Why Russia’s Failure

Ukraine’s Secret Weapon Is Its Superior Military Culture, Not Guns and Tanks

Roman Solchanyk (L)
Roman Solchanyk (L)

Why Russia’s Failure

Russian forces have clearly failed to conquer Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, but they continue to be far more powerful, although their intentions continue to be uncertain, according to major American media channels and sources.

But the failure to conquer Kyiv, after months-long Russian warnings and photos of hundreds of tanks moving towards Kyiv, then stopped, then withdrawn, led many American historians, political and military commentators to argue that this exposed basic defects in the Russian narrative, whether militarily, politically or culturally.

Following are two American opinions’ excerpts taken from their respective authors’ tweets, websites, or statements to the media.

First, “The Russians don’t know the Ukrainians, not only the Ukrainians’ currently-shown strong patriotism and will to defend their homeland but, also, throughout history, the Russian didn't know the Ukrainians because they looked down at them,” argued Roman Solchanyk, a political scientist with RAND Corporation, in California. He is the author of two books, “Ukraine: From Chernobyl to Sovereignty” and “Ukraine and Russia: The Post-Soviet Transition”

Second, “The Russian military aren’t only conducting a mis-planned and mis-executed operation, but, have been known, throughout their history, for dysfunctional military culture,” said Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of a book, “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.” He is, also, a columnist at “The Washington Post.”

Solchanyk: “Ignorance of Ukrainians”:

“Historically, there just hasn’t been expertise on Ukraine in Russia at all. When you don’t believe a country is a real country, and a people are a real people, why do you want to learn about them? ….

In opinion polls, Russians say they have a more negative attitude towards Ukraine than vice versa. This Russian attitude has been shown as related to the following issues:

First, possible Ukraine's NATO membership

Second, accusations that the “Holodomor” (starvation that killed millions) in Ukraine during the 1930s was done by the Russians.

Third, the re-emergence of the UPA (rightist militia that fought the Communist rule) …

Although a large majority of Ukrainians voted for independence in 1991, the Russian media called them "nationalists" who "twisted" the "correct" instincts of the Ukrainians’ “eagerness to unite with Russia.”

In Russian culture, particularly in school curriculums, first, the Ukrainian language is described as a Russian dialect; second, Ukraine (and Belarus) were parts of Russia (and should return); and third, Ukrainian history was part of the history of Russia …

In 2010, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine said: "Russians and Ukrainians are a single nation with some nuances and peculiarities"

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, in 1991, Russia presented an image of Ukraine as the enemy …

In 2011, in a poll, 20 years after that collapse, 66% of the Russians regretted it, and 48% expressed a wish to unify with Ukraine …

Clearly, that was not strong popular support for the unification, and, actually, 55% said, in a poll in 2009, that there should be a friendship between "two independent states".

In 2014, a survey by the University of Oslo, in Norway, found that most Russians viewed Ukraine as not a legitimate state and that when asked "What should be Russia's primary goals in its relations with Ukraine?”, the most common answers were: Restoring good neighborly relations (40%), retaining Crimea (26%), developing economic cooperation (21%), preventing Ukraine from joining NATO (20%), making gas prices for Ukraine the same as for other European countries (19%), and ousting the current Ukrainian leadership (16%).

As late as 2019, 82% of the Russians had a positive attitude towards Ukrainians, but only 34% towards Ukraine, showing an implicit objection towards an independent Ukraine; actually, only 7% had a positive attitude towards the newly-elected president Zelensky, who is now leading the war against Russia …”

Max Boot: “Dysfunctional Military Culture”:

“Russia keeps losing wars because of its dysfunctional military culture. This war in Ukraine is far from over, but Ukraine’s triumph over Russian forces in the Battle of Kyiv was an epic victory for the ages.

It will be remembered as an example of smaller powers defeating more powerful adversaries. Like the 1588 defeat of the Spanish Armada (by the British); the 1781 Battle of Yorktown (defeat of British colonizers by the Americans); and the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu (Vietnamese defeat of the French colonizers) …

The Ukrainians’ real advantage lies in the realm of military culture — which, of course, is a reflection of society writ large. On the other hand, all of the Russian military’s deficiencies have been brutally exposed during its invasion of Ukraine.

These are not new problems, and they will not be fixed any time soon.

Indeed, an 1854 article in British “The Economist” described “inadequacy of despotic power”; “cheating, bribery, speculation pervade the whole tribe of officials”; and that “there seems to be no conscience, and not much concealment, about it.”

These shortcomings help to explain Russia’s dismal performance in conflict after conflict.

Russia lost not only the Crimean War (1853-1856) but also the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905), World War I (1914-1918), and the war in Afghanistan (1979-1989), and the First Chechen War (1994-1996).

Russia’s major military victories — in the Napoleonic Wars and World War II — came only after an invader was foolish enough to dissipate his forces in the vast Russian landscape -- and only when Russia was greatly assisted by Western allies.

The Russians may eventually be able to assemble fresh forces to fight in the Donbas region — although it will take some time — they will not be able to change their stultifying military culture. That is why I expect the Ukrainians to continue winning the war, providing they continue to receive the weapons and ammunition they need from the West.

A superior military culture (not a dysfunctional one) is Ukraine’s secret weapon …”

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