Three ways Russia showed military ‘incompetence’ during its invasion of Ukraine

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By James Dwyer for The Conversation,

Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, it has become clear that the Russian military is experiencing setbacks – both technical and strategic – that are perhaps unexpected from one of the world’s largest world military forces.

There are several issues one could examine in relation to Russia’s poor military performance in Ukraine to date, such as the inability to effectively counter Ukrainian drones or the inability to deliver the kind of cyber warfare expected.

But failures in three specific categories deserve closer examination.

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Organizational failures

The first problem that quickly emerged was the poor performance of the Russian armed forces. There has been, at times, a complete lack of logistical support for Russian forces on the front lines – bogging down the Russian advance and sometimes crippling it altogether.

There were numerous reports of Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers running out of fuel, leading Russian soldiers to demand, commandeer, and steal diesel to keep advancing.

Russian soldiers, many of them conscripts, have been forced to search for food, with reports of soldiers being forced to steal chickens and special forces soldiers breaking into shops to loot food.

The rations provided to Russian troops were said to have been sufficient for only a few days, and a video emerged claiming rations exceeded by seven years.

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Russia has had plenty of time to prepare for its invasion and build up logistical support, with months of open preparation. But scenes of huge stranded convoys unable to make progress speak volumes about Russia’s astonishing mismanagement.

This series of logistical failures is both inconvenient for Russia and beneficial for Ukraine.

There were also extraordinary communication failures, both between military units and with soldiers before the conflict. Reports emerged after the early stages of the invasion revealed that many Russian soldiers were completely unaware they were invading.

On the contrary, the captured Russian soldiers claim that they had the impression that it was a military exercise, until they came under fire from Ukrainian units.

Many Russian communications were also transmitted over unencrypted media. Russian bombers transmitting on open high-frequency radio had their conversations listened in on by amateur radio enthusiasts.

Even communications between Russian units on the ground are transmitted in broad daylight, which facilitates interception by Ukraine. Overall, this paints a clear picture of Russian incompetence.

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To top it off, the lack of morale (with many Russian soldiers surrendering or abandoning vehicles and equipment) only exacerbated the effects of Russia’s poor military performance.

Lack of air superiority

One of Russia’s most significant failures, and potentially the most detrimental to its campaign, was its failure to achieve air superiority.

In military terms, it refers to a state having a sufficient degree of dominance to conduct air operations (such as close air support or airstrikes) without significant interference from opposing forces and air defense systems.

Before the start of the invasion, it was widely expected that Russia would quickly achieve air superiority. Indeed, on paper, the Russian Air Force is vastly superior to that of Ukraine.

Prior to the invasion, Ukraine had the seventh-largest air force in Europe. While that sounds mighty – and in relative terms it is – that’s some 200 aircraft of all types (fighters, close air support, helicopters, transport aircraft and others). By comparison, Russia alone has about 1,500 fighter jets.

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The backbone of the Ukrainian Air Force is made up of old Soviet-era fighters, namely 50 MiG-29s and 32 Su-27s. Meanwhile, Russia uses modern versions of Soviet aircraft, such as the Su-30, Su-33 and Su-35 (updated variants of the Su-27 that Ukraine operates).

Russia also has modern attack aircraft such as the Su-34 (another update of the Su-27, optimized for attack operations) as well as long-range strategic bombers like the Tu-22, Tu -95 and Tu-160.

However, footage has emerged suggesting Russian attack aircraft rely on generic consumer-grade GPS units. If true, it only reinforces Russia’s lack of capability.

Just before the war, US intelligence predicted that an invasion would begin with a blistering Russian assault on Ukrainian air power.

However, two weeks after the start of the conflict, Ukraine still possesses most of its air and anti-missile defences. This has raised questions about why Russia has not fully used its air power. Is he holding back in case the conflict escalates?

Whatever the reason, Russia’s lack of air superiority early in the conflict may be one of its most significant strategic mistakes, to the benefit of the Ukrainian defenders.

Russian aircraft are struggling to provide necessary support to Russian ground forces, giving Ukrainian forces an opening to counter the Russian advance.

Weapon Performances and Failures

Russia’s high-tech offensive capabilities also performed poorly.

The first stages of the invasion included a strategic bombardment of Ukrainian targets using cruise missiles and Iskander short-range ballistic missiles.

Reports indicate that as of March 1, Russia had fired up to 320 missiles, the majority being Iskander short-range ballistic missiles – making this the largest and most intense short-range ballistic missile bombardment between two states.

The Iskander is estimated to have a range of 500 km and an accuracy of 2-5 meters. Before the invasion, it was expected to be an effective and devastating weapon system. Curiously, his performance was lacking.

For example, the Iskanders were used to attack Ukrainian airbases, destroy runways and prevent the Ukrainian Air Force from operating effectively. But as seen below, the Iskander’s previously vaunted accuracy looks far less impressive than expected.

As the conflict progressed, Russia made more frequent use of lower-tech weapon systems, such as unguided “dumb” bombs and cluster munitions. This could indicate that Russia has either spent its limited number of high-tech weapons or withheld reserves in case the conflict escalates.

The Ukrainian Air Force remains in the fight, despite all the obstacles. Russia will undoubtedly learn from its problems and try to correct. Unfortunately, he still has the advantage of numbers, both in terms of troops and equipment.

However, it is likely that the conflict cannot last long from Russia, especially with the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy. For Ukraine, the delays caused by Russia’s mistakes may well lead to better results.

(The author is from the University of Tasmania.)

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