Can Moscow Learn From Its Failures in Ukraine?
Three months before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, CIA Director William Burns and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan met in Moscow with Nikolai Patrushev, an ultra-hawkish adviser to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Burns and Sullivan informed Patrushev that they knew of Russia’s invasion plans and that the West would respond with severe consequences if Russia proceeded. According to Burns, Patrushev said nothing about the invasion. Instead, he looked them in the eye, conveying what Burns took as a message: the Russian military could achieve what it wanted.
Once home, the two Americans informed U.S. President Joe Biden that Moscow had made up its mind. Not long after, Washington began publicly warning the world that Russia would attack Ukraine. Three months ahead of the invasion, the Kremlin knew that the United States had discovered its war plans and that the world would be primed for an assault—yet Putin decided to deny his intentions to Russia’s own troops and most of its senior leaders. They did not learn of the invasion until several days or even hours before it began. The secrecy was a mistake. By orchestrating the attack with just a small group of advisers, Putin undercut many of the advantages his country should have had.
These strengths were substantial. Before the invasion, Russia’s military was larger and better equipped than Ukraine’s. Its forces had more combat experience than did Kyiv’s, even though both had fought in Ukraine’s eastern territories. Most Western analysts therefore assumed that if Russian forces used their advantages wisely, the Ukrainians could not withstand the attack for long.
Why Russia did not prevail—why it was instead stopped in its tracks, routed outside major cities, and put on the defensive—has become one of the most important questions in both U.S. foreign policy and international security more broadly. The answer has many components. The excessive internal secrecy gave troops and commanders little time to prepare, leading to heavy losses. Russia created an invasion plan that was riddled with faulty assumptions, arbitrary political guidance, and planning errors that departed from key Russian military principles. The initial invasion called for multiple lines of attack with no follow-on force, tethering the military to operational objectives that were overly ambitious for the size of its forces. And the Kremlin erroneously believed that its war plans were sound, that Ukraine would not put up much resistance, and that the West’s support would not be strong enough to make a difference. As a result, Russia was shocked when its troops ran into a determined Ukraine backed by Western intelligence and weapons. Russian forces were then repeatedly beaten.
But as the war drags on into its second year, analysts must not focus only on Russia’s failures. The story of Russia’s military performance is far more nuanced than many early narratives about the war have suggested. The Russian armed forces are not wholly incompetent or incapable of learning. They can execute some types of complex operations—such as mass strikes that disable Ukraine’s critical infrastructure—which they had eschewed during the first part of the invasion, when Moscow hoped to capture the Ukrainian state largely intact. The Russian military has learned from its mistakes and made big adjustments, such as downsizing its objectives and mobilizing new personnel, as well as tactical ones, such as using electronic warfare tools that jam Ukrainian military communications without affecting its own. Russian forces can also sustain higher combat intensity than most other militaries; as of December, they were firing an impressive 20,000 rounds of artillery per day or more (although, according to CNN, in early 2023, that figure had dropped to 5,000). And they have been operating with more consistency and stability since shifting to the defensive in late 2022, making it harder for Ukrainian troops to advance.
Russia has still not been able to break Ukraine’s will to fight or impede the West’s materiel and intelligence support. It is unlikely to achieve its initial goal of turning Ukraine into a puppet state. But it could continue to adjust its strategy and solidify its occupied holdings in the south and east, eventually snatching a diminished variant of victory from the jaws of defeat.
TOO MUCH AND NOT ENOUGH
Before the war in Ukraine began, the Russian military had several known structural problems, each of which undermined its ability to conduct a large invasion. Over a decade ago, Moscow deliberately dismantled its army and turned it into a smaller force designed for rapid response operations. The transformation required massive changes. After World War II, the Soviet Union maintained an enormous force designed to wage protracted, vast conflicts in Europe by conscripting millions of soldiers and creating a huge defense industry to menace NATO and enforce communist rule in allied states. The Soviet military suffered from endemic corruption, and it struggled to produce equipment on par with the West’s. But its size and sprawling footprint made it a formidable Cold War challenge.
When the Soviet regime collapsed, Russian leaders could not manage or justify such a large military. The prospect of a land battle with NATO was fading into the past. In response, starting in the early 1990s, Russia’s leaders began a reform and modernization process. The goal was to create a military that would be smaller but more professional and nimble, ready to quickly suppress flare-ups on Russia’s periphery.
This process continued, on and off, into the new millennium. In 2008, the Russian military announced a comprehensive reform program called “New Look” that intended to restructure the force by disbanding units, retiring officers, overhauling training programs and military education, and allocating more funds—including to expand the ranks of professional enlisted soldiers and to acquire newer weapons. As part of this process, Russia replaced sizable Soviet divisions designed to fight major land wars with less-cumbersome brigades and battalion tactical groups (BTGs). Moscow also worked to reduce its dependence on conscripts.
Russia’s military modernization efforts failed to root out corruption.
By 2020, it seemed as if the military had met many of its benchmarks. Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu declared that 70 percent of his country’s equipment was new or had been modernized. The country had a growing arsenal of conventional precision munitions, and the military possessed more professional enlisted personnel than conscripts. Russia had conducted two successful operations, one in Syria—to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad—and another to take territory in eastern Ukraine.
But the 2022 wholesale invasion of Ukraine exposed these reforms as insufficient. The modernization effort neglected, for example, the mobilization system. Russia’s attempts to build better weapons and improve training did not translate into increased proficiency on the battlefield. Some of the ostensibly new gear that left Russian factories is seriously flawed. Russia’s missile failure rates are high, and many of its tanks lack proper self-defense equipment, making them highly vulnerable to antitank weapons. Meanwhile, there is little evidence that Russia modified its training programs ahead of its February 2022 invasion to prepare troops for the tasks they would later face in Ukraine. In fact, the steps Russia did take to prepare made proper training more difficult. By deploying many units near the Ukrainian border almost a year before the war and keeping equipment in the field, the Russian military deprived its soldiers of the ability to practice appropriate skills and conduct required equipment maintenance.
Russia’s modernization efforts also failed to root out corruption, which still afflicts multiple aspects of Russian military life. The country’s armed forces frequently inflated the number of prewar personnel in individual units to meet recruiting quotas, allowing some commanders to steal surplus funds. The military is plagued by missing supplies. It generally has unreliable and opaque reporting up and down the command chain, which possibly led Russia’s leadership to believe its forces were better, quantitatively and qualitatively, than they really were at the start of the invasion.
Modernization may have helped Russia in its smaller, 2014 invasion of Ukraine and its air campaigns in Syria. But it does not appear to have learned from its operational experience in either conflict. In both, for instance, Russia had many ground-based special forces teams to guide incoming strikes, something it has lacked in the current war. Russia also had a unified operational command, which it did not create for the current invasion until several months after it began.
In at least one case, the modernization effort was actively incompatible with high-intensity warfare. As part of its scheme to cultivate trust with the Russian population after its wars in Chechnya, the Kremlin largely prohibited new conscripts from serving in war zones. This meant that Russia pulled professional soldiers from most units across the country and deployed them as BTGs to staff its Ukraine invasion. The move was itself a questionable decision: even a fully staffed and equipped BTG is not capable of protracted, intense combat along an extended frontline, as many experts, including U.S. Army analysts Charles Bartles and Lester Grau, have noted. On top of that, according to documents recovered from the invasion by the Ukrainian military, plenty of these units were understaffed when they invaded Ukraine. Personnel shortages also meant that Russia’s technically more modern and capable equipment did not perform at its full potential, as many pieces were only partly crewed. And the country did not have enough dismounted infantry or intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance forces to effectively clear routes and avoid ambushes.
The resulting failures may have surprised much of the world. But they did not come as a shock to many of the experts who watch the Russian military. They knew from assessing the country’s force structure that it was ill suited to send a force of 190,000 personnel into a large neighboring state across multiple lines of advance. They were therefore astonished as the Kremlin commanded the military to do exactly that.
To understand how Russia’s bad planning undermined its performance and advantages, it is helpful to imagine how the invasion of Ukraine would have started if Moscow had followed its prescribed military strategy. According to Russian doctrine, an interstate war such as this one should begin with weeks of air and missile attacks against an enemy’s military and critical infrastructure during what strategists call “the initial period of war.” Russia’s planners consider this the decisive period of warfare, with air force operations and missile strikes, lasting between four and six weeks, designed to erode the opposing country’s military capabilities and capacity to resist. According to Russia’s theory, ground forces are typically deployed to secure objectives only after air forces and missile attacks have achieved many of their objectives.
The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) did conduct strikes against Ukrainian positions at the war’s beginning. But it did not systematically attack critical infrastructure, possibly because the Russians believed they would need to quickly administer Ukraine and wanted to keep its leadership facilities intact, its power grid online, and the Ukrainian population apathetic. Fatefully, the Russian military committed its ground troops on day one rather than waiting until it had managed to clear roads and suppress Ukrainian units. The result was catastrophic. Russian forces, rushing to meet what they believed were orders to arrive in certain areas by set times, overran their logistics and found themselves hemmed in to specific routes by Ukrainian units. They were then relentlessly bombarded by artillery and antiarmor weapons.
Moscow also decided to commit nearly all its professional ground and airborne forces to one multiaxis attack, counter to the Russian military’s tradition of keeping forces from Siberia and the Russian Far East as a second echelon or a strategic reserve. This decision made little military sense. By attempting to seize several parts of Ukraine simultaneously, Russia stretched its logistics and support systems to the breaking point. Had Russia launched air and missile strikes days or weeks before committing ground forces, attacked along a smaller frontline, and maintained a large reserve force, its invasion might have looked different. In this case, Russia would have had simpler logistics, concentrated fires, and reduced exposure for its advancing units. It might even have overwhelmed local groups of Ukrainian air defenses.
Moscow stretched its logistics and support systems to the breaking point.
It is difficult to know exactly why Russia deviated so wildly from its military doctrine (and from common sense). But one reason seems clear: the Kremlin’s political interference. According to information obtained by reporters from The Washington Post, the war was planned only by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his closest confidants in the intelligence services, the armed forces, and the Kremlin. Based on these accounts, this team advocated for a rapid invasion on multiple fronts, a mad dash to Kyiv to neutralize Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky through assassination or kidnapping, and the installation of a network of collaborators who would administer a new government—steps that a broader, more experienced collection of planners might have explained would not work.
The Kremlin’s ideas were obviously ineffective. Yet it delayed important course corrections, likely because it believed they would be politically unpopular at home. For example, the Kremlin tried to entice ad hoc volunteers in the early summer to plug holes created by severe battlefield losses, but this effort attracted far too few personnel. Only after the September collapse of the military’s front in Kharkiv did Moscow order a mobilization. Later, the Kremlin did not allow a retreat from the city of Kherson until months after their positions became untenable, risking thousands of troops.
HOW RUSSIA PLAYED ITSELF
Before and during wars, countries rely on operational security, or OPSEC, to keep crucial aspects of their plans secret and to reduce vulnerabilities for their own forces. In some cases, that entails deception. In World War II, for instance, the Allies stationed troops and decoys on a range of beaches in the southern United Kingdom to confuse the Nazis as to which location would be used to launch an attack. In other instances, OPSEC involves limiting the internal dissemination of war plans to lower the risk that they will go public. For example, in preparation for Operation Desert Storm, U.S. pilots who would later be assigned to eliminate Iraqi air defenses trained for months to conduct such strikes but were not told about their specific targets until days before the attack began.
The Kremlin’s war plans, of course, were made public months before the war. As a number of news outlets have reported, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, U.S. intelligence agencies uncovered detailed and accurate outlines of Russia’s plans and then shared them with the media, as well as with allies and partners. Rather than abort the invasion, the Kremlin insisted to journalists and diplomats that the large contingents of troops massed on Ukraine’s borders were there for training and that it had no intention of attacking its neighbor. These claims did not fool the West, but they did fool most Russians—including those in the armed forces. The Kremlin withheld its war plans from military stakeholders at many levels, from individual soldiers and pilots to general officers, and many troops and officials were surprised when they received orders to invade. A recent report by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British defense and security think tank, which was based on extensive fieldwork and interviews with Ukrainian officials, found that even senior members of the Russian General Staff were kept in the dark about the invasion plans until shortly before it started.
Because most military leaders were not brought into the planning effort until the last minute, they could not correct major mistakes. The government did not appear to undergo what is referred to in Russian strategy as a “special period”—a time of categorizing, stockpiling, and organizing resources for a major war—because its planners did not know they needed to get ready for one. The excessive secrecy also meant that Moscow missed several key opportunities to prepare the defense industry to produce and store essential ammunition. Even after they were stationed near Ukraine, Russian units were not staffed or supplied at appropriate levels, likely because planners believed the troops were conducting training exercises. And because the military did not have time to coordinate its electronic warfare systems, when Russian forces attempted to jam Ukraine’s communications, they also jammed their own.
Prewar secrecy led to problems that were especially pronounced in the air. Before the invasion, Russian pilots had experience fighting in Syria, but operations there had taken place over uncontested territory, most often in the desert. The pilots had virtually no experience fighting over a larger, forested country, let alone against an adversary capable of hitting their jets with layers of air defenses. They were given little to no training in such tactics before the invasion. That inexperience is partly why, despite sometimes flying hundreds of missions per day, Russia has been unable to dismantle Ukraine’s air force or air defenses. Another factor was how Russia decided to employ its forces. Because Russia’s ground troops were in grave danger within days, the VKS was quickly reassigned from suppressing Ukrainian air defenses to providing close air support, according to RUSI analysis. This adjustment helped prevent Russia from establishing air supremacy, and it forced the Russians to fly at low altitudes, within reach of Ukraine’s Stinger missiles. As a result, they lost many helicopters and fighter jets.
Prewar secrecy and lies were not the only ways that the Kremlin played itself. Once troops began rushing toward Kyiv, Moscow could no longer deny the fact of its invasion. But for months, it continued to obscure the conflict or delay important decisions in ways that hurt its own operations. At a basic level, Russia has refused to classify the invasion as a war, instead calling it a “special military operation.” This decision, made either to mollify the Russian population or because the Kremlin assumed the conflict would end quickly, prevented the country from implementing administrative rules that would have allowed it to gain quick access to the legal, economic, and material resources it needed to support the invasion. For at least the first six months, the false classification also made it easy for soldiers to resign or refuse to fight without facing desertion charges.
PAY NO HEED
The Russian government appears to have assumed that the Ukrainians would not resist, that the Ukrainian army would fade away, and that the West would not be able to help Kyiv in time. These conclusions were not entirely unsupported. According to The Washington Post, the Russian intelligence services had their own prewar covert polling suggesting that only 48 percent of the population was “ready to defend” Ukraine. Zelensky’s approval rating was less than 30 percent on the eve of the war. Russia’s intelligence agencies had an extensive spy network inside Ukraine to set up a collaborationist government. (Ukraine later arrested and charged 651 people for treason and collaboration, including several officials in its security services.) Russian planners may also have assumed that Ukraine’s forces would not be ready because the Ukrainian government did not move to a war footing until a few weeks before the invasion. They likely thought that Ukraine’s artillery munitions would quickly run out. Based on the West’s response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its relatively small arms provisions during the run-up to the war in 2022, Moscow might reasonably have assumed that the United States and Europe would not provide major support for Ukraine, or at least not in time.
But the Kremlin was evaluating data points that simply allowed it to see what it wished to see. The same intelligence services poll, for instance, suggested that 84 percent of Ukrainian respondents would consider Russian forces to be occupiers, not liberators. The United States and its allies broadcast Russia’s plans and various attempts to generate a pretext for invasion, and they warned Russia privately and publicly that the country would face enormous repercussions if it started a war. Yet apparently, no one in Putin’s inner circle convinced him that he should revise Russia’s approach and prepare for a different, harder type of conflict: one in which Ukrainians fought back and received substantial Western assistance.
Putin is digging in for the long haul.
Such a conflict is exactly what happened. The Ukrainians rallied to defend their sovereignty, enlisting in the military and creating territorial defense units that have resisted the Russians. Zelensky, domestically unpopular before the invasion, saw his approval ratings skyrocket and became a globally recognized wartime leader. And the Ukrainian government succeeded in getting historic amounts of aid from the West. As of late January 2023, the United States has provided $26.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, and European states have contributed billions more. The Ukrainians have been stocked with body armor, air defense systems, helicopters, M777 artillery, and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). They are receiving Western tanks. The massive and diverse weapons provisions enabled Ukrainian forces to gain a qualitative edge over Moscow’s troops in terms of battlefield awareness during Russia’s initial push to Kyiv, and it allowed Ukraine to conduct precision strikes on Russian logistics depots and command centers in its eastern regions.
Washington also began providing a stream of what U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks described as “vital” and “high-end” intelligence to Kyiv. The director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency claimed that intelligence sharing with Ukraine has been “revolutionary” in nature, and the director of the National Security Administration and U.S. Cyber Command testified that he had never seen a better example of intelligence sharing in his 35 years of government service. (According to the Pentagon, the United States does not provide intelligence on senior leader locations or participate in Ukrainian targeting decisions.)
This intelligence sharing has mattered at several pivotal points in the war. In congressional testimony, CIA director Burns said he informed Zelensky about the attack on Kyiv before the war, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Zelensky about Russian threats to him personally. These alerts gave Ukraine time to prepare a defense that was essential to protecting both the capital and Zelensky. According to senior defense officials, the United States also provided planning and war-gaming support for Ukraine’s September counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson, both of which ended with tremendous success.
THE BEAR IS LEARNING
Ukraine’s supporters have had many reasons to celebrate in 2022, and joyful scenes have emerged from recently liberated Ukrainian land. But difficult scenes followed. Ukrainian and international investigators have uncovered evidence of war crimes in recently liberated cities such as Bucha, Izyum, and Kherson. And despite hopes to the contrary, it is too soon to say that Russia’s campaign will collapse. Putin is certainly digging in for the long haul, and although wounded, the Russian military is still capable of complex operations, adaptive learning, and withstanding a level of combat that few militaries in the world can. Sustained high-intensity, high-attrition combined-arms warfare is extraordinarily difficult, and Russia and Ukraine now have more recent experience with it than any other country in the world.
Take, for example, the VKS. Although its pilots have failed to suppress Ukraine’s air defenses, analysts must remember that such missions are notoriously time-consuming and difficult, as U.S. pilots have noted. The VKS is learning, and rather than continuing to waste aircraft by flying more-conservative and less-effective missions, it is trying to wear down Ukrainian air defenses by using empty Soviet-era missiles and Shaheed drones purchased from Iran.
The Russian military also appears to be getting better at performing one of the most dangerous army maneuvers of all: crossing rivers under fire. Such operations require planned withdrawals, discipline, force protection plans, and tight sequencing that few others demand. When these operations are executed poorly, many soldiers can die; in May 2022, the Ukrainian military destroyed a Russian BTG as it attempted to cross the Donets River. But the military’s November withdrawal across the Dnieper River was comparatively smooth, partly because it was better planned. Despite coming under artillery fire, thousands of Russian forces successfully retreated east.
Russia has learned to correct for past mistakes in other areas, as well. In late spring, Russian forces finally succeeded in jamming Ukrainian communications without jamming their own. During September, the Kremlin declared a partial mobilization to compensate for personnel shortages, pulling 300,000 draftees into the armed forces. The process was chaotic, and these new soldiers have not received good training. But now, these new forces are inside eastern Ukraine, where they have shored up defensive positions and helped depleted units with basic but important tasks. The government is also incrementally putting the Russian economy on a wartime footing, helping the state get ready for a long conflict.
These modifications are starting to show results. Russia’s defense industrial base may be straining under sanctions and import restrictions, but its factories are intact and working around the clock to try to keep up with demand. Although Russia is running low on missiles, it has expanded its inventory by repurposing antiship cruise missiles and air-defense missiles. The Russian military has not yet improved its battle damage assessment process or its ability to strike moving targets, but it is now hitting Ukraine’s electrical grid with precision. As of January 2023, Russian strikes have damaged roughly 40 percent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, at one point knocking out power for more than 10 million people.
The Ukrainians’ learning curve has also been steep, and through experimentation, they have been able to keep Russian forces off balance. The military has shown creativity in its planning, and it has hit Russian air bases and the Black Sea Fleet. Ukraine’s pilots and soldiers, like Russia’s, have garnered remarkable and unique combat experience. Ukraine has benefited more from external support than has Russia.
The Kremlin aspires to do more than just hold the land it has already taken.
But Russian forces have successfully adapted and experimented as they have assumed a defensive posture. After weeks of devastating HIMARS attacks during the summer of 2022, Russia moved its command sites and many logistics depots out of range. Russian forces have shown more competence on the defensive than on the offensive, particularly in the south, where they created layered defenses that were difficult for Ukrainian forces to fight through. General Sergey Surovikin, who was named Russia’s overall commander in October, was previously the commander of the southern operational group, and he brought this experience to other regions that Russia partly occupies. Troops have dug extensive trenches and created other defensive positions.
Notably, Russia withdrew from the city of Kherson and transitioned to defense only after Surovikin was appointed as the war’s commander. Putin also began admitting that the conflict will be challenging once Surovikin assumed charge. These changes suggest that Putin may have received more realistic appraisals of the situation in Ukraine under Surovikin’s tenure.
Yet in January 2023, Surovikin was demoted in favor of General Valeriy Gerasimov. Although the reasons for this command change are unclear, palace intrigue and cronyism may be behind it rather than any specific failure of Surovikin’s leadership. And no Russian commander has been able to break Ukraine’s will to fight even though Russia continues to launch missiles that inflict suffering on the Ukrainian people. But the bombings and entrenchment may well degrade Ukraine’s capacity, making it harder for the country to reclaim more of its land.
The Kremlin, however, aspires to do more than just hold the land it has already taken. Putin has made it clear that he wants all four provinces that Moscow illegally annexed in September—Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia—and in a televised meeting last December, he indicated that he is prepared to undergo “a long process” to get them. Putin’s downsized objectives and sudden candor about the campaign’s length show that the Kremlin can adapt to its weakened position and condition its population for a long war. Russia, then, is either evolving or buying time until it can regenerate its forces. The question is whether its changes will be enough.
There are reasons to think the shifts will not salvage the war for Russia, partly because so many things need to change; no single factor explains why the war has gone so poorly for Russia thus far. The explanations include problems that are not easy to address because they are intractable parts of the Russian system, such as the self-defeating deceit illustrated by the Kremlin’s decision to prioritize secrecy and domestic stability over adequate planning. And Moscow has, if anything, doubled down on silencing frank discussion of the conflict, even going so far as to criminalize assessments of combat deaths and forecasts about how the war might unfold. Although officials can safely talk about some problems—for example, Russian military leaders have called for an expansion of the armed forces—others remain decidedly off-limits, including the larger issues of incompetence and the poor command climate that has led to the military’s horrific problems inside Ukraine. This censorship makes it hard for the Kremlin to get good information on what is going wrong in the war, complicating efforts to correct course.
Some of the major issues for Russia are largely beyond Moscow’s control. Ukrainian resolve has hardened against Russia, something the Russian military, for all its brutality, cannot undo. Russia has also been unable or unwilling to interdict Western weapons flows or intelligence to Ukraine. As long as these two factors—Ukrainian resolve and Western support—remain in place, the Kremlin cannot turn Ukraine into a puppet state, as it originally sought to do.
Just as the West overestimated the Russians, it could now underestimate them.
The Russian military has, however, corrected certain important problems. To overcome a bad plan, it fixed its command structure and changed many of its tactics. It has consolidated its positions in Ukraine after heavy losses while adding more personnel, which will make Ukrainian counteroffensives more costly. Russian military leaders announced their intention to bring back many of the larger divisions from before the 2008 reforms to partly correct for force structure problems. As the Russian economy mobilizes, the defense base could better produce more equipment to make up for wartime losses. Western defense industries, meanwhile, are straining under the demands of replenishing Ukraine. Russia may calculate that it can shore up its position while biding time until Western supplies are exhausted or the world moves on.
But analysts should be careful about forecasting outcomes. The classic adage still holds: in war, the first reports are often wrong or fragmentary. Only time will tell whether Russia can salvage its invasion or whether Ukrainian forces will prevail. The conflict has already followed an unpredictable course, and so the West should avoid making hasty judgments about what went wrong with Russia’s campaign, lest it learn the wrong lessons, devise incorrect strategies, or acquire the wrong types of weapons. Just as the West overestimated Russia’s capabilities before the invasion, it could now underestimate them. And it could overestimate a similarly closed system, such as the Chinese military. It takes time for analysts to learn how a combatant adapts and changes its tactics.
Experts should not, however, toss out the tools they now use to evaluate military power. Many standard metrics—such as the way a force is structured, the technical specifications of its weapons, and the quality of its training programs—are still valid. But although these factors, along with a military’s doctrine and previous operations, are important, they are not necessarily predictive. As this war and other recent conflicts have shown, analysts need better ways to measure the intangible elements of military capability—such as the military’s culture, its ability to learn, its level of corruption, and its will to fight—if they want to accurately forecast power and plan for future conflicts.
Unfortunately, analysts will likely have plenty of time to develop and hone such metrics. Because for all the uncertainty, this much is clear: as Russia continues to mobilize and Kyiv and its supporters dig in, the war is poised to continue.