'Shock and Awful'
Newsweek Europe|March 18 - 25, 2022 (Double Issue)
Russian forces, fully prepared and operating from russian soil, were able to move just tens of miles into an adjoining country. What putin's military weakness means for the West
Por William M. Arkin. Fotos por AFP and Getty Images

RUSSIA'S MILITARY IS WEAK AND BACKWARDS. Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine produced this paradigm-shifting surprise one that should transform the West's view of Russia's prowess, the threat that the country represents and the Kremlin's future in the global arena.

After just one day of fighting, Russia's ground force lost most of its initial momentum, undermined by shortages of fuel, ammunition and even food, but also because of a poorly trained and led force. Russia began to compensate for the weaknesses of its land army with more long-range air, missile and artillery strikes. And President Putin resorted to a nuclear threat—a reaction, U.S. military experts say, to the failure of Moscow's conventional forces to make quick progress on the ground.

Other military observers are flabbergasted that a Russian invasion force, fully prepared and operating from Russian soil, has been able to move just tens of miles into an adjoining country. One retired U.S. Army general told Newsweek in an email: “We know that Russia has a plodding army and that Russian military force has always been a blunt instrument, but why risk the antipathy of the entire planet if you have no prospect of achieving even minimal gains.” The Army general believes that the only explanation is that the Kremlin overestimated its own forces.

“I believe that at the heart of Russian military thinking is how Marshal Zhukov marched across Eastern Europe to Berlin, a former high-level CIA official told Newsweek in an interview. Zhukov's orders were to “line up the artillery and...flatten everything ahead of you, he says. “Then send in the peasant Army to kill or rape anyone left alive.' Subtle the Russians are not.

In the short term, Russia's military failures in Ukraine increase the threat of escalation, including the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons. But in the longer term, if escalation doesn't worsen and the Ukrainian conflict can be contained, Russian conventional military weakness upends many assumptions that geopolitical strategists—even those inside the U.S. government-make about Russia as a military threat.

For the United States and the West, the stumbling Ukraine invasion recalls the collapse of the Soviet Union, an eye-opening moment when it became clear that a supposedly unstoppable military shrouded a crumbling economy and a weak political and human base. It seems, three decades later, that few lessons have been learned. Moscow continues to invest in hardware at the cost of ignoring the human dimension of warfare (and the human dimensions of the strength of the nation-state). Russian leaders have also ignored the reality that success in the information age—even military success-demands education, open initiative and even freedom.

No dictator or authoritarian who wants to maintain power ever wants to instill too much skill in subordinate military leaders, the retired Army general wrote to Newsweek. Whether it be Sadd am Hussein or Vladimir Putin, the officer says, too much skill on the part of military subordinates is seen as increasing the likelihood of a coup.

U.S. military analysts and experts extracted several lessons as they watched Russia's invasion of Ukraine unfold last week. On Thursday at about 4:00 a.m. local time, Russia invaded Ukraine along four main axes, attacking Ukraine's capital Kyiv from Belarus in the north, just 70 miles away, and from Russian soil further east, moving westward toward the country's largest city (of some 2.5 million inhabitants).

The second axis bore down on Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city (population 1.4 million), less than 20 miles from the Russian border. The third attack entered Ukraine from Russian-occupied Crimea and the Black Sea in the south, to the east of Odessa, Ukraine's third largest city (population 1 million). The fourth axis in the east pushed westward through Luhansk and attacked from Russian-dominated Donbas.

At the same time as the ground invasion, 160 Russian missiles attacked targets from air, land and sea. Some 80 Russian bombers and fighter planes accompanied those strikes, attacking in two primary waves. Altogether in about 400 attacks in the first 24 hours, the strike force hit, according to U.S. intelligence sources and reports on the ground, 15 command control nodes and military headquarters, 18 air defense installations, 11 airfields and six military bases.

It wasn't an overwhelming attack. But most Western analysts assumed that Russia just needed to pave the way for its ground forces to seize the capital and topple the government. And follow-on attacks would be coming, especially given that only a small fraction of Russian air and missile forces were employed in the Day One attack.

By the end of the day on Thursday, Russian ground forces moved into Ukraine, backed up by their own shorter-range artillery and missile strikes. Russian special forces and saboteurs, both in uniform and in civilian clothes, showed up in Kyiv city center. Paratroopers were airlifted ahead of the main ground force into Hostomel airfield on the northwestern edge of Kyiv's suburbs. The greatest progress was made in the northeast corner of Ukraine, on a straight line from Russian Belgorod to Kyiv. It was a second axis pointing at the capital city, the Russian force starting about 200 miles away.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine

MORE STORIES FROM NEWSWEEK EUROPEView All

'Division of the World Is Inevitable'

Countries need to choose whether to align with autocrats or democracies, says a former NATO Secretary-General

10 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Big Tech's Great Reckoning

A spate of new laws in Europe and the U.S. Foreshadow What Could Be the End of dominance for Google, Facebook and Amazon

10+ mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 13, 2022

Sustainable Cabin Vacations

Everyone needs to get away from it all sometimes. But not everyone's idea of the ideal vacation is the same.

3 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 13, 2022

Summer Music Festivals to Get Your Groove On

What seemed a relic of the past amidst COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing precautions are now back in full force. This summer promises a music festival resurgence, with events taking place all over the world. Across festivals, lineups are both highlighting international talent and championing local artists. From Afro Nation on the pristine Portuguese seaside to Glastonbury in rural England to Fuji Rock in a Japanese forest, live music lovers of every genre have a lot to anticipate. Let the music play!

3 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Emmy Rossum

PARTING SHOT

2 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

Crypto In Your 401(k)?

Just because you may soon be able to buy Bitcoin in your workplace retirement plan doesn’t mean you should.

6 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

BANS OFF OUR BODIES

MoveOn and Abortion Access activists rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court on May 3 after the leak of a draft opinion overturning the Court's landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

1 min read
Newsweek Europe
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

CITY OF WATER

As climate change triggers sea-level rise and extreme weather, even New York, one of the world's best-prepared cities, may not be doing enough

10+ mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

How to Shop Green

Customers seeking sustainable merch are a big deal these days. But which products actually deliver on their environmental promises?

5 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 06, 2022

Blue -or Bluer

In Pennsylvania and Texas, democratic voters face clear ideological choices that could signal the party's direction

5 mins read
Newsweek Europe
May 06, 2022
RELATED STORIES

THEIR FIGHT IS OUR FIGHT

The truth is kryptonite for authoritarians and oligarchs-in Russia, and here at home.

4 mins read
Mother Jones
May/June 2022

“THEY'RE NOT HUMAN BEINGS”

Ukraine and the words that lead to mass murder

10+ mins read
The Atlantic
June 2022

‘Division of the World Is Inevitable'

Countries need to choose whether to align with autocrats or democracies, says a former NATO Secretary-General

10 mins read
Newsweek
May 20 - 27, 2022 (Double Issue)

DETAILED ‘OPEN SOURCE' NEWS INVESTIGATIONS ARE CATCHING ON

One of the more striking pieces of journalism from the Ukraine war featured intercepted radio transmissions from Russian soldiers indicating an invasion in disarray, their conversations even interrupted by a hacker literally whistling “Dixie.”

5 mins read
AppleMagazine
May 13, 2022

Daddy, The Dictator

Vladimir Putin is fiercely protective of his private life. But could his adult daughters be his Achilles heel?

4 mins read
YOU South Africa
12 May 2022

DJI HALTS RUSSIA, UKRAINE BUSINESS TO PREVENT DRONE MISUSE

Drone company DJI Technology Co has temporarily suspended business activities in Russia and Ukraine to prevent use of its drones in combat, in a rare case of a Chinese company pulling out of Russia because of the war.

1 min read
Techlife News
April 30, 2022

William Ruger on Russia's Invasion of Ukraine

WILLIAM RUGER, WHO holds a Ph.D. in politics specializing in foreign policy, is the newly appointed president of the American Institute for Economic Research. A veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he was a prominent voice in calling for U.S. withdrawal from that country. He was picked by former President Donald Trump to be ambassador to Afghanistan, but his nomination was never voted on.

2 mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022

AFTER the WAR

IN THE AFTERMATH OF RUSSIA’S INVASION OF UKRAINE, IT’S TIME FOR EUROPE TO STEP UP AND AMERICA TO STEP BACK.

10+ mins read
Reason magazine
June 2022

SEAGAL UNDER SIEGE TO KISS PUTIN'S PIGGIES!

Action star forced into servitude as Russia's puppet

2 mins read
National Enquirer
May 02, 2022

The Pen Is Mightier

Horrified by the war in Ukraine, artisan pen makers across the globe are using their skills to make a difference.

7 mins read
PEN WORLD
April 2022