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A Corrosion of Corruption: the parlous state of the Russian military


By any reasonable metric, Russia has failed to achieve its original military objectives in Ukraine. President Vladimir Putin expected to seize Ukraine’s capital Kiev within two days of the invasion, but more than five hundred days and 100,000 casualties later, Russia is on the defensive. Uneven and inadequate training, poor force employment, and insufficient troops have all contributed to the current state of play, However, a pervasive culture within Russia’s military apparatus has exacerbated all of these problems and corroded Russia’s ability to effectively conduct military operations within the Ukrainian theatre.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24th February 2022, analysts have observed a litany of failures when it comes to the provision of Russia’s armed forces, including fuel-shortages, equipping troops with non-military grade radio systems, and a lack of winter clothing and rations. Across all these incidents are accusations of corruption: soldiers have been accused of selling fuel in Belarus ahead of the invasion, the grants for military-grade radios have been embezzled and winter clothing sold by senior officers. Corruption and chronic mismanagement go hand-in-hand meaning that in many instances, Russian troops have been without the support or resources needed to achieve their military objectives.

Shortages cannot be explained away by an accusation that Russia does not spend enough on its military. In 2022, Moscow spent $61.7 billion on its military, the fourth largest military budget in the world according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. But this impressive budget has been hollowed out by a pervasive culture of corruption, where kickbacks and outright theft are commonplace.

Many analysts thought that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be a swift success. They overestimated Russia’s military capabilities whilst underestimating the level of resistance that Russia would encounter. After Russia’s defeat in Lyman, retired Army Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who commanded the U.S. Army in Europe between 2014 and 2018, admitted that he “failed to realise the depth of corruption” in the Russian Ministry of Defense.

The Russian military reflects the wider government system: rigidly hierarchical, brutal, and corrupt. The result is an organisation that is hampered by logistical problems, inefficiency and shortages which has contributed to Russia’s failure to achieve its initial military objectives in Ukraine.


Russia ranked 136th out of 180 countries for corruption according to the Transparency International’s Index. The organisation found that the Russian defence sector is particularly susceptible to corruption because of limited oversight of defence-related policies, a pervasive “kickback” culture, and inflated costs within the procurement process.

In the late-1990s, Russia started its post-Soviet reconstruction of the military and the emergence of so-called ‘general thieves’ followed, with billions of rubles being embezzled from military contracts. Over the following decades, Russia’s defence sector has been rocked by regular high-profile corruption cases, including The Peter the Great Warship Scam (2010), Eurocopter vs. Vertolety Rossii (2012) and The Oboronservis Scandal (2014).

This is not the case of a “few bad apples”, but rather is indicative of a Ministry of Defence that has systemic problems with corruption: where kickbacks and outright theft are standard practise. Former Russian foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev stated that up to a fifth of Russia’s budget designed to update the military has been stolen over the last twenty years. 

There is historic precedent for corruption being present at every level of the Russian military. In the late 1990s, a Russian General was dismissed for selling UN fuel in Kosovo and during the Second Chechen War there were reports of soldiers selling weapons to Chechen fighters. These incidents might have garnered incredulity and amusement abroad, but they point to a serious problem within Russia’s military processes and presence of a culture of corruption.

The UK Ministry of Defence describes these sorts of acts as examples of “moral decay” within the Russian armed forces. Corruption permeates every aspect of the military, starting at procurement, seeping through senior command and ending in the rank-and-file. Its existence is an accepted norm, but its effect is to undermine Russia’s military capabilities.

Impact on the Russian military

Entrenched corruption within the defence sector has limited Russia’s success in modernising its Soviet-era military, which has meant that the Russian military arrived in Ukraine ill-equipped to achieve its strategic objectives. This is best shown by the underperformance of the Russian Navy after decades of corruption which limited its modernisation programme.

On 14th of April 2022, Ukraine sank the Russian flagship Moskva with two R-360 Neptune missiles – a significant blow to Russia’s naval power in the Black Sea. This was followed by Russia’s withdrawal from Snake Island on 30th June 2022, and the subsequent removal of its kilo-class submarines from their home port of Sevastopol to southern Russia because of the threat of Ukraine’s long-range missile capability.

For over a decade, Russia has attempted to revitalise it’s Soviet-era navy through the State Armament Programme, but has been met with limited success because rigid bureaucracy and corruption has diverted the necessary resources away from creating a capable twenty-first century navy.

Just weeks before the Moskva sank, a Russian naval officer and two contract executives who were involved in the flagships’ renovation were arrested on corruption charges. The contractors allegedly stole 692 million rubles intended for missile upgrades between 2012 and 2014. 

It is unknown if these upgrades would have been capable of combating the two R-360 Neptune missiles that sank the Moskva, but what it does suggest is that the historic misappropriation of funds have hamstrung the modernisation programme in the lead up to the Ukraine war.

When looking at the Russian Navy as a whole, it’s clear that The State Armament Programme has fallen well-short of its targets. Only one third of the frigates, and around a fifth of the corvettes promised under the new modernisation programme were delivered to the Russian navy. The expectation was that Russia would be able to project power from the Black Sea, but from the start of the conflict their capability in the maritime sphere was undermined by decades of mismanagement and corruption.

Impact on conscription

The roots of corruption in the Russian military can be traced to the very beginning of one’s career. When President Putin announced his first “partial mobilisation” in September 2022, what followed was a deeply inequitable conscription process. 

Those who are poor or with limited cognitive abilities have been conscripted, many have avoided the draft through bribes. Russian commentators report that in the past affluent families have paid large sums for doctors to fabricate illnesses to protect their children from the draft, with the average bribe being around $5,000.

At the same time, there are numerous reports of members of the public being drafted despite having legitimate medical conditions. One such example being in the Volgograd region, where a 63-year-old man with diabetes and cerebral ischemia was drafted as part of the mobilisation. This phenomenon has resulted in the armed forces being staffed by the poorest and least healthy members of society, leading to chronic issues with fitness and efficiency. 

The unfair conscription process has also resulted in very public displays of resentment within the Russian military. The most outspoken criticism came from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Mercenary Group, who delivered a heated rebuke to camera of children of Russia’s top officials who he accused of avoiding the draft whilst “ordinary people…are being torn to pieces” fighting in Ukraine. 

Yevgeny Prigozhin’s statements indicate that resentment against the corrupt recruitment process is not only contained to the rank-and-file of the Russian armed forces but, to some extent, has permeated amongst the upper echelon of Russia’s military to the detriment of morale.

Exploitation of conscripts

The mistreatment of Russian conscripts has been well-documented. Once conscripted, these individuals often face ruthless exploitation by older soldiers known as ‘dyedi’ or ‘uncles’, and the war in Ukraine has revealed the widespread mistreatment of conscripts by senior officers.

Posts from Russian soldiers on Telegram channels online have shown troops left without proper winter clothings, and widespread complaints regarding inadequate training. A video that circulated in March 2022, shows Russian soldiers left out in freezing conditions for hours without food, tents or provisions. This is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Mobilised soldiers have also complained of being kept in “cattle conditions” and being forced to purchase their own food and winter clothing.

There is historic precedent for conscripts being exploited within the Russian military, and it is clear that these practices are still prevalent in the Russian Army today. The Russian newspaper Kommersant reported that Colonel Ivan Mertvishchev demanded a washing machine worth 70,000 rubles as a bribe to avoid libellous charges being levied against them.

These reports of mistreatment and abuse of power are indicative of the pervasive culture of abuse and corruption within the military hierarchy. The impact of such a system has a knock on effect on the battlefield, reducing the readiness of troops to weather Ukraine’s harsh winter condition, and undermining their fighting morale in the face of the enemy. 

Impact on military equipment and supplies 

Corruption within supply chains has also significantly impacted the availability and quality of military equipment for troops on the ground. Endemic mismanagement has meant that up to one-fifth of Russian munitions are unsafe, meaning that Russian troops have been reliant on donations to support their fighting efforts in Ukraine.

Soldiers have often resorted to crowd-funding to obtain basic equipment like medical supplies and night vision goggles. There have also been social media posts showing Special Operation Units carrying personal weapons with a mixture of foreign equipment. Even rations have been found to be inadequate, with instances of Russian soldiers receiving food supplies that had expired in 2015

These instances point to an entrenched system of corruption within the Russian military, where supplies are misappropriated and soldiers are left either ill-equipped or reliant on the generosity of the civilian population back home to support their fighting efforts.

Impact on military efficiency 

The absence of supplies is not a recent phenomenon. The debilitating effect that corruption has on military efficiency was clear from the start of the Ukraine war. Russia’s invasion plan hinged upon a rapid advance to the capital Kyiv, but stronger than expected resistance from Ukraine’s armed forces and the breakdown of Russian logistics lines resulted in the military being unable to achieve its strategic objectives. 

Historically, the Russian military has a problem with senior officers stealing and selling fuel on the black market. The last pre-war incident occurred in Kapustin Yar training ground where 300 tons of fuel was stolen, but there are also accounts of fuel theft occurring in other conflict zones including Kosovo.

The same appears to have occurred in the lead up to the invasion. There are reports of Russian troops selling fuel just one week before the invasion whilst stationed in Belarus, and recently a senior colonel in the Russian armed forces was arrested for stealing seven V-92S2 engines between November 2021 and April 2022. 

The UK Ministry of Defence reported that Russian logistics broke down after just 70 km during the first days of the invasion, citing “poor operational planning, inadequate equipment and support and most importantly corruption” as the key reasons for the failure.

The problem with fuel theft is that it, arguably beneficially, crippled Russia’s ability to perform its rapid advance through Ukraine. Without fuel, armoured vehicles ground to a halt, supply lines fragmented and columns became highly vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks. With an invasion plan hinging of speed and efficiency, this sort of corruption undermined Russian capabilities from the get-go.

Mid-Level officers

At the mid-level, Russian officers not only steal fuel, but exploit their positions to steal wages, manipulate budget allocations, and use conscripts for personal gain. This form of established corruption has contributed to inefficiency and the breakdown of military discipline in the Ukrainian theatre.

From the start of the war, videos have emerged of Russian troops stealing agricultural equipment, washing machines, and personal belongings from Ukrainian homes. The Moscow Times’ analysis of video footage from an SDEK checkpoint in the Russian border town of Valuyki found Russian troops shipping 58 tons of looted items in March 2022 alone.

It is a phenomenon that is not limited to private soldiers, but pervasive within the Russian officer class. Talking to the New York Times about the state of corruption within the Russian army, retired Major General Harri Ohra-Aho, the former Chief of Intelligence in Finland, observed that “each person steals as much of the allocated funds as is appropriate for their rank”.

This culture of corruption has led to what the UK Ministry of Defence describes as moral decay within the Russian armed forces, where troops and officers alike are forced to supplement their poor income through theft and extortion.

High-level officers

High-ranking officers are also complicit in a culture of corruption. Post-Soviet reconstruction in the 1990s marked the emergence of the so-called ‘general thieves’, where billions of rubles were plundered from the military. However, corruption remains a problem within the top ranks of the military, creating a pervasive culture that corrodes Russia’s military capabilities from within. 

There are a string of high-profile cases of senior Russian officials being convicted on corruption charges in the run up to the Ukraine war. A month before the invasion, Colonel Evgeny Pustovoy, the former head of the procurement department for armoured vehicles, was arrested for embezzling 860 million rubles from contracts designed to upgrade Russian military batteries. 

This was followed by another high-profile incident, where a Moscow military court sentenced Major General Alexander Ogloblin to four and a half years in prison for embezzling 1.6 billion rubles from state contracts to supply equipment, including routers for satellite ground stations. 

These scandals point to a systematic problem within the top brass of the Russian military, where embezzlement and corruption are standard practise, acting to the detriment of Russia’s fighting capability in Ukraine.


Corruption is endemic within the Russian military. The invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was supposed to be lightning-quick, but poor planning, logistical support and heavy resistance brought Russia up short during the early stages of the conflict. Seen in the context of decades of corruption within the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that a pervasive culture of kickbacks, theft and bribery has hollowed out Russia’s fighting capabilities and left it ill-prepared for a full-scale war in Ukraine.

Russian troops have often had to operate without the proper equipment or supplies during this conflict – despite having an impressive military budget. Corruption within the supply lines have left these troops ill-equipped, and overly reliant on public generosity for basics such as body armour and medicine.

Without the appropriate equipment, Russia’s military has been plagued by inefficiencies which have prevented it from achieving key objectives. This was most critically shown at the start of the war, where Russia’s invasion plan was hampered by fuel shortages and poor logistical support which meant it was never able to capture Ukraine’s capital, Kiev.

Since the invasion, corruption has remained a problem at all levels of the military. Senior Russian commanders have been arrested on corruption charges, and videos are available across social media and Telegram channels showing privates and mid-level officers looting occupied Ukrainian settlements. This has all led to what the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence describes as “moral decay”, a state where endemic corruption has undermined Russia’s fighting capabilities.

At the start of the war, most analysts thought that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be a swift success. It has been reported by The Intercept that U.S. intelligence officials told the White House that Russia would win in a matter of days, and that there were plans to provide covert support for a Ukrainian insurgency as a next step. Since then, some US officials have admitted their mistake, pointing to an underappreciation of Russian corruption within the military as being responsible for their miscalculation.

The reality is that corruption has hollowed out the fighting capability of Russia’s Armed Forces. From the point of procurement, right down to the conscripts fighting on the ground, a pervasive culture of corruption exists which has meant that resources have been diverted away from the war effort and into the pockets of corrupt individuals.


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