Let me tell you a story about a military that was supposedly one of the best in the world. This military had some of the best equipment: the heaviest and most modern tanks, next-generation aircraft, and advanced naval vessels. It had invested in modernization, and made what were considered some of Europe’s most sophisticated plans for conflict. Moreover, it had planned and trained specifically for a war it was about to fight, a war it seemed extremely well prepared for and that many, perhaps most, people believed it would win.
All of these descriptions could apply to the Russian army that invaded Ukraine last month. But I’m talking about the French army of the 1930s. That French force was considered one of the finest on the planet. Winston Churchill believed that it represented the world’s best hope for keeping Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany at bay. As he said famously in 1933, and repeated a number of times afterward, “Thank God for the French army.”
Of course, when this French army was actually tested in battle, it was found wanting. Germany conquered France in less than two months in 1940. All of the French military’s supposed excellence in equipment and doctrine was useless. A range of problems, including poor logistics, terrible communications, and low morale, beset an army in which soldiers and junior officers complained of inflexible, top-down leadership. In 1940, the French had the “best” tank, the Char B-1. With its 75-mm gun, the Char B-1 was better armed than any German tank, and it outclassed the Germans in terms of armor protection as well. But when the Battle of France started, the Char B-1 exhibited a number of major handicaps, such as a gas-guzzling engine and mechanical unreliability.
Having good equipment and good doctrine reveals little about how an army will perform in a war. To predict that, you must analyze not only its equipment and doctrine but also its ability to undertake complex operations, its unglamorous but crucial logistical needs and structure, and the commitment of its soldiers to fight and die in the specific war being waged. Most important, you have to think about how it will perform when a competent enemy fires back. As Mike Tyson so eloquently put it, “Everyone has a plan until they are punched in the mouth.”
What we are seeing today in Ukraine is the result of a purportedly great military being punched in the mouth. The resilience of Ukrainian resistance is embarrassing for a Western think-tank and military community that had confidently predicted that the Russians would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days. For years, Western “experts” prattled on about the Russian military’s expensive, high-tech “modernization.” The Russians, we were told, had the better tanks and aircraft, including cutting-edge SU-34 fighter bombers and T-90 tanks, with some of the finest technical specifications in the world. The Russians had also ostensibly reorganized their army into a more professional, mostly voluntary force. They had rethought their offensive doctrine and created battalion tactical groups, flexible, heavily armored formations that were meant to be key to overwhelming the Ukrainians. Basically, many people had relied on the glamour of war, a sort of war pornography, to predict the outcome of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor.
Those predictions, based on alluring but fundamentally flawed criteria, have now proved false. Western analysts took basic metrics (such as numbers and types of tanks and aircraft), imagined those measured forces executing Russian military doctrine, then concluded that the Ukrainians had no chance. But counting tanks and planes and rhapsodizing over their technical specifications is not a useful way to analyze modern militaries. As The Atlantic’s Eliot Cohen has argued, the systems that the West used to evaluate the Russian military have failed nearly as comprehensively as that military has.
Though analysts and historians will spend years arguing about exactly why prewar assessments of the Russian military proved so flawed, two reasons are immediately apparent. First, Western analysts misunderstood the Russian military’s ability to undertake the most complex operations and the robustness of its logistical capabilities. And second, prognosticators paid too little attention to the basic motivations and morale of the soldiers who would be asked to use the Russian military’s allegedly excellent doctrine and equipment.
Russia’s problems executing complex operations became obvious almost immediately after its army crossed the border into Ukraine. For instance, many observers believed that the large, advanced Russian air force would quickly gain air dominance over Ukraine, providing the Russian land forces with support while severely limiting the Ukrainians’ movement. Instead, the Ukrainians have put in place a far more sophisticated than expected air-defense system that stymied Russian air efforts from the start. By challenging the Russians in the air, the Ukrainians have shown that Russia’s army cannot efficiently conduct the complex air operations needed to seize air supremacy from a much smaller enemy. Russia’s logistical system has been, if anything, even worse. Russian trucks are poorly maintained, poorly led, and too few in number. Once the Russian forces advanced, they found that bringing up the supplies needed to keep them moving forward became more and more difficult. Many advances, most famously the 40-mile column of vehicles stretching down to Kyiv from Belarus, simply stopped.
At the same time, the supposedly professional volunteer Russian soldiers were confused as to what they were doing, totally unprepared to meet stiff Ukrainian resistance, and, from photo evidence, surprisingly willing to abandon even the most advanced Russian equipment almost untouched. As the war has gone on, and Russian casualties have mounted, Russian soldiers have fallen victim to frostbite, refused to follow orders, and, in at least one episode, tried to kill their superior officers.
More of the Western experts who study Russia’s armed forces could and should have anticipated these problems. The Russian military has not been asked to undertake complex technological or logistical operations for at least three decades. Its more recent military actions, such as the bombing of Syria, were quite straightforward operations, in which aircraft could be used to terrorize an enemy that could not efficiently fire back.
To truly understand a military’s effectiveness, analysts must investigate not only how it looks on a spreadsheet but also how it may function in the chaos and pressure of a battlefield. War is an extremely difficult and complex business. Western strategists cannot go back in time and alter their earlier assessments. Any system with a widespread consensus that an excellent and modernized Russian military would conquer Ukraine in a matter of days is a system in crisis. We can, and must, try to do better next time. If world leaders have a better understanding of the potential difficulties of any war in East Asia, for example, perhaps they will realize how hard the outcome of such a confrontation is to predict. If the Chinese tried an amphibious landing on Taiwan, for instance, they would be undertaking maybe the most complex wartime operation, and one that their military has never attempted before. I can’t tell you what would happen, but I know it would not go according to plan. War never does.