As Ukraine was readying for its counteroffensive, the Russian side was making what the top brass deemed as necessary preparations. These efforts were laid out in documentation of the Russian Armed Forces that Ukrainian units “captured” on the battlefield—namely the documents “Recommendations for Combating the Enemy Operating in Tank and Mechanised Columns” and “Prospects for Increasing the Effectiveness of Army Defensive Operations” (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22).
Overall, several factors have influenced Russian military thinking during the war in Ukraine. First, Soviet military doctrines continue to undergird Russia’s strategic tactics. Since the mid-1980s, the number of special studies devoted primarily to the experience of defensive actions has been increasing, and interest in the World War II–era Battle of Kursk, as a battle in which the Soviets deliberately chose defensive operations, has been growing. The Soviet generals regarded the defense at Kursk as a “classic” operation and concluded that “it is precisely to the creation of such a defense that one should strive.” At the same time, they rightly observed that, by the time of the Battle of Kursk, exceedingly favorable conditions had developed for the Red Army. “Therefore, the experience of defense in the first period of the Great Patriotic War deserves closer attention.” In general, military specialists began to consider this battle as a prototype for a new defensive strategy (Maryshev, “Several Questions on Strategic Defense in the Great Patriotic War,” 1986; Kokoshin, “Army and Politics: Soviet Military-Political and Military-Strategic Thought, 1918-1991,” 1995).
Defensive operations were considered a primary action even according to the Soviet Army Ground Forces Field Manual from 1990: “The main types of combined arms combat are defense and offensive. At the beginning of the war, defense will be the most important and most common type of combat. Defense is carried out deliberately or involuntarily with the main purpose of repelling the enemy’s advance, inflicting losses on him and creating conditions for his troops to go on the offensive. It will be widely used not only at the beginning but also during the course of the war, but defense alone cannot achieve victory. … Soviet military science considers defense and counter-offensive as the main types of strategic actions in various situations” (Irp.fas.org, accessed August 14).
During its war against Ukraine, the Russian army has gradually returned to these strategic approaches. Thus, according to literature from the Combined Arms Academy of the Russian Armed Forces: “To repel the offensive of a high-tech and numerically superior enemy in the most important directions, the choice of positional defense seems to be the most expedient. At the same time, the stereotypical attitude to the construction of a continuous deeply echeloned defense with a linear outline of positions, strips and lines can hardly be considered rational in the near future. In conditions of time, forces and resources shortages, the most appropriate form of combat operations to repel the offensive of a high-tech superior enemy should be, in our opinion, a dispersed defensive operation [see Figure 1], which is based on the retention of important areas, facilities and transport hubs in separate major directions. Such an operation is characterized by an uneven distribution of forces and means in each direction and the decentralized use of formations and military units of branches of the armed forces and special troops” (Mil.ru, accessed August 14).
Russian Dispersed Defensive Operations
These principles were apparent in the experience of the Kherson defensive operation conducted by Russian troops from July 2022 until their withdrawal from the area under the counteroffensive actions of the Ukrainian Armed Forces in November (see EDM, November 11, 2022). In countering future Ukrainian assaults, recommendations were developed on the basis of that experience (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22). These include:
- Continuously conducting all types of reconnaissance, which makes it possible, at a distance of up to 5 kilometers, to detect the advance of an enemy column;
- Forecasting enemy actions, constantly analyzing incoming intelligence from all types of reconnaissance;
- Continuously installing anti-tank minefields (at least three rows) in front of Russian positions;
- Providing reliable cover of junctions between units, organizing and maintaining interactions between units operating at these junctions and identifying the responsible commander for a junction with a neighboring unit;
- Preparing, in advance, cut-off positions in tank-hazardous areas and placing anti-tank weapons there;
- Preparing artillery fires along the most likely routes of advance of assault troops to reduce the speed of their advance;
- Creating anti-tank reserves, allocating tank units to a highly mobile anti-tank reserve and forming tank fighter groups in motorized rifle companies;
- Planning on-call strikes by army aviation (Ka-52s with Vikhr Anti-Tank Guided Missiles and Mi-28s with unguided rockets);
- Preventing combat reconnaissance patrols from opening up the defending unit’s fire system, with the fire units on duty firing from concealed and camouflaged positions.
In terms of Russian forces significantly mining their defensive positions along the Ukrainian front, the PTKM-1R anti-vehicle, anti-tank mines have proven to be highly effective. Thus, in the Kherson direction, during an attempted breakthrough by Ukrainian forces, these mines destroyed two tanks and three BMPs.
Russian planning for army and attack aircraft was based on the nature of Ukrainian operations in tank-hazardous areas. The initial data used included an aircraft’s flight life, combat load and characteristics of its means of defeat. The actions of Ukraine’s air defense systems were then predicted, and the capabilities of the forward air controller for military aircraft were assessed. Two or three pairs of Ka-52 and Mi-28 helicopters and two or three pairs of Su-25 fighter jets were assigned for strikes in tank-hazardous areas. Scheduled targets were destroyed with successive strikes by groups from airborne duty areas in 15-minute intervals. The time for these strikes was usually in the morning hours, about two hours after dawn, and in the afternoon, about three hours before sunset.
During other periods, army and attack aircraft are positioned to be ready for take-off within 30 minutes. Bridges, road junctions, wooded areas and other strongholds were chosen as targets for the attack aircraft. Meanwhile, helicopters are planned to be used 4 to 5 kilometers from the front to launch Anti-Tank Guided Missiles. Army aviation is set to be used in mixed groupings to be composed of one Ka-52 and Mi-28, or Mi-35, attack helicopter each, as well as an Mi-8 transport and combat helicopter. The Ka-52 helicopter will destroy targets and cover the group with its defensive systems, while the Mi-28 will destroy targets and cover the Ka-52’s combat course with fire. The Mi-8 helicopter crews will perform search-and-rescue functions (Vm.ric.mil.ru, April 22).
Assault aviation is planned to be used in a dedicated formation against specified targets. The combat order will involve a column of pairs at an interval of every two minutes between pairs in one tactical direction, and, after 15 minutes or so, a column of pairs flying in another tactical direction. The results of this planning were reflected in Russia’s recently scheduled strikes, which included on-duty crews of operational-tactical and army aviation, the actions of support groups (jammers) and the actions of a special combat helicopter group (of Mi-28NM helicopters) equipped with Izdeliye 305 (X-39) missiles (T.me/mag_vodogray, June 13).
Thus, as Ukraine’s counteroffensive slowly moves forward, the Russian High Command is adjusting tactics along the front in an effort to push back the Ukrainian assaults—and the extent to which these changes will affect the balance on the battlefield remains to be seen.