Ukraine: How Russia Got It Wrong



You’ll all be familiar with those “how it started: how it’s going now” photograph posts on social media, usually signalling an abject mistake by some poor benighted soul or organisation. Yes, I’m bored with them too, but if any one event deserves such treatment I can think of a no more deserving recipient than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The failure of Russia’s attack on Ukraine has been well documented elsewhere and I’m not going to repeat it all again here. However, what I do want to cover is why Russia has got it all so badly wrong. The list of reasons is almost endless, but here are some of the major ones here.

The cardinal sin above all others for Russia was not having unity of command. When the invasion started in February last year and Russian troops advanced into Ukraine on multiple axes, it appeared that there was no overall commander of the forces deployed. Consequently there was no coordination of effort and each separate advance had its own command group making decisions with scant attention to what was going on elsewhere.

This proved to be a recipe for disaster and could have been predicted from the outset. After the initial reverses some semblance of a logical, hierarchical command structure was imposed, and various commanders came and went until the appointment of General Valery Gerasimov, chief of the Russian general staff, as its overall commander for the war in Ukraine.

But even now tensions remain between the regular armed forces, the Wagner Group “private army”, and the separatist militias in the Donbas. There are, for example, continuing petty squabbles among these groups over responsibilities, supplies, and control. Indeed, the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with close links to Putin, threatened that if he pulled his men out the Russian front line would collapse.

The next biggest cardinal sin has been underestimating their enemy. The Russians, and indeed most western observers too, thought that the Ukrainians would quickly capitulate and allow Putin’s men to advance on Kyiv, decapitate Zelensky’s government, and impose their own puppet administration.

How wrong they were! As everyone now knows, the Ukrainians have proved to be doughty fighters. Far from rolling over in the face of overwhelming Russian superiority they fought back ferociously, stunning their enemy and even winning back large tracts of territory initially occupied by the invaders. The UkrAF continue with their defiance and courage to this day.

Almost as bad as this, Putin completely overestimated the competence of his own military. The Russian armed forces, long touted as a first order military to be respected and feared by others, has proved to be thoroughly inept. In particular they have been seen to be unable to carry out combined arms operations at any level, when tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers plus air power are expected to mesh like an orchestra.

This inability has been compounded by there being no obvious mechanism for delegated decision making to a junior level. Unlike western armies, the Russian army does not have the tradition of a strong NCO core which, in the British army at least, is often called the backbone of the army. Accordingly Russian junior officers are often required to carry out what we would regard as NCO tasks, and the room to deviate from orders from above are virtually non-existent.

Finally, initially anyway, Putin underestimated the response of the west. His sabre rattling and threats of nuclear escalation did not overly trouble the USA and its NATO allies, and his bluff was called. Albeit slowly and perhaps reluctantly at first, the west has weighed in behind Ukraine and has supplied it with vast amounts of weaponry, materiel, and training support. To this influx of supplies from the west Russia has no answer.

It’s also increasingly clear that Putin and the Russians have no Plan B. So confident they seemed to be that it would all be over in a matter of weeks, if not days, that they seem not to have planned for any rebuff. So that is why we are now seeing just more of the same; more missile attacks on civilian infrastructure (while stocks last), more human wave attacks around Bakhmut and elsewhere.

Putin has clearly forgotten, if he ever knew, the old military adage that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. His plan, whatever it might have been, clearly didn’t. His ill-judged military adventure into the territory of his neighbour will come back to haunt him in due course,

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his newsletters at


Tank CommanderLt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now

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