The Russian invasion of Ukraine has both surprised and informed Western military onlookers, who are getting a better view of what the Kremlin’s forces are capable of in the field.
And so far they aren’t impressed.
Multiple Western military sources who spoke to VICE News on background and on the condition of anonymity, because they weren’t authorized to speak with the media, say their opinion of Russia’s military abilities has gone down.
“What I’m seeing is unbelievable,” said a source involved in the special forces community. “I think this is why they pivoted so hard toward influence operations,” they added, referring to Russia’s well-established meddling and troll farms used against Western democracies in recent years.
In the last several days, Russian forces have continued to hammer both the eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv and the capital Kyiv with heavy bombing, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy claims Russian troops have sustained at least 4,500 casualties. Ukraine’s defence forces, bolstered by civilian volunteers, have managed to keep Russian forces from overrunning Ukraine’s two biggest cities, although the on-the-ground fighting has moved closer to those locations. Ukraine has claimed it has severely damaged Russia’s supply lines, slowing the advance.
Another military source told VICE News that officials and analysts within the U.S. military were “psyched” to see what types of weapons and hardware their Russian adversaries are using and how their airstrike tradecraft and radar systems work. The brutal war, which has already claimed thousands of lives since it began last Thursday, also offers the chance to gain intelligence about Russian military operations and how they’ve evolved in recent years.
- Are you in a NATO military and have tips? Ben Makuch can be reached on email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on the Wire app at @ben
“We haven’t seen them in a war like this in years,” a source said. “Even Syria wasn’t the same. This is a huge sample size.”
Though Russia recently sent troops to the war in Syria—mostly special operations forces and airpower—and in the war in Donbas (in a covert and unofficial capacity)—the current invasion of Ukraine has involved hundreds of thousands of troops and everything in the tool kit of the Russian military. As one source noted, Russia has gotten to watch and take notes over two decades of NATO wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Russia hasn’t fought a war of this magnitude since the war in Chechnya, which occurred in 1994, several years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. But President Vladimir Putin has poured money and resources into the Russian military in a bid to modernize it as a modern fighting force capable of going up against any NATO military coalition.
The sources pointed out just how shocked many in the broader NATO military community were at how incompetent Russian soldiers appeared, especially the officer and non-commissioned officer corps. Many described the professionalism and efficiency of the entire Russian military operations in Ukraine as unimpressive and sloppy.
Similarly surprising to the Western military community is just how good the performance of Ukrainian soldiers has been. Besides the prolific exploits of Ukrainian anti-aircraft operations (so much that there’s an urban legend of an Ukrainian fighter pilot ace known as the “Ghost of Kyiv”), Ukrainian units have also stood up against Russian special forces and won. Part of their success so far are the will and inspiration to fight (valuable to any fighting force), along with the steps Ukraine has taken since 2014 to improve its military, such as the NATO training its soldiers have received.
For example, even Ukraine’s ability to fly and lethally deploy the Turkish drone systems that first upset President Vladimir Putin in late 2021, without Russian air defense shooting them down has been surprising given its air superiority. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian military is publishing videos claiming to show their successful attacks, which have been incredibly valuable for morale and drawing support from Western allies.