Why Has the Russian Military Effort in Ukraine Been So Disastrous?

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 was followed by a cripplingly cynical outlook for the smaller nation’s future. With the second largest military in the world—consisting of 700,000 more active military personnel than Ukraine along with hundreds more aircrafts and helicopters—many believed that Russia’s invasion would be quick and efficient. But after a month and a half of warfare, Ukraine has proven itself able to withstand the might of Russia’s military, leaving many around the world to wonder how such a feat could be possible. 

While the Ukrainian military has undoubtedly proven itself to be a strong force, the ineptitude of the Russian military has played a significant role in making their victories possible. A series of tactical and logistical failures by their leaders astounded military professionals and humiliated Russian President Vladimir Putin. From the first hour of the invasion, Russian troops botched almost every move, leaving their troops vulnerable to Ukrainians who were able to strategically and forcefully overpower them.

The failures of the Russian military started before troops were even deployed. According to Russian soldiers (now prisoners of war), they had not been informed that they would be invading their neighboring country. Rather, some testified that they believed they were participating in military exercises or were simply being sent to the Donbas region. Without the time to prepare themselves for the psychological reality of warfare, Russian soldiers were unsurprisingly caught off guard when Ukrainian troops opened fire on them. This, combined with a high number of casualties, tanked Russian morale in the first few days of the war while simultaneously boosting that of the Ukrainians. 

Logistical failures, such as underestimating the amount of necessary supplies to sustain troops and vehicles, resulted in a 40-mile-long traffic jam of armored vehicles, tanks and towed artillery north of Kyiv. Strategic attacks on certain parts of the convoy by Ukrainian forces also played a role in its slowdown. The stalling resulted in other parts of Moscow’s advance being delayed, due in part to the convoy’s purpose being (at least partially) to replenish supplies for troops. 

Evidence also suggests that Russia did not ration its munitions supplies correctly. On March 19, Jonathan Beale, a defense correspondent for the BBC, reported that Russia had already fired between 850 to 900 long-range precision munitions, which are much more difficult to replace than unguided weapons.

Although Russia’s military was far less prepared to invade Ukraine than they should have been, Ukraine also had its fair share of errors in the time leading up to the invasion. Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at the Center for Naval Analyses and an expert on the Russian military, stated, “I don’t think [Ukraine] took the threat of this cataclysmic event or this Russian invasion seriously enough, early enough. I think they started final preparations for this war very late into the game. I think that, if the Ukrainian political leadership had given up the narrative that this is a case of economic coercion and took much more seriously the American warnings that Russia did intend to follow through on this war, they would have been in a much better position earlier on.”

Kofman noted that Ukraine would have been much worse off had Russia not bungled the early stages of their operation, thus giving Ukrainians much-needed time to readjust and prepare to defend their homeland.

Kofman also stated that a large reason for the failure of the Russian invasion was that it was founded largely on political assumptions that nothing in Ukraine had changed since 2014, when Russia was able to annex Crimea. Allegedly, Moscow believed that they would simply be able to carry out a larger version of their 2014 operation, and that Ukrainians would not have the strength or willpower to fight back against the superior Russian army. 

Another faulty assumption by the Kremlin was that President Volodymyr Zelensky would flee Ukraine to save his life. However, Zelensky shocked both Russia and the world when he elected to stay not just in Ukraine, but in Kyiv, where the bulk of the fighting was expected to take place. In response to an offer of evacuation to the United States, the wartime president stated, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

Zelensky has remained in Kyiv to aid in the wartime effort despite the capital being Russia’s primary target. Additionally, more failures by the Russian military have resulted in their not only failing to capture the city, but being forced into a humiliating retreat by the Ukrainians. 

The failure of the Russian military to even surround—much less capture—Kyiv is mystifying, even for experts. One of the primary targets for Russian forces was Antonov airport, mostly due to its strategic location—a mere 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) outside of Kyiv. If the Russians had been successful, it would have served as a landing pad for additional troops and cargo as well as a critical launching site for the airborne forces necessary to invade urban areas. However, the Russian military’s effort to hold Antonov airport proved to be disastrous, and sources confirmed that Ukrainian forces had regained control of the airport by April 2. Despite this early loss, Russia tried hastily to complete its operation, sending a small force directly into Kyiv to topple the government.

Fortunately for the Ukrainian military, the Russians were neither equipped nor prepared to undergo urban warfare. Because they had failed to hold the airport, tanks and armored vehicles entering the capital did not have the necessary air support they needed. Ukraine’s air defenses were thus easily able to take out several Russian vehicles, forcing them into retreat. The urban setting, along with failure to coordinate by Russian military officials, also helped mitigate the discrepancies brought about by the differences in size of Russia and Ukraine’s militaries. 

After their retreat, Russia resorted to encircling Kyiv to cut off Ukrainian supply lines. When this strategy failed, troops were forced to once again consider entering Kyiv. However, the limited number of major routes leading into the city made the Russians’ next moves predictable. Ukrainian forces doubled down on their efforts to attack major roads and bridges that spanned the length of the Dnipro river, which bisects the city. They resorted to blowing up bridges to prevent Russian vehicles from getting to the western side. Vitaly Skakun Volodymyrovych, a marine battalion engineer, sacrificed his life to manually detonate a bomb on the Henichesk bridge to prevent the advance of Russian tanks.

The detonation of bombs over bridges and dams also resulted in extreme flooding in areas north of Kyiv, further restricting the movement of Russian convoys.

Now that Russian forces have withdrawn from Kyiv, the capital is starting to revitalize. The security situation has improved so much that on April 9, President Zelensky walked through the middle of the city with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

While the Ukrainian military has had rousing success thus far, it is clear that the humiliation Putin now faces is driving him to enact more extreme measures, with the direct targeting of citizens in Mariupol being one of the prime examples. Now seven weeks into the war, Russia has put General Alexander Dvornikov in charge of operations. His track record worries many who support Ukraine—previously, he led Russia’s operations in Syria, where the United Nations has accused them of committing war crimes. Russia is already facing accusations for war crimes in Ukraine via the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, making the appointment of Dvornikov an especially odious event.

With Dvornikov now in charge of the Russian war effort, Ukrainians are preparing for a new wave of attacks. Dvornikov has a history of leveling Syrian cities to crush resistance, and with air strikes continuing to kill civilians, there is plenty of reason to be worried.

Still, many Ukrainians remain hopeful and defiant in the face of Russian forces. According to a March 1 poll by local research group Rating Group, 88% of Ukrainians believe that they will be able to repel the Russian attacks, and 90% feel hopeful when they think about the situation. President Zelensky has also seen his approval rating skyrocket since the start of the war, with a rating of over 90% in Western Ukraine and over 80% in Eastern and Southern Ukraine—traditionally areas that prefer candidates favored by Russia. Stanislav Aseyev, a journalist who spent two years enduring abuse in a Russian-backed separatist prison, stated, “We are more willing to die than to give up or lose. And that is why the Russian Federation has already lost in this war.”