Cover: Revisiting RAND's Russia Wargames After the Invasion of Ukraine

Revisiting RAND's Russia Wargames After the Invasion of Ukraine

Summary and Implications

Published Nov 21, 2023

by Gian Gentile, John C. Jackson, Karl P. Mueller, D. Sean Barnett, Mark Hvizda, Bradley Martin, David A. Ochmanek, Clint Reach, Barry Wilson

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Research Question

  1. What are the reasons for the similarities and differences between how Russian forces fared in Baltic wargames and the relatively poor real-world performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine?

In mid-2022, after the opening months of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a group of RAND Corporation researchers conducted an internal series of discussions to examine the recent events of the Russia-Ukraine War. All the participants had been involved in the design and execution of tabletop exercise (TTX) wargames involving Russia during the past eight years, mostly centered on the challenges facing a North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense of the Baltic states. The focus of their deliberations was understanding the reasons for the similarities and differences between how Russian forces had fared in those games and the relatively poor real-world performance of the Russian armed forces in Ukraine. This report summarizes the unclassified conclusions of the discussions that followed a comprehensive review of wargaming methods and analysis used. The authors also identify implications for future wargaming and analysis of potential conflicts involving major power adversaries. This is not an in-depth research report about Russian military capabilities or the war in Ukraine but rather the proceedings of an internal set of discussions from experienced wargamers reflecting on recent events.

Key Findings

The differences and the similarities between the post-2014 Russia wargames and actual events in Ukraine are striking

  • In real life, Russian forces did not follow their planning principles, although they did achieve overwhelming superiority in some battles.
  • In the Baltic wargames, Russian ground forces greatly outnumbered the defenders and were consistently on the favorable side of even larger imbalances of heavy armor and artillery firepower.
  • Having expected Ukrainian resistance to collapse quickly, the Russian offensive was neither organized nor prepared to deal with staunch opposition; the Baltic games assumed that Moscow would prepare more seriously for a war against NATO.
  • In contrast, NATO countries were conspicuously united and energetic in helping Ukraine even though it was not an Alliance member.

The review revealed deficiencies in Russian performance to inform future wargames

  • Sustainment problems affected the Russian army in Ukraine from very early in the war. This aspect raises questions about the feasibility of sustaining a blitzkrieg advance to the Baltic capitals.
  • Fighting in Ukraine revealed a Russian force that was more poorly equipped and less well trained than expected and that could not employ capabilities at a large scale that it had demonstrated in miniature in Syria and the Donbas.
  • With regard to duration, the war in Ukraine has turned out to be far removed from the short, decisive military action that the Kremlin intended, or even the harder-fought Russian battlefield successes that often played out in the Baltic defense wargames.

Recommendations

  • Once Russia rebuilds the parts of its forces that have been shattered or depleted by the war with Ukraine, in whatever form that takes, it would be unwise to assume that Moscow would make the same assumptions about adversary unwillingness to fight that it did in Ukraine in 2022 when planning and executing its next war.
  • For wargamers, comparing the assumptions and hypothetical capabilities in Baltic TTXs with real-world events in the war in Ukraine is a reminder of the importance of clearly explaining the reasons for and the significance of the assumptions made in game and scenario design to participants and other audiences seeking to draw insights from the game afterward so they will learn appropriate lessons.

Funding for this research was made possible by RAND National Defense Research Institute (NDRI) exploratory research funding. The research was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Program of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD), which operates the NDRI.

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