Russia’s Evolving Military Tactics in the Ukraine War

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 32

(Source: AP)

On February 24, 2022, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched his long-forecast large-scale military assault on neighboring Ukraine, following months of force buildup on the country’s borders. That massing of Russian military units and supporting assets on Ukraine’s borders had lasted almost a year, with much of the heavy equipment from the spring 2021 buildup still left in position as it resumed its concentration of forces there in the fall. In September 2021, Russia and Belarus staged the quadrennial joint military exercise Zapad 2021; this involved a focus on using battalions and battalion tactical groups (BTG), marking a deviation from earlier Zapad exercises. And that emphasis continued to feature in the buildup, with over 70 percent of Russia’s 168 BTGs eventually prepositioned in staging areas close to Ukraine. The movement of forces with equipment from the Eastern Military District (MD) to form the bulk of Russia’s contribution to the Russian-Belarusian large-scale military exercise Soyuznaya Reshimost (Allied Resolve) 2022 (February 10–20) was a critical dimension in Moscow’s war planning against Ukraine (see EDM, January 26, February 2, 9, 16).

Nonetheless, while the force buildup was conducted in plain sight, warning of a possible large-scale Russian re-invasion of Ukraine, it was impossible to foresee the precise nature of the operation that ensued, or to expect the numerous weaknesses it exposed in Russian military operational planning. In the earliest stages of the war, Russian forces did not fight according to their doctrine or standard tactics used in training for large-scale warfare in operational-strategic exercises. Russia’s Armed Forces did not fight in combined arms units or actually rely on BTGs, choosing instead to attempt poorly conceived “blitzkrieg” runs that failed to achieve any meaningful objectives. The Airborne Forces’ (Vozdushno-Desantnye Voyska—VDV) thwarted attempt, on February 24, to seize the Hostomel airfield northwest of Kyiv was a prime illustration of this. And as the war further developed, targeting problems surfaced for the Russians, which reinforced the overall sense of poor planning, such as the militarily senseless utilization of high-precision weapons (vysokotochnoye oruzhiye—VTO) to target the TV tower in Kyiv (France24, February 24).

To further underscore the oddity of the initial employment of Russian military power in the attack on Ukraine, it is clear that Moscow avoided using an array of advanced military capabilities. These include the failure to deploy airpower in sufficient numbers alongside VTO to carry out the suppression and destruction of enemy air defenses (SEAD, DEAD). Indeed, the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS), in the first days of the war, was noticeable only for its relative absence. Moreover, Russia barely exploited its electronic warfare (EW) capabilities to try to disrupt and jam Ukrainian command, control and communications. Likewise, the role of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) was minimal (UNIAN, February 24–March 2), despite growing capability in this space in recent years as well as increasing attention to drones among Russian military theorists.

Whatever the General Staff’s war planning envisaged, the early phase of the attack on Ukraine was anything but high-tech. None of these observations negate the outstanding bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, government and citizens in mounting one of the most remarkable national defenses in modern history; which clearly took Moscow by surprise.

The chaos of the invasion partly reflects poor planning and preparation by the Russian side. In an effort to maintain operational security and gain surprise in the early stage of the operation, much of the Russian military manpower involved was neither informed nor specifically trained for the invasion. Equally, Western focus had centered on the BTG aspect of the buildup. Yet in the opening days of the conflict, Russian forces did not fight in BTGs (UNIAN, February 24–March 2). Moreover, it soon became apparent that Russian conscripts were being sent in to fight. BTGs are exclusively manned by contract personnel. Also unclear is the extent to which the Russian officer corps was prepared and briefed for the war.

President Putin’s national televised speech on February 21 was the preamble to justify the recognition of the entire Donbas as two independent republics. However, the Russian forces that were deployed to Belarus for Allied Resolve 2022 spearheaded the glacial effort to attack Kyiv. Putin and the General Staff may have convinced themselves that the Ukrainian authorities expected war to erupt in southeastern Ukraine, with little contingency for a ground assault from across the Belarusian border and an early move against the capital. Moreover, the Kremlin leader most likely expected a rapid victory. While the war aims were set out in vague terms such as the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine (see EDM, February 24), senior Russian officers were reminded of Putin’s February 21 speech and given pride-of-place in the General Staff journal Voyennaya Mysl. It included Putin’s darkest threat: “Do you want decommunization? Well, that suits us just fine. But it is not necessary, as they say, to stop halfway. We are ready to show you. What does real decommunization mean for Ukraine?” (Voyennaya Mysl, March 2022).

Whereas Russia’s military intervention in Syria was designated as an “aerospace operation” with the VKS in the lead role, the invasion of Ukraine is officially labeled a “special military operation,” carefully avoiding the use of the word “war.” In this case, based on reporting on the conflict to date, it appears that the Ground Forces are in the leading role, alongside the VDV, with supporting roles for the VKS, Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF), Naval Infantry and National Guard (Rosgvardia). As the conflict settles into some form of operational rhythm, it seems clear that Russian forces are still not primarily fighting using battalion tactical groups (, UNIAN, February 24–March 7). Although BTGs are involved, the Russian military has reverted to the larger-scale regiments and brigades as the principle basis of maneuver.

Additionally, Russia’s campaign has developed into a two-front war. The southern front aims to sever Ukraine’s access to the Black Sea, and the northern front is focused on Kyiv and other strategic nodes. Almost acting in a disconnected form, each Russian Joint Strategic Command (Obyedinennyye Strategicheskoye Komandovanie—OSK) grouping seems to have been assigned an operational vector: Eastern OSK to Kyiv, Central OSK to Chernihiv, Western OSK to Kharkiv/Sumy, and Southern OSK to Kherson and the Mariupol direction.

Given the avoidance of the fuller range of Russia’s military conventional capabilities, limited exploitation of high-precision weaponry and minimal roles for air power and EW assets, the vast majority of ordinance used in the war is unguided. Evidence mounts of the Russian military deliberately targeting civilian infrastructure. To date, Putin’s war in Ukraine seems to be a war of retribution.