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In the months leading up to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, world leaders had become increasingly apprehensive about the build-up of Russian troops on the border. As the war enters its fifth week, were those fears about the Russian military justified?
Russian forces continue to besiege major cities like Kharkov, Chernihiv and Mariupol and have made progress but have not won the decisive victory Putin probably expected and most of the country remains under Ukrainian control.
The British Ministry of Defense said on Saturday that Russian forces were reluctant to conduct infantry operations and instead relied on air and artillery bombardments. Kiev has said more than 16,000 Russian troops have been killed, including half a dozen generals. Russia said on Friday 1,351 of its soldiers had been killed. NATO estimates the Russian death toll after four weeks of fighting at between 7,000 and 15,000.
Underestimating Ukraine’s resistance may partly explain why Putin’s forces have not made the progress the Kremlin likely hoped for, but his campaign has also been hit by military blunders and it appears that the initial strategy has failed.
news week asked six experts for their opinion on whether the international community had overestimated Russia’s military capabilities:
Michal Baranowski, Office Director of the German Marshall Fund in Warsaw
“I think both the West – and Russia – overestimated Russia’s military capabilities. From Putin’s perspective, this war would have lasted only a few days.
“Now it is clear that Putin will not achieve his main political goal, which is that Ukraine and the Ukrainian people become part of the Russian sphere of influence.
That said, we should not make the mistake of underestimating the Russian military. There are still deep reserves in Russia that have not been used during this war precisely because the Russian plan was that it would only last a few days.
“We would celebrate the Russian defeat too early at our own risk.”
Tracey German, Professor of Conflict and Security, King’s College London
“Certainly, the invasion did not go the way I imagine Putin and the Russian leadership would have wanted it. There was an expectation […] that the military modernization process that began in 2008, combined with operational experience (particularly in Syria), would mean that the Russian military was much more capable.
“However, the evidence suggests there are still issues in areas such as logistics, troop morale and failure to achieve air superiority.
“During the first month of his invasion of Ukraine, we have seen a number of shortcomings that indicate long-term problems. Despite years of modernization and investment, the Russians seem to have not mastered some basic principles, such as logistics. .
“The logistical issues are surprising, because they have been a long-term problem.
“Russian operations in Chechnya in the 1990s and the invasion of Georgia in 2008 revealed a military logistics system that struggled to keep up with demand for basic necessities such as food, fuel and ammunition.
“This is reflected in Ukraine, especially troops in the north.”
Matt Qvortrup, Professor of Political Science, Coventry University, UK
“Yes, we did [overestimate Russia]† But the fact is that the Russian army has a bad track record.
“The invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed that the Russian army is ill-equipped to fight conventional wars. After some atrocities – bombed hospitals – the Russians withdrew to the positions they previously held.
“They go all the way back to 1905″ [the Russian empire] lost the war to Japan, and 21 million killed in World War II can hardly be considered a success. And remember, the  Invasion of Finland didn’t go to plan.”
Lieutenant Colonel William Astore, former history professor at the US Air Force Academy
“It is certainly possible that the US has overestimated Russia’s military capabilities. Recall that Russia spends $78 billion a year on its military, which is 1/10 of what the US spends.
“The Russian military also lacks recent combat experience, especially in large-scale operations. Also remember that the Pentagon routinely inflates threats, as we did with the Soviet military machine in the 1970s and 1980s. The Pentagon inflates threats as a way of own financing.”
Ian Ona Johnson, assistant professor of military history, University of Notre Dame, South Bend, Indiana
“It seems that analysts have overestimated Russia’s conventional capabilities and, just as importantly, Ukraine’s.
“Since taking office, Putin has invested heavily in rebuilding Russia’s military might. He increased military spending, switched to an all-volunteer army and tried to modernize all branches of the Russian army.
“But many announced fifth-generation combat aircraft, precision munitions, and hypersonic missiles have generally had little effect on the war thus far.
“Experts have long been impressed by the Russian doctrine… based on the writings of the Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Valery Gerasimov. These emphasized all aspects of warfare, including information and economic warfare, manipulation of the politics of adversaries and hybrid warfare.
“The picture Gerasimov drew was very refined… but it bears little resemblance to the war that has been waged in Ukraine so far, much more resembles the Soviet efforts in Afghanistan.
“Russian success in the 2014 invasion of Crimea – which seemed to demonstrate the Gerasimov doctrine – suggested a modern, professional, highly skilled army.
“But those operations were largely conducted by Russian special forces and elite airborne units, while the current war in Ukraine requires a much wider swath of the Russian military. In addition, Ukrainian armed forces, better trained, armed and much more numerous, have proven very successful in defense .”
Katie Laatikainen, professor of political science at Adelphi University, New York
“Russia’s overall capabilities are still far more important than Ukraine’s”[…]but we probably overestimated the capabilities of Russia’s conventional armed forces by focusing on the number of troops that had gathered along Ukraine’s borders leading up to the war.
“But it is the qualitative aspect of Russia’s military capabilities that has proved so important.
“The use of ill-trained, ill-informed conscripts, the lack of communication between the various military commands in the field, and overall poor logistical support have all contributed to the worse-than-expected performance of the Russian military and its resort to more scorched earth. kind of tactic.”
news week has contacted the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.