supported official Russian narratives. Meanwhile, throughout Putin’s 23-year reign, his regime has imposed decades-long prison sentences on local defense analysts who have said things or published articles objectionable to the censors even if they enjoyed no access to classified materials.
Finally, but no less important, U.S. military experts have long given too much focus to weapons systems and new technology in Putin’s Russia. Since 2010, the Russian Ministry of Defense has organized annual large-scale exercises with tens of thousands of soldiers, featuring interservice combined-arms maneuvers, showing off the military’s new weapons and equipment, from high-tech personal communications systems to the Zircon scramjet-powered antiship hypersonic cruise missile. Observing these staged events, many Western observers concluded that Russia was building a modern, professional, and effective army. Thus, when Russian forces invaded Ukraine, many assumed that they would quickly subdue the second-largest country in Europe. Few paid close attention to the actual composition, training, and preparedness of Russian troops themselves.
The inherent weaknesses in Russia’s armed forces have much to do with the way that its manpower is organized. In most volunteer-based armies, joining the military generally provides an avenue of social mobility, secure livelihood, and lifelong benefits. Successful recruitment is also highly dependent on the state of the general economy: booming markets tend to make it harder for military recruiters to attract new soldiers. By contrast, conscription is impervious to the vagaries of the economy but, especially in dictatorships such as Russia, is rarely implemented fairly. Sons of the political and business elites and even of upper-middle-class families normally manage to avoid mandatory military service.
The contemporary Russian army relies on a hybrid system of voluntary contractors (kontraktniki) and conscripted soldiers. Although the Russian government would have preferred long ago to transition to an all-volunteer force, which would offer a professional force made up of soldiers who actually wanted to serve, it cannot afford to use volunteers to reach its target of 900,000 to 1,000,000 military professionals—including officers, noncommissioned officers (NCOs), and soldiers. Since Moscow’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, it has needed to step up both the recruitment of paid volunteers and the conscription of draft-age men to satisfy its manpower requirements.
Lacking a critical mass of professionally trained NCOs, Russia is unable to fight effectively.
In the late 2010s, following military reforms, the Russian government set out to hire half a million contract soldiers, which were to be complemented by about 250,000 conscripts. But that number of contractors could not be reached, because salaries, while initially competitive, were quickly eroded by inflation. As economic opportunities improved elsewhere in the Russian economy, military recruiters were pursuing not only fewer but also increasingly less desirable soldiers. By March 2020 the Russian military was made up of approximately 405,000 kontraktniki and 225,000 conscripted soldiers—many of whom were very poorly trained. These figures were unlikely to have significantly changed before the invasion.
The hybrid structure also contributes to one of the enduring weaknesses of the Russian armed forces: the dearth of professional noncommissioned officers. In the world’s best armies, NCOs often serve as the backbone and are responsible for training the troops, operating sophisticated weapons systems, maintaining morale and discipline, and providing a vital link between officers and soldiers. In Russia’s case, however, there are relatively few professional, well-trained NCOs, for which Russia tends to use contractors. Moreover, Russia’s senior officers tend to refuse to delegate authority, robbing their younger colleagues of the chances to develop initiative and leadership qualities. As became clear after the invasion of Ukraine began, without a critical mass of properly trained NCOs Russia was unable to fight effectively. Its soldiers lacked guidance and discipline, and the refusal to delegate authority meant that high-ranking officers—including generals—were actively leading troops to the front, suffering numerous casualties. At least nine Russian generals have been killed in the war so far, an extraordinary number in any modern conflict.
Putin and his generals seem to recognize that the manpower requirements for the current, slow-grinding war of attrition they are fighting in Ukraine can be satisfied only through radical measures. One such step was Putin’s decision in September 2022 to mobilize 300,000 conscripts, many of whom were sent to the front with little training. The Kremlin has also been recruiting soldiers from Kyrgyzstan and other neighboring countries. And it has expanded the age limit for men eligible for the draft. One wonders if these measures will offset the tens of thousands of casualties and the loss of hundreds of thousands of military-age men—including many of the country’s best educated—who have fled since the invasion began. And these constraints come on top of Russia’s already unfavorable demographic trends.
RURAL, POOR, AND OLD
In theory, the volunteer portion of Russia’s armed forces should be strong. As in many other armies, volunteers serve in the military either because they are patriotic and enjoy the military discipline and lifestyle or because they come from socioeconomically disadvantaged groups for whom military service holds benefits that might not otherwise be available. In Russia’s case, however, the latter group has predominated, with the result that participation in the armed forces is highly uneven across the country and that men from rural areas and remote regions are vastly overrepresented. Although there are few signs of the ongoing war in Moscow and St. Petersburg, in faraway and poorer regions of the country the war is an ever-present reality, and it is not uncommon for men in advanced middle age to sign up. As a consequence, a growing portion of the Russian army is well beyond typical fighting age.
Soldiers’ pay has also distorted the composition of the army. To maintain recruitment since the war in Ukraine began, the government has made participation in the armed forces far more lucrative than it was before the invasion. By early 2023, the state was offering up to $2,600 per month for those willing to enlist, a salary that is several times over what ordinary people earn in small-town Russia. These wages are complemented by comprehensive social assistance including housing subsidies, guaranteed placement at universities, and lifelong veteran benefits. In July 2023 Dmitry Medvedev, the deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, announced that 185,000 new recruits had joined the military, although it was unclear if this number included conscripts as well as volunteers.
Meanwhile, Russia has begun a recruitment campaign in Kazakhstan, home to about three million ethnic Russians. But Kazakh leaders have not endorsed Putin’s war, and the country’s laws—like those of other Central Asian republics—forbid its citizens from joining foreign armies. Furthermore, given Kazakhstan’s oil wealth and dynamic economy, it is questionable how many Kazakh citizens would put their lives on the line even for a one-off payment of 495,000 rubles ($5,300) and a monthly salary of at least 190,000 rubles ($2,000). Russian recruiters have targeted men from other Central Asian republics as well, for whom these service contracts are likely to be more enticing. In September 2022, Russia’s rubber-stamp legislature, the Duma, also made it easier for people who serve in the army to obtain Russian citizenship, shortening the service requirement from three years to one year.
It also remains unclear how effective mercenaries have been to the Russian campaign in Ukraine. Following the death of its leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner paramilitary company appears to be no longer a factor in Ukraine, although it remains highly active in Africa, thus aggravating the Russian military’s manpower challenges in Ukraine. The state has now moved to bring other private armies, which have been technically illegal in Russia, under its control. There are several of them, all with close ties to the Kremlin. They ostensibly function as security companies for oligarchs’ oil and gas business empires, but most of them have been fighting in Ukraine. Although mercenaries might be more motivated and effective soldiers, as the Wagner example has shown, they are far less likely to be subordinate to the official military command.
EASY COME, EASY GO
But undisciplined mercenaries and aging volunteers are only part of Russia’s challenge. A significant portion of its current manpower—about one-third—comes from conscripts. New legislation now prohibits military-age men from leaving the country. Draft notices are now sent out electronically and recipients must report to their local recruitment office within 20 days or face harsh penalties (including suspension of one’s driver’s license, ineligibility for bank loans, and a ban on registering real estate). At the same time, eligibility for conscription has been expanded from men between 18 and 27 years of age to men between 18 and 30 years of age, and the Duma has extended the maximum age at which reservists can be mobilized to 55 in the case of junior officers and 70 for the most senior officers.
According to official Russian accounts, these measures have produced the desired results. Thus, the June 2023 call-up supposedly yielded 140,000 conscripts, and volunteers have signed 117,000 new contracts in the first six months of the year. But some analysts, including Russian experts in exile, have estimated that the real numbers are likely far lower, perhaps even less than half of these figures. One indication of the government’s desperation for manpower has been its large-scale use of prison inmates for combat duty—an approach that dates to the Stalin era. In September 2022, Putin opened the way for convicts to join the armed forces in return for commuting their sentences and other potential benefits. According to some estimates, at least 40,000 convicts joined the military in the second half of 2022 alone. Wagner has stated that of the 49,000 former inmates it employed in Ukraine, 20 percent had died on the battlefield. By all accounts, convicts are treated even more severely than regular soldiers, but those who fulfilled their contractual obligations have been allowed to leave as free men.
Another factor that has helped obscure Russia’s actual military strength has been the Kremlin’s apparent lack of concern for casualties. Soviet and Russian political elites have traditionally displayed high tolerance of casualties. Since September 2022, when Putin’s government announced the unrealistically low figure of 5,937 Russian combat deaths, the Kremlin has offered no new data on Russian casualties. Owing to the dearth and unreliability of Russian figures, several Western, Ukrainian, and independent Russian sources have provided their own numbers, which are, by definition, speculative. U.S. officials estimated Russian war dead at 50,000 in May 2023, while the Center for Strategic and International Studies calculated 60,000–70,000 in the first year of war alone. An independent Russian outlet, Mediazona, released what may be the most rigorous and reliable estimate—based largely on inheritance data—and its figures are remarkably close to those of the U.S. government. Mediazona found that approximately 47,000 Russian men had died in Ukraine and an additional 78,000 were wounded so severely that they would be unable to return to combat. In other words, Russia has thus far lost some 125,000 soldiers—nearly equal to the size of its original invading force, and far more men than it has lost in all its other wars since World War II.
Russia has lost far more men in Ukraine than in all its other wars since World War II.
The Russian military’s lackadaisical attitude toward casualties is demonstrated in its general neglect of combat medicine. In the West, major advances have been made in bringing together wounded soldiers and critical care quickly—the so-called golden hour. But in the case of Russia, army doctors have been woefully underequipped and are often able to offer little more than first aid. This helps account for the dramatically lower survival rate of Russian casualties: where Ukraine has a wounded-to-killed ratio of seven to one, for Russia it remains just three to one. Although Russian psychologists have estimated that more than 100,000 veterans will need professional help to cope with mental health disorders, the country maintains just ten veterans’ hospitals, of which only one, with 32 beds, focuses on psychological rehabilitation.
Likely just as damaging to the military’s overall morale is the unequal demographics of who is getting killed. A wildly disproportionate number of those dying have come from the country’s ethnic minorities and rural populations. According to independent news outlets, for every Muscovite who dies fighting this war, more than 87 die who come from Dagestan, Russia’s southernmost republic; 275 who come from Buryatia, a republic in the Russian Far East; and 350 who come from Tuva, home to an Asian minority and Russia’s poorest region. The Kremlin is well aware that its manpower reserves are far greater than Ukraine’s and that dead soldiers can quickly be replaced. As Kusti Salm, Estonia’s deputy defense minister, has put it, “In Russia the life of a soldier is worth nothing.… All lost soldiers can be replaced, and the number of losses will not shift the public opinion against the war.”
RUSSIAN WEAKNESS, WESTERN OPPORTUNITY
The Russian military’s performance in Ukraine has not met the expectations of Western analysts, but those expectations were not based on realistic assumptions. Those who assessed the Russian military holistically, however, would hardly have been shocked at the low morale, poor training, and general sloppiness of its soldiers (evidenced even in such seemingly minor and yet consequential lapses as underinflating their military vehicles’ tires). Underlying these specific issues are the deep-seated despotism that underscores Russian military politics and the pervasive corruption that has sapped the strength of its armed forces.
The enduring misperception among Western analysts and officials of Russia’s military strength has serious consequences. In the early phases of the current war, it may well have tempered the support in Western capitals that Ukraine has so desperately needed. Uncritical acceptance of reports and data emanating from Moscow encouraged many to believe in the inevitability of Russia’s eventual victory. Yet the effectiveness of Russia’s troops is unlikely to improve as the war grinds on. Putin’s upcoming meeting with Kim Jong Un to discuss the possibility of North Korea supplying Moscow with arms may be a sign that the Kremlin is not optimistic about its ability to arm its soldiers with the weapons they need. By recognizing and ignoring Russian propaganda and instead studying and identifying the actual vulnerabilities of Russia’s military, the United States and its allies may be able to develop new and better approaches that could allow them to help Ukraine prevail and to hasten the end of the war, just as the United States did with the Soviets’ war in Afghanistan.