Russian Military Modernization and Russia’s 2022 Invasion of Ukraine
In recent years, there has been much interest in Russian military modernization due to Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula and activity in eastern Ukraine, more assertive behavior along its borders, successful bolstering of the Syrian regime, and short deployment to Kazakhstan in January 2022 to quell civil unrest. Given these successes, the Russian military has been proffered as an elite military force filled with Special Operations Forces who were the “polite people” or “little green men” seen on the streets in Crimea in 2014. Perhaps more colloquially put, since 2014, the Russian Armed Forces have been seen as ten feet tall. Understandably, interest in Russia’s military modernization is being piqued to new heights due to its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, euphemistically called a spetsial’naya voyennaya operatsiya (special military operation), which is unfolding as this introduction is being written.
The daily barrage of information about the campaign has created a situation wherein the specialized vernacular of the Russian military experts, terms such as “Battalion Tactical Groups,” can now be readily heard and seen in the mass media, YouTube, and a plethora of blog sites. The use of this terminology and the daily reporting of Russian military failures, including huge equipment losses, weak tactics, flagging morale, and broken logistics, often leads to conclusions and general feelings of certainty that the Russians are failing miserably. If these Ukrainian-friendly sources are taken at face value, one might conclude that all previous Russian military successes have been flukes, and in reality the Russian military is really only four feet tall.
Trying to assess the performance of the Russian Armed Forces based only upon available open source reporting is, at best, very difficult for several reasons. The first is that it is impossible to discern if videos posted on social media are showing exemplars of trends (tip of the iceberg), or are just spotlighting isolated incidents. For example, the Russian military’s logistics system may have had widespread failures, but it is speculation at best to just assume so, based solely upon videos posted to social media. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to understanding comes from the fact that information is mostly from Ukrainian-friendly sources. Currently, there are only official Russian pronouncements about the “success” of the campaign or mentions of Ukrainian atrocities, which are, at best, exaggerations and, at worst, blatant lies. We see little, if any, reporting from the Russian mass media (albeit often Russian controlled), independent analysts, and even anything in the usually highly active world of Russian social media and blog sites. These valuable information sources have been uncharacteristically quiet since the war in Ukraine began, and understandably so, as long-standing Russian laws provide stiff prison sentences for those discussing ongoing military operations. In addition, Russia has recently (March 4) passed a new draconian law about spreading “fake news” that can result in a prison sentence of up to 15 years, further stifling public discourse. The net effect of these laws results in little or no public discussion of the campaign, allowing only for reposting or rehashing of the aforementioned government pronouncements.
In addition, there is another serious problem about trying to make premature broad-brush comments about the nature of this conflict. Western intelligence services predicted the Russians could take Kyiv in a few days, leading the media and some analysts to conclude that the Russian military capabilities have been drastically overestimated, while, in fact, the Russian military is quite inept. This, again, may well be true, but at this time it is difficult to determine what portion of Russia’s difficulties can be attributed to an “inept Army” as opposed to intelligence and planning failures at the operational and strategic levels. If the Russians did envision an operating environment in which they would encounter little resistance, they likely underestimated not only the total number of personnel required for such an endeavor but also the general scheme of maneuver and required support mechanisms.
Given the Russian propensity to study historical precedent, this underestimation does not seem wholly unfounded. Ukraine’s political leadership has fled the country before in times of duress, and considering President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s background as a comedian and actor along with his somewhat lackluster performance before the Russian invasion, the Russian failure to foresee Zelenskyy’s decision to stay and fight and his unlikely success as a wartime leader can be understood. Moreover, recent historical precedent of the failures of Western security assistance activities, might have led the Russians to believe that the vast sums of dollars, euros and pounds that were wasted propping up Afghan regime, were being equally wasted in Ukraine. Although the Russians were concerned about the defenders’ acquisition of certain weapon systems (such as the various antitank guided missiles), as a whole the quality and resolve of the Ukrainian military may have been perceived to be more at level closer to 2014 than they encountered in 2022.
All things being equal, if Moscow did accurately forecast the operational environment, the course of the campaign may have looked much different. Instead of attempting to achieve all objectives simultaneously to secure a “quick win,” a more traditional approach of prioritized objectives may have resulted in more Russian success. The point of this discussion is not to debate the shortcomings of the Russian military and/or its intelligence and planning failures, but instead to illustrate the point that causes of failure or success for military campaigns require more than casual observation. If the West reaches the conclusion that the Russian Armed Forces are inept from just casual observation, this could result in an underestimation of the Russian military akin to how Moscow underestimated the Ukrainians—a potential catastrophe in case the West ever becomes embroiled in a kinetic conflict with the Russian Federation.
In truth, it is far too early to fully grasp the reality and lessons learned from this most recent Russian infringement of Ukrainian sovereignty. This goal will likely not be possible until after the cessation of active hostilities, when operational security procedures are allowed to lapse on both sides of the conflict. If Russia continues the pattern of past conflicts, it will initially declare success but will then perform a critical self-assessment of its military’s performance and lessons learned. This was certainly the case after the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. In 2010, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Russian think tank with strong ties to the Russian government, published The Tanks of August. The book is a collection of seven essays by prominent authors from the Russian defense and security community. The book meticulously lays out a timeline of the conflict, Russian and Georgian losses, post-war developments, and lessons learned. By almost all accounts, the book provides a critical and well-balanced assessment of the Russian military’s performance in the conflict. Although Russia’s “New Look” reforms were envisaged well before the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the Russian military’s poor performance in the conflict likely was an impetus to execute those reforms or, at a minimum, lessened institutional resistance. A similar critical look at the Russian military’s performance will likely occur after active hostilities in the current operation cease.
Aside from operational security concerns on both sides of the conflict and the general “fog of war,” additional difficulties stem from understanding the lessons learned and the “big picture”—simply the scale and duration of the campaign. A military conflict of this size has not been seen in Europe since the Second World War, a complete accounting of the conflict to include its actions on at least five independent axes, phases, many battles, and all other aspects of modern warfare will probably take many years for scholars, analysts, and militaries to fully digest. In terms of analytical assessments, The Tanks of August is an excellent account of the 2008 Russo-Georgian War, but it is important to keep in mind that this conflict was comparatively much smaller in terms of personnel, geography and duration, lasting only five days. Due to the scope of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, and the availability of massive amounts of digital evidence that has surfaced and will continue to surface for years to come, it is doubtful that there will be a single text such as The Tanks of August that will be able to encapsulate Russia’s 2022 assault on Ukraine. Instead, one can expect many books, articles, thesis/dissertations, papers, etc., drafted about the various aspects of the campaign, in addition to a few works that will provide a general overview.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle in attempting to develop any all-encompassing “lessons learned” about Russia’s military modernization and performance in this campaign, at this stage, is the fact that the Russian military is a thinking and adaptable organization. As previously mentioned, there will be a formal review conducted at the end of the campaign, but the Russian General Staff almost certainly already started an impromptu process to make immediate changes, the results of which will presumably become more evident as the campaign transitions from being measured in weeks to months. Therefore, one should be mindful that some lessons learned may be applicable to the whole campaign, while others may just be applicable to certain phases, axes of advance, and/or particular units as the Russian military adapts to its environment, including a learning and adapting Ukrainian force.
Although it is too early for an assessment of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Roger N. McDermott’s Russia-s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace provides an important tool for those interested in studying Russian military modernization and how successful or unsuccessful these efforts have been as evidenced in Ukraine 2022. Many such assessments can be expected in the years to come, but McDermott’s contribution permits these assessments to measure Russian military modernization within the context in which it was developed and implemented. As will be described, McDermott couches Russian military modernization as Russian military theorists, planners, and force designers think about it. In particular, Russian military modernization follows the thinking of the late Major General Vladimir Slipchenko, one of Russia’s most prominent military theorists, whose theories can be readily seen in Russia’s military modernization.
Understanding the Context of Russian Military Modernization
In order to understand the context in which Russian military modernization is being conducted, a short description of how Russian military theorists think about military modernization is required. In Russian military thought, military modernization is considered to be part of the broad field of “military art,” the branch of military science that describes the theory and practice (strategy, operational art and tactics) of the preparation and conduct of armed struggle on land, air, sea, and other domains. In order to consider the future of strategy, operational art and tactics, they must first consider what the future of war will look like. This is accomplished by studying the lessons of past wars and factors that will cause war to change, and using this information to forecast what the future operating environment may look like. The most important of these factors is technological development, which is essential for any long-term defense planning involving military doctrine and capability development. Given the importance of technological development to military art, Russian military theorists have long been pondering the impacts of technological change and innovation. One of the best known of these Russian theorists is the aforementioned Major General Vladimir Slipchenko. Slipchenko was keenly interested in the technological developments that characterized the 1991 Desert Storm operation and the 1999 bombing of Yugoslavia by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In his view, these conflicts were characterized by the increasing use of precision-guided munitions (PGM), the growing importance of the informational aspects of war—information/psychological operations; command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR), electronic warfare (EW), cyber warfare, and so on—as well as the decreasing importance of ground elements.
In Slipchenko’s view, heavily influenced by Marxist dialectical materialist thinking, as humanity’s technological advancement has increased, so has the military’s level of technological development, resulting in what Russian theorists describe as different “generations” of warfare; this is the context in which Russian military theorists use the term “new generation warfare.”  This view proffers that in over four thousand years of human history, there have been five generations of warfare: first generation—edged weapons; second generation—gunpowder weapons; third generation—rifled weapons; fourth generation—automatic weapons; fifth generation—nuclear weapons. The transitions between these generations of warfare are not seen as a binary yes/no proposition. Instead, in step with this theory’s underpinnings in dialectical materialism, the world’s transition between generations of warfare was viewed as occurring on a spectrum. Belligerents could, and often do, use the means of more than one generation to varying degrees depending on a variety of factors (economy, technological level, etc.). In addition, belligerents could revert to older generations of warfare, or even skip generations of warfare depending on the situation.
Slipchenko’s analysis of the historical development of warfare posited that the world was now entering a new, sixth generation of warfare. The first appearance of this new generation of warfare was evidenced by the first use of over-the-horizon cruise missiles in the 1982 Falklands War, and came to be defined by the 1991 Gulf War and actions against Yugoslavia in 1999. Slipchenko noted that the deceive use of precision-guided munitions in these conflicts is what differentiated them from earlier generations of warfare. In Slipchenko’s view, the Western view that the tank, machine-gun, and aircraft were revolutionary military developments was unfounded, as he believed they were simply evolutionary improvements, paling in importance to PGMs.
While it took 4,500 sorties (each aircraft returning many times) and about 9,000 aerial bombs to destroy a railroad bridge over a large river in World War II, a bridge like that was destroyed by about 90 aircraft carrying 200 guided aerial bombs during the Vietnam War. And a single aircraft and one cruise missile destroyed such a bridge in Yugoslavia in 1999. You can see how much progress has been made, to the point where high-precision weapons are replacing many different forces and devices.
Slipchenko postulated that the precision-guided munitions were in fact a revolutionary development, which would require major changes to the way warfare would be thought about and conducted. He believed that once fully realized, sixth-generation warfare would be characterized by the use of a combination of non-nuclear PGMs and informational means to achieve strategic objectives, without the need of a conventional ground force. Since the means used to conduct this type of warfare are long-distance and over-the-horizon in nature, Russians typically refer to sixth-generation warfare as “non-contact” warfare.
This revolution in warfare has many implications of. As the means of sixth-generation warfare become more commonplace, the character of war would also change. In particular, traditional offensive and defensive actions conducted by large combined-arms formations would become less common, as large groupings of forces would become easy targets for reconnaissance-strike systems. The means of sixth-generation warfare would not only deter belligerents from massing large troop formations to conduct operations along a few axes but would also be able to simultaneously attack all axes of a theater of military operations. Sixth-generation warfare shifts the focus from large formations fighting in discrete battlefields to the massive use of precision-guided munitions to destroy the enemy’s means of conducting a retaliatory attack, such as their PGMs, key military installations (especially those pertaining to the enemy’s reconnaissance-strike systems), electrical power infrastructure, lines of communication, and economically vital assets.
Among the consequences of this change would be that terms such as “front,” “rear,” and “forward edge of the battle area,” would become obsolete as most attacks would transition to the aerospace and informational domains. Another consequence of this change in the character of war relates to military decision-making. Typically, Soviet/Russian military art has drawn sharp lines between strategy, operational art and tactics, but this new way of warfare would blur these lines and reduce military decision making to essentially three commands: “detect,” “decide” and “destroy.” Due to the “reaches” of sixth-generation means of war, the geography of war would change from discrete regions to a singular global domain. Even the concept of victory itself would change. Furthermore, even the concept of victory would change. Previously, victory was often predicated upon defeating the enemy’s military, occupying their territory, destroying their economic means, and finally toppling their political leadership. Eventually, the means of sixth-generation will allow mass attacks directly on the enemy’s homeland. Victory in sixth-generation warfare will be determined not on some far-away battlefield, but on the home territories of the belligerents via non-contact means.
It appears likely that Russia will not achieve all of its initial operational and strategic objectives for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. And Russia may well have made a strategic blunder by underestimating the tenacity and resolve of the Ukrainian political establishment, military, and populace to resist this latest Russian aggression. However, this conflict, whatever its outcome, will provide NATO with a unique look at not only how Russia conducts a partial mobilization and large-scale combat operations, but also how Russia’s military modernization has progressed. An eventual thorough study will undoubtedly reveal that some Russian military modernization goals have succeeded, others failed, and many were/are still unrealized.
Although in many ways the West and Russia have similar views about the future operational environment, such as: “less large-scale warfare; increased use of networked command-and-control systems, robotics, and high-precision weaponry; greater importance placed on interagency cooperation; more operations in urban terrain; a melding of offense and defense; and a general decrease in the differences between military activities at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels,” the two sides are pursuing rather different strategies for modernization.
The content of military operations is changing. Their spatial scope is growing, and their intensity and dynamism are increasing. Time parameters of the preparation and conduct of operations are shortening. There is a transition from successive concentrated actions to continuous distributed actions conducted simultaneously in all spheres of opposition as well as in remote theaters of military action. Demands on troop mobility are toughening. A transition is being made to comprehensive engagement of the enemy based on integrating the efforts of all attack assets and weapons into a single system. The boundaries of theaters of military action are expanding substantially. Areas with facilities of military and economic potential are being encompassed that are at a considerable distance from zones of immediate combat operations.
As opposed to the previously discussed Russian ideas of global sixth-generation war, the United States Army has adopted a wholly different Multi-Domain Operations (MDO) doctrine, one that is region focused. Since the US and Russia are pursuing dissimilar modernization strategies, the success of Russia’s military modernization efforts should not be assessed solely through a Western lens, as this was not the context in which they were developed. The chapters of Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace provide the necessary blueprint for a complete understanding and assessment.
In 1981, US Army General Donn Starry presented a new “AirLand Battle” concept, which focused on air support for land forces. This concept, and later doctrine, was the bedrock of US/NATO doctrine in later years of the Cold War and was validated by the Coalition’s great success in the 1991 Gulf War. General Starry developed this concept from his study of the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This six-month study started in 1977, years after the end of that conflict. Fortunately, General Starry benefitted from having enough time for all necessary information to come to light and sufficient situational understanding to conduct the study. A premature and/or hasty assessment of the 1973 Yom Kippur War might have led to much different conclusions than eventually reached, possibly without the required insights that were the foundations of the “AirLand Battle” concept. When the time comes for a similar type assessment of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s Path to the High-Tech Battlespace will certainly help provide such situational understanding.
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