History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes

Andrei Kozyrev, the former foreign Minister of Russia between 1990 and 1996, said in a thread of Tweets (https://twitter.com/andreivkozyrev/status/1500610676926005251) on March 7th: “The Kremlin spent the last 20 years trying to modernize its military. Much of that budget was stolen and spent on mega-yachts in Cyprus. But as a military advisor you cannot report that to the President. So they reported lies to him instead. Potemkin military.”

Polina Beliakova, a senior research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, expanded on the issue in an article on Politico, on March 8th. (https://www.politico.eu/article/russia-military-corruption-quagmire/)

« In the first days of the war in Ukraine, Russia’s performance was notoriously — and unexpectedly — underwhelming. Russian troops were slow and disorganized and failed to establish control of any major cities. 

To explain this surprising development, experts pointed out that the Kremlin had wrong assumptions about Ukraine’s willingness and ability to fight. And while that may hold true, there is another factor that might have contributed to Russia’s incorrect pre-war assessments and poor performance on the ground — systemic corruption in the country’s defense and security sectors.

On the operational level, the corruption in defense procurement has also likely undermined logistics, manifesting in soldiers receiving inadequate equipment and supplies on the ground. Poor logistics slows down the advancement of troops, undermines their morale and hinders military effectiveness. 

Early on in the invasion, there were accounts indicating that some Russian soldiers received rations that had expired in 2015. Most companies responsible for providing food to the Russian military are connected to Yevgeny Prigozhin — the patron of PMC Wagner, the mercenary organization, and sponsor of the Internet Research Agency, which has been accused of meddling in the United States elections. Several years ago, Prigozhin’s companies were accused by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny of forming a cartel and gaming the state’s bidding system for defense orders, receiving contracts for several hundred million dollars. The quality of food and housing in the Russian military is reportedly worse than in its prisons, with unreasonably small meals and some carrying harmful  Escherichia coli bacteria.

There are also reports that Russian advances in Ukraine were slowed by lack of fuel — and this in a country rich with oil and gas. But ineffective control over fuel consumption in the Russian military actually long preceded the war in Ukraine and had historically created opportunities for embezzlement — that is why fuel is often called the Russian military’s “second currency.” It is plausible that the long-standing tradition of corruption in fuel supply decreased the pace of Russian advancement in Ukraine.

It is also important to remember that the weapons currently targeting Ukraine were produced despite this level of corruption. Meanwhile, many technological innovations, including those that could increase the precision of Russian strikes, have never materialized due to graft, embezzlement and fraud. 

Corruption in Russian defense is not limited to the military-industrial complex. It penetrates the political level as well, likely altering the incentive structure for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top security officials. Recent investigations show that top officials in the Russian Defense Ministry own property that significantly outmatches their income, pointing to possible involvement in corrupt deals.  

Maintaining a luxurious lifestyle disincentivizes top security officials from giving expert advice that might disappoint the autocrat and cost them access to corruption networks. In the case of Ukraine, this would have meant the risk of reporting to Putin that the country he wanted to invade would put up a fight, that civilians were not looking forward to joining the “Russian world” and would likely greet troops with Molotov cocktails rather than bread and salt, as per local tradition. In this way, the corrupt loyalty of Putin’s top officials might have backfired and contributed to intelligence failures and erroneous risk assessments in Ukraine.  

Of course, corruption in the Russian security sector does not predetermine the outcome of the war. Russia still has extensive capabilities and numerous troops to be thrown into combat. But whatever gains the military might make, they will have done so while battling the challenges caused by rampant corruption, from erroneous risk assessment at the top to expired military rations on the ground. “ 

These considerations evoke in my mind what Frank Thiess wrote in 1936 in “Tsushima Roman eines Seekrieges “ on the naval battle of Tsushima, which signed the defeat of Russia in the Russian-Japanese war of 1905.

Here some excerpts (my translation).

“The building of ships in the Russian shipyards had shown a speed that impressed even the competent Germans. It showed what Russian workers could achieve when methodically and consciously led. At the same time the setting up of the Second Pacific Squadron shows the opposite of that work: disorder without example, because of a system totally unable to organize whatever and undermined by nepotism and corruption.”

When Rozhestvensky, the admiral charged by the Czar to first prepare the fleet and then to bring it from the Baltic Sea to the Sea of Japan and finally to command it during the fatal Tsushima battle, “found out that the telescopic pointers were unusable, even if they had been tested before the expedition, that the armour plates were thinner than the prescribed width, that it was on dead-end tracks that one should look for uniforms, shoes, overcoats and blankets, going in pieces eaten up by moths, he did not know which of the invisible enemies had damaged war preparation: anarchists or thieves that were in the middle of his own people…”

“The novel of this battle had begun with the building of ships with carboard instead of steel…”

Nebogatov, the officer eventually surrendering to the Japanese admiral Togo, after Rozhestvensky had been incapacitated by multiple wounds, wrote, as reported by Thiess, an article on the English press with his rage against a state that had “sent his sons to death on old inefficient ships, because sinking them deep into the see it tried to hide the moral bankruptcy, the rapacity, the inability, the mistakes, the blindness ….”.

Solicited by the foreign press to write an article about the truth behind the defeat, Rozhestvensky refused, Thiess writes: “It is not his task to talk about the superiority of Japanese guns and ammunition, of the weakness of Russian armour, of the very bad quality of Russian bullets, of Russian fuses, of Russian machinery.”

As the title of this piece says, history does not repeat itself and thus noting that the October revolution followed 12 years and one war after the defeat in Tsushima does not help to predict what will take place in Russia. But which events would rhyme with what happened after 1905?

As widely confirmed, we are all prone to confuse hope with forecasts. I forecast, or maybe hope, that it will be possible to have again friendly, mutually beneficial relationships with a peaceful Russia, radically changing its policy. This could come without the need of something analogous to the destruction of the Russian fleet in 1905.