Why Russia is not learning from their mistakes

Rainer Pihlakas
Oct 30, 2023


On October 10, 2023, Russian forces launched a significant offensive in the vicinity of Avdiivka, Donetsk oblast. A Ukrainian reserve officer said that according to the most conservative estimates, Ukrainian forces destroyed at least 36 units of Russian armoured vehicles, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers, and transport vehicles.[1] The Ukrainian military later confirmed earlier information that Russian forces lost 50 tanks, 100 armoured personnel carriers, and 900 personnel during the October 19 attacks aroundAvdiivka.[2] Colonel Alexander Shtupun, spokesman for the Tavria group of Ukrainian troops, said on October 26 that since October 10, Russian forces had suffered losses of 5,000 killed or wounded personnel and 400 armoured vehicles in the area of Avdiivka and Marinka, southwest of Donetsk city.[3] Satellite imagery confirmed that between 10-20 October, the Russian military lost at least 109 pieces of military equipment(mostly armoured fighting vehicles and tanks) in the vicinity of Avdiivka.[4]

Russian tactical failures and the resultant losses observed during the Avdiivka offensive actions mirror those made by Russian forces whileattempting a large-scale crossing of the Siversky Donets River from the direction of Kremenna in May 2022. The Russian failure to properly plan and execute obstacle crossing drills led to the Ukrainian artillery destroying Russian pontoon bridges and the densely concentrated Russian troops and equipment that were positioned around them, reportedly resulting in 485 casualties and damage to more than 80 pieces of equipment.[5] In early 2023, Russia is reported to have lost an entire brigade of the elite 155th Marines in the assault on Vuhledar in similar circumstances.[6]

One Russian military blogger said “that the wise learn from the mistakes of others, the stupid from their own, but the Russian army is not capable of learning at all”.[7] The statement of the Russian military blogger is, of course, emotional, but it is certainly surprising that the Russians are continually making fatal mistakes, often repeating the same mistake several times over.Western armies have well developed processes to prevent such occurrences and learn from past mistakes through After Action Reporting procedures. This raises an important question to interrogate – Why Does Russia Not Learn From its Mistakes?The answer and its root cause can be observed across the Russian Military and Private Sectors.The concept of career anchors by American business theorist and psychologist Edgar Schein and the research of Russian scientists Antonenko, Begicheva, and Karpova on Russian students may provide insight into why Russians find it so difficult to learn from their mistakes and act more wisely.]

FIGURE 1 Russian losses around the failed Siverskyi Donets river crossing near Bilohorivka.[5]

1. Edgar Schein’s concept of career anchors.[8]

Edgar Schein suggests that the life experiences that people undergo give them a more accurate and stable “career-self-concept”, a construct which he labels “career anchor”. A career anchor has three components:

  1. Self-perceived talent and abilities;
  2. Self-perceived motives and needs;
  3. Self-perceived concept attitudes and values.

The first two are based on actual experience in a work setting, while the third is derived from an individual’s reaction to a variety of norms and values encountered in different social and work situations. Schein regards a career anchor as: "That one element in a person’s self-concept, which he or she will not give up, even in the face of difficult choices." Schein (1990) posits that an individual’s future career choices are affected as they mature and their anchor stabilizes.

Schein’s (1990) typology of career anchors are as follows:

  • Technical/functional competence. Primarily excited by the content of the work itself; prefers advancement only in his/her technical or functional area of competence; generally disdains and fears general management as too political.
  • General managerial competence. Primarily excited by the opportunity to analyse and solve problems under conditions of incomplete information and uncertainty; likes harnessing people together to achieve common goals; stimulated (rather than exhausted) by crisis situations.
  • Autonomy/independence. Primarily motivated to seek work situations which are maximally free to organizational constraints; wants to set own schedule and own pace of work; is willing to trade-off opportunities for promotion to have more freedom.
  • Security/stability. Primarily motivated by job security and long- term attachment to one organization; willing to conform and to be fully socialized into an organization’s values and norms; tends to dislike travel and relocation.
  • Entrepreneurial creativity. Primarily motivated by the need to build or create something that is entirely their own project; easily bored and likes to move from project to project; more interested in initiating new enterprises than in managing established ones.
  • Service/dedication to a cause. Primarily motivated to improve the world in some fashion; wants to align work activities with personal values about helping society; more concerned with finding jobs which meet their values than their skills.
  • Pure challenge. Primarily motivated to overcome major obstacles, solve almost unsolvable problems, or to win out over extremely tough opponents; define their careers in terms of daily combat or competition in which winning is everything; very single-minded and intolerant of those without comparable aspirations.
  • Lifestyle. Primarily motivated to balance career with lifestyle; highly concerned with such issues as paternity/maternity leaves, day-care options, etc.; looks for organizations that have strong pro-family values and programs.

FIGURE 2 Edgar Henry Schein (March 5, 1928 – January 26, 2023)

2. Technical/functional competence is not a popular career anchor among Russians.[9]

In a recent study of social attitudes in Antonenko, Begicheva, and Karpova toward the career process of students with various career orientations were examined. After conducting the study, based on Edgar Schein’s questionnaire “Career Anchor”, students were divided into groups according to how prevalent a criterion of the “career anchor” was. The results of the questionnaire were analysed to understand the students’ psychological features and to determine and interpret among them the social attitude towards the career process based on the various career orientations of the students.

In the study, 195 students of three Moscow universities took part: the State University of Management, the Moscow University for the Humanities, and the A.N. Kosygin Russian State University. Their age was between 20 and 22 years; 60% of them were female and 40% male.

The largest career-orientated group was found to belong to the “management” type. With a percentage higher than other participant groups, almost all students of this group value prosperity most in their lives - 94%. The least they are looking for is “to become a competent specialist” - 39%.

The majority of students with “autonomy” as their prevalent career orientation, have “founding a good family” as their goal in life (90%) and the least common goal is to “become a competent specialist” (30%).

All students with the prevalent career orientation “challenge” sought to “achieve a leading position” (100%), and the least they look for in life is to “become a competent specialist” (33%) and “start an own business” (33%).

The “enterprise” group chose as its main goal in life to “start an own business” (89%). On the other hand, the least they seek is “to become a competent professional” and to “be respected by their colleagues” (28% each, which are the lowest rates of these parameters in the whole study).

Unfortunately, the published study does not reveal how many Russian students rate technical/functional competence as their main career anchor, but it clearly is not among the most popular career anchors. Moreover, students who want to become managers and entrepreneurs or seek challenge or autonomy in their lives consider technical/functional competence to be the least important career anchor.

3. Ranking of technical/functional competence career anchor in studies of other countries.

A 1990 survey of U.S. federal employees found that ineffective use of their skills was an important factor for 55% of those who decided to quit. Another survey conducted in 1989 found that 75% of resigned employees wanted to develop more marketable skills. A third survey conducted in 1989 found that 42% of employees reported that one of the factors influencing their decision to leave was that their knowledge and skills were not being properly utilized. According to Barth (1993), the results of these studies suggest that the Shane’s career anchor of technical/functional competence is an important career motivator for federal employees that is distinct from money or promotion.[10]

A 2006 survey of a sample of 1,847 Israeli men and women found that Lifestyle was the most common career anchor, with technical/functional competence coming in second.[11] A 2006 survey of U.S. engineering technology students found that technical/functional competence and security/stability anchors dominated in determining their career paths.[12] A 1991 study of career anchors of management information systems employees (MIS) showed that technical and managerial orientations were the most prevalent career orientations among MIS employees, with systems programmers, applications programmers, and software engineers most likely to be technically oriented, while systems analysts, project managers, and computer managers were more likely managerially oriented.[13] Also in 2007, a number of Information Technology workers in Nigeria were primarily interested in continuous learning and skill development to enhance future career opportunities and maintain employability.[14]

In terms of Schein's career anchors among military personnel, a 2020 study in Portugal showed that the lifestyle career anchor was dominant in all three professional categories (officers, NCOs, and enlisted) across both genders. The relative importance of secondary anchors varied by professional category and gender: technical/functional competence was the second most important career anchor for officers and NCOs, as well as for men, and security/stability was the second career anchor for most enlisted personnel and women.[15] In addition, a survey conducted in 2010 among officers of the Estonian Defence Forces showed that technical/functional competence was the most important career anchor for them.


Geert Hofstede's cultural dimensions theory shows how a society's culture influences the values of its members and how these values relate to behaviour. It includes six key scales for comparing national cultures: the power distance index, individualism versus collectivism, masculinity versus femininity, uncertainty avoidance index, long term orientation versus short term normative orientation, and indulgence versus restraint.[16] Geert Hofstede’s theory argues that the culture of a society influences the values of its members, but unfortunately it does not compare the willingness to learn and the competence of professionals in different societies.

Edgar Schein’s theory of career anchors and the research of Antonenko, Begicheva, and Karpova show that Russian society may differ significantly from other societies in terms of the aspiration to be a competent professional. It is not surprising that Russian students want to become directors or owners of companies, since these career anchors are valued in other countries as well. But what is surprising is that Russians do not want to be competent specialists at all! Perhaps this is a legacy of the Soviet Union, when workers and settlers were the most privileged segment of society, prevailing over scientists. Perhaps other factors have significantly impacted the career-anchor preferences of Russians. In any case, the underestimation of the career anchor technical/functional competence in Russian society and the military may be one of the factors that led to such poor results on the battlefields in Ukraine.


[1] Tatarigami_UA: In recent days, Avdiivka, an operationally vital settlement near Donetsk, emerged as a frontline hotspot. Oct 2023. [Online]

[2] "Штурм з усіхбоків, з окупованихсіл". У Нацгвардіїрозказали про атаку Авдіївки, де РФ втратила 50 танків і 900 вояк. Oct 2023. [Online]

[3] З 10 жовтня на двохнапрямкахросіянивтратилипонад 5 тисячособового складу та до 400 одиницьбронетехніки. Oct 2023. [Online]

[4] Tatarigami_UA: Through visual analysis of satellite imagery, our team found Russian military vehicle losses in Avdiivka between October 10 and October 20. Oct 2023. [Online]

[5] BlueSauron: A tally of Russian losses from the infamous failed Russian SiverskyiDonets river crossing near Bilohorivka. May 2022. [Online]

[6] Russia may have lost an entire elite brigade near a Donetsk coal-mining town. Feb 2023. [Online]

[7] Teet Kalmus: Ülevaade Ukrainas toimuvasõjagaseotudsündmustest (20.10.2023) Oct 2023. [Online]

[8] Edgar H. Schein. (1990). Career Anchors: Discovering Your Real Values. Publisher: University Associates, San Diego, Calif.

[9] Antonenko, I.V., Begicheva, O.L. & Karpova, I.V. (2021). Social Attitudes to the Career Process of Students with Different Career Orientations. Publisher: Digital Economy and the New Labor Market: Jobs, Competences and Innovative HR Technologies. 391-396.

[10] Barth, T.J. (1993). Career Anchor Theory.Publisher: Review of Public Personnel Administration. 13(4), 27-42.

[11] Danziger, N. & Valency, R. (2006). Career anchors: Distribution and impact on job satisfaction, the Israeli case. Publisher: Career Development International. 11(4), 293-303.

[12] Frady, K.K., High, K., Hughes, C. & Kosanovich, M. (2019). Using Career Orientations to Map Professional Formation in Engineering Technology. Publisher: Proceedings - Frontiers in Education Conference, FIE. 2019-October, 9028594.

[13] Igbaria, M., Greenhaus, J.H. & Parasuraman S. 1991. Career Orientations of MIS Employees: An Empirical Analysis. Publisher: MIS Quarterly. Jun, 151–169.

[14] Ituma, A. & Simpson, R. (2007). Moving beyond Schein's typology: Individual career anchors in the context of Nigeria. Publisher: Personnel Review. 36(6), 978-995.

[15] Santos, L.A.B. & Coelho, M.M.M.S.S. (2020). Career Anchors for the Portuguese Army’s Volunteers and Contract Personnel: Using the Career Orientations Inventory. Publisher: Smart Innovation, Systems and Technologies. 152, 185-201.

[16] Hofstede, Geert (1984). Culture's Consequences: International Differences in Work-Related Values (2nd ed.). Publisher: Beverly Hills CA: SAGE Publications.

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