As I write this, the tragic unjustified conflict in Ukraine drags on, with anguishing reports of civilian casualties and needless destruction mixed with encouraging news of the valor of the Ukrainian armed forces and the resolve of the Ukrainian people and their leaders. I won’t pretend to have any idea what will happen. I’m just hoping that outnumbered the Ukrainian resistance can hold out long enough for the political and economic pressure to have some effect—if not in changing the Russian leadership’s policy, then at least in undermining its capacity to wage war or maintain a long-term occupation.
In trying to slow the Russian army’s advance and deny Russia control of major cities and other strategic targets, the Ukrainian military may have the help of an unexpected ally: corruption. The corruption, that is, of the Russian military and defense sector. Without taking anything away from the skill and bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces, many analysts have noted that the invading Russian force appears to have been hampered by cheap and poorly maintained equipment, shortages of fuel, rations, and other supplies, and deficiencies in training and coordination. And some of these analysts have suggested that while no one factor can explain Russia’s poor showing in the field (so far), pervasive corruption in the Russian defense sector may be an important contributing cause (see, for example, here, here, and here).
That probably shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. The adverse impact of defense sector corruption on military effectiveness has been well documented and widely discussed (including on this blog – see, for example, here, here, and here). And corruption has been pervasive in Russia’s defense sector for decades (see, for example, here and here). True, if corruption (or other factors) have undercut the effectiveness of the Russian military, that was not so evident in previous armed conflicts, such as Russia’s suppression of the revolt in Chechnya, its war with Georgia, its intervention in Syria’s civil war, or its earlier invasion of Ukraine in 2014. But as numerous commentators have observed, the current war in Ukraine is an altogether different beast, and Russia’s deficiencies in areas like operations and maintenance, supply logistics, and training—the areas where widespread corruption are most likely to have an impact—are showing up much more clearly in the current conflict.
Just to elaborate a bit, commentators more knowledgeable than I about Russian military affairs have highlighted the following possible corruption-related problems facing the Russian army right now:
- Most directly, procurement-related corruption may be partly to blame for reported Russian shortages of food, fuel, and other supplies for its army. Fuel in particular—which Russia ought to have in abundance, given its natural resource endowments—is often sold on the black market. Those in control of the purse strings can divert the money that’s supposed to buy new rations to their bank accounts (or other illicit uses), leaving insufficient or expired rations for the troops. And the more people involved in procurement, the greater the “leakage,” as everyone takes his or her “cut.”
- Similarly, corruption—in the form of embezzlement or bribery—can also lead to the purchase of substandard equipment, for example by giving the contract for equipment or maintenance to a less qualified supplier that is more willing to pay kickbacks. Or the person in charge of allocating the maintenance or procurement budget can simply report spending the full budgeted amount on high-quality products or services, but then purchase low-quality substitutes and pocket the difference.
- The same type of corruption can also affect investment in training troops (especially those in positions that require a high level of skill, such as combat pilots). Training is expensive. Every rouble that’s spent on actual training (hours in the air, say) is a rouble that can’t be used to purchase luxury goods, or political influence, or what have you.
- At the higher levels, corruption can undermine the quality of leadership on both the military and civilian side. When people are promoted based on their connections, or their willingness to “get along,” or doing favors (material or otherwise) for the right people, they will tend to be less competent, on average. And when one’s wealth and privilege depends on staying in the good graces of the leader—and that leader is vain and overconfident and tends to view dissent as disloyalty and doubt as weakness—there is a strong disincentive to speaking truth to power.
In ordinary times, all of these problems, which are not unique to Russia, are cause for concern. That’s why many in the military and national security community have been emphasizing for years the importance of tackling corruption in the defense sector, as such corruption is not just immoral and wasteful, but a danger to national security. Under current circumstances, though, I’m grateful for the corruption of the Russian defense sector, and hope that the problems in that sector turn out to be even worse and more consequential than we thought.
To be clear, I don’t think we should exaggerate the impact of corruption on the current conflict. Yes, the Russians have had logistical and operational problems, but the main reason for the unexpectedly slow pace of Russia’s military advance has been Ukrainian resistance, and I don’t want anything in this post to be misconstrued as detracting from that. And the Russian logistical problems themselves have multiple causes; corruption is only one, and maybe not even one of the most important. Still, I do think it’s interesting that all of these problems that anticorruption experts and national security specialists had been emphasizing for years do seem to be manifesting in the current Russian invasion.