Russia’s stalled invasion of Ukraine has provoked debate around the quality of its military. While corruption and graft have undoubtedly degraded the material component of Russian forces, the morale component has clearly also been deeply lacking. Debate around this morale element has largely focused on the surprise nature of the invasion to most Russian troops, as well as the missing moral justifications behind the war. In this piece, Lewis Sage-Passant explores whether there are other structural morale elements missing from the Russian military and intelligence machinery contributing to this friction.
The war in Ukraine has now entered its tenth week, and what appears to have been an attempt at a “thunder run” style raid on Kyiv has unquestionably failed. The Kremlin has now reoriented its war aims towards much more limited territorial ambitions in the Donbas region, yet despite this reduced scope, is still struggling to make meaningful gains. While Russia has now seized a land-bridge to Crimea, as well as cities such as Kherson and most of Mariupol, the slow pace of advance and unthinkably high losses of troops and materiel have revealed that the “New Look” reforms of the Russian military were almost entirely aesthetic in nature.
With casualty estimates ranging from 15,000 (British Defence Intelligence) to beyond 22,000 (Ukrainian Intelligence), Russia appears to have surpassed the losses the Soviet Army suffered in a decade of fighting in Afghanistan in less than three months. With at least nine generals killed (holding 11 stars between them), the Russian military has sustained general staff losses equivalent to the worst days of World War II. Equipment losses are continuing at a staggering rate, stunning even the most seasoned OSINT researchers, approaching levels equivalent to the entire Eastern Front during the 1943 summer campaign (which included the Battle of Kursk).
While much of this is undoubtedly due to the phenomenally close level of intelligence and materiel cooperation between NATO and Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s own unexpected battlefield prowess, and Russia’s equipment shortcomings, there is another element that is almost certainly contributing to the imbalance of forces; mission command. Mission command is the concept of allowing the forwardmost commander – regardless of rank – freedom to execute the mission according to their own judgement. Empowerment to react and decide is decentralised. Their commander will provide them with the overall strategic intent of the objective (perhaps, “take Hill 123 so that we can use it to provide fire support for our assault into Town A”), as well as boundaries of movement (perhaps, “stay within these grid squares”) to deconflict with other friendly units operating adjacently. This means that frontline commanders have the ability to rapidly adjust to the realities of the situation on the ground. If Hill 123 turns out to be heavily fortified or lacking overwatch over Town A, the frontline commander can perhaps find an alternative hill that will serve the same purpose.
The Russian way of war appears to lack mission command. Russian troops in 2022, much as in the Winter War of 1939, are beholden to rigid command structures that impose top-down and inflexible operational orders. Best estimates suggest that Russian platoon and company level orders are delegated down with granular specificity, and a lack of overall trust permeates the Russian military (as evidenced by junior officers only learning about the invasion the night before). This means that frontline commanders are likely rarely told about the strategic objectives their missions are supporting, and as such need to await further instruction whenever a plan requires changing. Given the rapid pace of modern warfare, getting answers from command before those new orders have become outdated is almost impossible. This leaves Russian formations as consistently operating within a disrupted OODA loop, without the enemy needing to even try to overwhelm their battle rhythm. Meanwhile, the lack of a professional NCO corps means that the soldier-officer divide in the Russian military is vast, and an overabundance of junior officers (who largely fulfil duties left to experienced NCOs in NATO forces) means top-heavy formations that likely place little value on junior leaders. We have seen evidence of this problem repeatedly during the war. Russian units consistently appear to make stubborn attempts at seizing objectives that have been shown as too heavily fortified for light unit assault. Units rigidly stick to demarcated roads (also partly due to poor mobility), even when they are now well aware of the Ukrainians’ ability to exploit the difficult off-road terrain to conduct raiding strikes and ambushes.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian forces appear to have an excellent grasp of mission command. The war’s most successful units – such as the Aerorozvidka – are described with adjectives like “entrepreneurial“. This is likely due to a combination of factors. Nearly a decade of fighting a low-level insurgency in the Donbas has thoroughly tested command and control systems of much of Ukraine’s military, which spent this period reinventing itself from a rigidly inflexible post-Soviet army, into a modern force, while fighting in a communications environment constantly denied by Russian Electronic Warfare operations. Additionally, close training support from NATO will have almost certainly transferred the value of mission command concepts onto the Ukrainians. A slightly less pleasant factor behind this is also the likely expectation that Ukraine would suffer decapitation strikes early on in the war; Ukrainian commanders probably did not expect to last long enough to micromanage the war. While these strikes never came to pass – almost certainly as a result of poor quality and low stocks of precision munitions on the Russian side – they were likely planned for. NATO’s early support for Ukraine was consistently couched in an expectation that it would be supporting a long-running insurgency, rather than a conventional resistance, which suggests that NATO had the same expectations. Even though Russia has been unable to degrade Ukrainian operations as expected (due to the aforementioned lack of precision guided munitions, an inability to conduct widespread electronic warfare for fear of disrupting Russia’s own unencrypted communications, and the general failure to capture Kyiv), Ukraine still benefits from the implementation of mission command.
Mission Command in the Intelligence Domain
In the intelligence space, mission command is equally important. Analytic rigour demands debate, disagreement, and challenged assumptions. This requirement is so deeply entrenched in 5-Eyes intelligence services, that the structured analytics techniques taught at intelligence schools often consider “red teaming”, “competing hypotheses”, and “devils’ advocates” as fundamental. While many intelligence practitioners admit to only infrequently actually conducting formal structured analysis due to time constraints, these techniques find themselves embedded into the culture and thinking of most intelligence teams. An analyst at the CIA or SIS is unlikely to be reprimanded for challenging assumptions in assessments, especially in a post-Iraq WMD intelligence world. Analysts are concurrently trusted enough to know the strategic intent behind their analysis, despite security-driven compartmentalisation of sources and methods. This intellectual “mission command” allows them to test their assessments against real, rather than hypothetical, strategic environments.
By comparison, it is difficult to imagine a similar culture of analytical rigour thriving within the Russian intelligence services. Regardless of the quality of Russian sources and methods of intelligence collection, without analytic “mission command” and the right (if not obligation) to challenge assumptions, intelligence is always beholden to the flaws of the highest ranking analyst. Groupthink thrives in an environment where analysts are expected to toe the party line. This is not entirely surprising; the KGB only established a dedicated analytical department in 1989. The service (and its successors) lacks the longstanding history of dedicated analysis as a career trajectory.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that analytical “mission command” inadequacies were behind the Russian intelligence failures in the lead up to the invasion. An unverified letter leaked by the founder of Russian opposition site Gulagu.net, purporting to come from a frustrated FSB officer, claims that analysts on the Ukraine desk were unaware that their work was supporting a planned invasion. The letter claims that analytic culture was built around predetermined report outcomes in support of consumer demands. In plain terms, this means giving the customer exactly what they want; a deadly proposition in a world where the gold standard is “speaking truth to power”, regardless of whether power likes the the truth being spoken. Putin’s international TV humiliation of SVR chief Sergey Naryshkin appears to corroborate this view of a neutered analytical environment.
It is unlikely that Russia has dramatically reformed its intelligence culture in the weeks since D-Day. These things take years, if not decades, of highly empowered engagement at all levels of the intelligence service. Further reducing the likelihood is the reported purge of 150-odd members of the FSB, reportedly those responsible for Ukraine operations. Whether these reports are true or not, the mere rumour of a scapegoat-hunt within the service will undermine attempts at reform. Analysts will likely be in a “keep your head down” mindset, further discouraging contrarianism.
On the Ukrainian side, we have little insight into the quality of their intelligence services, as it is unclear where NATO intelligence ends and Ukrainian intelligence begins. Reports suggest that the US is providing the targeting details of the Russian generals being hit by Ukrainian strikes. The presence of a US P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft in the vicinity of the Russian Black Sea Fleet flagship “Moskva” before its sinking by Ukrainian Neptune missiles suggests a similar realtime intelligence flow for that operation. Ukraine appears to maintain relatively high quality intelligence collection capabilities, ranging from its (probably spurious) claims of sources inside the Kremlin, through to its (more realistic) ability to monitor Russian communications conducted via Ukrainian phone networks (due to the unworkability of Russia’s encrypted ERA system).
Additionally, as demonstrated in Figure 1.0, Ukraine almost certainly benefits from near-constant Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) support from allied force patrol aircraft operating along the Ukrainian and Belarussian border. These flights are likely monitoring the airspace above Ukraine, providing early warning to local air defences ahead of inbound air raids and missile strikes, as well as a probable ability to listen in on Russian communications in most of the theatre and detect Russia’s own mobile air defence systems.
While Ukrainian intelligence appears to have misread the likelihood of the invasion – or at least Ukraine’s leadership sought to downplay the risks, perhaps to avoid sparking a panic – it is clear that Ukraine has been able to integrate allied intelligence support to a level that essentially reduces any local shortcomings to a manageable level (if said shortcomings do indeed exist). The Ukrainian intelligence services will probably learn lessons from their close collaboration with allied intelligence services, and much as the military has almost certainly absorbed the value of mission command on the battlefield, if Ukrainian intelligence is smart, it will absorb similar lessons around analytic “mission command”.
Modern warfare is fast paced, conducted in an environment of information fog that is occasionally penetrated by crystal clear intelligence-derived certainty. Forces must act quickly to take advantage of these moments. The front line moves at a pace that top-down decision-making and rigid command processes cannot hope to keep up with, requiring flexibility for junior commanders, as well as clear understandings of intent. An army built around a culture of mission command, where everyone from the junior soldier to the senior officer understands the objectives (both immediate, and strategic), will thrive on such a battlefield. An army stuck with stubborn command structures that were already outdated in 1939 will likely meet the same fate as back then.
On the intelligence front, analytic “mission command” is equally as important. Intelligence collection is reaching frightening levels of prowess, yet concurrently, disinformation thrives. This creates an environment ripe for analytic traps, where challenging assumptions and playing devil’s advocate can avert disaster. While the Kremlin’s response to intelligence (or perhaps policy) failures in Ukraine appears to have been a purge of the responsible intelligence team, this appears to be a punitive measure (with numerous officers reportedly under house arrest or having been transferred to Lefortovo Prison), rather than a decision taken with a view to rebuilding an analytically open and empowered intelligence service.
While 5-Eyes intelligence is far better at analytic “mission command”, and empowering analysts to resist top-down predetermination of estimative outcomes, the allied intelligence world also maintains its inflexibilities in many areas, and must avoid complacency. Intelligence officials frequently discount the value of open source intelligence, and cling rigidly to secret sources and methods. The public sector is increasingly dependent on private sector collection methods (such as outsourced imagery and surveillance technologies), yet consistently looks down on the rapidly-growing private intelligence sector as “not real intelligence” (Lomas and Murphy, Intelligence and Espionage, Page 6). These examples of intelligence chauvinism suggest inflexible thinking, which at its heart, is a structural challenge equal to a lack of mission command. In the modern warfighting and intelligence space, flexibility and entrepreneurialism will be key to keeping pace with asymmetric opponents and technological advancements. Expansion of public-private intelligence partnerships will be critical in domains such as cyber-resilience of critical national infrastructures and the broader economy, while public sector agencies should be consistently seeking a two-way exchange of best practices with the private sector. A failure to appreciate this will simply leave NATO and its allies in an intellectual equivalent position as the Russian drone fleet: operating equipment that is far outstripped by modern commercial models.
Russia’s military may have been proven to be a paper tiger, but the devastation wrought upon Ukraine by this wholly inadequate force is firmly real, should underline the importance of maintaining a cutting edge warfighting and intelligence capability.
Support for those fleeing the conflict can be provided via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees here.
Suggested books for in-depth reading on this topic:
- Adopting Mission Command: Developing Leaders for a Superior Command Culture (Donald E. Vandergriff)
- Before Intelligence Failed: British Secret Intelligence on Chemical and Biological Weapons in the Soviet Union, South Africa and Libya (Mark Wilkinson)
- Structured Analytic Techniques for Intelligence Analysis (Randolph H. Pherson & Richards J. Heuer)
- Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-1940 (William Trotter)
- Conflict in Ukraine: The Unwinding of the Post-Cold War Order (Rajan Menon & Eugene B. Rumer)
- Divided Armies: Inequality and Battlefield Performance in Modern War (Jason Lyall)
- Strategiya: The Foundations of the Russian Art of Strategy (Ofer Fridman)
Additional geopolitical reading suggestions can be found on our 2022 reading list
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Lewis Sage-Passant is a Doctoral Researcher in the field of Intelligence, and former Military Intelligence Officer with extensive experience working and living in the Middle East and North Africa and Asia Pacific regions in a variety of geopolitical analysis, security & conflict risk and threat intelligence roles. Lewis specialises in geopolitical intelligence support to the oil & gas industry, the financial sector and leading technology firms.
Photo: Ukrainian Army ISTAR footage