Red Army to Dead Army — How Did the Russians Get so Bad at War?

Wes O'Donnell
6 min readApr 6, 2022

From the mighty Soviet bear that kept countless NATO generals up at night during the Cold War, to today’s demoralized, poorly equipped, hollow shell with nuclear weapons, how did western military planners get Russia so wrong?

I’ll admit it… I was shocked. I believed the hype. After more than a month of fighting in Ukraine, the complete lack of professionalism on display by the Russian army surprised me and no doubt surprised thousands of other American veterans and commentators.

Since Putin came to power over two decades ago, the media has subjected us to stories of how Russia is modernizing their conventional (non-nuclear) military, creating super weapons, and investing in a fighting force capable of taking on NATO and the west.

Exhibit A — This New York Times article from two months ago which clearly has not aged well: Russia’s Military, Once Creaky, Is Modern and Lethal

Perhaps it was my fault — I had been raised all my life to prepare to fight the Russians. Movies like Red Dawn, Rocky IV, and even Top Gun sent countless 80s kids running to their local recruiter’s office ready to sign on the dotted line.

Personally, I joined for the college money — fighting Russians was just a bonus. After September 11th, 2001, terrorists became the new boogey men. But Russia was always there in the background, quietly rebuilding their military.

Or were they?

Soviet and Russian military expenditures in constant 2015 dollars (SIPRI figures) by Underlying lk CC BY-SA 4.0

The crumbling of the once proud Soviet army started even before the fall of the Soviet Union. From 1985 to 1991, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev attempted to reduce the strain that the Army placed on economic demands. His government slowly started to shrink the size of the army.

After the collapse and the breakaway of numerous former Soviet states like Ukraine, Georgia, and Latvia, local Soviet military commanders swore allegiance to the new republics.

As you might well imagine, this act by itself completely devastated the command-and-control structure of the new Russian army — what was left of it anyways. Indeed, something very similar happened to the United States at the start of the Civil War.

Wes O'Donnell

Army & Air Force Veteran | Global Security Wonk for War is Boring, GEN, OneZero, Soldier of Fortune | Law Student | TEDx Speaker | Founder of Warrior Lodge