By Taras Kuzio
October 13, 2022
A bizarre factor in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is that most Western experts on the Russian military agreed with the Kremlin that Russia had a powerful army which would defeat Ukraine within two or three days. While there has been much analysis, including by this author, of how Russian imperial nationalist stereotypes of Ukrainians made them miscalculate, there has been no investigation of why Western experts exaggerated the strength of the Russian army and underplayed Ukraine militarily and as a resilient society.
This article launches an overdue discussion on the latter question, regarding the exaggeration of Russian military power and under-playing of Ukrainian capabilities. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recalled that when the invasion began, ‘most people who called me – well, almost everyone – did not have faith that Ukraine can stand up to this and persevere.’ National Security and Defence Council Secretary Olexiy Danilov remembered the West believed Ukraine had, ‘almost zero chances to succeed.’
The views of experts shaped Western policymakers in two ways.
For one, since the 2014 crisis, most experts opposed the West sending arms to Ukraine. In a February 2015 survey by Foreign Affairs which asked, ‘Should the United States Arm Ukraine,’ 18 experts disagreed and only nine agreed with sending arms. Prominent among those who disagreed were scholars of Russia and Eurasia, such as Angela Stent, Anatol Lieven, Robert Legvold, Ian Bremmer, Robert Jervis, Jack Snyder, William C. Wohlforth, Mary S. Sarotte, Keith Darden, and Valerie Bunce.
Darden, writing in New York Times, Charles A. Kupchan in Washington Post, and Stephen M. Walt in Foreign Policy all strongly opposed sending weapons to Ukraine, believing it would be a major mistake. Walt claimed sending weapons to Ukraine would be a ‘a really, really bad idea.’ Michael Kofman declared in New York Times that ‘for the U.S., arming Ukraine could be a deadly mistake.’
Realists such as Rajan Menon, Eugene Rumer, John J. Mearsheimer, and Samuel Charap were even more adamantly opposed to supplying weapons to Ukraine. Charap wrote in Foreign Policy that sending arms would not make any difference anyway, as Ukraine would be defeated by Russia. Charap went on to call for Western restraint (which Ukrainians and others viewed as appeasement) toward Russia, and for Ukraine to agree to territorial compromises by forgoing its territorial integrity.
Realists made exaggerated assessments of Russia’s military power and belittled Ukraine’s chances in discourse that at times was orientalist in nature. Writing in Financial Times, realist Eugene Rumer claimed arming Ukraine risked another ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident, and anyway Ukraine ‘should be told it cannot win.’ Realists Rajan Menon and Kimberly Marten writing in Foreign Affairs repeated the same arguments. Meanwhile, Menon and Ruger wrote in Foreign Affairs that sending weapons to Ukraine ‘would backfire.’
The second way that expert views shaped policymaker action was by stoking fears of a repeat of the rout of the Afghan army following the US withdrawal of Afghanistan. Convinced that Ukraine would be quickly defeated, expert advice influenced Western governments and NATO to only consider sending military equipment suitable for partisan warfare against an occupying force.
Western experts believed Russian claims they had reformed their army since it had performed so badly during the 2008 invasion of Georgia. They also counted the number of pieces of Russian military equipment and simplistically assumed they would overwhelm the smaller Ukrainian army.
Russian policymakers and Western experts were both convinced Russia would quickly take control over the sky above Ukraine. Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds and Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds discounted Ukraine’s air defenses as capable of preventing Russian combat aircraft from dominating the skies. Western experts believed the claim that Russia had one-million-strong powerful security forces, which would quickly defeat a weaker and less experienced Ukraine.
As we have seen in the first eight months of the war, the Russian army has been shown to be far weaker than imagined. Writing about ‘rampant’ misconceptions of Russian military power, Orysia Lutsevych, head of Chatham House’s Ukraine Forum, asked: ‘Why do experts keep overestimating Russian strength and underestimating Ukraine’s military capabilities, and how can they avoid doing so again?’ Ian Matveev questioned whether Russian forces in Ukraine can even be described as an ‘army’ – rather than, ‘a kind of military grouping in which the army is not in command everywhere, and not always.’
During the first six months of the war, Russian forces in Ukraine showed no evidence of a unified command, never achieved air superiority, and they have yet to launch combined arms operations. Moreover, the Russian army has no encrypted communications systems, making it easier for Ukrainians to locate and attack their positions. Looting, war crimes, poor organization, and lack of discipline have been shown to be endemic features of the Russian army.
More recently, Western experts have talked back military reforms, stating that they have been less successful than previously claimed. As the war in Ukraine has shown, reforms have had limited if any influence on Russian military’s operational effectiveness. In many ways, the Russian army still resembles the former Soviet army in its mentality, hierarchical structure, poor quality officers, poor levels of training, ill-discipline, poor logistics, and corruption.
The war in Ukraine pits a vertically structured Russia with a subject population against a horizontally structured Ukraine composed of citizens. During Vladimir Putin’s 22 years ruling Russia as president and prime minister he has re-Sovietized the country, fanned militarism, promoted a quasi-religious cult of the Great Patriotic War and Joseph Stalin, and destroyed civil society and volunteer groups. In Ukraine the opposite has taken place in each of these areas. Ukraine has undergone de-Sovietization since the late 1980s and decommunization since the 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution, has denigrated Stalin as a tyrant, switched from military celebration of the Great Patriotic War to commemoration of World War II, and built a dynamic civil society and volunteer movement. Ukrainians have organized three popular revolutions since 1990 to demand their rights; Russia’s last revolution was over a hundred years ago.
But perhaps the biggest mistake was to ignore the impact of corruption on Russia’s military effectiveness. Russia was first described as a ‘mafia state’ as long ago as in 2010 by a Spanish judge investigating ties between the Russian state and Russian organized crime. Russia has stagnated in every meaningful manner since then, especially in corruption, and in the elites’ disdain for and cynicism toward the Russian population.
Kofman was convinced Russia would invade and Ukraine would be defeated. Writing three days before the invasion in Foreign Affairs, Kofman and Edmonds predicted ‘Russia’s Shock and Awe: Why Moscow Would Use Overwhelming Force Against Ukraine.’ Such articles showed the degree to which Western experts believed in the mythology of Russian military power, ignoring the corrosive impact of three decades of stagnation and corruption on the operational effectiveness of the Russian military.
The factors discussed above influenced pessimistic predictions of a Ukrainian defeat espoused by the Pentagon, US intelligence, German and Western European politicians, and think tanks like the Rand Corporation, Carnegie Endowment, and RUSI (Royal United Services Institute).
Watling and Reynolds writing ‘The Plot to Destroy Ukraine’ for RUSI, published nine days before the invasion, outlined a large list of victories Russia would score in the event of an invasion – none of which have actually come about. They described Ukraine as corrupt, badly divided, with ‘widespread penetration’ of Ukrainian politics and government by Russian intelligence agents. In the opening phase of the war, they wrote that Russia would destroy Ukraine’s defense, command-and-control, and other military installations. Ukraine’s best armed forces were in the Donbas and because of Russia’s advantage in artillery, armor, and aircraft, Watling and Reynolds claimed the invasion would ‘likely lead to the rapid overrunning of Ukrainian conventional units’ with Kyiv ‘enveloped within days.’
Why then did Western experts not factor into their analyses the impact of the Russian mafia state and deep-seated stagnation and corruption on Russian security forces, which would inevitably influence their overall operational effectiveness. For anybody who has been following the war closely, the evidence of this corruption is both vast and mind boggling, from the use of outdated food rations, supply of Soviet medical kits, issuing of weapons dating from the 1980s war in Afghanistan, inadequate logistical supplies for troops in the field, theft of the best food rations, and tanks and other military equipment supplied to front line troops that were stripped of anything valuable. The extent of Russia’s dog-eat-dog world could be seen in the estimated two thirds of loot stolen in Ukraine being stolen by Russian postal workers when it was sent from Belarus back home to Russia.
Corruption has plagued Russia’s so-called security services making it doubtful we can still describe them as intelligence services. Funds allocated for intelligence operations in Ukraine were stolen by the FSB and their Ukrainian interlocutors. Added to this, the FSB’s Ukrainian interlocutors told them what they wanted to hear about ‘Little Russians’ eager to welcome the Russian army as liberators. As observers of Russia’s army in Ukraine have pointed out, field military and intelligence reports become increasingly exaggerated as they are sent up the security hierarchy until they eventually arrive on Putin’s desk. Nobody, after all, wants to deliver bad news to a dictator. Added to this is the fact that barely no one among Moscow’s policymakers, journalists, think tanks, or academics understands Ukraine because they all tend to view Ukrainians through outdated imperial nationalist stereotypes. This clearly explains why Russia’s invasion force was only 175,000 strong, yet tasked with occupying a large country with security forces at that time which were more than twice as large.
While corruption in Russia was ignored, corruption in Ukraine was exaggerated and presented as a factor in making Ukraine into a weak state. Corruption in Ukraine had no bearing on the stability and national unity of the state or Zelenskyy’s patriotic commitment to defending it. Meanwhile, Americans pointing their fingers at corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere might want to order on Amazon the great book by Casey Michel entitled American Kleptocracy: How the U.S. Created the World’s Greatest Money Laundering Scheme in History.
Another important factor has been the widespread view of the Ukrainian state as weak and badly divided between a ‘pro-Russian’ eastern and ‘pro-Western’ western Ukraine. In the last three decades the greatest number of articles published in the media and by think tanks and academics on Ukraine has been on regional divisions and the country split between a pro-Russian east and nationalist, pro-Western west. In Moscow and among Western experts, Ukraine’s Russian speakers were deemed to be inherently unreliable and likely to swing to supporting Russia if Moscow invaded the country.
A shock-and-awe style Russian invasion of Ukraine would exert tremendous pressure on Ukraine’s regional divisions, leading to the state’s fragmentation and the collapse of the Ukrainian army (as in Afghanistan). This did not take place and the reason why it did not was because Ukraine was never a regionally fractured country; its Russian speakers were Ukrainian patriots, and there was never any possibility the Ukrainian army was going to disintegrate in the same manner as the Afghan army.
Watling and Reynolds believed Russia would be able to promote political instability forcing Ukraine to bow to Russian pressure. Russian military power and economic pressure would ‘break the cohesion of the Ukrainian state,’ Watling and Reynolds wrote. They made the unverified claim Russia had two companies of spetsnaz in Kyiv prior to the invasion who would act as agents-provocateurs disguised as protestors and police and undertake sabotage operations and cyber warfare attacks. No such protests took place, and Russia has failed to launch successful, major cyber-attacks against Ukraine since the invasion began. Watling and Reynolds were confident enough to claim ‘Russia has a bureaucracy in waiting’ after the plan was implemented to decapitate the government. Following a quick Russian military victory, the West would pressure Ukraine to accept territorial losses in return for peace. None of this transpired.
Western exaggerations of Ukraine’s regional divisions were in effect a lighter version of harder Russian views of an artificial Ukraine. Ukraine was de facto viewed as a kind of appendage of Russia, and Russians and Ukrainians could not be separated. Western historians in particular viewed Crimea as always having been Russian territory, which could only be the case by ignoring its history prior to the Tsarist Empire’s conquest in 1783. Applying how Western historians of Russia view Crimea, the beginning of American, Canadian, and Australian histories begin with the founding of Jamestown and Quebec, and the arrival of Captain Cook.
Ukraine was not viewed as a fully functioning real country; it was brittle and easily fractured by internal divisions over languages, history, and identities. Lutsevych wrote: ‘By focusing on military hardware, experts often miss the “software” of war: the quality of leadership, morale, and motivation, decision-making and governance and the engagement of society. Lutsevych continued: ‘War is an expression of political culture on the battlefield. And there are stark differences between Ukrainian and Russian culture. Many in the West mistakenly thought
Ukraine was just like Russia, but weaker, more corrupt, and chaotic. In fact, while Ukraine is by no means perfect, it is more agile and decentralized, compared to the autocratic and rigid Russian state.’
Western experts got the Russian military and Ukrainian resilience wrong because of the way post-communist studies is structured in universities and think tanks. Western experts continue to believe they are experts on both Russia and the remainder of the USSR. In no other region of the world is this the case. An expert on Argentina, for example, is not an expert on Latin America and an expert on Japan is not an expert on East Asia. Experts on Russia believe they are also possessing expertise about Ukraine and other non-Russian republics of the former USSR. This is especially true since 2014 when the number of Ukraine experts expanded many fold.
Russian experts and scholars have therefore tended to look at Ukraine through the eyes of Moscow. Western media outlets and companies were nearly always headquartered in Moscow – as in the USSR – and their journalists and employees rarely traveled to Ukraine. Lutsevych writes that this led to: ‘At best, Ukraine was viewed as being, well, like Russia; but maybe worse. It was seen as unstable, prone to uprisings and at the mercy of its oligarchs — more corrupt, more divided, more troubled than the behemoth next door. And because it was viewed as a weak state it was assumed that Ukraine was doomed to collapse in the face of a Russian invasion.’ Western experts on Russia have always been reluctant to use sources of information from Ukraine and Ukrainian opinion polls, which I described as academic orientalism in my 2020 book entitled Crisis in Russian Studies?
Western experts exaggerated Russian military power, downplayed Ukrainian military power, ignored corruption in the Russian military, believed fairy tales about Russian military reforms, exaggerated regional divisions, and under-estimated national cohesion in Ukraine. Western military reforms in Ukraine since 2014 were ignored. Meanwhile, changes in identity since 2014, the factors behind the failure of Putin’s New Russia project in 2014, and the loyalty of Ukraine’s Russian speakers were not considered.
This article has launched a discussion of why and how Western experts exaggerated the effectiveness of the Russian military and downplayed the cohesion of the Ukrainian state and its military. The ongoing war has shed light on how they were wrong on the outcome of Russia’s invasion and how Ukraine would respond.
Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War (2022) and Fascism and Genocide: Russia’s War Against Ukrainians (2023).