After decades of reforms and transformations, and all the hype about hybrid warfare, it seems the Russian military is increasingly falling back on the good old tank-heavy model of the Soviet military created during the Cold War. The overall pattern of operations in Syria and the Donbas region of Ukraine has been principally based on the concept of infantry assault with tanks in the front, artillery behind and attached aircraft overhead. Of course, there were variations, apparently enforced on the military commanders by overruling political considerations.
In the Donbas, the Russians pretended and continue to pretend they are not involved in the fray, while servicemen that are spotted in the region or occasionally taken prisoner are claimed to be “volunteers” that do not represent the Russian state. This cover-up lacks credibility, but in any event, it did not allow for the deployment of the Russian air force (VKS, Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily). This deficiency has been somewhat replenished by the massive use of heavy artillery and different multiple launch rocket systems (MRLS) coordinating their fire with the help of recon drones to suppress the opposing Ukrainians. The poorly trained Ukrainian air force was essentially grounded after suffering losses in 2014. The Ukrainian heavy artillery also suffered heavy losses inflicted by rebel (Russian) artillery units using data provided by the newest Russian “Zoopark-1” counter-battery radar system, which went into production in 2008 (svpressa, March 22, 2017).
Russian armored tactical battalion groups (TBG), supported by heavy gun and rocket fire and supplied with real-time recon by Israeli-designed drones, successfully performed offensive and counteroffensive assaults in August 2014 and February 2015, inflicting heavy casualties and humiliating defeats on the Ukrainian military that lacked modern drones, communications equipment and weapons. But without air support (apart from recon drones), the scope of Russian-led offensive operations in the Donbas has been tactical in depth. The end result has been stabilization of the front line since February 2015 and the transformation of the conflict into a form of low-level positional warfare stalemate. This may have been the strategic intent—to initiate a low-level war of attrition in which the Ukrainian state, seen from Moscow as a basket case, would collapse and fall eventually into the Kremlin’s lap.
This presumed Ukrainian collapse has not happened, and this could eventually lead to a rethinking of the Russian strategic perceptions and tactics. But for the time being, the Russian top command may argue their model of heavy arms warfare has been essentially working fine in the Donbas from a purely military point of view, while the predominantly hybrid early period of the conflict in 2014 did not work out well. A massive pro-Russian insurrection did not materialize in the south and east of Ukraine to form a “Novorossiya” from Odessa to Kharkiv, despite hybrid warfare efforts of Russian and pro-Russian activists and armed groups. To stabilize the situation, Russian TBGs moved into the Donbas in August 2014, army generals took over command and the confrontation became regular, while many hybrid war activists were flushed out. Some of these pro-Russian activists reportedly have found their way from the Donbas to Syria together with the privateers of the ChVK (Chastniya Voennaya Companiya or Private Military Company) “Wagner” (EDM, February 15).
The Russian military began the Syrian campaign in September 2015, and the Kremlin has been portraying it as a non-contact low-casualty Western-style war mostly through bombing by the VKS. The ground fighting was delegated to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and different local and Iranian-backed militias, including Hezbollah. This somewhat hybrid method of combining different local military and paramilitary forces with Russian airpower did not initially work out well. According to First Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov, there were numerous problems in organizing effective cooperation between the VKS and different local allied military units and militias, as well as in providing the logistics of supplying and training local forces. Despite heavy bombardments, the local forces seemed reluctant to engage the opposition. These problems, according to Gerasimov, have been corrected by embedding Russian advisors with SAA units and supplying new weapons. Russian military advisors are present in SAA units down to battalion level: “They gather intelligence, plan and command operations under orders coming from the headquarters in Hmeymim,” Gerasimov said (Komsomolskaya Pravda, December 27, 2017).
Russian Special Operations forces, military police battalions and a limited number of tanks, artillery, mechanized and air defense units have been deployed to Syria. Hundreds of ChVK “Wagner” contractors have been training local troops and often supplementing them in key offensive operations. On February 7, an armored TBG, formed by ChVK “Wagner” contractors with some local militia components, was decimated by US air and ground firepower in Deir el-Zour province (EDM, February 15).
The main hybrid component of the Russian campaign in Syria is the pacification center with headquarters in Hmeymim, which has been sending out its officers to try to recruit and “pacify” opposition fighters and warlords. The present commander of the pacification center is Major General Yuri Yevtushenko (a one-star rank in the Russian military). The overall commander of the Russian Gruperovka in Syria is Colonel General (three-star rank) Alexander Zhuravlyov, also commander of military district East (one of four such districts in Russia). This week, Yevtushenko told journalists that the Syrian opposition forces in Eastern Guta—a Damascus suburb controlled by the opposition and also an official “de-confliction” or ceasefire zone—were offered “to surrender and be evacuated from Guta” together with the families, or change coat and become part of the pro-Assad militias. The rebels refused, continued Yevtushenko, and are shooting at parts of Damascus controlled by pro-Assad forces and are using the civilian population of Eastern Guta as human shields (militarynews, February 21). Yevtushenko apparently implies that the rebels are responsible for the massive bombardment of Eastern Guta by Russian-led pro-Assad forces that has killed many civilians.
It is possible the bombing onslaught on Guta is not in preparation of a final land offensive, but a way to terrorize and pressure the opposition into surrendering. This has been the overall pattern: hybrid methods are seen in Moscow as an important component of warfare, but in essence a side dish—when they fail, the ultimate argument comes into play as heavy weapons, guns and bombs. The Russian military command sees the US and its allies as the “probable enemy” (veroyatni protivnik), in essence the same old enemy as during the Cold War. It seems to make practical sense for the Russian army to take today’s methods and tactics out of the old Cold War toolbox once again.