Why Are the Russian Forces Fighting in Ukraine So Primitive?

The supreme-leader model of autocratic regimes tends to produce militaries whose primary function is to impress, not win wars

Losing equipment. A column of Russian military vehicles was abandoned not far from Kharkiv, Mar. 6, 2022. Image Credit: Sergey Bobok/Getty Images

Since the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, we have watched the backwardness of the Russian forces with increasing amazement and disbelief. The fields of command, computerization and network-centric warfare are absolutely essential to modern warfighting, but Russia, despite developing some advanced systems, has demonstrated mastery of none of them.

During the Ukraine campaign, there has been little evidence of computerized data exchange or use of digital maps—not even military GPS/Glonass navigation—among Russian forces, with a few exceptions. The whole Russian command system seems based on traditional WWII-era voice communication, little of which is even encrypted, let alone jam-resistant. Most communications have been so open that anybody with a commercial scanner could listen in.

Even at higher echelons, analog radios are common. Command vehicles have map tables marked with colored grease pencils. Most communication is conducted by voice, occasionally by Morse key and most rarely by SMS-like text messages.

The result has been an absolute botch of what many calculated would be a “special military operation” with just five days of actual fighting. Losses in men and equipment have been high and morale has been low, with Russian soldiers often abandoning equipment when lost or out of fuel. Photos of Ukrainian tractors towing away expensive Russian armored vehicles and air-defense systems have become an early symbolic image of resistance and an enduring source of humor.

The widespread communications breakdown has required high-level Russian commanders to frequently visit the front and issue commands in person. As a result, 12 Russian generals have been reported killed to date, plus any number of command-grade officers of lesser rank.

More to the point, Russia has been forced to abandon its initial goal of seizing the government in Kyiv and reorganizing Ukraine to its liking. Instead, Russia has repositioned its forces to expand and secure its position in the Donbas region in the east and beyond Crimea in the south. It remains to be seen whether narrowing the conflict to more constrained fronts will be within Russia’s command-and-control capabilities.

No Status in Electronics

The big question is: Why has Russia’s approach to its war in Ukraine been so primitive, even by its own standards? Russia’s technical means are highly regarded around the world, at least on paper; defense industry exhibitions and export arms catalogues show plenty of high-technology electronic warfare and command-and-control systems for sale. Where are these systems in the Russian order of battle?

The inescapable answer is that the Russian armed forces’ primary mission is to convey the regime’s power and prestige, not demonstrate battlefield effectiveness. Tanks and missile launchers can be proudly shown off during a Red Square parade, but what about a digitized command, control, communications, computer and information (C4I) network? Can it be shown? Can it be demonstrated as a source of power to overawe neighbors and potential enemies? Will it impress the foreign journalists and observers? If not, the Russian leadership seems not to care about it.

So, despite the fact that Russian industry has developed networked battle management systems that could meet some battlefield requirements, the production and fielding of those systems is very slow. As a result, Russia’s armed forces bristle with tanks, missile launchers, fighter bombers and cruisers but function at dramatically reduced levels of efficiency and effectiveness. Experts at the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute think tank wrote, “The seemingly parlous state of [Russian] communications creates an opportunity for Ukrainian forces. Lax communications discipline and deficient COMSEC/TRANSEC can be exploited by Ukrainian EW cadres.” (COMSEC is a military term for secure (encrypted) communications, while TRANSEC is secure data transfer.) In other words, the primitive nature of Russia’s attack forces makes them vulnerable.

Off-the-Shelf Corruption

Another reason for the primitive state of Russian forces is that corruption afflicts much of the fielding of key equipment. This means that the newest systems are introduced formally but do not work as advertised—or at all. (Pentagon procurement is also an offender in this regard.) Systems may finally be made useful in service to some degree, yet even after years have passed, what was promised in proposals to meet original requirements does not exist in the field.

This military, political and contractor corruption has been with us since war involved militaries, politicians and contractors. Yet it is particularly problematic in autocratic, oligarchical Russia, where there is very little effective government oversight and no transparency whatsoever.

Additionally, many modern electronic systems blocks are simply stolen and sold, perhaps for components or even copper scrap. While the idea that uniformed servicepeople would steal equipment for their own enrichment at the cost of war effectiveness might be amusing in “Kelly’s Heroes,” it is anathema to a modern, functioning military, where vehicle numbers are much lower than they were historically.

“You can easily count the number of tanks supposedly in Russia’s inventory,” says Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College, London, contrasting Russia’s current tank total with the vast multitudes fielded in WWII. “When you consider that half of them aren’t working properly, or have been cannibalized or had parts sold off by corrupt sergeants, they don’t even look that impressive.”

Some Russian combat vehicles abandoned or damaged in Ukraine were found to be missing standard electronics blocks, which had clearly been removed long before combat operations. One video showed that the latest-model digital radio had been removed from a captured T-72 tank and replaced with an old vacuum tube radio. A widely reported example of Russian defense procurement is a downed Orlan 10 unmanned aerial vehicle reconnaissance system, in which a commercial Canon camera was found in place of a military electro-optical sensor. This has become another type of COTS equipment—not “commercial off-the-shelf,” but “camera out of the supermarket.”

All this is unsurprising when corruption is all-encompassing at every level, as seems to be the case in Putin’s Russia. Thomas Withington, a military analyst at the U.K.’s Royal United Services Institute specializing in electronic warfare, said in the Economist that corruption is endemic and that it’s doubtful whether the Russian procurement system is as efficient as its Western counterparts. “The Azart [radio] project was embroiled in a scandal when supposedly Russian-made components were found to have been imported from China. About a third of the total procurement budget of 18.5 billion rubles (around US$240m at the time) was allegedly embezzled.”

It’s Not Just the Technology, It’s How You Use It

A further obstacle to effective communication is that the Russian equipment used by different units varies from generation to generation. Some units have the newest digital radios enabling data transfer, voice communications and a frequency-hopping ability to reduce enemy jamming and surveillance threats. Others have older, analog solid-state systems that at least enable reliable voice connections. This disparity in technological capability is true of every military. But well-trained and motivated militaries can make these systems work.

In this case, however, Russia’s enemies are better trained, paid and motivated than its own forces and also possess the latest technology that, if not untainted by procurement corruption, is demonstrably better than Russia’s own. NATO’s military forces use such coordinated systems. In Poland, for example, troops are commanded by the Jaśmin digital network-central-warfare system that enables coordination through all levels of battlefield command.

Russia’s problem is that it faces a Ukrainian military with a superior command-and-control structure because Ukraine is listening to the West. Nothing has made Ukraine more Western-looking than the Russian invasion. Russia’s problem is that, despite NATO’s flaws, it clearly fields a better fighting system.

Russia, China and the West

Though it’s tempting to lump all authoritarian regimes together, probably the situation is different in the People’s Republic of China. The People’s Revolutionary Army clearly love computers, networks and electronics. There is a different, digitally oriented mentality among the PRC’s leadership. The Chinese “digital triangle” approach is facilitated by a combination of a techno-nationalist development strategy, high-level bureaucratic coordination and significant fiscal support from national five-year plans. The main requirements of China’s national technological evolution were already set in the 1990s and are based on a firm commitment to digital technology.

The information technology and digital revolution in China’s military forces is ongoing but well recognized, and seems to be much more advanced than in Russia. Chinese military personnel seem better trained, better motivated and much more disciplined than Russia’s military personnel. If they are as well coordinated by effective C4I networks, then the PLA might present a much more challenging threat to the West than incompetent Russian military forces.

However, are autocratic, leader-centric countries such as Russia and China able to fully explore the advantages of network-centric warfare? Are they ready to incorporate initiative from low-level commanders? Are they ready for decentralized decision-making? It seems the answer, so far, is no—which is good news for Ukraine and the West.

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