One of the themes which has emerged from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, observed with some surprise by analysts, is the relative ineffectiveness of the Russian armed forces against those of Ukraine. On paper, Russia has the much larger and better equipped armed forces. Prior to the invasion, many analysts had speculated that, in the event of a conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the result would be a rapid and comprehensive Russian victory. As the war drags on into its fifth month, and Russia has been forced to pivot from an assault in Kiev to an offensive in the Donbass, it is clear that this envisaged Russian victory has failed to materialize.
Whilst there is much to be said regarding the tenacity and heroism of Ukrainian defenders, the national spirit and resolve enforced by President Zelensky, and the effectiveness of some support from Western allies, clearly the Russian armed forces have failed to perform as well had been expected of them. One potential factor which may have contributed to poor performance is the issue of corruption within the Russian armed forces. Historically, there has been a steady stream of high-level military officials who have been called up on corruption charges, and there is some reporting to indicate that corruption in Russia’s military is endemic and is part of the accepted culture.
With regards to Ukraine, this may have had a tangible effect of Russia’s invasion. In the initial weeks of the war, it became clear that Russia was suffering from logistical issues due in part to vehicles becoming bogged down. These issues slowed the Russian advance and allowed Ukraine to target stricken columns and better prepare defenses. OSINT indicated that a potential explanation for this was the tires being used on these vehicles. Footage and photographs showed vehicles unable to move due to their tires having disintegrated, marooning the vehicle and blocking roadways. Some OSINT analysts suggested that a reason for this was that Russian procurement officials had purchased cheap, Chinese-made tires and pocketed the excess funds. Others speculated that those involved in maintenance had simply stolen the budget allocated for the upkeep of the tires, such as regularly cleaning and rolling the tires. Whilst these arguments are unverified, if true, it would demonstrate that historical Russian corruption has had a knock-on effect with tangible impact on the war in Ukraine today.
Russian military corruption can be understood on three levels: individual, cultural, and political. On the individual level, it could be argued that, due to institutional and political factors, individual Russian officers are faced with a dynamic which incentivizes corrupt acts. The potential for profit and personal gain is great, while the perceived risk of being caught and being punished is relatively low. This paradigm only intensifies with rank, as more senior officers have access and control over greater funds, whilst they are also offered a certain amount of protection due to institutional and political factors discussed below. Corruption in the Russian military might also be caused by the collective culture within Russian military institutions. Reportedly, there is a culture of dissatisfaction and grievance within the officer corps dating back to the fall of the Soviet Union, whereby it is generally accepted that officers are underpaid and that other political and business elites have been allowed to amass vast wealth whilst they languish in relative poverty. In this culture, corruption, whilst understood to be illegal, is perceived as a completely moral act necessary to cope with post-USSR economic conditions. There is a perception – which is not unfounded – that the political elites and oligarchs are acting corruptly in not distributing government resources adequately, and therefore officers must also engage in corruption to compensate for this.
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On a political level, corruption in the Russian military is to a certain extent utilized as a method of extending political control over senior officers in the armed forces. As corruption is so widespread among senior Russian officers, the threat of selectively exposing individuals who stray out of line grants Putin a level of control over the military as a whole. For this reason, it could be argued that to a certain extent, corruption is allowed to occur as it will increase the centralized power of the Kremlin. Furthermore, for this dynamic to be effective, it is essential that the Kremlin also has control over the institutions which will be investigating corruption cases; the State Procuracy and the Audit Chamber. Whilst the level of independence of these institutions has fluctuated throughout the post-Soviet years, since the consolidation of power from Putin both have come increasingly under the sway of the Kremlin. Outgoing Chief Military Prosecutors have noted the extent to which the Military Procuracy is subordinate to the Kremlin. In 2000, the outgoing Chief Military Prosecutor described the role as a “requisition bureau for the Kremlin.” Historically, even those officers who do get convicted of corruption will receive light penalties which ultimately amount to the return of some of the funds and a de facto ban from further promotion. These factors all combine to create an incentive and culture which accepts corruption which, whilst in peacetime may increase the political power of Putin and the Kremlin, in wartime has proved to undermine combat effectiveness on a large scale.