The Russian Paper Tiger Military

The invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated what many of us have suspected for a long time.

Erik Engheim

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Putin’s invasion of Ukraine brings back memories about the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 1990. I remember all the discussion in the media leading up to the war about how many soldiers and tanks Iraq had. Friends in school told me that Iraqis would fight like fanatics akin to the Japanese in WWII. They would never surrender, but fight to the death, I remember getting told.

Yet Iraq collapsed like a paper tiger. The ease with which the US utterly crushed the Iraq military no doubt contributed to their later hubris, which led the US to invade Iraq in 2003 with the intention of toppling Saddam Hussein and finding his non-existent Weapons of Mass Destruction.

We are seeing something similar today with the Russian military. Like Iraq, it looks impressive on paper. Yet when facing the real world, it underperforms badly. However, this isn’t new. Russia performed badly in the Winter War with Finland, the Chechen Wars, and many others.

Why do they perform so badly every time?

One insight comes from an American army colonel, who relayed his experience with training Arab armies and how this training may explain why Arab armies consistently performed so poorly against Israel: Why Arabs Lose Wars: Fighting as You Train, and the Impact of Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness.

One of the key observations was about differences in power hierarchies between different cultures. If you measure cultures by how hierarchical their power structures are, then Arab countries have the highest score. Israel is the opposite. It has one of the flattest power structures in the world.

Russia has a very similar problem to Arab countries. To much power hierarchy. Too many decisions are made at the top and those lower down the chain of command have limited autonomy. Questioning orders is frowned upon and power is centralized.

A functioning army needs information-sharing, trust, and competence. It is hard to make a coordinated attack if you cannot trust that the other unit will pull through and show up.

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Erik Engheim

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.