Ukraine’s military hands decision-making to the lowest possible level. That’s a problem for Russia

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered unmarked troops into Ukraine in 2014, first into Crimea and then into the eastern border areas of Donbas, they were better equipped, trained and organized, and crushed their opponents.

Eight years later, the roles are reversed. This is due to a multitude of factors: the modern weapons and training provided to Ukraine by its allies, the much improved morale of its military, the caliber of its commanders, US intelligence and planning assistance, a more catastrophic tactical mistakes by the Kremlin and its generals.

One cause, however, stands out: the very different ways in which two armies with Soviet roots have learned to fight.

The impact on and off the battlefield has been profound, with Ukrainian forces able to conduct rapid, combined-force operations in a September drive from Kharkiv in the northeast to the Donbas region that, few months earlier, he had proved beyond the capabilities of his Russian adversaries. .

In the southern Kherson region, Ukraine has added a third major front where it is forcing Russian troops to withdraw, after Kharkiv and, in April, the capital, Kyiv. On Saturday, a large explosion hit the bridge that Putin built to connect Crimea to the mainland.

“He’s not kidding,” US President Joe Biden said Thursday of Putin’s threats to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. “Because their military, you could say, is significantly underperforming.”

Russia’s poor performance has sparked a backlash at home, with hawkish figures from Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov to notorious mercenary boss Yevgeny Prigozhin confronting the failures of military commanders. On Saturday, Putin publicly put a single general, Sergei Surovikin, in command of the entire operation in Ukraine for the first time. Surovikin heads Russia’s air force and had been in charge of the southern theater of the invasion.

People close to the Russian defense ministry said they recognize the efficiency of Ukraine’s more delegated command structure from the early stages of the war. Russian military bloggers, for their part, have described the disorienting effect of attacks from the rear of small, mobile Ukrainian units, because it is difficult to know in real time the extent of the encirclement threat.

After its defeat in 2015, Ukraine’s regular army had to be rebuilt almost from scratch. Emptied by decades of underfunding, corruption and subsequent deliberate degradation under former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, it could field just 6,000 combat-ready troops against Russia’s hybrid forces.

A group of defense ministers appointed by Yanukovych before he was forced out of office in 2014 have since been prosecuted; in one case, the charge was “treason to the interests of the Russian Federation.” When Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a civilian businessman, was parachuted into the ministry in 2015 to push for reform, it was clear to him that a Russian plan to “demilitarize” Ukraine had been in place for years.

“It was never just about Donbas,” said Zagorodnyuk, interviewed in Kyiv. “It was from the beginning to control all of Ukraine.”

The military reform of Ukraine

When Putin launched his invasion earlier this year, it was with an army that had been lavished with extra spending and equipment for eight years. If the US agreed with the Kremlin on anything, it was that Ukraine’s defense force was overwhelmed and that Kyiv could fall in a matter of days.

That didn’t happen in part because at the core of Ukraine’s military reform, according to Zagorodnyuk, was the principle of “mission task command,” in which decision-making is passed to the lowest possible level.

“It’s the exact opposite of what happened in the post-Soviet and Russian armed forces,” said Zagorodnyuk, who served as defense minister from 2019 to 2020. He charted a 30-year trajectory after independence in which both nations , including its military—were learning from very different pasts: one authoritarian and imperial, the other rebellious and individualistic. “It’s the very reason the war is being fought.”

The army was one of the last institutions in Ukraine to change. Still, according to Zagorodnyuk, the reforms were “transformative.” Add to that NATO training, the development of a new US-style non-commissioned officer corps with decision-making powers and more respect, plus more than eight years of experience fighting in the Donbas, and the profile of the Ukrainian army has become very different from that of Russia. .

German newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported on Sunday that the European Union has agreed to train 15,000 more Ukrainian soldiers in EU countries, starting with Germany and Poland.

According to Zagorodnyuk, up to 500,000 Ukrainian men and women cycled through the trenches along the Donbas ceasefire line in 2015, where fighting continued daily despite the ceasefire, until Putin’s invasion on 24 of February

After intervening directly, if covertly, to decide the 2014-2015 Donbass conflict, Russia sent mostly operatives to coordinate the fight in the trenches. As a result, he never had such a training ground for his troops. While the vast majority of Russian soldiers who arrived in Ukraine in February had never been to war, Ukraine had a serving military and a deep reserve bank.

At least as important are the young officers who served in the Donbass since 2014, trained in NATO and became generals, including 49-year-old Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.

That difference has important implications, as Putin orders a mobilization of men of fighting age who have at some point served in the armed forces, months after Ukraine ordered its own draft. Russia’s mobilization aims to raise about 300,000 new recruits, but there are few qualified officers available to train them into a fighting force, and no NCOs empowered to mentor them within units.

Nor can the rigid, top-down nature of the Russian military command structure be easily altered in the political system that Putin has created since coming to power more than 20 years ago.

Although the outcome of the war is far from decided and Russia’s armed forces retain advantages in key areas such as large amounts of artillery, long-range missiles and aircraft, they have for now lost the initiative to Ukraine

“I think our experience since 1991 contributed a lot,” says Mykola Bielieskov, a researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian government think tank. This includes the 2004 Orange and 2014 Maidan popular uprisings, as well as the Donbas conflict that followed, when Ukrainians instantly self-organized to feed protesters, form militias, or finance multitudes of medical supplies and basic military

In February, when Ukraine was attacked by a much larger and better-equipped Russian force, it was only the instinct for self-organization that saved cities like Kharkiv, Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih from being overwhelmed, because in many there were few or no cases. regular army to defend them.

“We had to improvise to survive,” Bielieskov said. If people had waited for orders from Kyiv, or “had we fought like the Russians do, we would have been quickly overwhelmed.”

As Ukraine has gone on the offensive, these advantages have been on display again. Like Russia, it has faced the challenge of having to break through defensive lines without the air superiority needed to protect its forces from ambushes or counterattacks.

Relying on slow-moving artillery, Russia could only pound Ukraine’s defenses and then slowly advance into the Donbas. On its way east from Kharkiv, on the other hand, Ukraine could advance its heavy weapons in real time to play the role of air cover, according to Bielieskov.

This was partly due to having some mobile systems such as the French Caesar and Polish Krab self-propelled howitzers to deploy. But it was also because the Ukrainian gunners had learned to quickly disassemble and reassemble the much more abundant and static US M777 shells.

“I think the Russians made a big mistake by giving us eight years to prepare,” Bielskov said.

— With the assistance of Daryna Krasnolutska

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