Destroyed Russian military vehicles

What Went Wrong With Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine?

May 12, 2022
RM Staff

When The Washington Post’s editorial board declared that "the war is not going Putin’s way” only three days after the Russian president ordered an invasion of Ukraine, it seemed the esteemed publication’s writers had jumped the gun. However, subsequent weeks suggested they were onto something, as Russian offensives stalled and reports emerged of Russian soldiers having to forage for food and fuel.

Eleven weeks after the Feb. 24 invasion it is clear that Vladimir Putin’s initial plan has failed. What is less clear is what exactly went wrong and why. We have scoured dozens of commentaries and interviews by experts—mostly military and mostly Western, but also Russian, Ukrainian and Asian—in search of answers. Of the flaws in planning and execution identified by experts, several categories stand out, in our view:

  • Underestimating the Ukrainian leaders’, military’s and public’s will and ability to resist;
  • Underestimating the collective West’s will and capability to aid Ukraine;
  • Poor planning of the military campaign, calling for simultaneous achievement of multiple objectives along several axes, unachievable with resources committed to attaining these objectives;
  • Failure to establish a single chain of command for the operation, to ensure that advancing units have adequate and timely protection and supplies and to achieve air superiority.

More detailed descriptions of these and other miscalculations in Russia’s campaign are below, from both experts and journalists. But the longish list does not mean that either Russian defeat or continued Western unity in support of Ukraine is a done deal.

Poor military planning / overestimating Russian forces

 

Poor planning of the military campaign, calling for simultaneous achievement of multiple objectives along several axes with a quantitatively and qualitatively insufficient invading force/overestimating the capabilities of the Russian armed forces

  • Carnegie Endowment’s Alexander Gabuev, 03.14.22: “As the [Russian] leadership saw things, the fewer people who knew what the mission was, the better. And we have evidence that when, one day in advance, they finally did tell senior commanders what the ultimate mission was, many of them were visibly shaken and there was a lot of pushback.” (Octavian Report)
  • Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Julian Lindley-French, formerly of the Netherlands Defense Academy, 03.15.22: “The moment Russian forces crossed the Ukrainian border a large gap appeared between the scale and quality of the Russian forces needed to maintain offensive Russian military momentum and the force available.” (The Alphen Group)
  • BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Beale, 03.19.22: “Russia … appear[s] to have overestimated its own military strengths. President Putin had embarked on an ambitious modernization program for his military and he too may have believed his own hype.” (BBC)
  • CNA's Michael Kofman, 03.20.22: “Since inception the Russian military effort has lacked focus. Too few forces, on too many axes of advance, some competing with each other.” (Twitter)
  • New America’s Col. (ret.) Joel Rayburn, former U.S. special envoy for Syria, 04.21.22: “The campaign design was flawed from the start. It was an invasion force that was too small for the task, just in straight numbers—in the numbers of combat units, combat formations they were able to put on the battlefield. That task was essentially to dismember Ukraine and change the regime in Kyiv, and the force was too small for that purpose.” (The New Yorker)
  • Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Mason Clark of the Institute for the Study of War, 04.29.22: “A problem for Russia that is far more fundamental: Its invasion plan itself was shockingly bad… The initial Russian objective was to seize Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities, remove the current Ukrainian government and impose a new regime beholden to Moscow. Russia’s first and overwhelming objective, then, should have been taking the capital, and a sound campaign plan would have prioritized this aim and subordinated actions elsewhere. … But that’s not what Russia did. Instead, it also set out to secure the territory of Luhansk and Donetsk regions … and it tried to establish a land bridge connecting the northern Crimean Peninsula with Russia itself.” (Foreign Affairs)
  • Dmitry Adamsky of Reichman University (IDC Herzliya) in Israel, 04.30.22: “On the eve of the invasion, I expected a splash in ‘morale-psychological-political’ work as an indication of a transition to war. In Russian doctrine, this (next to intelligence and logistical preparations) is a prerequisite. … In reality, none of the above happened.” (FP)
  • The Economist, 04.30.22: The Russian “army chose to plough into the second largest country in Europe from several directions, splitting 120 or so battalion tactical groups (BTGs) into lots of ineffective and isolated forces. … The charitable interpretation is that the Russian army has been hobbled in Ukraine less by its own deficiencies than by Mr. Putin’s delusions. His insistence on plotting the war in secrecy complicated military planning.”
  • Margarita Konaev of the Center for a New American Security and the Fletcher School’s Polina Beliakova, 05.09.22: “To win in the Donbas, the Russians must quickly pivot away from the failed strategy of trying to seize Kyiv that got them bogged down in urban centers spanning the north, east, and south of Ukraine. Instead, they must implement a plan that takes advantage of the more favorable terrain in the east.” (Foreign Affairs)
  • The Brookings Institution’s Angela Stent, 05.02.22: “Putin overestimated Russian military competence and effectiveness.” (FP)

Underestimating Ukraine/West

 

Underestimating the NATO-trained Ukrainian armed forces’ and volunteers’ capabilities and will to fight

  • Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London, 03.02.22: “The Ukrainians have not tried to defend every inch of their land but instead have made their stands in the key cities… They have traded space for time, and then used that time to strengthen their position.” (Comment is Freed/Substack)  
  • Morning Edition hosts Leila Fadel and Steve Inskeep, 04.15.22: The sinking of the Moskva cruiser “is the latest example of Russia … underestimating Ukraine and paying a heavy price for it.” (NPR)

Underestimating the will and capability of Ukraine’s leadership and its public to oppose the Russian invasion and occupation

  • Igor Strelkov (Girkin), former “defense minister” of self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, 02.28.22: "Based on the results of [the first] five days, we have to state that, apparently, the military-political leadership [of Russia] did not fully understand the changes that had taken place in Ukraine. Very serious mistakes have been made," he said. According to Strelkov, in the first three days of the operation, Russian troops were being told by their commanders that in Ukraine they would be met either neutrally or, in places, with joy. "Eight years ago that would have been so, but … the situation has changed a lot," he said. (Zahav.ru, 03.02.22)
  • Nigel Gould-Davies of IISS, 03.01.22: “Putin drastically underestimated Ukraine’s cohesion and will to resist.” (IISS)
  • Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London, 03.02.22: “Putin has described a mythical Ukraine, a product of a fevered imagination stimulated by cockeyed historical musings. His Ukraine appears as a wayward sibling to be rescued from the ‘drug addicts and Nazis’ (his phrase) that have led it astray.” (Comment is Freed/Substack)
  • CNA's Julian Waller, 03.25.22: “Among the many elements of the operation that have elicited surprise, the failure to prepare the political ground in Ukraine for a future political settlement is particularly awkward.” (National Interest)
  • Lt. Col. (ret.) Alex Vershinin, 04.21.22: “The first lesson drawn from the battle for Kyiv is ‘never rely on host nations’ popular support when invading a country.’ The entire Kyiv axis of advance seemed to be built on premises of the elite and the populace supporting the Russian invasion, or at least not resisting.” (Russia Matters)
  • CNA's Jeffrey Edmonds, 04.28.22: “The fundamental mistake made at the leadership level, that carried down to the lowest ranks, was an underestimation of the lengths [to which] Ukraine’s leadership, military and people would go to defend it.” (War on the Rocks)1
  • Frederick W. Kagan of the American Enterprise Institute and Mason Clark of the Institute for the Study of War, 04.29.22: “Russia’s invasion has come up short for many reasons. Ukrainian heroism and remarkably intelligent and adaptive fighting techniques are major ones. Russia’s failure to prepare for serious Ukrainian resistance and, therefore, to develop supply systems that could support a prolonged assault on northern Ukraine is another.” (Foreign Affairs)
  • The Economist, 04.30.22: “The FSB, a successor to the KGB, told him [Putin] that Ukraine was riddled with Russian agents and would quickly fold.”
  • Margarita Konaev of the Center for a New American Security and the Fletcher School’s Polina Beliakova, 05.09.22: “The Ukrainians have another advantage: Because they are fighting an existential battle for the continued independence of their country, they are highly motivated and unified. Morale is a force multiplier… Ukrainians from all walks of life have volunteered for military service… The Kremlin has deeply underestimated the skill and resolve of the Ukrainians.” (Foreign Affairs)

Underestimating the collective West’s will and capacity to organize substantial military aid to Ukraine

  • Nigel Gould-Davies of IISS, 03.01.22: “Putin badly underestimated Western cohesion and resolve. Russia now faces a range of sanctions never inflicted on a major economy, notably the freezing of central bank assets. German policy has undergone a seismic shift … [including] the historic decision to send weapons to Ukraine.” (IISS)
  • Yale’s Timothy Snyder, 03.24.22: “In part due to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s successful rallying, [Russian] fantasies that the West would fracture in the face of the Russian onslaught haven’t materialized.” (WP
  • New Yorker staff writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells, 04.01.22: “Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the policy response from the West has grown increasingly expansive. A direct military confrontation with Russia … was ruled out from the start. Everything else now seems to be on the table. From Washington, cash is flowing: $13.6 billion in aid for Ukraine, including several billion dollars to purchase military equipment. Some 4,600 Javelin anti-aircraft missiles, more than half the total purchased by the Pentagon in the past decade, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, have been sent to Ukraine in the past month. Famously neutral Switzerland and Sweden have strayed from their usual positions… A status quo that had long tolerated Putin and his oligarchs is showing some signs of shifting.” (The New Yorker)
  • Chicago Council’s Ivo H. Daalder and CFR’s James M. Lindsay, 04.07.22: “How did Putin get things so wrong? In part, he clearly overestimated Russian military power and underestimated the Ukrainian resistance. But just as important was his misreading of the West. His long personal experience—observing the weak international response to Russia’s wars in Chechnya and Georgia, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its support for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—convinced him that the West would abandon Ukraine.” (Foreign Affairs
  • The Brookings Institution’s Angela Stent, 05.02.22: Putin was “wrong in his assumption that a distracted West would be unable to unite politically in the face of the Russian attack and that the Europeans and the United States’ Asian allies would never support far-reaching financial, trade and energy sanctions against Russia.(FP)

Other military failures

 

Failure to inform personnel in a timely manner that they would be taking part in an invasion, to clearly outline their units’ missions and to psychologically prepare servicemen for combat

 

 

  • Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Julian Lindley-French, formerly of the Netherlands Defense Academy, 03.15.22: “The mission goals and areas of responsibility between battalion tactical groups had not been clearly established or delineated.” (The Alphen Group)
  • CNA's Jeffrey Edmonds, 04.28.22: “Putin’s erroneous assumptions likely justified the decision, by him, to keep the invasion largely secret from the Russian people and probably many in the leadership. … At a more fundamental level, the soldiers themselves were likely shocked by suddenly finding themselves, first, at war and, second, [up] against a capable opponent.” (War on the Rocks)
  • The New School’s Nina Khrusheva, 05.10.22: “For a decision as consequential as the invasion of a neighboring country, it is remarkable how many organs of the state were out of the loop. … The military didn’t seem to be aware of the entire plan either, and spent months moving tens of thousands of troops around the border without knowing whether they would be asked to attack.” (Foreign Affairs)

Failure to prevent plummeting of morale

  • FT correspondents Sam Jones, John Paul Rathbone and Demetri Sevastopulo, 03.12.22: “The failures have resulted in a widespread, if perhaps temporary, collapse in morale, according to the Pentagon and British defense intelligence. There is even evidence of Russian soldiers sabotaging their own equipment.” (Financial Times)
  • Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Julian Lindley-French, formerly of the Netherlands Defense Academy, 03.15.22: “The Russian practice of ‘seeding’ regular army formations with conscripts led to rapid deterioration in the morale of the force in the face of stiff Ukrainian resistance.” (The Alphen Group)
  • The Economist, 04.30.22: “Disaffected troops, fed on out-of-date rations, have deserted their vehicles.”

Failure to establish a single chain of command for the operation, which, until April, lacked a single commander

  • Andrew Galer of Jane’s, cited by WaPo reporters, 03.30.22: “The Russian command structure has been ‘confused at best,’” The Washington Post quoted Galer as saying. “It is not one structure, but four, coming from four different regions of Russia. ‘A single, unified chain of command makes life a lot simpler,’ he said, ‘and they have not got that.’” (WaPo)
  • Unnamed U.S. officials who had studied the five-week-old war, paraphrased by the NYT, 03.31.22: “Russia is running its military campaign against Ukraine out of Moscow, with no central war commander on the ground to call the shots… That approach may go a long way to explain why the Russian war effort has struggled in the face of stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, the officials said.” (NYT)

Lower-level commanders lacking authority/initiative to modify original missions of their units even when facing peril

  • Writer Tim Judah, 04.10.22: “Commanders of different units continued to follow their original orders, even though events were not going to plan, thus compounding problems which arose as Ukraine’s military rose to the challenge.” (Financial Times)
  • WaPo reporters Catherine Belton and Paul Sonne, 05.09.22: “Reform efforts that began under Shoigu's predecessor stalled after he took over in 2012. He jettisoned a program to establish an American-style corps of noncommissioned officers that could have instilled professionalism in the lower ranks.  Ambitions to expand the number of professional contract military personnel weren't fully met, while the ministry spent lavishly to procure expensive weaponry. Russia went into the war without a fully ready combat reserve.” (WaPo)
  • Phillips Payson O’Brien of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and retired RAF air marshal Edward Stringer of Policy Exchange, 05.09.22: “Above all, the autocratic Russian kleptocracy does not trust low-ranking and middle-ranking officers, and so cannot allow the imaginative, flexible decision making that NATO air forces rely upon.” (The Atlantic)

 

Failure to organize effective force protection by infantry for advancing armor units

  • FT correspondents Sam Jones, John Paul Rathbone, Demetri Sevastopulo, 03.12.22: Ukraine’s “mobile foot soldiers [were] able to ambush and attack isolated advanced clusters of Russian light vehicles and stationary heavy units stuck in columns with unprotected flanks.” (Financial Times)
  • Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Julian Lindley-French, formerly of the Netherlands Defense Academy, 03.15.22: “Force protection was virtually non-existent.” (The Alphen Group)
  • Proyekt investigative news outlet, citing local reporting from Khakassia, 05.04.22: “Early in the morning [of Feb. 24], a huge convoy of SOBR special forces [part of Rosgvardiya, Russia’s National Guard analogue] set out in the direction of Kyiv,” according to recollections of special forces servicemen from Khakassia. “The column advanced without air cover, without heavy equipment, and it stretched for many kilometers as if [participating] in a parade. … As it moved, equipment started breaking, so they kept stopping. Ultimately, the convoy got shot up like in a shooting gallery just five hours after crossing the border.” (Proyekt)
  • Margarita Konaev of the Center for a New American Security and the Fletcher School’s Polina Beliakova, 05.09.22: As “Russian troops tried to push toward Kyiv and other major cities, Ukrainians took advantage of the Russians’ largely undefended supply lines and their inexplicable habit of moving tanks and other military vehicles onto open roads without using dismounted infantry troops to detect potential ambushes.” (Foreign Affairs)

 

Poor quality of equipment, partially explained by corruption

  • FT correspondents Sam Jones, John Paul Rathbone, Demetri Sevastopulo, 03.12.22: “Inadequate equipment has been the cause of other failings: Images have been shared by Ukrainians of Russian vehicles with shredded tires stuck in mud. Experts say the tires are almost certainly cheap, civilian-grade versions of those the Russian military need, suggesting, as in the case of the radios, endemic corruption in Russia’s defense procurement.” (Financial Times)
  • The Economist, 04.30.22: “Corruption surely helps explain why Russian vehicles were equipped with cheap Chinese tires, and thus found themselves stuck in the Ukrainian mud. It may also explain why so many Russian units found themselves without encrypted radios and were forced to rely on insecure civilian substitutes or even Ukrainian mobile phone networks. That, in turn, may well have contributed to the war’s toll on Russian generals.”
  • Czech Gen. (ret.) Petr Pavel, formerly of NATO, 04.30.22: “They put a lot of money into modernization,” says Gen. Pavel. “But a lot of this money was lost in the process.” (The Economist, 04.30.22)

 

Failure to ensure timely and secure provision of adequate supplies of fuel, ammunition and other items for advancing units

  • BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Beale, 03.19.22: “There is an old military saying that amateurs talk tactics while professionals study logistics. There is evidence that Russia has not given it enough consideration. Armored columns have run out of fuel, food and ammunition. Vehicles have broken down and been left abandoned, then towed away by Ukrainian tractors.” (BBC)
  • WaPo reporters Bonnie Berkowitz and Artur Galocha citing Lt. Col. (ret.) Alex Vershinin, 03.30.22: “The Russian army operates with fewer support soldiers than other militaries. About 150 of the 700 to 900 troops could be considered support, and because this formation would be an arm of a larger force in the area, they could also expect help from other logistics units. But the ratio would still not come close to that of the U.S. Army, which deploys about 10 support soldiers for every combat soldier, retired Lt. Col. Alex Vershinin said.” (WaPo)
  • A group of retired Indian diplomats and generals affiliated with the Vivekananda International Foundation, a nationalist think-tank close to the Indian government, recently discussed Russia’s “visible and abject lack of preparation” and “severe logistical incompetence.” (The Economist, 04.30.22)

Failure to provide timely and secure means of communications and navigation, plus failures in electronic warfare

  • FT correspondents Sam Jones, John Paul Rathbone, Demetri Sevastopulo, 03.12.22: “On social media, pictures have been posted of Russians using cheap, unencrypted Chinese radios and their own mobile phones to contact commanders.” (Financial Times)
  • Lt. Gen. (ret.) Ben Hodges, former commander of U.S. Army Europe, and Julian Lindley-French, formerly of the Netherlands Defense Academy, 03.15.22: “Secure communications between headquarters and forward deployed forces failed often… Joint operations between air and ground elements were rendered extremely difficult by a lack of co-ordination and communications.” (The Alphen Group)
  • WaPo columnist David Ignatius, 05.03.22: “Among Russia's most costly mistakes when it invaded Ukraine was the expectation that it would dominate the electronic warfare part of the battle. Instead, Russia has stumbled and lost its way in the little-known realm of intercepting and jamming communications, an increasingly essential element of military success.” (WaPo)
  • The Economist, 04.30.22: “Israeli military pilots were struck, both on combat tours and during their day jobs as airline pilots, by Russia’s crude approach to electronic warfare [in Syria], which involved blocking GPS signals over vast swathes of the eastern Mediterranean, sometimes for weeks at a time. When Russia’s invasion of Ukraine became bogged down, Israeli analysts realized that Russian ground forces were afflicted by many of the same problems.”

 

Failure to attain air superiority

  • BBC defense correspondent Jonathan Beale, 03.19.22: “At the start of the invasion Russia had a clear advantage in the air, with the combat aircraft it had moved near the border outnumbering Ukraine's air force by more than three to one. Most military analysts assumed the invading force would quickly gain superiority in the air, but it has not.” (BBC)
  • Wall Street Journal’s Thomas Grove and Stephen Fidler, 03.18.22: “The Russians didn’t follow their own doctrine of launching the campaign with the Russian version of ‘shock and awe’ under which they would have established superiority in the air and on the ground through rapid and massive deployment of weaponry.” (WSJ)
  • Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London, 03.02.22: “Advancing Russian forces were split up creating problems of coordination… Russian generals chose to show how smart they were by relying on speed and surprise to take key cities, using only a fraction of the assembled force, and not even bothering to gain control of the skies.” (Comment is Freed/Substack)
  • The Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center’s Serhii Kuzan (paraphrased by FT), 04.10.22: “The Russians failed to knock out important parts of Ukraine’s military infrastructure, such as Kyiv’s air defense system, he said” of the war’s early days. (Financial Times)
  • The Economist, 04.30.22: “Israeli military officers who watched the Russian air force in Syria closely came away surprised by its struggles with air defense, target acquisition and high-tempo sorties. At one stage they thought Syrian involvement in air operations was the only plausible explanation for such a low level of professionalism. In the end they concluded that Russia lacked the training, doctrine and experience to make the most of its advanced warplanes.”
  • Phillips Payson O’Brien of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and retired RAF air marshal Edward Stringer of Policy Exchange, 05.09.22: “Instead of working to control the skies, Russia’s air force has mostly provided air support to ground troops or bombed Ukrainian cities. … The Russian air force’s failure is perhaps the most important, but least discussed, story of the military conflict so far.” (The Atlantic)

 

Failure to perform combined arms operations

  • The Economist, 04.30.22: “Russia has failed to … combine air power with tanks, artillery and infantry.”

 

Russian commanders’ lack of experience in fighting large conventional wars

  • The Economist, citing historian Michael Howard, 04.30.22: “Inexperience is part of the problem. As the historian Michael Howard once noted, the expertise a military officer hones ‘is almost unique in that he may only have to exercise it once in a lifetime, if indeed that often. It is as if a surgeon had to practice throughout his life on dummies for one real operation.’ America has been wielding the scalpel nearly continuously since the end of the cold war, in Iraq, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and so on. Russia has not fought a war of this magnitude against an organized army since seizing Manchuria from Japan in 1945. Things it could do in smaller wars, in Donbas and Syria—such as using electronic sensors on drones to feed back targets for artillery—have proved harder on a larger scale.”

As the Financial Times’ reporters summed up on March 25, “What was supposed to be a lightning Russian ground incursion has shuddered to a halt, crippled by broken supply lines, tactical mistakes, low morale and determined Ukrainian resistance. Russia’s army, the largest in Europe, lacks the manpower and the tactics to punch through Ukrainian defenses.” The failure to anticipate and prevent all these mistakes is all the more astounding given that even some of the hawkish voices in Russia, such as retired general Leonid Ivashov and retired colonel Mikhail Khodarenok, issued detailed, evidence-based warnings that a Russian invasion of Ukraine won’t be a walk in the park.

Putin’s failure to heed such warnings indirectly reaffirms the long-popular view that relying on his ever narrower circle of advisors, all of whom have siloviki outlooks, can lead to rash, poor decisions.

But none of this means that Russian forces cannot learn from their mistakes and attain success after narrowing the battle front to the southeast where they have reportedly achieved significant progress. As U.S. Army Lt. Col. (ret.) Alex Vershinin warned in his recent piece on lessons of the battle for Kyiv: “The Russian government’s initial miscalculations about the level of support from the Ukrainian population undermined their plan for a quick, bloodless victory. However, the Russian government has recognized its mistakes, and after accepting a political cost, has now changed course… By changing course early, the Russian government has demonstrated itself to be a dangerous and adaptable enemy. The real challenge for Western governments lays in … making rapid course adjustments once mistakes become apparent.”

Footnotes

  1. Roman Abramovich reportedly “had to disabuse Putin of his conviction that Zelenskyy would flee the country once the invasion began.” (Bloomberg, 04.20.22)

The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the authors and/or individuals cited. An earlier version of this compilation included an excerpt from this opinion piece, which has been deleted pending verification. Photo by DmytryiOzhhikhiin free for use.