Russia’s army is learning on the battlefield

Russia now sends small packets of “disposable” infantry, a handful of men at a time, often under the influence of amphetamines, to “skirmish… until killed” (Photo: AFP)
Russia now sends small packets of “disposable” infantry, a handful of men at a time, often under the influence of amphetamines, to “skirmish… until killed” (Photo: AFP)

Summary

  • A new report shows how its tactics are improving. Ukraine can still beat it

Russian generals have been slow to learn from their strategic errors. General Valery Gerasimov botched Russia’s initial assault on Kyiv, bungled an assault on the eastern Donbas region last summer and has frittered away tens of thousands of troops on a futile offensive on the same front over the past five months. A Ukrainian offensive is now looming. But despite it all, Russia’s army still appears to be learning and improving in important ways.

A new paper published by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank in London, shows how Russian tactics have evolved. Mr Watling and Mr Reynolds have visited Ukraine repeatedly over the past year and published detailed studies of the war, which are read avidly in Western armed forces and defence ministries. Their latest paper draws on interviews with Ukraine’s general staff and ten of its brigades. They point to several areas of change—many of which will pose a major threat to Ukraine’s offensive plans.

The most important is basic infantry tactics. Russia started the war using battalion tactical groups or BTGs, a formation of 800 or so men equipped—in theory—with armour, artillery and air defences. These turned out to be woefully understrength and tactically inept. It has since torn up that structure. Russia now sends small packets of “disposable" infantry, a handful of men at a time, often under the influence of amphetamines, to “skirmish…until killed". It is not so much a human wave as a human trickle. But it reveals Ukrainian positions and uses up Ukrainian ammo.

(Graphic: The Economist)
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(Graphic: The Economist)

Then larger groups of better-trained assault infantry move in, backed up by armour, mortars and artillery. “It is impossible to say that the enemy does not know how to fight," says Major-General Viktor Nikolyuk, who is in charge of training for Ukraine’s armed forces, pointing to the Wagner private military group and Russia’s increasing ability to fight at night. “We learned a lot from them, too, [on] tactics." If a position is taken, it tends to be fortified within 12 hours. “The…speed with which Russian infantry dig, and the scale at which they improve their fighting positions, is noteworthy," say Mr Watling and Mr Reynolds. Russian engineers have done particularly well at building fortifications, laying bridges and emplacing minefields. In some areas defensive fortifications go back as far as 30km.

Artillery is also improving. Though the rate of fire is down—from 12m rounds last year to a projection of 7m this year—Russian gunnery is getting better. Reconnaissance drones are increasingly effective, allowing guns to strike Ukrainian targets within three to five minutes of detection. That is aided by growing use of the Strelets system, a small computer that connects drones and ground-based sensors with artillery batteries. A common tactic, say the authors, “is for the Russians to withdraw from a position that is being assaulted and then saturate it with fire once Ukrainian troops attempt to occupy it."

Armour tactics are evolving, too. No longer are Russian tanks attempting to break through enemy lines with shock and speed. Instead they provide firepower from a safe distance. The report notes that although Russia’s use of the T-62 and T-55—ancient tanks pulled from storage—has been widely mocked online, their guns remain effective and they “pose a serious battlefield threat" when Ukraine cannot bring to bear anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). Even when ATGMs are available, they are finding it harder going. Russian tanks are getting better at hiding by using thermal camouflage and fighting at dusk and dawn when their temperature signature is less obvious. Russia’s reactive armour, which explodes outward to deflect incoming shots, has “proven highly effective", with some tanks surviving multiple hits.

One of the most neglected—but most important—aspects of the war has been electronic warfare, or EW. It is perhaps where Russian adaptation and improvement has been most impressive, according to Western and Ukrainian officials. Russia has deployed big EW systems for every 10km stretch of the front. They are largely aimed at drones. And they work: Ukraine is losing a staggering 10,000 drones per month, says the report, amounting to over 300 losses daily. EW is responsible for around half of those losses, a Ukrainian official tells The Economist. It is a reminder that tactical reconnaissance drones have turned into disposable assets—more like a munition than an aircraft. Russia is also using EW to create decoys to confuse Ukrainian units.

Russian air defences, often derided last year, are stepping up, too. They are increasingly connected, allowing them to share data on incoming threats, and are thus shooting down a significant proportion of strikes by GMLRS—the GPS-guided rounds, fired from American HIMARS launchers—that played havoc with Russian headquarters last year. Russia has been pulling those command-and-control centres further back, dispersing and hardening them and wiring them into Ukraine’s own “dense and robust" telecoms network, with physical cables extended to brigades closer to the front. The posts will still be vulnerable to the Storm Shadow cruise missiles sent by Britain in May, but their cost and scarcity means they cannot be used as freely as GMLRS.

One of the iconic quotations from the first part of the war was from a masked Ukrainian soldier reflecting on Russia’s ineptitude. “We’re lucky they’re so fucking stupid," he remarked. “They’re just goofs. Flying above us and shooting fuck knows where." Russia’s army remains beset by problems: it has not only failed to capture Bakhmut after a year of trying, but it is now being pushed back from the flanks of the town. Nevertheless, Russian forces are capable of learning. Russia’s initial hubris has been replaced by a healthy respect for Ukrainian prowess, say commanders. “There is evidence of a centralised process for identifying shortcomings in employment and the development of mitigations," conclude the authors.

These findings might give the impression that Ukraine’s counter-offensive is doomed. That is far from the case. The key, conclude Mr Watling and Mr Reynolds, is not so much new weaponry as sound tactics: “If Ukraine can disrupt Russian defences and impose a dynamic situation on them, Russian units are likely to rapidly lose their co-ordination." Breaking through defences and exploiting gaps, they say, will require getting the basics right: a stock of spare parts for donated equipment, manuals translated into Ukrainian and good drills ahead of time. On May 14th British defence intelligence stated that Russian forces in Ukraine probably had no “large, capable, mobile reserve to respond to emerging…challenges." Russia’s defence system is much improved. It is also brittle. And it can still be smashed.

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© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on www.economist.com

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