There are numerous accounts of Russian soldiers surprised to learn they had been sent to war.
CNN spoke with Russians held as prisoners of war in Ukraine. Nearly a dozen POWs have appeared in news conferences — public appearances that may be questionable under the Geneva Conventions, which forbid countries from unnecessarily humiliating POWs.
Soldiers with regret
One, a pilot named Maxim, became emotional with anger and regret at what Russia has done.
“It’s not just about demilitarizing Ukraine or the defeat of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, but now cities of peaceful civilians are being destroyed,” Maxim said. “Even, I don’t know, what can justify, f**k, the tears of a child, or even worse, the deaths of innocent people, children.”
There are reports of Russian soldiers who were surprised to learn they had invaded a country rather than taken part in a training exercise. Others have abandoned their posts.
Why did Russia’s army perform so poorly?
Petraeus praised the determination of the Ukrainians: “They are fighting for their national survival, their homeland and their way of life, and they have the home-field advantage, knowing the terrain and communities.”
The US, too, has a selective service for all American men in case a draft is ever needed. But while the American draft has been dormant since Vietnam, young Russian men may serve one-year rotations in the military. That’s barely enough to get them out of basic training and into a unit, Petraeus said.
The Russians have had problems with intelligence, communications and vehicles getting stuck in traffic jams, stuck in the mud and breaking down.
“So in every single area of evaluation, the Russians, starting with their intelligence assessments and understanding of the battlefield and their adversary, and then every aspect of the campaign, all the way down to small unit operations, have proved woefully inadequate,” Petraeus argued.
While they have up to 150,000 troops involved in Ukraine, that’s not nearly enough to occupy Kyiv, much less the entire country, he said.
An incapable Russian army is not entirely good news
It is exactly their incompetence that could make this war so devastating, she argues.
“There’s reason to worry that the ineptitude and lack of professionalism that Russian forces have displayed in the first three weeks of the conflict are making fighting considerably more brutal for civilians than a more competent military would — and increasing the prospects that the war escalates.”
The strategy is now to terrorize
Retired Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt was asked Thursday on CNN about the seemingly indiscriminate use of imprecise weapons in civilian areas, something he said must be intentional.
“Their job is to terrorize the population. They’re trying to make sure that the cities are shelled, that the people see this kind of shock and they want the city to capitulate. They want to surround it. They want to shell it. They want to starve it, and the Russians then will storm it. This is intentional, and whether these (are) dumb bombs or precision weapons, it doesn’t matter.”
“To me, as a layman, I am not haggling over war crimes because that’s clearly what the Russians have resorted to,” James Clapper, former director of national intelligence, said Thursday on CNN. “And the reason for it, of course, is the fact they essentially failed in a conventional, tactical attack, so they’re resorting to what they can do, which is wanton destruction and the killing of innocent civilians.”
Fear can work both ways
Clearly, from the accounts of captured soldiers, this war caught many Russians by surprise. Ukrainians can build that into their defense strategy.
“What Ukrainians need to do is instill fear in the heads of every soldier that around the corner is some civilian or some member of the military who is going to attack them,” Evelyn Farkas, a Pentagon official during the Obama administration, said Thursday on CNN.
Calling in reinforcements
Petraeus said it was unclear to him how the Russians could rotate their soldiers out of combat roles given their stalled supply lines and their level of commitment.
One indicator may be in a report from the Japanese Ministry of Defense, which told the US it saw Russian ships from the Asian side of the country traveling with combat vehicles, perhaps to reinforce the Ukraine front.