- Isaac Bly
The Twilight of the Russian Military
What is covered here is not the entirety of what will decide this conflict. However, they are important developments that serve to illuminate larger trends. This is the first part of a two-part series of articles examining several developments in the Ukraine War and considering possible conclusions.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Dawn in the East
“Over the past two weeks, Russia has likely suffered its highest rate of casualties since the first week of the invasion of Ukraine. [...] The uptick in Russian casualties is likely due to a range of factors including lack of trained personnel, coordination and resources across the front – this is exemplified in Vuhledar and Bakhmut.”
The fighting around Vuhledar has revealed an uneasy picture. The picture of how far Russia has fallen. During the early Russian attacks in January, the anemic effort was considered to be insincere, a feint or poorly organized local counterattack, but the continuous efforts and losses, deployment of high-level equipment (such as Military District level artillery), and larger movements along the front proved that this had been a major offensive. What was considered a localized counter-offensive continued to expand and escalate as it consumed staggering resources. Tanks were clumsily thrown forwards, often haphazardly supported by infantry, who, after failed mechanized assaults, sometimes came on foot. It soon became clear that this was not some minor effort. However, it was certainly poorly used for all the resources the Russians spent. The picture was better highlighted by the capture of the newly published Russian military manual detailing the new ‘assault detachment’ on February 26th.* If this document is to be trusted, it shows a development of the abandoned BTG concept from the early war. Moreover, it seems to reflect many of the Russian military's pains. It advises moving away from more sophisticated T-72 tanks as a key part of a combined arms force and relegates it to a rear, direct-fire support vehicle. This small look at a new concept for employing combined arms battalion-level units indicates Russia is not only trying to save on tank losses but also attempting to design easier-to-control and less sophisticated assault tactics. Some important notes are that these tactics help economize attritional warfare and work better in combination with less equipment and inexperienced and poorly trained reinforcements. This is not a bold step forward, such as an effort to make the best of poor circumstances. A little combined arms are better than none, and trading the idea of more dedicated maneuver elements for more economical and methodical assault forces is best at dealing with fortified positions. They are a bit more agile than the old BTGs. ISW notes that these tactics are ineffective at countering conventional Ukrainian battalions and brigades, and likely wasteful in that role. ISW concluded that “Russian forces are unlikely to make operationally significant breakthroughs rapidly with this formation.”*
This consistent pattern we have seen from the Russians is an inability to coordinate their sophisticated systems into combined arms operations or facilitate complex operations, continuously stunting their ability to perform. This is an army where infantry is dropped off by Soviet infantry fighting vehicles to assault a fortified position frontally with the support provided by thermobaric weapons. Russia's sophistication is often wasted and attrited away in more primitive operations, not that these tools are ineffective, just that they are not being used to their full potential. As the Ukrainians are reinforced by Western-trained troops with Western-quality equipment in numbers, they are likely to be able to integrate their complexity into their operations to overwhelm the Russians. The shipment of Western equipment to Ukraine is not merely to replace lost material but to develop new capacities. As we saw in the Kharkiv offensive last year, the Ukrainians were able to utilize rapid offensives focusing on speed, surprise, and audacity, integrating Western wheeled vehicles for high mobility operations, deep disinformation operations, and shaping the battlefield with HIMAR strikes like the ‘Thunder Runs’ of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The employment of Javelin** was similar, centralizing authority in small units to be deployed against massed armor to prevent breakthroughs, using Western equipment to fill the gap in their capacity by creating a new capacity with advanced munitions. While examining both armies' sophistication on the large scale is difficult in this information environment and beyond the scope of this article. That being said, it is worth examining two important trends often neglected that make up much of the fragile status quo.
* It should be noted that this document shares much in common with the tactics being developed in Bakhmut by the Wagner Group. See that link for further details.
** Distributed by the Research Center of Missile Troops and Artillery. Downloaded courtesy of Battle Order.
Konstantyn & Vlada Liberov
The God of War
The Russian army is not merely an army heavy on artillery; it is not just an advantage they possess over the Ukrainians. Russia desperately needs superiority in artillery. It has been their most decisive tool in this conflict. It is not a tool they can afford to lose. Every time a Ukrainian offensive has begun to bog down, the Russians have leveled blistering fire against them to devastating effect. In a bigger picture, Russia uses its artillery to compensate for its weaknesses significantly. While examining doctrine and command culture is beyond this article's scope, those do also lean heavily into artillery. That being said, it is worth looking at the bigger picture of Russia’s reliance on artillery.
In extremely simplified terms, Russian forces in Ukraine generally organize a fluid defense concept rather than stretching their forces alone on the massive front. They rely on a network of separate defensive groupings that keep enemies from slipping through and hold offensives that can penetrate them so that a reserve force can destroy or blunt that penetration. This allows for larger areas to be defended more thoroughly and to preserve the combat power of the defender into a concentrated response force. This system is good for that purpose. Yet, Russia is quite reliant on artillery to sustain it. Firstly, Russia uses its heavy artillery to protect gaps in its line. Secondly, Russia can delay and disrupt offensives at a distance with its artillery. Thirdly, to economize counter-actions, Russia relies heavily on maneuvering by fire (basically, directing fire onto a point without moving the artillery firing). This is part of the reason why Ukraine focuses so heavily on rapid advances, surprise, and audacity in their offensives because the longer they remain still, knowing the Russians, the more likely they are to be bombarded from all directions. Losing this advantage would not only allow the Ukrainians to sustain their offensives more easily but also to diversify their methods without fear of heavy bombardment. In short, Russian artillery is extremely potent. However, it props up a much weaker force.
Ukrainian artillery has suffered for a large part of the war underneath the Russian heel, but this situation is becoming less common daily. Crucially, Russia's counter battery fire can often locate, range, target, and fire on Ukrainian artillery within 3-5 minutes.* However, Ukraine has recently made some key breakthroughs that are beginning to be applied on a larger scale. There has been evidence on social media of Ukrainians evacuating towed guns like M777 within less than a minute.** Combined with more advanced artillery support systems and self-propelled artillery like the French Ceaser or British AS-90, this will allow Ukraine to focus on hunting Russian artillery to weaken that advantage and remember just how important artillery is to Russia for holding the line. Additionally, the delivery of Western fire support systems and coordination with drones continue to improve Ukrainian artillery’s ability to compete with Russia and decline differences in shell consumption and tube count. In the words of Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute:
"The generally mediocre performance of Russia's ground forces has been increasingly offset by their leveraging of massed artillery fires to facilitate a slow and methodical advance. Sustained bombardment has progressively displaced the local population and levelled the settlements and infrastructure that were being defended, forcing the Ukrainian military to abandon territory after it is devastated."
Russia’s grip on artillery superiority is slipping in terms of combat and maneuvering. As we will get to later in this article, so too are they slipping in terms of logistics. It is hard not to see the long fall in their future. ***
* For a large portion of the war, Russia inflicted heavy losses on Ukrainian artillery through counter battery fire. Something which prompted several Ukrainian adaptations and several Russian responses. Russian counter battery times do vary depending on conditions, coordination with drones, or observation units, location, or unit firing.
** Certainly unlikely to be a representation of the average Ukrainian artillery team. And the source is of dubious viability. However, it is worth noting.
*** It is not impossible that the Russians will adapt to these changing circumstances; it is, in fact, very likely. However, it is doubtful they can fully negate the consequences of these developments.
A Perspective on Russian Logistics
Russia operates largely on a push-forward concept of tactical logistics where the majority of supplies and transport assets are administered at the army level or higher (for reference, a US field army is generally 90,000 personnel). Supplies are given as the central authority decides based on what they think the receiver will need and to ensure supplies are sent to those with the highest priority, such as a brigade planning an offensive. These decisions are usually informed by logisticians who calculate how many supplies a force usually consumes and report unusual consumption patterns to higher authorities, though this does not necessarily mean they will receive additional supplies to compensate. This approach is effective even when communication is disrupted, though it isn’t necessarily the most flexible.*
Russian logistics have improved since the beginning of the invasion though they have become increasingly reliant on fixed rail infrastructure.** Russian trains usually stop outside of HIMARS range and unload onto trucks, and brought to dispersed supply hubs along the front and then distributed alongside other supplies such as food, spare parts, etc. It is worth stating that the combination of centralized control and steady rail service facilitates Russian forces' constant reinforcement and resupply. Because of the Russian reliance on artillery, the infantry is usually sidelined in terms of supply priority as well as transport allocation. This is part of the reason that Russian infantry assaults are increasingly non motorised. In addition, this logistical adjustment reduces the transport that can be used to provide mobility to combat units. The weather profoundly affects logistics and attrition with the extended delivery process. One of the reasons that the Russians leaned heavier into artillery during the winter was the frost hardening the roads, and the generally slowed pace of developments. As Ukraine acquires more long-range munitions, they will be better able to press on Russian logistics.
* The Russians have adapted to coordinating more effectively between interim-sized units through divisional logistics.
** Rail infrastructures’ static nature places them under constant surveillance, making it difficult to deliver supplies within the range of long-range munitions, especially with the weight of Western intelligence and precision munitions.
Konstantyn & Vlada Liberov
These developments themselves are not the whole picture, nor do they make up the entirety of the decisive variables in Ukraine. These are merely two developments highlighting the uneasy nature of Russia’s precarious position and providing insight into some of the trends we have seen. The fighting in Ukraine is not over. Indeed the fighting is perhaps at a decisive stage in many ways that will be discussed in the second article. Russia will not be victorious as these developments, combined with their staggering military losses and the powerful coalition forming against them. However, this does not mean the conflict has been decided. In many ways, the current conflict is for Ukraine’s future, for what the post-war peace will be like. This is why the fight continues. While the Russians are unlikely to conquer Ukraine, they can fight for better terms. Perhaps for the expansion of their satellite, Donbas states or some victory to justify this conflict, but the chance for total victory is lost. Though the future remains undecided, in the second part of this series, we will examine some of the impacts of this conflict has had on Russia and Ukraine, as well as how the conflict may be concluded.
Preliminary Lessons in Conventional Warfighting from Russia's Invasion of Ukraine: February–July 2022: Reliable documentation on the early developments of the war in Ukraine.
The Russian Way of War: An important text for understand the Russian way of war.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, February 22, 2023 | Institute for the Study of War: Provides a brief perspective on the larger issue of numbers not covered.