Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Six days before the invasion of Ukraine, a small group of Russian soldiers huddled together in their tents in Belarus. One of them had covertly acquired a smartphone—barred by the military—and together, the group logged on to Western news sites. There, they read a story that shocked them: according to Western intelligence reports, Russia was about to invade its neighbor.
One of the soldiers called his mother in shock about what he had read. She told him it was only Western propaganda, and that there would be no war. She was wrong. Five days later, on the eve of the invasion, the soldiers’ commanders revealed they would invade Ukraine. The commanders also threatened to charge their subordinates with desertion if they didn’t come along. “Mom, they put us in cars, we are leaving,” the soldier told his mother in a call before the unit moved across the border. “I love you, if there is a funeral [for me], don’t believe it right away, check for yourself.” She hasn’t heard from him since, and despite pleas for information, the military authorities have provided her with no updates. (Eventually, she went to the press.)
Despite its sophisticated military equipment and multiple advantages on paper, Russia has stumbled strategically, operationally, and tactically in Ukraine. It has been hampered by faulty planning assumptions, unrealistic timelines, and impractical objectives. It has suffered from inadequate supplies, bad logistics, and insufficient force protection. It has been impaired by poor leadership. These problems do not stop at technical equipment issues, poor training, or corruption. Rather, they are linked by a core underlying theme: the military’s lack of concern for the lives and well-being of its personnel. In Ukraine, the Russian military struggles to retrieve the bodies of its dead, obscures casualties, and is indifferent to its worried military families. It may spend billions of dollars on new equipment, but it does not properly treat soldiers’ injuries, and it generally does not appear to care tremendously whether troops are traumatized.
This culture of indifference to its personnel fundamentally compromises the Russian military’s efficacy, no matter how extensively it has been modernized. In the United States, a good soldier is a happy soldier, one that’s properly fed, paid, and treated with respect. But the Russian high command behaves as if its troops are an afterthought, making tactical decisions as if it can simply throw people at poorly designed objectives until it succeeds. This is a self-defeating attitude that both lowers troops’ morale and degrades combat effectiveness. The results are plain to see.
The Russian military has a long history of mistreating its personnel and their frightened families. During the Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan, many conscripts were not informed ahead of time that they were being sent to into combat. When they died or disappeared, Soviet authorities were curt and dismissive to grieving parents, particularly mothers who organized to get answers. In the 1990s, the Russian military sent unprepared conscripts to Chechnya for grueling urban warfare in cities such as Grozny. Many of these troops were killed, wounded, or captured. Soldiers’ mothers looking to secure the release of their imprisoned children often pleaded with base commanders for help, only to be ignored. Many mothers traveled directly to Chechnya to find their sons and occasionally brokered deals or arranged prisoner swaps with Chechen militant groups for their release. In 2014, when Russia secretly sent forces into eastern Ukraine, military families were again bullied or lied to about the status and circumstances of their sons. Some, for example, were told their sons died in training accidents in Russia instead of in eastern Ukraine.
This culture of disregard has clearly extended to Russia’s latest invasion. Had excessive operational security not trumped force protection, for instance, the military could have better prepared and trained the force for the kinds of grinding, urban battles they were certain to face. But because it was worried about leaks, the Russian military kept its plans a secret to almost all of the military (or at least to the rank and file), jeopardizing readiness and handicapping itself. Similarly, if Moscow wanted to avoid high casualties, it would not have proceeded with the same strategy once it became clear that Western intelligence had uncovered and published its invasion plans. But the Kremlin proceeded with the war as planned, sending its troops to face off against Ukrainian forces that were, in some cases, lying in wait.
Indeed, it’s difficult to make sense of Russia’s preinvasion strategy unless one assumes that operational security trumps all and that soldiers are easily expendable. Commanders engaged in abstract war planning inside the Ministry of Defense’s headquarters might logically conclude that they should invade through the Chernobyl exclusion zone because, on a map, it is the most direct and undefended route from Belarus to Kyiv. But if they cared about their troops, they could have taken a different path—or at least prepared their soldiers for what was an incredibly hazardous task. Instead, according to workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant, Russia sent its troops through the zone without protective gear to shield them from the radioactive dust kicked up by hundreds of their military vehicles. It didn’t tell the soldiers occupying the plant about the significance of their deployment. And it had its forces dig vehicle revetments deep into some of the most irradiated soil on earth, where troops reportedly lived for a month before growing sick and being medically evacuated.
Soldiers have called home to say they were considering shooting themselves so they could leave.
Radiation poisoning is a particularly extreme example of how the Russian military’s mistreatment of troops undermines its fighting capacity. But there are plenty of others. Soldiers became affected with frostbite thanks to poor planning and then were treated by Russian medics with 44-year-old field dressings. Some Russian commanders simply disappeared in combat zones, leaving their subordinates with no shelter, food, or water. The military sent expired field rations to some troops, not enough field rations to others, and field kitchen trucks filled with bags of potatoes, pickles, and oatmeal, most of which rotted within a few days.
The Russian military’s disregard for its soldiers has done more than undermine their combat performance. It has also tanked their morale and will to fight. Officers steal the contents of care packages so routinely that some soldiers have called their mothers and told them not to bother sending anything. Officials forget to pay soldiers their entitled combat pay, and units abandon the bodies of the fallen. It is little wonder, then, that some Russian troops simply melted away from the conflict, deserting fully functional modernized equipment in Ukrainian fields. Other soldiers have called their mothers to tell them they were considering shooting themselves in the leg so they could leave.
With discipline and morale faltering, Russian troops began looting what they could from Ukraine and shipping it back home—including washing machines, frying pans, televisions from Ukrainian schools, and even used mascara. They raided Ukrainian convenience stores for meat, cigarettes, and alcohol. When they ran out of food from markets, they stole it (along with livestock) directly from Ukrainian people. According to intercepted phone calls released by Ukraine’s intelligence services, some Russian soldiers have even eaten dogs.
Given how the Russian military mistreats its own personnel, it is also no surprise that Russian soldiers have engaged in widespread crimes. None of this is justifiable, and in multiple Ukrainian villages and cities, Russian troops have engaged in unspeakable atrocities—including torture, rape, and executions. But the fish rots from the head, and rather than showing concern about these abuses or issuing directives ordering them to stop, the Kremlin bestowed an honorific title on one of the units accused of committing atrocities in Bucha.
It will be nearly impossible for the Russian military to fix its internal cultural problem during this war. Indeed, even when the invasion ends, it will be difficult for the Russian military to reform, as it did in the aftermath of its five-day war against Georgia in 2008. That’s because, unlike with the Georgian war, Moscow cannot blame old equipment; the problem lies with the decision-makers and their decisions, and these individuals have not admitted that the military still has a systemic personnel maltreatment problem. The current leaders of the Russian military may even have been willing to actively overlook systemic personnel maltreatment as long as it was kept quiet, rubles flowed into the defense budget, and weapons procurement continued as planned. Russia’s top commanders are not apolitical warrior-scholars; they earned their positions by understanding that loyalty is more important than speaking truth to power. They approved the invasion plan despite all its clear flaws, the most obvious being that it could stretch the professional fighting force to the point of breaking. There is no ready follow-on force to relieve the 190,000 troops Russia committed to this war, which means the troops will fight until exhaustion unless the Kremlin declares a mass mobilization.
The Russian military does, of course, understand that losing soldiers makes it harder to win wars. The Kremlin in particular is very sensitive to casualties, and much like in wars past, it has gone to great lengths to obscure them. To that end, Russia has classified discussions of military deaths since 2015. Currently, Russian officials are stonewalling frightened families in search of news about their children. Some parents have been told that there is no information about their sons or that such information is secret. Others have been routed through an endless series of phone numbers as they hunt for updates, where some are accused of “hysterics.” Parents have even traveled to bases and hospitals directly for information about missing children, only to be rebuffed. The father of a conscript who disappeared aboard the sunken Moskva cruiser, for instance, went to the naval base in the Black Sea to ask where his son was. The local commander replied with a shrug: “Well, somewhere at sea.”
These struggles have not stopped desperate Russian parents from continuing to look, and they have gleaned information in other ways—via informal networks, social media, or even the Ukrainian government, which has offered to release some soldiers if their mothers come to take them. Other mothers, continuing a tragic tradition started in Afghanistan, Chechnya, and in Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, plan to take it upon themselves to travel to war zones to find their sons and bring them home. But these mothers’ hard work does not mean the military will correct course. Indeed, the current political climate in Russia is now perhaps even less likely to tolerate collective protests from soldiers’ families than it was in the late 1980s and 1990s. New legislation is stifling unwanted narratives about the military, and the Russian authorities are working harder than ever to suppress individuals who say anything about the war that deviates from the official line—including by expressing unauthorized grief.
For now, this may allow the Russian military to resist change. But the long run is less certain. The Russian military stands to lose much more than the thousands of pieces of equipment that have been destroyed. The Russian military's experiment in having professional enlisted personnel is almost 20 years old. Its success relies on the prestige of military service and social trust that the Ministry of Defense worked to achieve through a series of new policies, benefits, and improved service conditions. Feeding the country’s young men into what U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin recently called a “wood chipper” undermines that contract, and it does not bode well for future recruiting and retention. It is still too soon to tell how much jeopardy the professional enlisted program is in, but Russian men who would have otherwise joined Russia’s professional military might stop signing up. The country still has conscripts, but if the invasion’s popularity sags as the war drags on, Russian families may return to the old ways of keeping their sons away from the draft, such as through bribes or by hiding them domestically or abroad. The military may then have no choice but to change its personnel culture, but it will be too late to achieve its larger aims in Ukraine. It will also be too late to save the thousands of troops being carelessly sacrificed for Russia’s attempt at conquest.
Russia’s Attack on Ukraine Is a Case Study in Bad Strategy