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Artillery Row

What can Russia’s failure in Afghanistan teach us about its war in Ukraine?

The echoes should be ominous for the Kremlin

In the years leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, onlookers were incessantly reminded that the modern Russian military was a far cry from its Red Army forebear. The Russian Armed Forces, coming off successful (if limited) interventions in Crimea and Syria, were on the march. Their record contrasted powerfully with America’s two decades of futility and failure in the Middle East and Central Asia. A certain breed of American politician was even apt to fall for the recruiting commercials, contrasting the virile, fit, aggressive Russians with woke, weak, and inclusive American soldiers.

What a difference six months makes. After two seasons of fighting, Russia’s military has been exposed as a hollow force.

The vaunted Russian army has been blunted, and may yet be broken, by the regular and irregular troops of the poorest country in Europe. Russia’s battered force has lost perhaps a third of its soldiers and thousands of tanks and armored vehicles, quickly abandoned its drive on Kyiv, and at the time of this writing is on its heels, the victim of an unexpected Ukrainian offensive near Kharkiv. The Russians may be lucky just to salvage some modest territorial gains in southeast Ukraine.

A dozen Russian generals are dead, a toll unparalleled for a great power in modern warfare. The flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, the cruiser Moskva, was sunk by Ukrainian missiles. The Russian Air Force has been the most disappointing piece of all: unable to destroy the small Ukrainian air arm while offering limited help to Russian troops on the ground.

Just how deep does the rot run? After a decade of plaudits and a few weeks of excuses early in the invasion, it is clear that Russia’s modernised, reformed military is little changed from the brutal Goliath of the Cold War. The best (and most darkly entertaining) way to understand Putin’s humbled military machine is to look at the Red Army that provided its DNA.

Anglo-Irish journalist Andrew Cockburn first examined the Soviet military in 1981. His PBS documentary The Red Army sought to probe the vulnerabilities of a Soviet war machine that, pre-glasnost and with the Afghanistan War in its early days, still looked formidable from the outside. Two years later, in his first book, The Threat, Cockburn sought to tackle the subject in greater depth. Still readily available four decades later, The Threat offers a penetrating portrait of the Red Army with surprising relevance today.

Cockburn read widely and interviewed Western soldiers, spooks, analysts, and even the odd physicist. But his secret weapon was a new source: the wave of Jewish Soviet veterans who emigrated to Israel and the West in the 1970’s. These men were a known commodity, though a RAND Corporation study at the time found that no more than five percent of relevant Soviet ex-servicemen were ever interviewed by U.S. officials. Largely uninterested in the military intelligence obsession with “order of battle,” Cockburn sought something both more quotidian and more meaningful. He tracked down Ivans and Igors in Brighton Beach’s “Little Odessa” and other ethnic enclaves, new Americans who could give an accurate picture of daily life in the Soviet military.

What he found was not the fearsome Red Army of Pentagon publications and (budget-driven) U.S. congressional hearings. From the inside, the Soviet military looked like a paper tiger, riven by corruption, careerism, incompetence, and the accumulated dysfunction of a Soviet system that was on its last legs.

Invoking a samizdat conscript memoir, Cockburn chose a stark title for his chapter on daily life in the Red Army: “The Unfortunates.” The discipline and morale problems that have hamstrung Russia’s Ukraine campaign were endemic to the late Red Army.

Soviet conscripts were allocated two square meters of personal space in their barracks – a bit more than an average-sized coffin. Paid about one percent of what their American counterparts made, troops weren’t even adequately fed. One communications specialist recalled more than a dozen food strikes in his unit during 18 months of service in the Soviet Far East. Unsurprisingly, only one percent of Soviet draftees reenlisted in the Red Army.

Originating in the gulags, a system of brutal hazing called dedovshchina was a permanent feature of the Soviet military. Seniority ruled all. Senior conscripts subjugated, robbed, and brutalized junior draftees while NCOs stepped aside and officers looked the other way.

Dedovshchina has been reduced but not eradicated from the Russian Armed Forces. In the first two decades after the end of communism, military hazing became even more endemic and extreme. In the mid-Aughts, the Russian military averaged 10,000 desertions a year and a suicide rate triple that of the U.S. military. While the military reforms of 2008 appear to have had some effect on dedovshchina, suicides remain high, and episodic retaliatory violence, like the 2019 slaying of eight Russian soldiers by a bullied comrade, still occurs.

The Ukraine invasion represented a new betrayal of Russia’s teenaged conscripts. After weeks of denials, the Kremlin belatedly admitted that conscripts had been deployed into combat in Ukraine, though Vladimir Putin was supposedly ignorant of this violation of his orders. Stories abound of conscripts signing contracts under duress on the eve of war, transformed at the stroke of a pen into “professional soldiers.”

Theft was also endemic in the late Red Army. With the (not ironclad) exception of weapons and ammunition, anything that could fetch a price from civilians could expect to be stolen. Travelers in East Germany could sometimes buy cans of government gasoline from Soviet soldiers hawking it by the side of the road. On the border with China in Russia’s Far East, one indignant old woman complained to a local military commander after receiving poor results from a set of high-tech milking equipment, sold to her by an enterprising Soviet Sergeant Bilko. The old woman was, it turned out, the new owner of a consignment of gas masks.

Today’s borderland babushkas, now equipped with Google or its Russian competitor Yandex, may be a bit less vulnerable to military mountebanks. But corruption in the Russian Armed Forces remains constant and crippling. Both Ukrainian intelligence and pro-Russian military bloggers have drawn attention to Russian troops going into battle without body armor, or with degraded, ersatz armor, despite the much-trumpeted Ratnik personal equipment program of the previous decade. Videos of captured Russian rations that expired years ago can be found online. The lack of encrypted radios, possibly due to corruption, undoubtedly contributed to the shockingly high number of Russian generals killed in action.

Like corruption, alcohol was ever-present in Soviet military life. An army will mirror the strengths and weaknesses of the society that mans it, especially a conscript army. Cockburn’s book is replete with mordant tales of the depths of Red Army inebriation and the lengths the troops would go to get their hands on even ersatz intoxicants. Alcohol was banned for the rank and file, but that made little difference. “Drink, and how to get hold of it, was the dominant topic of conversation in the barracks. You could call it an obsession,” Cockburn was told by one in a position to know — a former unit postman. Sometimes inventive smuggling wasn’t even necessary. The MiG-25 jet, which required one half ton of alcohol for its braking and electronic systems during seventy minutes of flight time, was known in the Soviet Air Force as “The Flying Restaurant.”

In Ukraine, accounts of drunk Russian soldiers and broader discipline problems are legion. The looting and massacre in the Ukrainian city of Bucha was accompanied by drunken joyriding in Russian tanks. Residents in the Russian town where the new 3rdArmy Corps is training have taken to social media to complain of drunken harassment from soldiers at all hours of the day. Internal Russian documents obtained by Yahoo News even detail a gunfight between Russian soldiers and FSB (the KGB’s successor) officers in a Kherson bar that left three dead.

Large, tightly scripted exercises were a regular feature of the Red Army’s year. Challenging free-play training was anathema. Sometimes the efforts to ensure the proper theatrics for visiting Kremlin VIPs were staggering. Cockburn relates the story of Operation Dnieper, a massive series of maneuvers carried out in 1967 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution. Four of the largest military districts, the Baltic, Byelorussian, Kiev, and Carpathian, were stripped of officers, who were disguised as ordinary soldiers to play all but the most undemanding roles in this production.

A dramatic underwater river crossing by buttoned-up tanks was to be a key feature of the exercise. But with the buoyancy provided by air pockets in the vehicles, a textbook crossing was uncertain. With the entire Politburo in attendance, that wouldn’t do. So thousands of men worked for four months to pave the riverbed with concrete furrows. On game day, everything looked perfect — stock footage of Operation Dnieper is still to be found in many documentaries on the Red Army. What this contributed to readiness for a potential war with NATO was less clear.

The legerdemain and primacy of optics in training has remained in effect today. Russia boasted that its 2018 Vostok exercises would be the biggest in nearly forty years, with 300,000 troops in play. The reality, as The Economist recently related, was far different: companies stood in for battalions or regiments, single ships represented squadrons. The mass exercise was a sham.

Even armchair internet commentators have noted basic, repeated tactical errors

Dynamic training, where failure is a possible outcome, still seems to be foreign to the modern Russian military. Even armchair internet commentators have noted basic, repeated tactical errors by Russian troops in Ukraine: the absence of combined arms tactics, with unsupported tanks and armoured fighting vehicles repeatedly ambushed in close terrain; road-bound convoys bunched up, their lack of dispersion magnifying casualties; repeated penetrations of Russian territory by air and ground raids. One British expert recently questioned whether the Russian Armed Forces “had done any competent training at all.”

In one major respect, the decrepit 1980’s Soviet military was far better off than Putin’s force. The Red Army, fed by mass conscription and with memories of the enormous sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War still present in the minds of many Russians, could put an enormous number of men under arms. (Cockburn titled his chapter on Soviet manpower “The Hordes”). The 1983 Soviet military and security forces numbered 5.8 million men. Even with a third of the force devoted to railways, internal security, and the border with China, this still left over four million troops to confront NATO.

Putin by contrast, after scraping virtually all available combat power from Russia’s five military districts, could throw just 190,000 soldiers into the invasion of Ukraine, the second-largest country in Europe. After six months of combat, Russia has lost 80,000 men killed and wounded, by the Pentagon’s estimate.

Had the Red Army suffered severe attrition in a European land war, it would have called up its ample reserves. Today’s Russian Armed Forces don’t have that option. Despite the enormity of the setback in Ukraine, Putin has refused to call up modern Russia’s “reserves:” prior conscripts, now back in civilian life and untrained since taking off their uniforms at the end of their year of service. He appears to believe that such a mobilization would risk domestic tranquility and even regime security.

With his manpower cupboard bare, Putin has instead resorted to a “stealth mobilization:” raising the maximum age of enlistment, employing mercenaries, throwing out hefty cash bonuses for professional soldiers, and even recruiting from prisons. These new cohorts, unsurprisingly, seem to be even less proficient and motivated than the troops who failed to achieve victory in the campaign’s opening days and weeks.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Cockburn was writing during a moment of almost unprecedented peril of nuclear holocaust. A few months after The Threat hit bookstores, NATO conducted its annual Able Archer command post exercise in Europe. Increased realism in the exercise, combined with already heightened tensions between the United States and the USSR, came close to triggering nuclear war. Fearing Able Archer was a potential cover for a real nuclear first strike, the Soviets loaded nuclear warheads onto bombers. American restraint, driven by U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Leonard H. Perroots, may well have prevented Armageddon.

Both the Americans and the Soviets thought their enemy believed it could fight and win a nuclear war with “acceptable losses.” U.S. Army field manuals of the 1980’s said so explicitly. Such delusions are no longer openly voiced by strategists and analysts in America or Russia. But it is unclear how much safer that makes us. The new orthodoxy is one of intimidation: the other side will never have the intestinal fortitude to actually use its weapons. Games of brinksmanship are safe, as several retired U.S. generals have blithely asserted throughout the war. This last, most terrifying historical continuity has thankfully also remained: the nuclear specter still hangs in the background of this confrontation, for now.

Beyond his deep examination of the components of Soviet military power, Cockburn’s book offered something even more salutary at that late peak of the Cold War: an indictment of the threat inflation that fed and exacerbated the U.S. — Soviet confrontation on both sides. Time and again, The Threat provides vivid examples of that mutual spiral of fear and spending — a dynamic beneficial to the officer class and military industrial complexes of the two superpowers.

The head of the strategic division in the Pentagon’s Office of Systems Analysis in the 1960’s, Ivan Selin, greeted colleagues from other departments thusly: “Welcome to the world of strategic analysis, where we program weapons that don’t work against threats that don’t exist.” Awareness of the kabuki theater of much American defense planning and analysis should dampen any triumphalism in the wake of Putin’s catastrophic war in Ukraine.

Histories of military culture can be overly determinative. War is contingent, and campaigns often hinge on logistical factors, the accumulated decisions of commanders, and tactical execution. Russia’s unfolding defeat in Ukraine, with its absurdly optimistic initial dash for Kyiv and the ensuing repulse, certainly provides ample evidence of war’s dynamism. But culture matters. As one old saw goes, armies are like trees: they take years to grow and the most important things happen under the surface. A U.S. military intelligence officer interviewed by Cockburn, Colonel Robert Bartos, concluded that the Soviet armed forces were “a brutal insensitive world where the military ethos is still locked in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.” The roots of Russia’s current military catastrophe can be found in that atavistic soul of the Red Army that once so threatened the West.

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