How the West Has Misunderstood Russia’s Military Capabilities

Books about Putin’s war against Ukraine are like the No.11 bus: you wait for ages, then a whole bunch turn up at once. Owen Matthews and Mark Galeotti are among the first. They will eventually be superseded by the scholarly histories. Meanwhile they bring clarity to a picture confused by instant comment in the media. Both are prolific and engaging writers, long-standing and reliable observers of the Russian scene. Both pepper their accounts with illuminating comments by their innumerable Russian and Ukrainian contacts.

Matthews’s involvement in the story is deeply personal. His mother descends from a Mongol who defected to Moscow five centuries ago. An ancestor was appointed by Catherine the Great to help manage newly conquered Ukraine and Crimea. His maternal grandfather, a senior party official, was shot during Stalin’s purges in 1937. But his father was Welsh, from a nation which, like Ukraine, knows what it is like to live in a ‘union’ dominated by a condescending, slightly contemptuous and overwhelmingly powerful ‘elder brother’. So he can empathise with the people involved on both sides of this war.

Putin’s position is increasingly shaky, as even his closest colleagues calculate how to survive his departure

He starts with what he calls the ‘poisoned roots’. Russians and Ukrainians differ violently and emotionally about their history – the 1,000 tangled years which divide and unite them. Matthews gives us an unusually clear and balanced account, which alone would make his book worth reading. His main story begins as the Soviet empire, which emerged a century ago from the empire of the Tsars, flew apart in 1991. The collapse was followed by a decade of economic misery, political chaos, corruption and international irrelevance. Most Russians felt deeply humiliated, none more so than Vladimir Putin, the obscure KGB officer who became president in 2000.

Putin’s first decade was a time of comparative stability and prosperity. If he had stopped there, future Russians might have seen him as the man who put their country securely back on the map. But his second decade was marked by increasing repression at home and adventurism abroad. His resentment at the collapse of empire and his determination to Make Russia Great Again were reflected and magnified by the even more virulently nationalist ‘philosophers’ and churchmen who surrounded him.

His obsessions came disastrously together when he became determined to restore what he regarded as the natural unity of the East Slav peoples – the Ukrainians and the Belarusians – under unchallenged Russian leadership. He launched his war against Ukraine without giving his generals time to plan it properly, and in the mistaken belief that most Ukrainians would welcome his soldiers as liberators. Matthews tells how the war unfolded in vivid detail. He brings the story right up to September. Though he couldn’t include the humiliating Russian withdrawal from Kherson, he does cover Putin’s politically risky decision to impose conscription on people who had hitherto supported his war.

Galeotti specialises in Russian military history: an early book was about the Russians’ first victory over the Mongols in the 15th century. In recent years he has produced an engaging short history of Russia and a usefully sceptical look at Putin the man. His latest book is about the way Putin has used Russia’s armed forces over the past three decades. Full of technical detail that may daunt non-specialists, it was mostly written before Putin attacked Ukraine. In places that shows, even though he has added a chapter entitled ‘Ukraine 2022: Putin’s Last War?’

The West habitually overestimates Russia’s military capacity, and Galeotti ruefully admits that he contributed to the paranoia by inventing the phrase ‘the Gerasimov Doctrine’ to describe some thoughts by the Russian chief of staff about ‘hybrid warfare’. Overexcited commentators thought the Russians had invented a novel way of threatening Nato. The Russians are of course investigating new techniques and gadgets, such as cyberwarfare and drones. So are the Americans and their allies, and they are likely to be at least as good at it as the Russians. But many of the alleged innovations of hybrid warfare – disinformation, psychological warfare, political disruption – have been around since warfare began.

Putin gave his generals substantial resources to reform the demoralised army he had inherited. They drew on the lessons of Russia’s two brutal wars in Chechnya at the turn of the millennium, the brief but muddled attack on Georgia in 2008, the almost bloodless annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the successful intervention in Syria which followed. They produced what looked like a lean, well-equipped 21st-century force.

There was less to it than met the eye. The Russians have always been good at military theory. But their insights are not always translated into practice, because of political confusion, industrial weakness and deep-rooted corruption. Putin’s new army suffers from many of the inherent weaknesses of the old: over-rigid commanders, ill-trained and demoralised soldiers, shaky logistics. It still lacks the means to fight a protracted war even on its own borders, let alone against Nato. Most western observers were nevertheless taken in. British and American intelligence may have predicted Russia’s campaign in Ukraine. But they seem to have been as surprised as the rest of us by Russia’s blundering incompetence and the nimble determination of the Ukrainians.

The future is still too murky to justify confident prediction. Neither Putin nor Zelensky are in a hurry to make the concessions needed for a negotiated settlement. Putin may imagine he can still triumph if western support for Ukraine falters over the winter. But his own position is increasingly shaky, as people begin to criticise him in public and even his closest colleagues calculate how to survive his departure. Matthews and Galeotti speculate gallantly on what might happen next. They hope without much conviction that when Putin does go, Russians might turn to a more orderly, peaceful and cooperative form of politics. But Matthews’s final words are gloomy: ‘The misbegotten war had opened a Pandora’s box of alternative futures for Russia that were much more scary than Putin’s regime had ever been.’

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