Some thoughts on the Russian army

(To Renato Scarfi)

The war (because this is what it is) in Ukraine, if on the one hand it took many observers by surprise, on the other hand it allowed to know better the real operational capabilities of the Russian army. Not only that, beyond the obvious problems of the logistic chain, mercilessly highlighted during the Russian military campaign, an army was presented to the attention of international commentators which, with the exception of some elite units, fails to be as effective as us. despite the large disparity in numbers and equipment, he expected what appeared to be an overwhelming Russian military force.

Since the beginning of the conflict we have been flooded with information regarding convoys blocked, soldiers deserting leaving their equipment on the ground, vehicles that were abandoned because they ran out of fuel, soldiers wandering hungry due to the lack of adequate supplies of food, generals killed because their location was discovered by listening to cell phone communications. An overall situation that contradicted the consolidated studies of the sector. As a result, many have wondered whether the army that emerged from the reports was really the army that for decades had been rated as the strongest in the world or whether what emerged from the envoys' narrative was the fruit of the propaganda of war.

Some objective facts of the war campaign, however, are there for all to see. The Kremlin hoped to conclude military operations quickly, assuming a weak and chaotic Ukrainian resistance, even absent in some areas, and assuming a widespread friendly attitude on the part of the population. Instead, contrary to Russian expectations, the resistance turned out to be organized, well armed and determined, both by the Ukrainian regular army and by the forces of volunteers and reservists enlisted in much of the country.

The Russian strategy has therefore passed from Blitzkrieg to a carpet bombing war, with a series of gruesome urban sieges to weaken the morale of the defenders. In essence, destroy Ukraine rather than subdue it. A few days ago there was a progressive retreat of Russian forces, which concentrated in the eastern part of the Ukrainian territory and along the coastal strip on the Azov and Black Seas.

At the heart of the matter seems to be a lack of coordination, planning and, above all, training among the Russian forces, which are largely made up of poorly trained or motivated young people. A conduct of the fighting that has so far proved far from what was believed "... a disciplined and sophisticated force ... that today can face the global context with a new character, a strengthened status and abilities unthinkable a few years ago ..."i. An army that, therefore, has not so far turned out to be the war machine it was thought to be.

In spite of what Putin said, moreover, from the beginning of the military operations, personnel were also employed who, with their poor skills, would not seem professional.

Why these difficulties?

Personnel of the Russian army

In the early nineties of the last century, the fall of the Berlin Wall revealed to the world a neglected, impoverished and inefficient Russian army because, for the most part, structurally and technologically obsolete. After many difficulties in 2003, the then Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, to make enlistments more attractive and revive a prostrate army, launched reforms that allowed personnel to no longer live up to their means ... of survival. These reforms also aimed to create a smaller, but more modern, professional and highly mobile army capable of responding adequately to regional commitments, while deterrence against the most relevant threats would continue to be ensured by the nuclear arsenal. , sector in which the most qualified personnel are employed.

An army, therefore, that had the ability to adequately express the use of force, to be mixed with cyber attacks and powerful propaganda in the service of the regime, as envisaged by the new "hybrid" way of making warii.

Thus began a work of reorganization and modernization of the Russian terrestrial military instrument, with the acquisition of new armament, new command and control systems and with the progressive professionalization of what was once an instrument almost exclusively made up of conscripts.

However, the creation of a professional army is not only a question of will, but above all of time and money (training, equipment, etc…). Too much energy for a country which, although immense and with enormous natural resources, has a GDP lower than that of Spain alone. Despite the expressed desire to improve conditions and operations, going from a budget of USD 23,6 billion (2000) to USD 61,7 billion (2020)iii, compared to the US commitment, the resources allocated to the Russian military did not exceed respectively 5% and 8% of the amount allocated in the same period by the US (475 billion USD in 2000 and 778 billion USD in 2020). In addition, the prolonged military engagement in Syria has absorbed much of the past appropriations. While this allowed Moscow to acquire credits from Damascus, allowing it to reappear as an actor in the geopolitics of the Mediterranean, it has however significantly reduced the resources to devote to the reorganization of the army.

The result is that Russia, which was rising from the serious crisis that characterized the nineties of the last century and the first years of this XNUMX, was unable to have adequate resources to fully professionalise its army departments. The scarce capital allocated, in fact, was mainly addressed to special forces, highly specialized departments for which long and thorough training is essential. Nonetheless, the enormous logistical problems affecting the Russian ground military instrument have also drastically reduced the effectiveness of those units, causing heavy losses during the Ukrainian military campaign. Departments that cannot be replaced in the short / medium term.

To this is added another problem that is difficult to solve. The current demographic "development" does not allow Moscow to obtain the enlistments numerically necessary to meet its level of ambition. Not even the relatively recent constitution of the National Guard (in Putin's intentions a sort of "praetorians") has made it possible to raise the overall quality level, since the economic constraints related to training and equipment requirements have not been substantially eliminatediv.

The Russian army, therefore, still consists of no less than 38% of forces composed of conscripts, called to carry out military service for the duration of one year (up to 2008 it was 18 months)v.

Another great constraint is added to the numerical limitation, the qualitative onevi. Not even the overall improvement in the quality of life of military personnel seems, in fact, to have created the conditions for attracting more qualified or more motivated individuals.

During the Soviet period, serving in the military was considered a highly patriotic gesture and a way of moving from adolescence to maturity. As Iva Savic writes, this perception has gradually diminished, also due to the spread of violent internal practices (exasperated hazing), leading to 70% of young Russians no longer considering military service in the army as a possibility of growth. social. A perception shared by families, who do everything to avoid the enrollment of their children. It is not surprising, therefore, that corruption is often used to avoid military service. This allows young people of the more affluent classes to avoid wearing the uniform, leaving this burden to the less affluent classes and, usually, coming from the most remote places in the country. The effect is that, in 2008, no less than 30% of those called to arms were found to be unfit for servicevii.

In essence, almost all of the conscripts come from the humblest and poorest working classes, and from the most isolated areas of the country, with all that this also entails on a cultural level. Furthermore, among those who cannot avoid military service (those born after 2000), a significant percentage is not in good health, precisely because of problems related to poverty and modest living conditions. A poverty that reaches 12-15% in the richest oblasts, to reach 60-70% in the Siberian regions.

To this are added the methods sometimes used for recruitment, which may include the approach of young people on the street, in the subway, in front of university dormitories, or directly to the residences, from where they are brought directly, often forcibly, to the military districts for quick assessment, enrollment and transfer to the service destinationviii.

Finally, it should be noted that the Russian army has "... too many colonels and few corporals ..."ix. A relative lack of quality of officers in the intermediate ranks and of non-commissioned officers, therefore, those most in contact with the troops, those who should lead them into battle. An incomplete leadership of the small Russian units, the result of which has been that the morale of the troops and confidence in the hierarchical chain seem to have dropped beyond all limits, forcing Moscow to send many generals to the front line to be able to direct the operations personally and try to revive the morale of the troops. Generals who quickly became a favorite target of snipers. While the death of a general during a war is normally a fairly rare occurrence, the elimination of nine high ranks on the frontline has turned the statistics upside down.


Ground forces with few intermediate officers, insufficient non-commissioned officers capable of handling small units and with a high percentage of conscripts, not adequately motivated and trained. Forces that do not seem to be able to have the operational effectiveness that observers expected and, above all, that the Kremlin expected. An operational deficiency that also leads to very serious errors. How can we forget the "friendly fire" which, during the fighting in South Ossetia in 2008 (but also apparently in Ukraine), caused serious losses due (it seems) to the substantial lack of contact between the ground troops and the air force . Or like the communications problems that in Ukraine forced the military to use personal cell phones to stay in touch with their own departments.

Forces that appear to have been further and intensively employed from 2014 onwards. Prolonged employment that caused breakdowns even in the elite troops, as ascertained by the interrogations of the prisoners taken by the Ukrainians in the separatist areasx, although Moscow has never recognized such fighters as its own.

An army made up of so many conscripts, moreover, which has shown that it cannot operate effectively in a context such as that of the ongoing war, in a complicated, sensitive and potentially divisive area such as, precisely, eastern Ukrainexi, with deep penetrations far from their national borders. Borders that Russia develops, and must control, over thousands of kilometers and which in some areas present objective defense difficulties such as in the Caucasus, Central Asia and Eastern Siberia, even if Moscow historically still perceives European borders as the most threatening ones. Precisely because of this Russian perception of the "European" danger, in 2016 in Kaliningrad some positions of SS-26 "Iskander", short-range ballistic missiles, were set up, even if that area is (still) among the quietest along the borders Russiansxii.

In the meantime, precisely because of the shortcomings so far demonstrated by the ground forces, a debate is being developed (with due caution, given that Putin does not seem to like dissent) between those who would like a return to Soviet geographical development and those who, more pragmatically, they believe that times (and forces) have profoundly changed and that this is now impossible. Schools of thought that reflect the internal divisions of Russian power. On the one hand, those who have understood that this war has turned into a quagmire and it is better to end it as soon as possible. On the other hand, there are those who want this to continue, hoping that a significant territorial conquest on the field will make us forget an inadequate army and an incomplete planning of operations. Above all there is a Putin who wants at all costs a trophy to show to the population, because he does not want to come out of the war as a loser. The outcome of this debate is in the hands of Jupiter.

As for Russia's overall security, everyone in Moscow agrees on maintaining a credible nuclear deterrence capability and on the Russian Navy's capabilities to maritime denial (read article).

At the moment, however, it seems conceivable that the performances of the Russian army during the war in Ukraine will not fail to have an effect on Russian military doctrine as wellxiii.

But any national posture or level of Russian geopolitical ambition will have to deal with serious problems of a structural nature, from the social / demographic to the economic question. Obvious limits that reflect on the quality of the Armed Forces, in the particular case with the army. An army that has not so far appeared as strong as previously believed. An army that seems to have also been guilty of war crimes (the inquiries of the International Criminal Court will perhaps clarify this). An army that in the theater of fighting seems to see an increase in cases of self-sabotage and that, to cope with the problems in the war zone, has called another 135 young people to arms (sic!)xiv. Other little or no trained (or motivated) meat to throw into the field, in an attempt to obtain a result that justifies this conflict in the eyes of the Russian population.

i Mark Galeotti, The Russian army from 1992 to 2016, Mondadori, 2018, from the presentation of the volume

ii Nicola Cristadoro, The Gerasimov Doctrine. The philosophy of unconventional warfare in contemporary Russian strategy, Ed. Il Maglio, 2022

iii Stockolm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) database on world military spending. Although not completely homogeneous, the data provide a rough indication of the ratio of military spending between the two countries.

iv Mikhail Barabanov, Konstantin Makienko, Ruslan Pukhov, Military reform: toward the new look of the Russian Army, analytical report of the Valdai discussion club

v Iva Savic, The russian soldier today, in “Journal of International Affairs” 63

vi Mikhail Barabanov, Konstantin Makienko, Ruslan Pukhov, Military reform: toward the new look of the Russian Army, analytical report of the Valdai discussion club

vii Vladimir Mukhin, Calling up workers and peasants, Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 1, 2008

viii Report of the Human and Civil Rights Violations in relation to the 2009 enlistment campaign in the St. Petersburg area

ix Paméla Rougerie, Wars in Ukraine: pourquoi la Russie perd tant des hauts gradés sur le front?, Le Parisien, March 26, 2022

x BBC, Ukrainian crisis: Russian Special Forces captured, May 17, 2015, on

xi Iva Savic, The russian soldier today, in “Journal of International Affairs” 63

xii Jonathan Marcus, Russia's missile deployment in Kaliningrad ups the stakes for NATOBbc

xiii Jaroslaw Adamowski, Russia overhauls military doctrine, Defense news, 10 January 2015 and Olga Oliker, Unpacking Russia's new national security strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 7 January 2016

xiv Matteo Sacchi, "The Russian army is strengthened". But the disobedient pop up, il Giornale, 1 April 2022

Photo: Russian Federation MoD