They never had a chance.
Fumbling blindly through cratered farms, the troops from Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade had no maps, medical kits or working walkie-talkies, they said. Just a few weeks earlier, they had been factory workers and truck drivers, watching an endless showcase of supposed Russian military victories at home on state television before being drafted in September. One medic was a former barista who had never had any medical training.
Now, they were piled onto the tops of overcrowded armored vehicles, lumbering through fallow autumn fields with Kalashnikov rifles from a half-century ago and virtually nothing to eat, they said. Russia had been at war most of the year, yet its army seemed less prepared than ever. In interviews, members of the brigade said some of them had barely fired a gun before and described having almost no bullets anyway, let alone air cover or artillery. But it didn’t frighten them too much, they said. They would never see combat, their commanders had promised.
Only when the shells began crashing around them, ripping their comrades to pieces, did they realize how badly they had been duped.
Flung to the ground, a drafted Russian soldier named Mikhail recalled opening his eyes to a shock: the shredded bodies of his comrades littering the field. Shrapnel had sliced open his belly, too. Desperate to escape, he said, he crawled to a thicket of trees and tried to dig a ditch with his hands.
Of the 60 members of his platoon near the eastern Ukrainian town of Pavlivka that day in late October, about 40 were killed, said Mikhail, speaking by phone from a military hospital outside Moscow. Only eight, he said, escaped serious injury.
“This isn’t war,” Mikhail said, struggling to speak through heavy, liquid breaths. “It’s the destruction of the Russian people by their own commanders.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war was never supposed to be like this. When the head of the CIA traveled to Moscow last year to warn against invading Ukraine, he found a supremely confident Kremlin, with Putin’s national security adviser boasting that Russia’s cutting-edge armed forces were strong enough to stand up even to the Americans.
Russian invasion plans, obtained by The New York Times, show that the military expected to sprint hundreds of miles across Ukraine and triumph within days. Officers were told to pack their dress uniforms and medals in anticipation of military parades in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.
But instead of that resounding victory, with tens of thousands of his troops killed and parts of his army in shambles after nearly 10 months of war, Putin does something else entirely: his nation’s greatest human and strategic calamity since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
How could one of the world’s most powerful militaries, led by a celebrated tactician like Putin, have faltered so badly against its much smaller, weaker rival? To piece together the answer, we drew from hundreds of Russian government emails, documents, invasion plans, military ledgers and propaganda directives. We listened to Russian phone calls from the battlefield and spoke with dozens of soldiers, senior officials and Putin confidants who have known him for decades.
The Times investigation found a stunning cascade of mistakes that started with Putin — profoundly isolated in the pandemic, obsessed with his legacy, convinced of his own brilliance — and continued long after drafted soldiers like Mikhail were sent to the slaughter.
At every turn, the failures ran deeper than previously known:
— In interviews, Putin associates said he spiraled into self-aggrandizement and anti-Western zeal, leading him to make the fateful decision to invade Ukraine in near total isolation, without consulting experts who saw the war as pure folly. Aides and hangers-on fueled his many grudges and suspicions, a feedback loop that one former confidant likened to the radicalizing effect of a social-media algorithm. Even some of the president’s closest advisers were left in the dark until the tanks began to move. As another longtime confidant put it, “Putin decided that his own thinking would be enough.”
— The Russian military, despite Western assumptions about its prowess, was severely compromised, gutted by years of theft. Hundreds of billions of dollars had been devoted to modernizing the armed forces under Putin, but corruption scandals ensnared thousands of officers. One military contractor described frantically hanging enormous patriotic banners to hide the decrepit conditions at a major Russian tank base, hoping to fool a delegation of top brass. The visitors were even prevented from going inside to use the bathroom, he said, lest they discover the ruse.
— Once the invasion began in late February, Russia squandered its dominance over Ukraine through a parade of blunders. It relied on old maps and bad intelligence to fire its missiles, leaving Ukrainian air defenses surprisingly intact, ready to defend the country. Russia’s vaunted hacking squads tried, and failed, to win in what some officials call the first big test of cyberweapons in actual warfare. Russian soldiers, many shocked they were going to war, used their cellphones to call home, allowing the Ukrainians to track them and pick them off in large numbers. And Russia’s armed forces were so stodgy and sclerotic that they did not adapt, even after enduring huge losses on the battlefield. While their planes were being shot down, many Russian pilots flew as if they faced no danger, almost like they were at an air show.
— Stretched thin by its grand ambitions, Russia seized more territory than it could defend, leaving thousands of square miles in the hands of skeleton crews of underfed, undertrained and poorly equipped fighters. Many were conscripts or ragtag separatists from Ukraine’s divided east, with gear from the 1940s or little more than printouts from the internet describing how to use a sniper rifle, suggesting soldiers learned how to fight on the fly. With new weapons from the West in hand, the Ukrainians beat them back, yet Russian commanders kept sending waves of ground troops into pointless assaults, again and again. “Nobody is going to stay alive,” one Russian soldier said he realized after being ordered into a fifth march directly in the sights of Ukrainian artillery. Finally, he and his demoralized comrades refused to go.
— Putin divided his war into fiefs, leaving no one powerful enough to challenge him. Many of his fighters are commanded by people who are not even part of the military, like his former bodyguard, the leader of Chechnya and a mercenary boss who has provided catering for Kremlin events. As the initial invasion failed, the atomized approach only deepened, chipping away at an already disjointed war effort. Now, Putin’s fractured armies often function like rivals, competing for weapons and, at times, viciously turning on one another. One soldier recounted how the clashes became violent, with a Russian tank commander deliberately charging at his supposed allies and blowing up their checkpoint.
Since the early days of the invasion, Putin has conceded, privately, that the war has not gone as planned.
During a meeting in March with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Putin admitted that the Ukrainians were tougher “than I was told,” according to two people familiar with the exchange. “This will probably be much more difficult than we thought. But the war is on their territory, not ours. We are a big country and we have patience.”
People who know Putin say he is ready to sacrifice untold lives and treasure for as long as it takes, and in a rare face-to-face meeting with the Americans last month, the Russians wanted to deliver a stark message to President Joe Biden: No matter how many Russian soldiers are killed or wounded on the battlefield, Russia will not give up.
One NATO member is warning allies that Putin is ready to accept the deaths or injuries of as many as 300,000 Russian troops — roughly three times his estimated losses so far.
Just days after facing blowback about the war from normally friendly leaders in September, Putin doubled down on the invasion, calling up hundreds of thousands of Russians in a draft that was supposed to turn the war in Russia’s favor, but has instead stirred growing anger at home. Soon after, hundreds of Russian soldiers were killed outside Pavlivka, including Mikhail’s drafted comrades in the blind advance of the 155th.
“Legs, guts. I mean, meat. Just meat,” another member of the platoon, Alexander, said from a hospital in Russia. “I know it sounds terrible, but you can’t describe it any other way. People were turned into hamburgers.”
Alexander recounted how he and his fellow draftees had asked their instructor in Russia what they could possibly learn about firing a gun and becoming soldiers in the few weeks before being sent to Ukraine.
“He was honest: ‘Nothing,'” Alexander said the instructor responded.
The more setbacks Putin endures on the battlefield, the more fears grow over how far he is willing to go. He has killed tens of thousands in Ukraine, leveled cities and targeted civilians for maximum pain — obliterating hospitals, schools and apartment buildings, while cutting off power and water to millions before winter. Each time Ukrainian forces score a major blow against Russia, the bombing of their country intensifies. And Putin has repeatedly reminded the world that he can use anything at his disposal, including nuclear weapons, to pursue his notion of victory.
As far back as January, with the United States warning that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was imminent, a retired Russian general named Leonid Ivashov saw disaster on the horizon. In a rare open letter, he warned that using force against Ukraine would threaten “the very existence of Russia as a state.”
In a recent phone interview, Ivashov said that his warnings before the war echoed what he had been hearing from nervous Russian military officials at the time. Although the Kremlin insisted an invasion was not on the table, some could say otherwise. Service members told him that “victory in such a situation is impossible,” he said, but their superiors told them not to worry. A war would be a “walk in the park,” they were told.
The past 10 months, he went on, have turned out to be “even more tragic” than predicted. Nimble Ukrainian generals and soldiers have outmaneuvered a much bigger, more lethal foe. The West, cheered by Ukraine’s successes, has provided ever more powerful weapons to drive the Russians back.
“Never in its history has Russia made such stupid decisions,” Ivashov said. “Alas, today stupidity has triumphed — stupidity, greed, a kind of vengefulness and even a kind of malice.”
Putin’s spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, blames the West, and the weapons it has given Ukraine, for Russia’s unexpected difficulties in the war.
“This is a big burden for us,” Peskov said, depicting Russia as taking on all of NATO’s military might in Ukraine. “It was just very hard to believe in such cynicism and in such bloodthirstiness on the part of the collective West.”
Some of the war’s original supporters are starting to reckon with the idea of defeat. Before the invasion, American intelligence agencies identified Oleg Tsaryov as a puppet leader the Kremlin could install once it took over Ukraine. His faith in the war has since slipped away.
“I was there. I participated” in the invasion, Tsaryov told the Times during a phone interview. But, he said, he was never told the final details and “the Russian army didn’t understand” the Ukrainians would fight back, thinking “everything would be easy.”
Now, Tsaryov, a businessman from Ukraine, says he will be happy if the fighting simply ends along the current battle lines — with Russia having failed to capture and keep hold of a single regional capital since the invasion began.
“We’re losing Ukraine,” Tsaryov said. “We’ve already lost it.”