The poor performance of Russia's military so far in the conflict in Ukraine may well be down to Vladimir Putin's fear of potential coups, writes David McKee, and is something we have seen before with Iraqi forces in recent years.

The Russian army has proved to be something of a paper tiger. This has surprised many observers. However, the Russian army is not the only army to underperform massively in recent years. In June 2014, a motley group of Islamic militants, just 600 strong, advanced on the Iraqi city of Mosul. Defending the city were 25,000 American-trained Iraqi soldiers. The Iraqis did not fight, but turned and fled.

There are a multiplicity of reasons to explain this debacle, as described by this British government report. One persuasive explanation, ignored by the British report, is the policies of the Iraqi government to prevent its own army from mounting a military coup. The politicians had carefully set up rival military forces to the army, where these forces answered to the ministry of the interior, not the defence ministry. So disaffected army generals who were tempted to plot the overthrow of the civilian regime, would have to take on and defeat these rival forces if their coup was to succeed. This, the politicians calculated, would be enough to deter any cabal of overambitious generals. On top of this, army commanders were rotated rapidly, so they were unable to develop any local power-base; and political reliability was a major factor in the promotion of officers.

There was a catch, though. Money spent on the rival forces was money that could not be spent on the army. Rival intelligence networks spent their time spying on their own army, as well as each other. No one trusted anyone else, so military cohesiveness was minimal. Corruption was rife. And so the Iraqi army was unwilling to fight. That is the problem with using this system of coup-proofing, to use the jargon. Your army becomes very bad at fighting and winning wars.

Most countries have had to face the conundrum of civil authority and military power. Armies possess an effective monopoly of the means of violence. What is to stop any army from using its weapons to overthrow the civilian government and setting up a military dictatorship? In the West, we rely on the professionalism and commitment to democracy of our generals. A free and inquisitive press is there to alert us to any dangerous rumblings in the army.

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Russia has never had this tradition. In Soviet times, the government embedded political officers, commissars, with military units. They were there as the eyes and ears of the Communist Party. The army's loyalty was also enforced by the existence of rival military units of the secret police and the ministry of the interior. In the Putin era, the rival military forces were reorganised in 2016 into Rosgvardiya, the Russian National Guard, at enormous expense.

Is all this really necessary? Consider the wider picture. Europe is littered with attempted coups over the last half century (including Russia), with successful coups in Greece in 1973 and Poland in 1981. We also must not forget Turkey. It saw successful coups in 1960, 1971, 1981 and 1997, with the last attempted coup in 2016. All of this is far too recent for comfort, and Putin has taken precautions against a clear and present danger. He is not tilting at windmills.

In Iraq and Russia then, we have the same heavy-handed coup-proofing. We also have the same result: an army that is too demoralised, too underequipped and undertrained, to fight and win a war against a materially weaker but determined foe. I argue that, just as coup-proofing was the reason for Iraqi weakness, so it is the reason for Russian weakness.

What can we conclude from this? For one thing, it is exceptionally hard for an army in these straits to recover its war-fighting capabilities. In 2015, the Iraqi army launched its counterattack to recapture Mosul. Even with unchallenged air superiority, and liberal assistance from American combat aircraft, it took the Iraqis nine long months to drive the militants from the city. The Iraqi army was still underperforming. So we should not expect a rapid recovery from the Russian army either. There is, of course, a very quick way to compensate for military weakness, and that is to be willing to use chemical or nuclear weapons.

We should abandon all dreams that Putin will be driven from the Kremlin, either by a military putsch or by street protests. He won't. He is too well protected. So it follows that he will relinquish power only of his own volition. If we want to see the back of him, he will need to hear an attractive offer. Swapping his berth in the Kremlin for a prison cell in The Hague probably won't cut it; safe passage to Switzerland and a lifetime guarantee of immunity from prosecution just might. This will upset the boy-scout lawyers who think that every conflict should end with lengthy trials for war crimes, but we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we would like it to be.

We have seen how the weaknesses of the Iraqi army is mirrored in Russian military weakness. We have seen too how overzealous attempts at preventing a military coup is a credible explanation for the underperformance of both armies. In turn, this allows us to anticipate that Russian military weakness will not quickly be corrected. It also allows us to see what lies within the realms of the politically possible, as we in the West try to work out how to work towards a just and durable peace in Eastern Europe.

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