Leadership: Russia Learns More From Defeat Than From Victory


June 2, 2013: Russia is getting pretty serious about increasing the combat capabilities of its armed forces. This can be seen by the growing use of “snap exercises.” These are training exercises ordered with little warning, in order to emulate what would happen in wartime. Such exercises were popular early in the Cold War, when the Russian army was full of combat experienced commanders who knew how true the old saying “fight as you train and train as you fight” was. But by the 1980s, the snap exercises had been replaced by carefully scripted training planned long in advance and intended to provide as few surprises as possible. By then all the combat veterans had retired and were replaced by bureaucrats in uniform who desired predictability more than realistic (and often unpredictable or embarrassing) training. It was noted that this sort of thing played a factor in the poor performance of many units sent to Afghanistan in the 1980s, and to the even more dismal performance of Russian troops in Chechnya in the early 1990s. Even the 2008 invasion of Georgia found poorly equipped units lacking the ability to deal with the unexpected.

Over the last few years a lot of the military bureaucrats in staff and command positions were fired or retired and the reasons for the success of the American military was studied more carefully. One of the things they found was the continued reliance on snap exercises. The Stavka (the senior staff of all the armed forces) was ordered to do more of this and only tell subordinates that it was going to happen, but not when, and for everyone to plan accordingly. After some early embarrassments, unit commanders figured it out and trained their troops to be ready to go on short notice and to be flexible and ready for anything when ordered out. Those who did not do this were replaced.

Russia didn’t really have to go to the Americans for this wisdom because there were always Russian staff officers and commanders who had figured it out, or knew how it used to be but were ignored or forced out of the military for bringing it up. That has now changed, although the way all military bureaucracies operate, there is always a tendency to go for the low-risk solution. That means no snap exercises, which can often turn out badly. So there will always be pressure to revert back to the bad old ways of predictable training. Too many officers forget that unpredictable is how wars go and that you learn more from defeat than from victory.




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