In 2022 Russia invaded Ukraine. It was supposed to be, many people expected, a one-sided affair. Russia had far more troops, tanks, helicopters, armored vehicles, artillery, aircraft, bombers, cruise missiles, and naval units. The Russians had nearly effortlessly brushed aside the Ukrainians in fighting in 2014, seizing Crimea and annihilating Ukrainian formations that attempted to defeat Russian -backed separatists in the Donbass. Since then Russia had performed well in Syria, and the Ukrainian army’s value was untested: there was no way of knowing how much progress, if any, the new Ukrainian army had made since 2014.
And yet the Russian invasion in 2022 quickly turned into a fiasco. Russian units ran out of fuel, food, supplies, within just a few dozen miles of entering the country. Combined arms tactics were glaringly absent, absent, Russian equipment terribly maintained, morale low, soldiers confused and ill-led, artillery fire ineffective, tanks annihilated in ambushes and by ATGMs, trucks destroyed, air defense ineffective, vehicles captured by tractors, POWs desperate only to phone home to their mothers and tell them about being in Ukraine. Progress stalled quickly in the north and in the east, and only in the south was significant territory gained. The vaunted Russian army, air force, air force, navy, and VDV all proved drastically less effective than imagined.
After this comic display, the search for culprits ensued. One of the most common ways to explain it has been Russia's internal situation, Russia is a dysfunctional state, whose primary exports are petroleum and natural gas, it isn’t too unfair to call Russia a giant gas station with nukes, which are its main strategic defense. It has an oligarchy that is fueled by the profits of this petroleum exports, and which is notoriously venal and corrupt, largely indifferent to the plight of the average Russian. This corruption has largely infiltrated the Russian government, to the extent that it is endemic: statistics of perceived corruption place it among the worst in the world. Cost overruns are massive in any project. Huge amounts of supplies and weapons seem to have been sold off and embezzled, or simply left to rot. The list goes on.
It is easy to see the affect of this on Russian operations in Ukraine. Vehicles have been poorly maintained, supplies sold off, such as the famous MREs that had been expired for 7 years, and it seems likely that training budgets have been embezzled. Although it is unconfirmed, ERA on Russian tanks sometimes appeared to be non-functional, filled with egg cartons. The readiness and reliability of the Russian military has been hit hard by corruption, such as tires on Russian vehicles seemingly not having been rotated for years and being of inferior, Chinese make, meaning that advanced Pantsir air defense systems sink into the mud of the rasputitsa. Perhaps inherent issues in the Russian army and society drove the fiasco.
There are, however, things that argue against this narrative. Russia and Ukraine have similar levels of perceived corruption, and yet Ukraine is performing far better than Russia, at least on a pound for pound basis. And some Russian formations have certainly performed far better in the past. Russia won its last several wars after all, and Russian ground units put up far more credible performances in say, the Russo-Georgian War, and while the Ukrainians were dismally prepared, in 2014 most combat between the Russians and Ukrainians was rather one-sided.
Dictatorships: The Bearer of Blame?
What appears to be the culprit could perhaps be dictatorships, and this has been hopefully seized on in some discussions as a comparison with China. Russia’s political power became deeply centralized in just one man: Vladimir Putin. Putin has reportedly surrounded himself with yes-men, and his invasion plan, in contradiction of all military sense (with units invading not even in units, not even in formation, but just men marching over the border, often lacking crucial elements, even signal units). Dictatorship seems to enable awful plans to be approved, unpopular with the general public, and to foster a client of nepotism, corruption, and political loyalty which is inimical to a well functioning government and military. Thus Russia could win against a succession of fragmented enemies, weak opponents like Georgia and Chechnya, and terrorists like in Syria, but it struggled when it went up against a competent and effective opposition: the iron fist of dictatorship proved to be far less effective than the steel shield of democracy.
This is not only very cheerful for Ukraine, but it is also a very reassuring idea for other countries. After all, the principal other challenger to the Western international order which is led by the United States is China, which is like Russia, a dictatorship - with a similar strongman authoritarian in the figure of Xi Jinping, and repressive internal policies which stifle Chinese society. If the Russians have performed so badly in their invasion in Ukraine, might not the Chinese perform just as badly in operations in say, a war over Taiwan? There are some ideas which point to this: Chinese fighter pilots for example, have to obey many of the same rigid precepts which are associated with a Soviet-style command system which the Russians inherited, which denies flexibility and initiative in training and operations, there have been extensive scandals in China over corruption, economic labor by PLA soldiers probably saps the fighting spirit of many units, and the Chinese government could make the exact same errors that the Russians did of failing to match their military actions to political realities. Perhaps dictatorships as a whole have severe problems with war waging: both of the world wars saw dictatorships lose to democratic nations, the Cold War was a victory over dictatorship, and democracies have generally gone from victory to victory in the last several centuries.
But dictatorships are not inherently incapable of war and effectively prosecuting them. The other relatively big international war recently was Azerbaijan-Armenia. Azerbaijan is unquestionably a dictatorship under Ilham Heydar oghlu Aliye (most comically it accidentally released the results of the presidential election a day early a few years ago) while Armenia, after the 2018 revolution, is at least somewhat democratic - and yet Azerbaijan won handily. It rallied popular support for the war, built a coalition of allies that isolated Armenia, created an effective military, and while its war plan wasn’t brilliant or daring, or particularly brilliant, it worked. Of course, it's easy to say that Azerbaijan is a substantially richer nation than Armenia, with a far larger population, and which had been able to purchase far more technologically advanced equipment - but word for word this all applies to Russia as well, and Armenia also had the advantage of, compared to Ukraine, forbidding mountain geography. Like Ukraine there were substantial amounts of volunteers from abroad for Armenia (the Armenian diaspora), and the Armenian army had had decent amounts of experience in previous border conflicts: it wasn't that the Armenians were bad, but the Azerbaijanis were better. Part of this is famously due to their effective armed UAVs, but the Azerbaijanis still won on the ground with maneuver assets, the UAVs were force multipliers rather than decisive in of themselves.
And of course, democracies are just as capable of politically disastrous wars, like the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 - which went off, militarily, almost without a hitch, but which is widely viewed as a disaster politically. The Americans assumed they would be greeted as liberators (rather akin to what the Russians thought in Ukraine), and that it would be easy to export the American way of life and American governance to Iraq, which manifestly failed, with a painful insurgency against American troops.
The key take-away from the war is that not all dictatorships are equal. Russia’s dictatorship is plagued by internal weaknesses, but the Russians have been far more competent in the past. Rather, it was the awful phrasing and catastrophic intelligence and conception of Ukrainian resistance which has led the Russian invasion to go so badly awry. Russia expected Ukraine to collapse, that the Russians would cow the Ukrainians into surrender, that Ukrainian nationalism is fake and Ukraine a frail state which would collapse when the door was pushed in. In other words, like nothing had changed from the collapse of Ukraine in 2014.
This isn’t to deny that there are severe problems in the Russian army. Sure, its troops attacked without any preparation often not even being told they were going to war, and in a terrible, politically motivated, unrealistic plan. But the Russian army still suffers from bad logistics, terrible communications, low morale, vast amounts of old, obsolete equipment, poor reliability, corruption, poorly chosen spending priorities, and inadequate training and combined arms. These are not minor issues. But the spectacularly poor performance is due to the way the Russians have chosen to prosecute the war, linked to dictatorship certainly, but not inevitable.
Instead, the problems with dictatorships and war come from the societies that they emerge from. Poor countries, with internal tensions papered over by a strong, authoritarian state, and citizenry unused to initiative and authority, will struggle. But there are plenty of dictatorships which don't share these characteristics, a host of populist dictatorships that unite their people on projects of war, that are buttressed by rather than fearful of their militaries, and have sufficient material means for war. Not a huge amount, since the trend is that wealthier, more developed, less damaged countries will be democracies, but they exist. These countries will probably wage war as well as democracies, and democracies can have the same issues - a read of say, Marc Bloch's Etrange Defaite on France's defeat in 1940 can show a democracy whose society had important internal fractures that helped lead to defeat, just like a dictatorship might.
For now, let’s rejoice that the Russians chose such a terrible plan and have prevented Ukraine from falling to an unjust invasion. But it can only be used with the greatest caution to figure out what say, North Korean or Chinese performance would be. Not all dictatorships are the same. Instead of viewing all dictatorial armies as inherently inferior or flawed, instead the situation needs to be analyzed on a case-by-case basis. Broad terms like democracy or dictatorship are only the most vague of terms for nations and people: only by understanding them can we understand their health and capabilities.