Published by The Lawfare Institute
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Editor’s Note: Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine came as a surprise to me and to many observers. Ben Connable of the Atlantic Council argues that one important factor explaining Russia’s failures was the lack of realistic military exercises. Too often, the Russian military tried to script its exercises to assure higher-ups that all was well, and as a result it failed to learn to fight effectively when a real war occurred.
It wasn’t long into the Ukraine war that military analysts began using the apocryphal Potemkin Village analogy to describe Russia’s military: It consists of hollow forces that look good on parade but can’t fight well. Most recently, top experts on the Russian military from the Swedish Defense Research Agency (FOI), noted that Russia’s thus-far abysmal showing in the Ukraine war—and particularly the lack of effective, dynamic combined-arms warfare capability—stood in sharp contrast to the seemingly orchestral fire and movement on public display in what the Russian Federation calls military exercises.
Were the Russians fooling the West or themselves into believing they could effectively fight a complex modern war? In all likelihood they were doing double duty, fooling everyone except, perhaps, the Ukrainians.
A quick clarification of terms is necessary: An “exercise” is generally an event that puts military forces in a simulated field environment where they test out their skills, practice techniques, and learn to adapt to uncertain circumstances. The best exercises pit military units against live opposition forces, or OPFOR, who are trained to make life as difficult as possible for the exercising unit—sweat hard in peace, bleed less in war. Peacetime “demonstrations,” by contrast, are rehearsed events intended to showcase equipment and firepower for an audience. Sometimes they include nominal OPFOR in what appear to be rehearsed two-sided dances rather than free-form exercises. Russia has described many of these types of military preparations as “exercises” when they were in truth demonstrations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin often attended portions of Kavkaz, Zapad, and other demonstrations in the years before he escalated the Ukraine war. In the tradition of his Soviet predecessors, he expected to be impressed with displays of Russian might and combined arms prowess; at some level, he probably wanted to be fooled into believing his own dezinformatsiya. And he expected dramatic videos of Russian artillery, tanks, planes, and infantry smashing defenseless targets to fool and frighten NATO. (It worked.) Putin’s generals, in turn, found themselves under tremendous pressure to turn these events into spectacles, complete with canned Hollywood-style explosions designed to accentuate the typically dull, smoky impacts of bombs and artillery. And the generals then pushed officers, soldiers, and airmen to ensure the spectacles did not turn into fiascos.
As with any kind of performance, 90 percent of a good show is created in rehearsals. It does not take a trained military eye to see the hard work that went into staging Russia’s recent military demonstrations. Spotless armored vehicles charged forward in perfect formation across flat open plains, firing their weapons in precise syncopation from right to left, crack, crack, crack. Airplanes swooped over in neat display formation—an approach that would be suicidal in combat—firing rockets and dropping bombs to bring the symphony of violence to a frenzied crescendo. It all looked impressive.
But any military person who has ever put on a live-fire combat demonstration knows the real amount of work that goes into a show of violence on this scale. It requires the choreography of a Broadway play, but with deadly consequences for any misstep. Everyone has to move with precise timing and spacing to ensure bullets, bombs, and rockets do not accidentally shred the performers. All it takes is one errant flinch of a trigger finger, one vehicle moving too quickly or too slowly and wandering into the line of fire, one pilot who can’t see through the smoke to find the right target, and the whole show is ruined. In 2014, a Russian armored vehicle in a parade demonstration ran over a soldier, turning the event into an enduring public relations disaster.
The less professional the troops (think: conscripts), the harder it is to pull off a big demonstration without a terrible mistake. Russian conscripts, who usually serve only one year, might spend their entire term preparing for a major demonstration, only to be replaced by new conscripts whose terms of service would be similarly consumed.
Properly executing a multidivision, combined-arms, live-fire demonstration involving at least tens of thousands of people—according to the Russians, in some cases 200,000 to 300,000 people—takes many months of rehearsal, hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel and aviation fuel, spare parts that may already be in short supply, lots of ammunition, and the full attention of the officers and troops involved. It can take months just to move people and equipment to the exercise grounds. During movement and rehearsal, equipment breaks and wears out, and it all has to be fixed and replaced after the last showtime explosions fade. The resultant vacuum of resources undermines all other training.
This focus on demonstrations also created opportunity costs. Good senior military leaders try to give lower-level commanders as much time as possible each month to train their own units; it is the sergeants, lieutenants, and captains who are best positioned to spot issues, sharpen their soldiers’ combat skills, and build unit cohesion. Every week spent preparing for and running demonstrations is a week of far more valuable combat training and team building lost. This wasted time has assuredly contributed to many Russian deaths in Ukraine.
While each Russian military district was on the hook for only one major exercise every four years, units routinely conducted thousands of other, similar events (reportedly 4,800 in 2021 alone) with all the characteristics of a rehearsed demonstration. Putin and his generals called some of these “snap” inspection exercises, giving the impression of a crouched bear ready to pounce at a moment’s notice. Some of these so-called snap events probably involved a few hundred or thousand troops, and others reportedly up to 150,000 troops.
But it is absurd to think that 150,000 or even just 10,000 Russian troops (or any comparable number of Western troops, for that matter) could suddenly, without notice, leap into action to execute perfect large-scale military maneuvers. So many of these so-called snap exercises, too, were almost certainly façades requiring perhaps months of curtained rehearsal. It is easy to see how the high tempo of these collective events might have consumed large segments of the Russian armed forces. As the Swedish FOI team implies, these continual high-profile demonstrations effectively became the Russian military’s raison d’être.
Armies generally fight as they train. War is inherently chaotic and dynamic, demanding extraordinary adaptability. But, in addition to many other failings, the Russians too often trained to march forward in neat formations against an inert enemy. Combat leadership requires hard-won intuition, rapid-fire decision-making, and high-pressure risk-taking. But rather than putting their skills to the test in potentially embarrassing unscripted exercises, Russian generals appear to have found themselves most at home sitting safely in viewing stands watching their troops perform the military equivalent of a dance recital.
Limited operations in Syria and Crimea masked Russia’s failure to translate rote rehearsals into agile combat prowess. In Syria, the Russians deployed about a brigade of security troops who saw little combat, as well as some special operators and mercenaries who supported Syrian government forces and militias. Russian aircraft effectively flew unopposed. Relative to Ukraine—or any other mid-to-large-scale conflict—Russia’s operations in Syria barely constitute a combat operation. In Crimea, Russian special operators and mercenaries seized ground almost without opposition, revealing next to nothing about Russian combined-arms combat power.
The circumstances and type of operation in Ukraine were different. When it came time for Russian soldiers, officers, and generals to adapt—to quickly find expedient solutions to problems like operational fuel shortages and unexpected Ukrainian resistance—they too often hedged, foundered, shut down, or fled. Poorly trained and ill-informed troops found that the basic technical skills they had honed in snap inspections and demonstrations were insufficient for the diverse challenges of war.
Russia’s northern offensive in Ukraine collapsed. The purpose-built Soviet-era myth that Russian forces could or would execute brilliant, Blitzkrieg-like, semi-autonomous deep-penetration operations has been shattered. Now, in the grinding attrition fight in the Donbas, the Russians have reverted to an old Soviet technical approach to warfare: Smash every square inch of ground with artillery, allowing poorly motivated infantry to edge forward ever so slowly at minimal risk. Over time, grinding attrition warfare will reduce Russia’s chances of achieving timely strategic victory and increase destruction, casualties, and economic catastrophe on both sides.
The Russian military’s performance in Ukraine is a damning indictment of its overall combat effectiveness. Unfortunately for the United States and other NATO countries, Russia is not the only country fixated on demonstrations. American and European leaders familiar with security force assistance missions may have experienced at least some discomfort reading this description of Russia’s demonstration army. One could readily replace “Russia” with the names of any number of partner nations.
Since the end of World War II, hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on security force assistance with the intent of creating adaptable, combat-ready forces to support U.S. and other NATO members’ regional security needs. But how many of these partners have instead produced demonstration forces designed to put on hollow shows of strength? How many have taken on the brittle characteristics the Russians have revealed in Ukraine? How many paper tigers have the United States and its allies helped produce, and what can be done about it?
I personally observed the creation of demonstration-focused armies in the Middle East while serving as a U.S. Marine and while conducting research at the RAND Corporation. Well-intentioned U.S. advisers routinely pushed partner units to develop reliable and self-confident junior officers and noncommissioned officers capable of leading and adapting in the uncertain circumstances of war. But they generally ran into two interdependent problems.
Many generals and political leaders in partner countries had insufficient will to take the risks necessary to develop adaptable forces. These partner leaders were under tremendous pressure to demonstrate return on U.S. and other NATO states’ security force assistance investments. Most of these investments were subject to review, and potentially reduction or cancellation, on a year-to-year basis.
Military and political officials from these patron countries frequently visited to check on progress. Partner leaders I worked with and observed believed that showing their insufficiently adaptable military units struggling through tough, unpredictable exercises risked a loss of support. So instead of taking this risk, they had their troops rehearse and perform rote demonstrations. Many U.S. leaders sat in viewing stands observing these demonstrations, giving their explicit approval to this risk-averse approach. I was aware of several U.S.-funded advanced training courses—including one ostensibly designed to turn out elite troops—that were entirely dedicated to rehearsing graduation demonstrations rather than to more valuable military learning.
Both partner leaders and advisers also struggled against cultural headwinds. Patriarchal cultures—arguably, including Russian culture—that concentrate power and decision-making in the hands of the most senior and influential leaders tend to discourage initiative, decentralization, and adaptability. Tightly controlled praetorian units coup-proof partner states, but generate brittle militaries. In the partner forces I observed, this dynamic contributed to a reluctance to develop junior officers and noncommissioned officers, without whom free-form exercises were more likely to devolve into chaos. Cultural aversion compounded risk aversion, which in turn kept partner forces locked in a perpetual cycle of rote rehearsal and demonstration.
Iraq shows how this debilitating cycle can generate disastrous security force assistance flops. From 2003 through the U.S. military withdrawal at the end of 2011, the United States invested approximately $25 billion building, equipping, and training the Iraqi security forces with the expectation that they would be able to take control of their own security. Through the end of 2007, thousands of Iraqis conducted at least modestly successful, manageable, small-scale operations in units of 10 to 50 troops, supporting the Awakening movement that in turn suppressed the Sunni Arab insurgency. But in their desperate desire to leave Iraq behind (“we have to draw down to win”), senior U.S. leaders pushed their Iraqi counterparts to demonstrate larger-scale operations.
In response, Iraqis put on impressive battalion- and brigade-level combined-arms shows at their new training bases. But then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had begun to corrupt the Iraqi officer corps by inserting favored, fellow Shiite sycophants, often replacing far more experienced and capable leaders and staff officers. Years of U.S.-led efforts to build Iraqi military capability and defense institutions were eroded, masking increasing brittleness in the Iraqi Army and police. Early signs of the brittleness of larger-scale units appeared as early as 2008, when Maliki sent Iraqi brigades charging into Basra to quell a militia uprising. The Iraqis foundered, unready to control their own large-scale operations, requiring U.S. military intervention.
Iraq could put thousands of troops into the field to fight, but its military leaders couldn’t command, control, maneuver, or support those troops without direct U.S. combat assistance. Junior leaders felt untrusted and took little initiative. Iraqi troops had limited skills and were particularly vulnerable in uncertain circumstances. Corruption undermined discipline and the will to fight. In 2014, two years after the last U.S. military forces withdrew from Iraq, the Islamic State smashed through 19 brittle Iraqi Army and police brigades and seized about one-third of the country, forcing U.S. reentry into the war.
Other partner forces across the Middle East and in other areas of the world spend considerable amounts of time and resources on demonstrations. Some of these forces may still be quite competent and ready for combat on a scale relative to their respective security challenges. But in the wake of Russia’s fumbling in Ukraine, the United States and its allies should reconsider what they demand of these partner forces and how they measure return on investment.
Swapping demonstrations for real, hard-test exercises would be a good place to start—even if that means cutting back on lavish VIP visits and exciting propaganda videos and having to deal with uncomfortable cultural challenges. More open-ended force-on-force exercises will not fix all partner problems. But these exercises will help reveal shortcomings that can then be addressed through improved training and more effectively targeted security force assistance. Better to take this sometimes confounding approach in peace than to watch well-rehearsed partners crumple in the chaos of war.