Why has the Russian Army Been so Inept In Ukraine? Counterinsurgency in the Middle East.

Without taking anything away from the valiant and  highly professional performance of the Ukrainian army, one cannot escape the fact that the performance of the Russian army so far has been close to pathetic; intermingled units clogging the roads, No evidence of combined arms coordination, timid offensive  action, incoherent command leadership, atrocious logistics, and above all a lack of fighting spirit among the Russian soldiers. some of the latter can be attributed to the fact that most Russians considers the Ukrainians  as their brothers and  this war cannot be popular or invoke the spirit of the great patriotic war.

Many reasons for the Russian hapless performance  are advanced by the so-called “Military intellectuals.,” as well as the talking head news anchors, who have become military experts overnight. Generals are brought in  to add a degree of legitimacy to the high tech maps and impressive briefings devices. In my not so humble  opinion most of these people know little more than I do, and based on the intelligence  community’s results record  over the past two decades I am not confident  that they have a handle on the situation either. It will be a long time before we know all the details but there is no getting around the third world level of military incompetence the Russians have displayed.

There is one crucial factor missing from the analysis of the Russian performance, which up to now I have not seen addressed anywhere. Since 2005  the five day war with small Georgia, the Russians  have been involved what is usually known as  Counterinsurgency (COIN).  For the past 15 years the Russians have been involved in COIN in Chechnya, Afghanistan and places in Africa like Angola. Like us Americans, the Russians have  been locked into greater Middle Eastern insurgencies in which they demonstrated  -as did we -no particular ability to do well. The end state in Iraq and Afghanistan attest to that.

The problem is, that COIN becomes more than a way of war, it becomes a mindset, an all encompassing faith, like a religion, especially the population centric idea that winning the hearts and minds of the people will dry up the insurgent pool of recruits and sympathizers. The fact is…we and the Russians  were aliens in another world.  We are and were foreigners and detested because we were. Thousands of articles and books have been printed lamenting that we failed in COIN because of this factor or that. But  they  cannot quite admit the truth that  none of that mattered in the end.

COIN has become a cottage industry, with favored practitioners, and particular  heroes. President Kennedy drove the founding of the COIN  institutions and promoted the generals who agreed with him, COIN has become a byword for the smart intellectual general who is culturally adept and knowledgeable in the  political world.  COIN became a dogma.

People like Col. ( Ret) Gian Gentile  was an almost a lone  voice criticizing the COIN aficionados . After all the promoters of COIN ,  the big boys, General  David Petraeus,  David Kilcullen, Pete Mansour, John Nagl,  and host of others on the NPR and PBS  short list of commentators.

Another opponent of this dogma Was my late friend Col . Harry G Summers (On Strategy: A critical analysis of the Vietnam War). As he wrote, Counterinsurgency became not so much as the Army’s doctrine as the army’s dogma…. stultifying military strategic thinking.” I would add it stultified combat operations execution even more so.

Ok So why does this  over indulgence in COIN destroy an Army?

 Heavy Weapons.In counterinsurgency the weapons that kills and breaks  stuff the most are rarely used, e.g. Armor and artillery. Units become rusty, weapons become obsolete, knowledge disappears. In Iraq our artillery units were used as convoy protection units.

Command and control of large  maneuver units are not needed inCOIN and the expertise to do so evaporates,  as units higher than  battalion are rarely conducting operations. In fact it is usually company or  platoon size units that  conduct the operations. Many units are involved in static missions with patrols to secure areas that will be reclaimed by the insurgents. The Eisenhowers and Zhukovs are not to be found. The path to fame is being able to understand the FM 3-24 and somehow implement it. My evidence  suggests that few that  could employ it rarely read it, but nevertheless the overall imperative of speaking  and thinking COIN was always there. A  division commander  in Iraq agreed with me  on this .

Logistics. Its one thing to resupply a firebase and quite another to  supply a fast moving maneuver unit in an on-going offensive operation. COIN operations rarely requires  that and the logisticians lose their skills and ability to readjust in varying combat situations. Maintenance in the field is far different from dragging broken down vehicles to a firebase ( green zone), and having to retrieve and fix armor in the field in combat conditions.It is very apparent the Russians were not up to this as many vehicles and armor have been left to the Ukrainians .

The Generals. The lack of opportunity for generals to do the job they are hired to do…i.e. lead large units commensurate with their rank into battle, they either retreat to Audi-visual CNN type headquarters watching innumerable TV screens and reading massive amounts of data, or flying hither and yon in helicopters  to interfere with subordinate commanders trying to control their units . Since most of the fighting in the Greater Middle East of both Russians and Americans have been fought almost exclusively in small platoon or company size units this is the norm. In Vietnam my division commander exercised his leadership by flying above units in action and  doing the job of  squad leaders  and company commanders.

COIN as poisonThere are many other detrimental factors that have infected the Russian, and  us as well, one especially critical one is the corrosive effect  the Middle Eastern “whack a mole” tedious, surrealistic war against invisible insurgents. People who wave at you during the day and shoot at you at night.  The soldiers  in armored vehicles feeling the humiliation of kids goading you by throwing bottles at you and shouting insults at you as you pass by.It does not induce empathy for the people you have ostensibly  come to save. Our nation-building, as that of the Russians in the Islamic Middle East, were a tremendous failure. Some aficionados  of COIN have suggested it is a civilizational reset sort of like the imperialistic mission of the French. A friend of mine, an American Iraqi, on a visit to her relatives in Baghdad, told me despite the shopping malls, and new cars, Iraq is more unlivable than ever; the people more grasping and chasing the almighty dollar. As I have written a number of times,  the Arabs tend to absorb the worst elements of Western civilization and seldom the better ones. I also believe that the exposure to the Middle Eastern way of life rubs off those Western soldiers exposed to it for a long period of time. Inshallah is a very catchy word to go about one’s job in a lackadaisical manner.

General George Decker CJCS. He told President Kennedy “that any good soldier can handle guerrillas.” He has been ridiculed for his attitude by the “informed” class of military intellectuals and those faithful to the COIN liturgy. Perhaps a relook would be beneficial.

COIN is a dirty war by nature, it breeds savagery and a gradual loss of humanity. Bored soldiers resort to drugs, looting and  rapine. As the war drags on with the generals spouting positive reports, and the troops on the ground see the reality  they become  cynical and recalcitrant to follow orders they know are foolish. In Iraq and Afghanistan  there were the “inside the wire people”, massive numbers of people who mostly just simply consumed rations, lived quite well,  and those who were called upon the venture “outside the wire” and fight an often invisible enemy and endure the hostile attitude of the locals. The American tooth to tail structure is ridiculously lopsided with the fighters a small percentage of those counted as troops in media reports of” troops on the ground.” This was true especially  in Iraq and Afghanistan for the Americans and in a lesser way for the Russians as well. The Russian high command general  indifference to the well-being of their troops account for the less creature comforts for their soldiers.. A good  book on the debilitating effects of the  Vietnam war  is Shelby L. Stanton, The Rise and Fall of the American Army . My contention, based on my army lifer  experienced eyes and ears, is the same has happened to our present forces, assisted by the idiotic social engineering projects injected into the Army by  politicalized  generals.

Toward the end of the Vietnam war the American army was in danger of becoming a rabble in uniform.


I hope  to use an expanded version of this for a paper to be presented at the annual  ASMEA conference in Nov …inshaAllah.

PS I was among the boosters of low intensity conflict and COIN at an a earlier time but I’ve seen the light. Let’s hope the generals do. If they do not we are destined for our own Ukraines. perhaps sooner than we think.

addendum; Lots of grammatical  errors in this article.  Bad proofreading. Hope I corrected most of them.

About Tex

Retired artillery colonel, many years in a number of positions in the Arab world. Graduate of the US Military Academy and the American University of Beirut. MA in Arab studies from the American University in Beirut along with 18 years as Middle East Seminar Director at the JFK Special Warfare Center and School, Served in Vietnam with 1st Inf Division, Assignments in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, plus service with Trucial Oman Scouts in the Persian Gulf. Traveled to every Arab country on the map including Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco.
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7 Responses to Why has the Russian Army Been so Inept In Ukraine? Counterinsurgency in the Middle East.

  1. Chris Rollins says:

    Good article, makes some great points.

  2. Scott E. Sill says:

    I tried “Eating Soup With A Knife” for 5 yrs & 9 in AF, IZ and FID/UW/COIN throughout other parts of CENTCOM/EUCOM & PACOM. Your right Tex, we both drank as much cool-aid as the COIN pundants served. – It just doesn’t work! My epiphany to the DCG Ops 82nd in Kandahar was ” Sir how long would it take and how hard would it be for me to get you to change your favorite football team?” He just scoffed at me. We were in the same Army, spoke the same language, were both white, Christian males. There was no way I could change his mind. I then asked “How well can these COIN principles work for me when I apply them to alter the behavior of foreign nationals in their own country whose, culture, social norms, even laws are all wrapped in a religion I don’t practice?”

    • Tex says:

      Thanks Scott. You are exactly on target. If we don’t get off this COIN bs we will share the fate of the Russians. Hope all is well with you and family

  3. shfranke says:

    Hi again, Tex.

    Thanks for creating this thread ref “Ivan meets Ahmad.” (IMPO, this thread is long overdue and still relevant in terms of our Army’s SFA Brigades and its culturally tone-deaf / indifferent “next-higher” SFA Command at Bragg.)

    If helpful, pleased to contribute to your forthcoming additional posts about this very important, and current, subject.

    Most comments would be based on my collection of comments provided voluntarily — sort of “customer / advisee / trainee feedback” — from members of Arab military delegations for which I was DA’s escort/interpreter during their official visits in CONUS, plus related comments by Egyptian and Sudanese military counterparts when I was in those countries supporting CENTCOM or ARCENT during the 1980s.

    Also glad to send you a PDF of an open-source report about Russian military advisors and trainers and their travails during deployments in Afghanistan and frequent cross-cultural interactions with their Afghan counterparts.

    Likewise, have some more-recent observations and open-source materials about the presence, activities, and effectiveness of Russian military advisors and trainers operating in Syria.

    As best mentioned in numerous open-source materials, those RU personnel selected for that type of work are sent through Syria-focused pre-deployment training at an apparent / kinda-sorta equivalent of our Army’s SATMO), based at the (USASOC/SWCS-like) training center at Ryazan’, in the RU Army’s Southern Military Command.

    Best regards to you and yours, as always,


    San Pedro, California

    Email: – Skype: shfranke

    “FAOs Forward!”

    • Tex says:

      Steve thanks much. Yes i would be very interested in anything on Russian advisors in the greater Middle East meaning the sw asia Stands, and whatever you have. I am trying to put together Russian experiences in the ME particularly in advisory role and COIN. Have written quite a bit but it’s not connected well and not happy with it, not even sure it will be accepted to present at conference.

    • Tex says:

      Msg went too soon. Anyway i was never optimistic on the Army use of SFA units. What are they doing now?
      My question… among others…. Do or have the Russians taught COIN as a separate doctrine.?
      Cant find much on that. Plenty on their poor COIN in Chechnya and Afghanistan. Anyway if i get this written you will get the full attribution. Feeling my age these days and although i still know my stuff i have big problems putting it together in a coherent fashion. Frustrating!! Thanks again steve

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