Small Wars Journal

The Russian Dilemma Isn’t So Unfamiliar

Tue, 05/03/2022 - 8:58pm

The Russian Dilemma Isn’t So Unfamiliar

by Patrick Hanlon


Since Russia launched a full scale invasion of Ukraine in February, it has become quite fashionable for commentators, despite their lack of warfighting experience, to criticize the Russian military for its apparent ineptitude.  I’ll admit too that I fell into this camp that felt the war in Ukraine demonstrated how overrated the Russian military was.  While that is true in some regards, it’s an incomplete picture in my opinion. 


I can’t help but think the US military would run into many of the same quagmires as the Russians if we were in their shoes.  I say this because of my own experience at the Joint Readiness Training Center (JRTC).  If you’ve never been to JRTC, it’s a massive training area in Louisiana where brigade combat teams spend a few weeks fighting a much smaller opposing force comprised of US soldiers pretending to be bad guys.   


In Ukraine, we have seen a highly mobile, motivated, well equipped, and indigenous force pick apart a more numerous and supposedly ferocious invader (Russians).  I experienced the same thing at JRTC.  We, the much larger brigade combat team, crumbled over the course of two weeks at the hands of the highly mobile, motivated, and indigenous defense.


One way the indigenous force can bog down the invasion is to exploit their lack of security in the rear and target their logistical nodes, which is precisely what the Ukrainians are doing.  When I was at the JRTC, the enemy preferred not to walk into our textbook engagement areas.  Why would they?  They instead snuck around and shot our defenseless logisticians in the rear, leaving the infantry in their foxholes.  If you kill the logisticians, you can starve the invaders rather than confront them.


Interestingly, Western media has reported extensively on the high number of Russian senior officers killed on the battlefield.  Perhaps some of those Russian officers thought themselves invincible, which isn’t hard to imagine.  In almost every American military exercise I’ve participated in, and especially at JRTC, the leadership acted immune to the dangers of combat, usually because the exercise controllers weren’t comfortable “killing” off the people who planned it and outranked them.  But in Ukraine, the consequence for a commander thinking himself exempt from harm is death by a loitering munition or precision rifle.


At JRTC, we struggled to disperse our forces and made ourselves easy targets for artillery.  The same thing is happening in Ukraine.  Videos abound across social media of columns of Russian vehicles creating a massive visual and heat signature, followed by successive Ukrainian strikes. 


Moreover, it’s no surprise that the Russian military rank and file don’t want to be there.   At JRTC, the sentiment amongst the rank and file was no different.  I remember JRTC just seemed like an exercise for commanders and logisticians.  For many a soldier, it was neither fun nor purposeful.  The same can probably be said for the Russians, except they are also getting killed.  I bet a lot them are also hoping this nightmare ends soon.


In Ukraine and at JRTC, both sides understand each other, thoroughly.  The Ukrainians don’t have to send their captured enemy documents back to an exploitation cell and hope for “intelligence” to come back a few days later.  The exploitation loop can be instant.

At JRTC, the defenders pass through the invader’s formations and lines effortlessly, wreaking havoc along the way.  This is easy to do when you understand the enemy, look like the enemy, and speak the same language.


Notably, In Ukraine and at JRTC, the defenders have both been trained extensively by the US Army.  Regardless of the outcome of the Ukrainian War, it’s evident that Foreign internal Defense and Security Force Assistance are important mission sets for countering our adversaries.


Despite the similarities between the Russian experience in Ukraine and the experience of brigade combat teams at JRTC, there are important differences.  All these social media videos of the Russian’s flying around during the day, and often getting shot down, leads me to believe they are not as proficient or comfortable operating at night as we thought.  And the widespread allegations of rape, murder, and other violations of armed conflict further reinforce the lack of discipline in the Russian military.  Having observed their unprofessional behavior in Syria, I’m not at all surprised by their abhorrent actions in Ukraine.


Overall, before we discount the Russian military for its blunders in Ukraine, we must fully appreciate the nature of the fight.  Sending our large maneuver units through the gauntlet at the Joint Readiness Training Center is a good reminder that fighting the home team, especially if they are well armed, determined, and speak your language, is rarely going to be a winning proposition. 

About the Author(s)

Patrick Hanlon has studied and served in the national security space for 16 years, to include service in Army Special Forces and Ranger Regiment and as a consultant with Accenture.  His views are his own and do not represent the views of any of his employers, past or present.