How Russian Corruption Is Foiling Putin’s Army in Ukraine
31 Aug 2022 (US News)
Though Ukraine has fielded a remarkable defense, another deadly battlefield foe has emerged for Putin: endemic corruption and graft from top to bottom of the Russian army.
When Russia moved 85% of all of its land forces toward and into Ukraine to break the stubborn and unforeseen local resistance, one thing became obvious: the move yielded a fighting force far smaller than the assessments of the country’s vaunted million-man army.
The Kremlin previously stated it could field a total of 900,000 active duty troops, with Russian President Vladimir Putin now calling on his military to grow by 10% as a tacit admission of the problems it faces in its war in Ukraine. Questionable organizational decisions in the Russian military and a series of misguided political assumptions hampered the fighting force from the outset.
But those missteps are inflamed by widespread corruption within the Russian military, officials and analysts say, such as common practices among recruiters of overstating the number of enlistees they say they signed up to skim funding for the difference. The Pentagon now believes Russian dysfunction will prevent it from reaching even its recruitment goals from before the invasion, let alone expand its military to more than 1 million troops.
“It goes back to Russia’s assumption from the beginning that they wouldn’t be fighting a war, they would be welcomed,” says Dara Massicot, a specialist in Russia military capabilities previously at the Defense Department, now at the Rand Corp. think tank. “They thought they could get away with this.”
Graft in the Russian military, particularly during its Soviet history, is not a new phenomenon nor is it limited to an accounting of the number of troops it can field. Assessments of its recent interventions in Chechnya and Georgia included descriptions of deadly vulnerabilities to its fighting vehicles and other equipment, likely caused by purposeful misreporting to siphon ministry dollars, feigned negligence, outright theft and other endemically corrupt practices.
But Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision in February to invade Ukraine on a scale unseen in Europe since World War II has for the first time exposed the full extent to which corruption in Russia has rotted its Ministry of Defense. Corrupt practices have hollowed out not only the armor of its tanks but also the true numbers of its fighting forces, its ability to equip its front-line troops as well as for its top commanders to provide honest assessments of the state of the materiel and active duty and reserve forces they oversee.
“These are the kinds of things that are the result of either total incompetence or corruption: false reporting, people signing off on things that actually don’t meet standards, and of course the individual Russian soldier. It’s legendary the stealing that they do,” says retired Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges who last oversaw all U.S. Army operations in Europe, beginning in 2014 when Russia first annexed Crimea and kicked off the ongoing violence in Ukraine’s east, a region known as the Donbas.
“It’s corruption from the top,” Hodges says, referencing Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu’s conspicuously lavish $18 million mansion, “down to the individual Russian soldier.”
The six months of conflict since Russia invaded on Feb. 24 are rife with other examples of its military’s long-standing corrupt practices and how they have undermined what Mosow initially believed would amount to an uncontested thunder run on Kyiv.
Russia’s T-80 battle tanks like those it deployed into Ukraine are designed to be protected with defensive system known as explosive reactive armor or ERA, a series of boxes that are supposed to be filled with layers of metal and rubber plates along with high explosives that, when functional, effectively prevent an incoming round from penetrating the tank’s skin.
Instead, Ukrainian troops inspecting the carcases of the invading tanks they destroyed have documented several instances in which this critical lifesaving technology had been hollowed out, with only some of the requisite components intact and no evidence that the relatively valuable explosives had ever been there – certainly not since the Russians first engaged in battle.
In a particularly embarrassing episode, many of the columns that first advanced on the Ukrainian capital stopped short miles outside the city limits not because of stiff local resistance but because they ran out of fuel. Reports emerged almost immediately that the hang-up was caused in part by logistics convoys that similarly never arrived because of their own insufficient supply or because they were blown up. Or, more nefariously, that Russia never possessed the levels of fuel it believed it had because much of it had been sold on the black market at staging sites in Belarus.
Russia was unable to field enough infantry troops to provide dismounted patrols to clear routes for its heavier armored vehicles, which instead were destroyed by ground-based Ukrainian anti-tank teams. And tanks that were supposed to boast a complement of five crew members often instead had three, undermining their ability to perform effectively after coming into contact with enemy forces.
Analysts now believe Russia’s senior military leaders likely hid the readiness problems they knew their formations faced in part due to the secrecy surrounding the invasion plans.
Part of the problem Russia faces now is that it has successfully appeared to be able to field an effective military in recent years, notably through its interventions along its border but also in relatively faraway locales like Syria. There, though, its mission to prop up the regime of Bashar Assad and undermine the disjointed U.S. presence only needed an air force and 2,000 to 3,000 ground troops.
“Operations in Syria were not incompetent, were not unsuccesful, but that’s a very small force,” Massicot says. “You can hide a lot of these problems.”
“But when you do something in Ukraine, when you have a majority of your army in the field, you can’t.”
The U.S. military assesses that as many as a third of deployed Russian vehicles have failed on their own, due in large part to unenforced maintenance practices at their home bases. Reports have emerged that its troops are eating expired rations, likely because logisticians either sold the replacements or never used dispersed money to buy them in the first place.
The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C. did not respond to a request for comment. The Kremlin has been notoriously tight-lipped about any shortcoming among its forces since the invasion began. It denies, for example, that a Ukrainian counteroffensive in Kherson near the Crimean Peninsula was in fact occurring as of Wednesday midday.
However, in a tacit acknowledgement of his armed forces’ shortcomings and the need to endure its operations in the long term, Putin last week ordered the military to increase its size by roughly 10%, adding to Russian accounting of its current numbers of around 1 million combat forces to create a new total of roughly 1,150,000 troops.
“This is unlikely to succeed,” a U.S. senior defense official said on the condition of anonymity, “as Russia has historically not met personnel end strength targets.”
“In fact, if you look at the Russian Armed Forces prior to the invasion, they may have already been 150,000 personnel short of their million-personnel goal,” the official told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday.
Prior to the invasion, one-quarter of all Russian troops were conscripts. Moscow’s recruitment efforts since then have included broadening the age limits for new recruits and encouraging prisoners to join the ranks.
The U.S. assesses many of these new recruits are older, unfit and ill-trained, suggesting that any additional personnel Russia is able to muster by the end of the year likely won’t increase Moscow’s overall combat power.
“All these issues happen when you don’t have appropriate oversight mechanisms at that level,” Massicot says. “It’s a structural problem. They did have policies in place to address these issues, but there’s still clearly an oversight lapse.”
Russia is far from the only country to have experienced these kinds of problems with a force it has attempted to field and endure the hardships of battle.
The 20-year history of the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan and, notably, its attempts to extract itself is lined with repeated and publicly documented instances of graft and corruption among the local force it attempted to put in place.
“Ghost soldiers” became a household term to describe the nonexistent units local Afghan commanders said they oversaw, drawing money from a central government they distrusted and pocketing it. The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, still working by congressional mandate a year after the U.S. ended the war, concluded in 2020 that $19 billion out of approximately $63 billion of U.S. taxpayer money – a third – had been lost to “waste, fraud and abuse.”
President Joe Biden claimed in July 2021 that the U.S. and its partners had “trained and equipped nearly 300,000 current serving members of the military” in Afghanistan only for it to have effectively vanished less than two months later.
A key difference, though, is the now defunct U.S.-backed government in Kabul never solidified and expanded to the extent that it controlled a sovereign state. In Russia, its military along with civilian bureaucratic counterparts actively exploit the system of government that exists.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the decade or so following the fall of the Soviet Union, leaders in the Kremlin attempted to enact sweeping, good-faith efforts to reform the practices of the past and field a much more reliable military, one worthy of the high confidence that Russian public opinion at the time placed in its armed forces.
In her 2013 biography of Putin, Fiona Hill, the former top Russia policy official within the Trump administration’s National Security Council, documented efforts by then-Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov when he took office in 2007 – shortly before Russia’s invasion of Georgia – to “stop corruption in the military sector and get its finances in order.” Unlike his predecessor or Putin himself, Serdyukov did not have a KGB background, nor a history as a close associate of the Russian president. His experience instead derived from the Federal Tax Service and as such he was seen as one of Putin’s controllers of financial information.
“Serdyukov’s job was to force the retirement of hundreds of thousands of officers and to convert the old Soviet-style, mass conscription-based army into a leaner, more mobile fighting force,” Hill wrote. “The smaller army could then get new weapons and modern training.”
The initiative aligned with Putin’s most prized goal then and now: To restore the grandeur and effectiveness of Russia’s fighting forces and to equip them with the most modern weaponry available.
Whatever modernization efforts took place during that time – on display for Russia’s subsequent foreign interventions – were also deeply unpopular among Russia’s old guard and receded in 2012 with Putin’s reversion to appointing close personal allies, who remain in those positions today: military bureaucrat Shoigu as defense minister, seen as “Putin’s man,” Hill writes, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov as chief of the general staff, the “transmission belt to the other men who counted: the uniformed military.”
Combined with the kleptocracy of Putin’s government – in which he gave permission to oligarchs to siphon public funds while maintaining ever-present threats of blackmail to ensure loyalty, a tactic he learned in the KGB – the Russian military yet again, perhaps unbeknownst to Putin, reverted to its longtime corrupt practices.
“Russia’s geopolitical power is an existential matter for Putin – the one thing he truly cares about more than any other,” Robert Person, a professor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, says, speaking in a personal capacity. “And yet the individuals in Russia’s military-defense complex are just as greedy as those throughout the rest of the government bureaucracy. Why should they be denied their corruption-funded comforts just because they are engaged in national defense?”
“And so the skimming, stealing, and misallocation of money, equipment, supplies, and other resources flourishes throughout the military as everyone seeks to take their cut. But unlike the civilian sectors, this theft cannot be admitted openly within the ‘power vertical.’ Robbing Russia’s national defense is not tolerated in the way that it would be – or even encouraged – in civilian heavy industry,” Person says. “So they do what generations of Soviet officers and defense bureaucrats did for decades before them: lie up the chain. Lie about the readiness of their troops and equipment, lie about how the budget is being spent – all to cover up the scale of their theft.
“And because Putin has constructed a personalist dictatorship where everyone around him is dependent on him for their wealth, power and even freedom, he will never hear the truth about how corrupt his military is and how badly they are likely to perform as a result.”
Putin and his advisers seriously overestimated military capabilities and manpower as a result, Person adds, leading to “a strategically disastrous miscalculation to launch a war that they were not equipped to win.”
“And so I would say that corruption in the military and the entire political system go a long way in explaining Putin’s miscalculation in invading Ukraine.”
Putin has not offered any indications this cycle of corruption will change, certainly not as the Russian military accepts his orders to expand in an attempt to offset its battlefield failures thus far.
Any expansion there, however, will likely only take place on paper. And it remains unclear whether Putin himself will realize it.
“Based on what I’ve seen studying him and his regime for the last 22 years,” Person concludes, “my guess is that he will believe his own propaganda until the end.”