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Why Russia's military appears to be struggling in Ukraine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Meanwhile, U.N. and Ukrainian officials said today that some civilians have been able to evacuate from a steel plant in the southern city of Mariupol. Hundreds of people - many civilians but also some Ukrainian fighters - have been trapped inside the steel plant as Russian troops surrounded the facility. Most of the fighting in Ukraine is now concentrated in the east and south of the country, where a U.S. official told reporters recently that the Russians are making slow and uneven progress. But a key question about this conflict remains. Why does Russia's massive and powerful military force continue to struggle against a smaller, less well-equipped opponent? Journalist David Volodzko wrote about this in a recent piece in The Daily Beast titled "The Embarrassing Truth Behind Putin's War Failures." He says the Russians appear not to have internalized the lessons they could have learned during other conflicts, particularly the civil war in Syria, where Russia backed the government of dictator Bashar al-Assad.

DAVID VOLODZKO: Some of the lessons that they could have learned in Syria were how to better detect and destroy small fighter units. They clearly have not learned the lesson of suppression and destruction of enemy air defense, which would be negating the surface-to-air missile threats that they're facing now. They do have air superiority, but they don't have that key kinetic element of using anti-radiation missiles to hone in on the radio frequencies of air defense radars. And this has left them exposed to MANPADS, for example, which are the portable air defense surface-to-air missiles.

MARTIN: One of the points you made in your piece that I just found surprising is that they didn't - I don't know how else to describe this other than arrogance. It just seemed that they just didn't realize that fighting a neighboring - a technologically advanced neighboring power where people speak the language is different than fighting, you know, far away where people don't speak your language - I mean, even to the point of using insecure communications, like insecure cellphones to communicate. I just found that surprising. Did you?

VOLODZKO: Yeah. That's a problem that they've faced in more ways than one. And the communication situation is much like some of the other problems they've faced, which is simply a problem of corruption. So their communication technology is already somewhat dated. They've been using unencrypted high-frequency radio and even mobile phones, which is somewhat surprising. But there is evidence from what's been captured in the outskirts of Kyiv that they've been using more advanced systems like software-defined radios, SDRs, one example being the R-187-P1E Azart, which is a digital tactical SDR. That's what they should be using. That's a built-in encryption operating system, ultrahigh frequency, and one of the variants can - has a range of over 200 miles.

The problem is, in April 2021, I believe, the company that makes the Azart and its owner, Leonid Reiman, who's the former minister of communications, came under investigation for fraud. They had evidently been using cheap Chinese parts. This led to a bunch of problems, including the batteries didn't really work that well. So they've had to switch instead, and they're largely using mobile phones and things of that nature. And this is just one example of how corruption has left Putin and his army out in the open, in a sense, and exposed.

MARTIN: So given Russia's early lack of success in Ukraine, would you say that the U.S. and the West have overestimated Russia's military capabilities? Would you say that perhaps the Western allies kind of fell prey to Putin's propaganda, that they were better - that they were more able than they, in fact, are? Like, what should the takeaway be from this?

VOLODZKO: Yeah. I think that we all have overestimated Russia's military capabilities. And, I would add, I think that Putin did, too. One point that I make in the piece is that Moscow recently purged 150 Federal Security Service agents, and they sent the head of the FSB's fifth service, which handles counterinsurgency ops in Ukraine, to Lefortovo Prison. Now, there's a couple different theories as to why, and I'm inclined to go with the official explanation on this one, which is that Beseda lied to the state and stole funds.

So again, as with the radio communications issue, we see corruption coming back to bite Russia. And as a consequence of that, Putin may have gone in on bad intel, thinking that the Ukrainians were going to be waiting with flowers instead of Bandera smoothies - which is, you know, Ukraine's version of a Molotov cocktail - and going in with bad gear, thinking that he had the best and the latest. And so as much as we fell for this idea of Russia being much more powerful than they are, much more capable than they are, Putin fell for that himself.

MARTIN: That was journalist David Volodzko. His recent piece in The Daily Beast is titled "The Embarrassing Truth Behind Putin's War Failures." David Volodzko, thanks so much for speaking with us today.

VOLODZKO: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "NORTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.