Russia is looking less like a mighty bear and more like a paper tiger after launching its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine nearly four weeks ago. As of last week, the Russian causalities – including soldiers killed and wounded – reportedly neared 14,000. Russia has lost as many soldiers in the first two weeks of its war as the U.S. did in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001.
Additionally, Russia may have already lost hundreds of tanks and other armored vehicles. Ukraine is quickly becoming a graveyard of Russian tanks and armored vehicles.
Russia had one of the largest tank forces in the world, but for years analysts have suggested many of the tanks were barely operational. Thus far Russia has largely held back its best weapons – likely a good decision given how the war has been going. It hasn’t been the failure of the weapons, but of tactics, as some on social media noted after a Russian armored column was ambushed in the suburbs of Kyiv. Multiple vehicles were destroyed and the commander of the Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) was killed.
A Tank Grave Yard
The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) has estimated that Russia was losing around 50 vehicles daily, and on March 8 put Russian losses at “8% to 10% of military assets.” By contrast during the entire nine-year war in Afghanistan, the Soviet forces lost 147 tanks and 1,314 vehicles.
“The conflict in Ukraine is the tank battle planners during the 1970s and early 1980s had anticipated — except that it isn’t between NATO M1 Abrams or German Leopard 2AVs against Warsaw Pact T-64s or T-72s,” said John Adams-Graf, military vehicle historian and editor of History in Motion.
“Rather, any tank-on-tank action in this conflict is going to see Ukraine-updated T-64s versus upgraded Russian T-72s or T-90s,” Adams-Graf told ClearanceJobs. “That said, a rolling tank battle is quite unlikely in this conflict, so it is not a matter of the age of the armor — in fact, a single Ukrainian main battle tank is fairly well-matched against a Russian main battle tank.”
Low Tech Solutions
Ukrainians have been seen in countless videos and news reports arming themselves with crude home-made explosives including “Molotov cocktails,” gasoline bombs that were first widely employed in the Spanish Civil War and then used in the Winter War of 1939-40 by Finnish fighters.
Named to mock Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the weapons are little more than glass bottles filled with gasoline and other flammable liquids. These were successfully used against German tanks during the Second World War, but it hasn’t been the low-tech Molotov cocktails that have been credited with destroying the Russian tanks.
“While much has been made out of Ukrainian improvised weapons such as Molotov cocktails, Russian tank fatalities seem to be mainly attributable to man-held anti-tank missile systems, primarily the American-supplied Javelin,” explained Adams-Graf.
“In recent days, more Russian armored vehicles have been seen sporting ‘cage’ armor in an attempt to defeat the Ukrainian anti-tank missile attacks,” Adams-Graf added. “Ukrainian tank losses have been the result of air attacks (mainly helicopter) and indirect artillery fire or bombardment.”
Failures in the Cyberwar
Russia was likely behind the massive cyberattacks against Ukraine that began in January and continued through the middle of February. In fact, a top Ukrainian cybersecurity official even suggested that it faced the largest cyberattack in history just days before the invasion began.
Officials in Kyiv also said that digital sabotage that hit Viasat’s KA-SAT network last month caused a massive communications outage. Russia seemed to successfully blind Ukraine, but then did little to exploit the chaos.
The Russian efforts were also short lived; and various U.S. and other international companies helped Ukraine recover. At the same time Ukraine’s Minstry of Digital Transformation was able to stand up its “IT Army,” which was comprised of hundreds of thousands of IT professionals and countered Russia’s attack.
Just as Russia may not have expected such a determined stand from Ukrainian forces on the ground, Moscow likely failed to anticipate the actions of the IT Army.
Lack of Air Superiority
Among the more baffling aspects of the conflict so far is why Russia failed to achieve air superiority in the early stages of the war, essentially ignoring what has been standard military practice since even before World War II.
Most of Russia’s air force has remained grounded.
Analysts have suggested that a number of factors may be at play. Russia’s supplies of air-delivered precision-guided munitions may be limited. After years of combat operations in Syria, supplies may be depleted and that may mean that the bulk of Russia’s combat aircraft may only have unguided bombs and rockets available.
As Ukraine has viable anti-air defenses still operational, Moscow may not have wanted to risk its highly expensive aircraft. Another consideration could be that Russian pilots simply don’t have the flying hours for such complex combat operations, and the commanders felt the war could be won without the need to risk the pilots.
While Russia has employed long-range missiles and even drones to great effect, it still has failed to achieve the air superiority. It has also not deployed any of its advanced drones. There have been reports that Moscow could soon utilize its KUB-BLA, a lethal drone that is known as “loitering munition” or even a “suicide drone.”
With a wingspan of 1.2 meters, it can be fired from a portable launcher and can travel up to 80 mph for around 30 minutes and then crash into a target, detonating a 3-kilo explosive. The drone was unveiled at a Russian air show in 2019, and reportedly features “intelligent detection and recognition of objects by class and type in real time.”
The drone employs artificial intelligence (AI) technology to seek out enemy targets. So far Russia hasn’t deployed the KUB-BLA in Ukraine – yet as Russian losses mount, Moscow may look to reverse its fortunes on the battlefield with these and other weapons.
No High Tech Body Armor or Advanced Weapons
Also missing from the conflict so far are the high tech infantry weapons and advanced body armor that Russia has repeatedly presented at various arms trade shows. The troops are equipped with the same basic equipment used in past conflicts.
Money could be the factor again. Russia may not have had the equipment in vast quantities and didn’t expect such fierce resistance. A consequence has been that as the armored columns have slowly lumbered along, soldiers have been forced to sleep in their unheated tanks – as the engines couldn’t run overnight due to fuel shortages.
Russia’s lack of preparation comes from underestimating its enemy.
“Ukraine mainly uses outdated Soviet Era military hardware, some of which have been updated before the conflict but well off the cutting edge of technology,” suggested technology analyst Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group.
“Given that Russia is the attacker and essentially attacking civilian targets, the more expensive and far more rare, advanced Russian hardware has likely been held back as excessive,” Enderle added.
Keeping it From the Enemy
One more consideration could be Moscow was determined to use attrition and blunt force. One factor in this reasoning could be that Russia didn’t want to risk losing its more advanced hardware, but also may have feared that it could fall into enemy hands and make its way to NATO.
“Given how much Russian hardware is being captured, they probably don’t want to risk its capture,” Enderle told ClearanceJobs. “It is also clear that Russia has wildly overstated its preparedness and capabilities, suggesting much of this advanced hardware may be smoke and mirrors anyway. None of these problems are mutually exclusive, suggesting that the hardware not only isn’t appropriate for this conflict, it also isn’t ready, and Russia would rather not have the world watch it fail or be captured in real time.”
A final thought is that Russia is an exporter of hardware. Instead of losing an opportunity to showcase its most advanced tools, it could have been spared some embarrassment!
“Regardless of the need, Russia sells advanced weapons, and this war could be a showcase of what those weapons do,” added Enderle. “Instead, it is a showcase of how poorly prepared Russia is and why no one should buy weapons from Russia – given you can’t get parts for them if Russia itself is at war, particularly if they are attacking you or one of your allies.”