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As Russia’s Military Stumbles, Its Adversaries Take Note

During a trip through the Eastern European countries that fear they could next face Mr. Putin’s military, General Milley has consistently been asked the same questions. Why have the Russians performed so poorly in the early days of the war? Why did they so badly misjudge the Ukrainian resistance?

His careful response, before reporters in Estonia: “We’ve seen a large, combined-arms, multi-axis invasion of the second-largest country in Europe, Ukraine, by Russian air, ground, special forces, intelligence forces,” he said, before describing some of the bombardment brought by Russia and his concern over its “indiscriminate firing” on civilians.

“It’s a little bit early to draw any definitive lessons learned,” he added. “But one of the lessons that’s clearly evident is that the will of the people, the will of the Ukrainian people, and the importance of national leadership and the fighting skills of the Ukrainian army has come through loud and clear.”

While the Russian army’s troubles are real, the public’s view of the fight is skewed by the realities of the information battlefield. Russia remains keen to play down the war and provides little information about its victories or defeats, contributing to an incomplete picture.

But a dissection of the Russian military’s performance so far, compiled from interviews with two dozen American, NATO and Ukrainian officials, paints a portrait of young, inexperienced conscripted soldiers who have not been empowered to make on-the-spot decisions, and a noncommissioned officer corps that isn’t allowed to make decisions either. Russia’s military leadership, with Gen. Valery Gerasimov at the top, is far too centralized; lieutenants must ask him for permission even on small matters, said the officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational matters.

In addition, the Russian senior officers have proved so far to be risk-averse, the officials said.

Their caution partly explains why they still don’t have air superiority over all of Ukraine, for example, American officials said. Faced with bad weather in northern Ukraine, the Russian officers grounded some Russian attack planes and helicopters, and forced others to fly at lower altitudes, making them more vulnerable to Ukrainian ground fire, a senior Pentagon official said.

“Most Russian capabilities have been sitting on the sidelines,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russia studies at CNA, a defense research institute, in an email. “The force employment is completely irrational, preparations for a real war near nonexistent and morale incredibly low because troops were clearly not told they would be sent into this fight.”

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