The Ukrainian military makes decisions at the lowest possible level. It’s a problem for Russia

When Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered unmarked troops to Ukraine in 2014, first in Crimea and then in the eastern Donbas border region, they were well equipped, trained and organized. over – and they crushed the competition.

Eight years on, the roles are reversed. It is due to a multitude of factors: The modern weapons and training that the allies provide to Ukraine, the much better morale of the army, the caliber of the commanders, intelligence aid and planning. from America, plus the catastrophic tactical flaws of the Kremlin and its generals.

However, one cause stands out: The very different ways in which the two armies of Soviet origin learned to fight.

The impact on and off the battlefield is profound, with Ukrainian forces able to conduct rapid combined force operations in a September drive from Kharkiv in the northeast to the Donbas region, just a few months earlier, had proved beyond the capabilities of their Russian adversary. .

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

“He’s not joking,” US President Joe Biden said on Thursday of Putin’s threats to deploy tactical nuclear weapons. “Because of his army, you might say, is significantly underperforming.”

Russia’s poor performance has sparked a backlash at home, with hawks ranging from Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov to prominent mercenary commander Yevgeny Prigozhin criticizing the military commanders’ failure. team. On Saturday, Putin publicly put a single general – Sergei Surovikin – in command of the entire Ukraine campaign for the first time. Surovikin headed the Russian air force and was in charge of the southern stage of the invasion.

People close to the Russian Defense Ministry say they have recognized the effectiveness of Ukraine’s improved command structure since the early stages of the war. Meanwhile, Russian military bloggers have described the disorienting impact of attacks from the rear by small, mobile Ukrainian units, because it is difficult to know the threat of encirclement during this time. how big is real time.

After the defeat in 2015, Ukraine’s regular army had to rebuild almost from scratch. Created by decades of underfunding, corruption and subsequent deliberate deterioration under former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, it can arm just 6,000 combat-ready troops against the forces. Russian future.

A series of defense ministers Yanukovych appointed before being forced out of office in 2014 have been prosecuted; in one case, the charge was “treason in the interests of the Russian Federation.” By the time Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a civilian businessman, was parachuted into the ministry to push for reforms in 2015, it was clear that Russia’s plan to “demilitarize” Ukraine had been in the works for years.

“It’s never just about Donbas,” said Zagorodnyuk in an interview in Kyiv. “It was from the very beginning about controlling the whole of Ukraine.”

Ukrainian military reform

When Putin launched his invasion earlier this year, it was with an army that in eight years had spent more money and equipment. If the US agrees with the Kremlin on anything, it’s that Ukraine’s defenses are superior and Kyiv could fall within the next few days.

That did not happen in part because at the heart of Ukraine’s military reform, according to Zagorodnyuk, was the principle of “command of duty,” in which decision-making is delegated to the lowest possible level.

“It is 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 traced the trajectory of 30. post-independence that both countries – including them. militaristic – learned from very different pasts: dictatorship and imperialism on the one hand, rebellion and individualism on the other. “That’s also why the war is going on.”

The military was one of the last organizations in Ukraine to change. However, according to Zagorodnyuk, the reforms are “transitional.” Add NATO training, the development of a new American-style non-commissioned officer corps with greater decision-making power and respect, plus eight years of combat experience in the Donbas, and a military record Ukrainian team has become significantly different from Russia.

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

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

After directly intervening, if secretly, to decide the Donbas conflict 2014-2015, Russia mainly sent officers to coordinate fighting in the trenches. As a result, it never had that training ground for its troops. While the majority of Russian troops who arrived in Ukraine in February have never fought, Ukraine has both serving troops and deep stockpiles.

At least, equally important are the young officers who have served in Donbas since 2014, trained with NATO and became generals – including the 49-year-old commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.

That distinction was significant when Putin ordered the mobilization of combat-aged men already serving in the armed forces, months after Ukraine ordered the mobilization of its army. Russia’s mobilization is aimed at raising about 300,000 recruits, but there are currently few officers qualified to train them into a combat force and no NCOs empowered to advise them in military operations. taste.

Nor is it easy to change the rigid, top-down nature of Russia’s military command structure within the political system that Putin has created since coming to power more than 20 years ago.

Although the outcome of the war is still undecided and Russia’s armed forces retain an advantage in key areas such as large numbers of artillery, long-range missiles and aircraft, they are now lost the initiative to Ukraine.

“I think our experience since 1991 has contributed a lot,” said Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a Ukrainian government think tank. That included mass uprisings in Orange in 2004 and in 2014 in Maidan, as well as the conflict in Donbas that followed, when Ukrainians immediately organized themselves to feed the protesters, establishing a populace. or finance basic medical and military supplies.

By February, when Ukraine was under attack from a larger and better equipped Russian force, it was only the instincts of self-organization that saved cities like Kharkiv, Mykolayiv and Kryvyi Rih from being overwhelmed, because In many cases, there is little or no. regular army to protect them.

“We need to improvise to survive,” says Bielieskov. If people waited for orders from Kyiv, or “we fought the Russian way, we would quickly be overwhelmed.”

When Ukraine turned to the offensive, those advantages showed again. Like Russia, it faced the challenge of penetrating defenses without the necessary air superiority to protect its forces from ambushes or counterattacks.

Relying on slow-moving artillery, Russia can only attack Ukraine’s defenses and then gradually move forward in the Donbas. In contrast, heading east from Kharkiv, Ukraine can move its heavy guns forward in real time to perform an air cover role, according to Bielieskov.

That is partly due to the deployment of a number of mobile systems such as the French Caesar self-propelled artillery vehicle and the Polish Krab. But it was also because Ukrainian gunners learned to quickly dismantle and reassemble the much richer, more static American M777 guns.

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

– With the support of Daryna Krasnolutska


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