Why the Russian Army is so incompetent

Why the Russian Army is so incompetent. By James Dunnigan.

The February 24 Russian invasion of Ukraine is revealing to the rest of the world problems the Russian military has suffered from for over a century.

It’s all about conscription and, since 1917, the Russian government not trusting their troops and Russians now going to extremes to avoid being conscripted. This widespread opposition to peacetime conscription was unique to Russia. Other European nations adopted conscription as early as the 1800s, but none had as much popular dislike of conscription and some very real reasons to avoid conscript service. …

Conscription has long been a major problem for politicians in Russia. The rich or smart can often get out of conscription, so the conscripts tend to be the less able members of society — and make poor troops.

When the Cold War ended unexpectedly in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, European voters began demanding an end to conscription. That happened throughout Europe during the 1990s, but was reversed after 2014 when a much-reduced Russian military again became a threat. This was a different threat because post-Soviet Russia had a military one fifth the size of the Cold War Soviet forces and most of the troops were very reluctant conscripts who only had to serve one year. Even that was worth a large bribe, if your family could afford it, to buy an exemption.

One of the many causes of the Soviet Union collapsing was increasing public protests against Russian conscripts being killed in an unpopular eight-year war in Afghanistan. Some 15,000 Russian died in Afghanistan, most of them conscripts. There were unprecedented public protests by parents who had lost sons as well as parents who did not want their conscripted sons sent there.

In the 1990s there were more protests, this time by Russian voters in a democratic Russia that sent thousands of conscripts into the Caucasus to put down a Chechen uprising. Many conscripts were killed and Russian leaders finally remembered that they lowered their losses in Afghanistan by depending more on commandos and airborne troops, who were all volunteers. …

By 2014 Russian leaders realized that getting conscripts killed in combat outside of Russia was not worth the political trouble and formed all-volunteer combat units that were only about ten percent of the military and that was but one of many problems that still existed in the Russian military.

The problem is rooted in the fear that autocracies have of non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and junior officers. Revolt comes from those who know how to run the military, but with insufficient rewards in the status quo. For instance, Napoleon was a junior artillery officer before leading his rebellion and becoming emperor.

During World War II Russia produced many effective NCOs because of all the combat experience and lack of time to train outstanding troops as officers. But right after both World Wars Russia got rid of these experienced sergeants by offering officer ranks for those who wanted to stay in the military and thereby eliminated the experienced wartime NCOs. …

In 2011, after over a decade of false starts and failure, the Russian Army believed it had a workable plan to create an efficient NCO force. That first effort did not work, despite the fact that for most of the last century, the peacetime Russian Army has been a mess, and the main reason has been the lack of NCOs. Conscription has been a contributing factor, as too many troops were just there for two or three years, and left just as some were becoming useful and capable of being a career NCO. The 2011 plan tried to take advantage of this by offering selected conscripts a competitive (with civilian jobs) wage if they agreed to continued service, with the option of promotion to better paying NCOs rank. ….

Russia accepts that NCOs must be trained to be able to take over command if all the officers are killed or disabled. This actually happened during World War II, but that made Communist Party leaders nervous. They noted that during the communist revolution in 1917, many of the rebel leaders had been NCOs in the Czarist army. The communists also noted that this was not the first time this had happened. It had occurred several times in the last two centuries, most notably during the French revolution of the 1790s. For monarchists and despots of all flavors, NCOs were a flaw, not a feature of an effective peacetime military. That decision was a long-term failure because the NCOs are essential for knowing what is going on with the troops (morale, skills, loyalty and so on) and are sensitive to any changes. Officers can rarely do that even though, on paper, Russian junior officers are supposed to take care of this. Trying to use lieutenants in place as older and more experienced sergeants missed the point that the key NCOs are the older ones, with a decade or more in service. These are the platoon sergeants and company first sergeants, as well as key members of headquarters staffs. After all, who do you think trains the new officers and enlisted soldiers joining these organizations? …

After World War II, the ratio of officers to troops was expanded in the Russian military and professional NCOs practically disappeared. With that, morale plummeted and discipline disintegrated. The dismal effects of this policy were obvious whenever Russian troops came under fire, as in Hungary (1956), Czechoslovakia (1968) and Afghanistan in the 1980s.

But the problems were ignored. Russian leaders continued to believe that “quantity had a quality all its own.” It does, but with the rise of the machines, it no longer works with poorly trained and led armies. It definitely does not work when parents can vote and publicly protest abuse of conscripts or the continued use of conscription.

Since the 1980s Russia also had a declining birth rate to contend with, which meant there were far fewer young men to recruit. The end of the Russian police state made it easier to evade conscription, which most potential conscripts do. Russia can no longer rely on quantity or make up for a lack of quality. The 2011 Russian plan failed because not enough young men (or women) were interested in joining the army as anything but an officer.

Russia has tried to avoid going with an all-volunteer force, as most other European nations have done. Partly it was a lack of money and partly a reluctance to do away with the tradition of conscription. Because of the lack of NCOs, conscripts have had an awful time for decades, and this has become a source of popular and legendary discontent about military service. The Soviet government managed to suppress popular unrest over this.

But even before the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, fathers, and grandfathers, and especially their wives, were no longer quietly enduring this mess, and the abuse their sons were exposed to. The 2011 plan was to simultaneously eliminate the hazing of new recruits while flooding the army with competent NCOs. The latter was the real cure for the hazing, as NCOs spend a lot more time in the barracks, and with the troops. A competent NCO can sort out problems in the barracks. In the West, they do it all the time. It is one of their primary functions. Even with Russian conscription now one year for most soldiers, there is still the hazing of new conscripts by those who have been in a few months. Eliminating this debilitating hazing has proved much more difficult than anyone anticipated.

The 2011 reforms failed in part because Russian conscripts only serve 12 months, hardly enough time to turn young civilians into anything militarily useful. … The new, trained, NCOs arrived slowly and found themselves in an uphill battle against “tradition.” Many of these new NCOs reacted by not renewing their contracts and leaving. Change does not come easily in the Russian army. But if the Russians are ever to have a capable military, they have to create credible platoon and 1st Sergeants as well as Sergeants Major. …


The army planned to send in units with conscripts into Ukraine to handle transportation and distribution of supply as well as for policing parts of the Ukraine that are considered free of Ukrainian resistance. Since 2015 Ukraine has organized, trained and armed thousands of volunteers as local defense forces. Weapons were stockpiled for distribution to volunteers if the Russians invaded. The Russians came and the local volunteers are making Russian travel through many “liberated” areas dangerous. The volunteers shoot at any armed Russians, be they conscripts or kontrakti. In some cases, the Russian combat units were told to just bypass this unexpected resistance and let units full of armed conscripts take care of it. Old traditions die hard in Russia.

It’s always been thus.

Before WWI, it was widely believed that the massive Russian Army was a steamroller that would crush all of Europe before it. This belief was a major factor in the origins of WWI. The Austrians were threatening to invade Serbia, a Russian ally, over the assassination of an Austrian prince. The Germans figured the Russians would mobilize their massive army, and that the only way they could possibly deal with it was to have the entire German army arrayed against the Russians. The French and Russians were allied, but the rickety old Russians would be slow to mobilize. Therefore the German solution was to mobilize quickly, storm into Paris and defeat the French quickly (as they did in 1871), then rail back across Germany so the whole German Army could counter the Russian onslaught on Berlin.

In the event, the German advance on Paris was slower than the German planners anticipated, primarily because the newly mobilized Germans came from all walks of life and weren’t physically fit yet, and couldn’t keep up the with the required marching schedule — which was based on fit professional soldiers. The miracle of the Marne saw the German thrust tuned back just outside Paris, followed by stalemate and static trench warfare.

In the east, at Tannenberg and later battles, the Russian Army was revealed as hopelessly incompetent. Patriotic and numerous yes, but, for instance, they had several soldiers sharing the same rifle because corruption and incompetence meant there weren’t enough rifles and that bullets were scarce. The Germans defeated Russia entirely in three years, despite having to fight the French and British at the same time.

In WWII, in the weeks before Germany and Russia started fighting, the Russians had more tanks, armored vehicles, and combat aircraft than the rest of the world put together. They were generally modern, well designed weapons, better than those of other nations. their army was much larger than the German Army, and they weren’t fighting on several other fronts as well. Yet the Germans almost defeated them in six months, faltering only just outside Moscow.

The Russian Army’s reputation has always greatly exceeded its later performance, and presumably the Ukraine will be another case of the same.