Russia has built itself up as a dominant military superpower since the 1700s. Aside from the United States, Russia’s military was seen as one of the most feared in military history—that was until their total invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

The War in Ukraine has been nothing short of a disaster for Russia. Wanting to demilitarize Kyiv and force it into vassalage and its more affluent regions into annexation, Moscow’s imperial goals have faltered as Ukraine is now even more armed, willing to fight to the death, and has been given a path of NATO membership post-war

The Aura of its Military Prowess

Ever since the end of the Second World War, the world has feared Russia’s capabilities and vast resources that it could use to wage wars on multiple fronts akin to battles against Germany and Japan in 1945. So when the Soviet Union disbanded, the Kremlin worked hard to maintain its aura out of fear by displaying military prowess against former vassal states who dared to defy them.

Russia’s once-feared military has been under question and, at times, mocked. Where the world feared the nation in conflicts in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, Russia’s prowess has faded in Ukraine.

Chechnya

The First Chechen War was a disaster for the Russian military, which was still recovering from the reconstitution of forces instead of a demographic shift post-Soviet dissolution. But, on the other hand, the Chechens, who the highly competent Dzhokhar Dudayev led, were organized and prepared for Russia, as the latter had studied and served under the Soviets.

President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the military parade in Red Square, Moscow (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons). Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Vladimir_Putin_(2022-05-09)_02.jpg
President of Russia Vladimir Putin at the military parade in Red Square, Moscow (Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons). Source: Wiki

The Second Chechen War favored Moscow from its onset. Dudayev was assassinated after the first war, and the Kremlin was able to bribe Chechen warlords, such as the Kadyrov family, who betrayed their independence movement for monetary rewards and power.

Chechnya, which the international community considered part of Russia’s backyard, was doomed. Putin had used carpet bombing tactics, knowing free Chechens wouldn’t receive air defense systems or international support, turning Grozny into the most destroyed city on earth in its time.

Georgia

Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia worked due to failed geopolitics and communication between Tbilisi and NATO. Putin had taken a gamble that NATO would not send military aid to Georgia, and Georgia was geographically small with a key terrain that favored Russian Forces.

Indeed, NATO did not come to the aid of Tbilisi, and their path to membership was shut down by Germany and France in 2008. Then President Bush’s appeasement to Putin was the green light the Russian autocrat needed, and Georgia’s Armed Forces were in a degraded state akin to Ukraine’s in 2014, making a quick victory for Moscow.

Syria

During the height of the Syrian Civil War, the Assad regime was cornered between rebel groups and Islamist organizations such as al-Nusra and ISIS. Despite interventions from Iran and Hezbollah, the Syrian army was highly incapable and requested intervention from Russia.

Russia’s intervention in Syria was cunning and brutal. The first operation of Russian Forces was striking the more moderate rebel organizations in Homs and Hama province, leaving the hardline groups intact. This method was calculated as it went the in

international community with two choices—either back the brutal but secular dictator in Assad or the genocidal terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or ISIS.

The strategy was akin to Assad’s original tactics during the early stages of the civil war. Then, from the notorious Sednaya prison in Damascus, Assad released hundreds of hardline Islamists under “amnesty.” The strategy was to allow them to reign terror and massacre Syrians—effectively hijacking the revolution and giving the Baathists more legitimacy in their campaign to consolidate and not cede power.

 

With the rebels not having a trusted Western partner, they were left on their own, allowing Russian and Syrian Forces to pick them off, especially with barrel bombs and ‘double tapping’ strikes. Along with calling bluff over Washington’s red lines on chemical weapons usage, Moscow became ever more emboldened.

2014 Ukraine

Utilizing energy such as Nordstream to manipulate European politics and taking a gamble on lukewarm red lines by NATO over Georgia, the Russian military would take advantage of Ukraine’s Revolution and the state of their armed forces. Sending unmarked green troops, Russia took over and annexed Crimea with minimal casualties. This was due to the horrid condition of Ukraine’s military and mass defections to the Russian side.

Ukraine’s tumultuous state of its military would be seen when Russian Special Forces, alongside the FSB, ignited the War in Donbas after the Crimea invasion. Here, Moscow took advantage of a disorganized Kyiv and laid the groundwork for the eventual full-fledged invasion in 2022.

A Disastrous 2022 Invasion

Overconfidence, arrogance, and poor intelligence ultimately led Putin to invade Ukraine fully—something the Russian military was clearly unprepared for. Invading during the mud season saw Moscow lose an incalculable amount of armor and artillery, with disastrous military losses at Hostomel and the Kyiv Suburbs.

Victories in Mariupol and Severodonetsk were ultimately pyrrhic as Ukraine’s attrition warfare made Russia’s manpower combat ineffective to where the Ukrainian Armed Forces made strides in the occupied territory such as Kharkiv and Kherson. Russia’s elite naval infantry brigade was reconstructed on several occasions due to catastrophic losses. Their elite paratroopers (VDV) have been ineffective throughout the conflict, and most Spetsnaz has been killed and wounded in action to where it could take years or decades to replenish and retrain elite special operation forces.

Inside the Russian Military and Why it’s Now Faltering

When Vladimir Putin reconstituted the Russian military, he turned the mighty bear into a completely ‘yes man’ fighting force. Like any other hardline autocrat in history, Putin feared a military coup or uprising against his rule and put inexperienced and undisciplined loyalists in charge who would never openly disagree with him (i.e., Shoigu and Gerasimov).

Unlike Western militaries, Russia does not have a valuable or structured NCO corps where enlisted can execute tasks without officer oversight. As a result, inexperienced junior officers do not have a say over their bureaucratic field commanders. This has led to disastrous effects such as the catastrophic Battle of Vuhledar and HIMARS strikes, where conscripts were crowded in barracks full of ammunition and fuel.

There is also the difference between Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, and Ukraine from 2014 to Ukraine to today—modern-day Russia was not prepared for a competent military with adequate leadership and unit cohesion. This country would not accept Russians as “brothers” and a Churchill-Esq wartime leadershMoreover, the transformation of Ukraine from its novice Soviet doctrine to a more Western style of warfare has caught Russia’s Ministry of Defense off-guard.

Training, which started under the United Kingdom in 2014, gave Kyiv ample time to prepare for a full-scale invasion, as seen with extensive fortifications in cities in the Kyiv suburbs and the Donbas region. However, Putin had kept invasion plans in a close-knit circle, in which most deployed forces did not know they were preparing for war until the last moment. This also played a significant role as field and junior officers could not play meticulously as they were not given objectives until the final few days before February 24th, 2022.

No longer having the aura of military invincibility and desperate to have a favorable settlement on their terms in Ukraine, Russia has self-inflicted wounds on its military that will not recover for several decades. Becoming self-arrogant against more handicapped opponents in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, Ukraine is the first competent military Russia has faced since Germany in World War Two. Unlike Germany, invading Ukraine was not an existential crisis, but Moscow made it into one by overestimating their capabilities.