Again on a possible analogy between the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-05 and the Russo-Ukrainian war

Some of my colleagues at Bruegel have made some comments on my latest post ( on the possible analogies between the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905 and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

I report their comments below, since they broaden and enrich the issue.

Marek Dabrowski wrote:

Historical comparisons are always debatable and I am not sure that the Russian-Japanese war of 1904-1905 is the best historical case for comparison with the current war (to be precise the 1904-1905 was started by Japan). Rather, looking for relevant historical analogies, I would choose the Soviet-Finnish winter war of 1939-1940.

Regardless of historical analogies, there is still a question of the poor performance of the Russian army (not only in Ukraine; these were also the cases of the Afghan war, the first Chechen war 1994-1996 or the war in Georgia in 2008). Most of your argumentation concentrates on corruption. It is true that the Russian army is corrupted but it cannot explain everything. 

Although I am not a military expert I would point out a few other important factors:

  1. The historical tradition of the Russian military doctrine in which the number of troops was considered more important than their quality. 
  2. This had further implications: Russian soldiers were always poorly treated by their command; the political leadership and army command never took care of their life, health and well-being.
  3. In both the imperial and Soviet era a substantial part of troops (the so-called construction battalions, stroibats in Russian) was used for non-military purposes – building roads, railways, and water canals, factory constructions, even doing harvests. That meant that their combat abilities were very limited. In contemporary Russia, this practice has been reduced but still exists. 
  4. A strong dependence of the Russian army on the military-industrial complex (industry and R&D sector) whose interests dominated over modernization goals of the army since the Soviet era. As a result, the Russian army’s equipment has become technically outdated and its quality and effectiveness remain far behind the US/ NATO one. It is not necessarily a matter of corruption but rather of an inward-oriented policy of relying on domestic potential (and illusion, which dates back to the Soviet era, that the Russian military technique is on a par with the American or Western one).
  5. The increasingly authoritarian character of Putin’s regime inevitably leads to a blockade of information, including that from intelligence sources and, therefore,  to political and military miscalculation. The same happened in the case of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in 1979.
  6. The authoritarian regime also eliminates any effective civilian oversight over the military (attempts to introduce civilian control over the armed forces were initiated in the first Putin’s decade but then abandoned).

Maria Demertzis added:

There is also a very simple reason to add to Marek’s very important points: and that is purpose. The Ukrainian army is fighting for survival. I doubt the Russian soldiers understand why they are there. And in my view that would be irrespective of how popular the war in Russian may be.

Nicolas Veron has posted his comment on the blog, but it is worthwhile reporting it also here:

A perceptive comparison. Among the echoes of 1905 is the gross underestimation of the adversary – outright Russian racism vis-à-vis Japan in 1904-1905, and a twisted understanding of Russian-Ukrainian history in 2022.