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Here's why an influential US wargame was so wrong about Ukraine's chances against Russian invaders

The driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) gestures in the frontline town of Orichiw, Ukraine.
The driver of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) gestures in the frontline town of Orichiw, Ukraine.Oliver Weiken/Getty Images
  • A 2016 simulation found Russia could capture Baltic states before NATO could intervene.

  • Wargames tend to favor whichever side has the most and biggest guns.

  • "We gave a tactical competence to the Russians that was probably overdone," a RAND expert said.

The Russian flag flies over Kyiv as Russian troops and tanks parade through Ukrainian cities. In Moscow, Putin basks in the glow of a short, victorious war in which a Russian juggernaut crushed Ukraine in a matter of days.

Or at least that was the expectation conveyed by pre-war US wargames that simulated a Russian invasion of Eastern Europe. The most famous was a 2016 RAND Corp. tabletop game that analyzed a Russian invasion of the Baltic States — and in which Russian forces reached the capital cities of Riga and Tallinn in 60 hours, despite intervention by NATO forces.

But that tabletop Russian army belongs to a universe not our own, compared to the real one in Ukraine. Two years after its tanks confidently rolled across the border, Russia is still bogged down in Ukraine, plagued by poor planning, clumsy tactics and inadequate logistics. Instead of a rapier, the Russian war machine has proven to be a ponderous, blunt stick that relies on vast numbers rather than skill to defeat a smaller opponent.

Why were those wargames so wrong?

That was the question asked by RAND. The think tank convened an internal workshop to assess why its wargames had so overestimated Russian military prowess. Researchers examined seven wargames, or series of games, conducted from 2015 to 2021. Most of them examined a Russian invasion of the Baltic States (one also covered a Ukraine invasion), and how NATO might respond. In those games, Russian forces were able to quickly overrun Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania before NATO could stop them. If Russia could do that in the Baltics, couldn't it do the same in Ukraine?

Yet a basic flaw in those games was simply to assume that any Russian invasion would be planned and executed competently. "The game scenarios and the combat strengths and other capabilities assigned to units and formations assumed that the Russian aggression would be well resourced, intelligently organized, and competently executed at the operational level within the bounds of known or projected Russian military doctrine and capabilities," according to the RAND report.

The Russian military's rollout in Ukraine was a parade of mistakes. Armored columns outran their supply trains. They advanced in packed columns down narrow roads, where they were decimated by Ukrainian ambushes, anti-tank missiles and artillery.

Another problem was the wargames only focused on the first couple of weeks of a Russian invasion of the Baltics. This made the game short enough for busy generals and civilian decision-makers to participate, but it also meant that the simulated war was too short for Russian logistical deficiencies to become apparent, as they did in Ukraine.

Morale is among the most difficult areas to include in any simulation: because assessments are subjective, whose army is braver and more motivated is always fuel for arguments. But absent the morale factor, wargames tend to favor whichever side has the most and biggest guns. Morale wasn't factored into the RAND games, though it has turned to be a huge impediment to Russian operations in Ukraine, where sullen conscripts and pardoned criminals are used as cannon fodder.

"Partly because of the short war focus of the games, the morale of Russian forces was expected to be sufficient for units to be able to continue fighting until they had suffered heavy losses, so attrition was assessed on the basis of physical damage to systems," RAND said.

"We gave a tactical competence to the Russians that was probably overdone," Gian Gentile, a retired US Army colonel who co-authored the RAND study, told Business Insider. "We didn't drill into sustainment like we should have. We didn't really look hard at command and control."

A destroyed Russian tan on a road in the foreground with a Ukrainian serviceman rides a tractor pulling a military vehicle behind it, all beneath a grey sky
A destroyed Russian tank is seen as Ukrainian serviceman rides a tractor and tows a Russian military vehicle near the village of Dolyna in Ukraine's Kharkiv region in September 2023.REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

In theory, Russia might have had more success with a Baltic invasion than a Ukraine assault. The terrain is more open, and Russia would have enjoyed far greater numerical superiority over the small Baltic militaries (Estonia has just 7,000 active-duty personnel, while Ukraine's pre-war strength was around 300,000). Yet the RAND study points to sloppy Russian logistics in Ukraine as evidence that even a Baltic campaign would have run out of gas. "It raises questions about how feasible sustaining a blitzkrieg advance to the Baltic capitals, including protecting lines of supply and communication through occupied territory, would have been even with a sounder invasion plan and more diligent preparation."

What's troubling is how closely the pre-war RAND games matched the flawed assessments of many Western experts, who claimed the Russian military had jettisoned its Soviet-era baggage and transformed into a more agile and high-tech force. And that may have been the overarching problem with these wargames: they mirror-imaged Western and Russian military capabilities. Or put another way, those simulated Russian armies fought the way that the US Army would have, rather than the shambling and confused force that invaded Ukraine with expectations of easy victory.

That may be as much feature as bug. The games "intentionally focused on the problem of defending against a well-equipped and competent attacker pursuing a reasonably sensible military strategy," the report noted. There is logic to that approach. Defense wargaming is a tool, a low-cost way for militaries to test theories and avoid costly mistakes by experimenting on the tabletop or computer, rather than on the battlefield. If the goal is merely to identify weaknesses in NATO's ability to support the Baltic States against Russian attack, then assuming the enemy is smart and capable is not a bad idea. In the end, it's better to be overprepared than overconfident.

Gentile believes RAND's games did correctly assess Russian air and naval power, which have proved less than impressive in Ukraine. "I think we played correctly how their air force and navy would perform," Gentile said. "It's not like we turned them into 20-foot-high giants."

"I think the basic thing that we got right was that if Russia wanted to attack Latvia in 2020, and it was willing to put up with all the reactions that would have come about, then it could have reached the Baltic Sea."

In the end, the lingering question is whether these games were interpreted the wrong way, and treated as predictors of what Russia was really capable of. Exaggerating enemy power may be fine for a game intended to analyze your defenses. But not for debating policies, such as whether to send aid to a nation that you expect will be quickly defeated.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

Read the original article on Business Insider