One generally ignored reason for the poor performance of Russian troops in Ukraine is the endemic corruption in the Russian military. These wasteful practices have been around for a long time and explain the tradition of poor performance by the Russian military. Young men from wealthy families can buy their way out of dangerous situations, like being sent to a combat zone. That costs about $500. If you do end up in a combat zone, paying the right person over $10,000 will get you a certificate of combat injuries and a medical certificate that gets you out of the military. If you stay in uniform, you can obtain various forms of special treatment by paying bribes. It costs nearly a thousand dollars to get extended leave from military service to visit family and friends. While in uniform you can pay bribes to obtain promotions, certificates of physical fitness or a military driver’s license for those who really don’t know how to drive. Bribes will get you out of trouble for being caught with a cell phone in a combat zone. If you are caught drunk on duty, a few hundred dollars to whoever caught you to make the problem go away.
Most Russian soldiers don’t have access to the kind of cash required to bribe their way out of trouble or danger. Poor soldiers die while soldiers with wealthy parents not only survive but come home with purchased certificates of honorable combat service.
Bribes are also used to avoid unpleasant or embarrassing discussions. For example, a decade ago there was an effort to modernize the military. That included developing methods to reduce corruption. It turned out that there was no practical way to decrease or eliminate corruption because too many people in the military or corrupt and ineffective defense industries grew prosperous from the bribes.
The corruption and poor management has created major problems. Many officers are incapable of, or uninterested in following suggestions for, improving combat capability. Many senior officers are still more concerned with getting rich than building modern post-Cold War armed forces. Defense industry officials are apparently incapable of sustained competence and new weapons are either not developed effectively or built in a shoddy fashion. The troops have been complaining about this for years while reform efforts do little about it. The critics of this situation want more realism applied to the problems in the military, especially the corruption and the shabby Russian defense industries.
Meanwhile, since the 1990s, a military modernization effort has been underway as the government realized it had to do something about rapidly aging military equipment. In many cases, these purchases are essential because buying new equipment and weapons stopped, with a few exceptions like ballistic missiles, during the 1990s. Because of that, most of the armed forces are still using Cold War era weapons and equipment manufactured in the 1970s and 80s. Fortunately, even older 50s and 60s era equipment was junked because the size of the armed forces shrank 80 percent in the 1990s. Because Russian defense industries, the preferred suppliers, were never world class, the Russian military was usually getting updated Cold War equipment that was not competitive with the new generations of weapons and accessories Western forces were receiving.
It was believed that, by the end of 1990s, at least a third of the Cold War era equipment would be replaced. In some categories, especially those requiring new technology, over 80 percent of the older equipment was replaced. The government had been telling the military about these big plans and when they didn’t deliver, morale suffered. This happened quickly in the navy because officers and sailors had been told that money would be available to more ships and could spend more time at sea. It turned out that the existing ships couldn’t handle heavy use and workload. That meant there had to be more new ships or expensive and extensive refurbishment of existing warships. After the 1990s the air force resumed long range air patrols over areas off the Russian coast, which have not seen Russian navy or air force activity since the 1980s. Since 1991 until quite recently, Russian warships spent most of their time tied up at dock, meaning an entire generation of sailors has little experience at sea. This spells defeat in wartime and sailors, especially the senior commanders, knew it.
The big problem so far is that the new equipment that has been received is not impressive. The troops can go on the Internet and get video and tech specs for a lot of the contemporary Western gear and the Russian equivalents rarely look good in comparison. But at least they aren’t stuck with aging Cold War era equipment that rarely works.
The Russian armed forces have already come to grips with the fact that it will never return to the glory days of the Soviet Union, which dissolved in 1991. The army was called the Red Army back then and the mighty Soviet naval force came to be known as the Red Fleet. Back during the Cold War, the armed forces had five times as many troops, over five million of them. Before 1991 the military received 10-20 percent of the national GDP, which was estimated to be about two trillion dollars. No one is sure of the exact amount, as the communists were not big fans of accountants and accurate financial reporting. Currently, Russia is playing by West European rules when it comes to military spending, meaning no more than 3-4 percent of GDP going to the military. With a $2.1 trillion dollar economy that continues to grow, so the generals and admirals can expect a lot more cash to work with. But most of this money went to replace Cold War era weapons, which were considered out-of-date and of limited usefulness in the 1990s. Because of fluctuating oil prices, the main source of government income, progress was erratic, and it wasn’t until after 2010 that the process of replacing Cold War era weapons and equipment started to accelerate. Unfortunately, after 2020 the process was still incomplete and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 led to more economic setbacks because of western economic sanctions imposed for that aggression. Russia underestimated the degree their new economy depended on western technology. Once more the Russian economy is a mess and as long as the war in Ukraine lasts, the situation won’t improve.