The Russian Military Strategy in Ukraine: An Early Assessment

After a year of war, it is possible to assess the Russian military strategy in Ukraine. The Kremlin initially applied the art of deception (maskirovka) at the strategic level, claiming that it was not going to attack Ukraine. For several months, Russian officials fiercely dismissed reports by Western intelligence agencies openly predicting an invasion. Operationally, the invasion began with an advance of motorized troops that attacked from three directions simultaneously: north, east and south. The Russian Air Force destroyed critical infrastructure (e.g., power stations) to plunge the country into chaos. In addition, the Black Sea fleet blockaded Ukrainian ports to stop any supplies from third countries. At the tactical level, Russian special forces attempted to create bridgeheads by seizing airports and carrying out acts of sabotage within cities. In effect, the Kremlin launched a blitzkrieg against Ukraine.

The strong resistance of the Ukrainians caught the Kremlin by surprise. Moscow underestimated the Ukrainian military doctrine, which calls for the mass mobilization of the population in the event of a foreign invasion. The Ukrainian leadership initially moved the war into and around populated areas, where the defender has the tactical advantage. Within the urban environment, small groups can easily set up ambushes and hit enemy targets with anti-tank missiles. In fact, urban warfare is the nightmare of all regular armies. The Ukrainian side was well aware that Moscow is still haunted by the “Grozny syndrome”. The first war in Chechnya (1994-1996) resulted in a humiliating defeat for the Russian army. Small groups of determined fighters destroyed entire columns of Russian tanks that had entered the centre and suburbs of the Chechen capital.

Yet, the Russian forces was expected to overwhelm the Ukrainian positions within less than a week. Putin’s battle-hardened army did enjoy numerical and technological superiority. Following the 2008 Georgian war, minister of defence Anatoly Serdyukov’s military reforms changed the force structure of the Russian army. The creation of the battalion tactical group (BTG) was intended to increase the firepower and speed of the Russian forces. Indeed, each BTG has a motorized infantry battalion together with tank and artillery elements; a total of 600-800 officers and men. However, the main disadvantage of BTGs is the relatively small number of light infantry troops (around 200 men) which makes BTG vulnerable to ambushes. During the first three months of the invasion, the Russian BTGs became an easy target for the Ukrainian fighters.

Apparently, the Russian military were not prepared for such a large-scale invasion. Due to poor military planning, the Putin’s army has failed to conduct combined arms operations. This should have come as no surprise. In the 2008 war against Georgia, the involvement of the Russian army was limited in time and geography. Yet, its performance was assessed by analysts as rather poor.  Six years later, the annexation of Crimea took place with a hybrid and bloodless operation. In the Syrian civil war, the Kremlin has mainly used its air power, special forces, and mercenaries to support the Assad regime. In other words, it is the first time since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan that the Russian military has been called upon to subdue a large country with a hostile population. It should be noted that there was an insurgency in western Ukraine after the end of the Second World War that lasted ten years.

During spring and summer 2022, the Russian military used indirect artillery fire and ballistic missiles to defeat the Ukrainians. This is not the first time in recent history that Moscow resorted to such tactics. During the Second Chechen war (2000-2002), the Kremlin bombed Grozny to the ground without any concern for the international law of armed conflicts. The Russian leadership chose the same siege warfare in certain parts of Ukraine.

Following a three-month siege, the Russian forces managed to capture the city of Mariupol in the Azov region. However, the invaders failed to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv, which are the two largest cities of Ukraine. According to Professor Louis DiMarco two factors could play a decisive role in attacking urban centres: the size of the population and the size of the area. The larger the population and the area, the more forces must be devoted to occupying a city. The American professor has challenged the 3:1 rule in favour of the attacker and advocated a 6:1 ratio for launching an attack in urban areas.

What has come, perhaps, as a surprise is the outsourcing of the Russian military operations to mercenaries. Since the summer of 2022, an unknown number of Russian and foreign mercenaries have joined the regular Russian army in fighting the Ukrainian army in Donbass. The partial “privatization” of the war is an innovation in itself. During the tsarist period, the army was under strict surveillance because officers were the only ones who could challenge the regime. In the Soviet era, the role of the political commissar was to enforce political control over the military through his presence at the strategic and operational levels. The use of private military companies, such as the infamous Wagner, runs counter to Russian military culture that prioritizes political control of the military. However, mass mobilization is neither desirable nor feasible in a middle-class country like Russia. The use of mercenaries allows Moscow to hide casualties from the Russian public opinion that does not massively support the war in Ukraine. The Wagner’s force functions as a small army capable of operational and tactical support when is needed.

The war has entered a new phase since September 2022. The Ukrainian counter-offensive succeeded in recapturing territories in the southern and eastern parts of the country. Yet, the Russian forces managed to stop the Ukrainian offensive before Christmas. Currently, there is a stalemate on the eastern front because of the trench warfare. The Kremlin has mobilised human and material resources for a new Spring offensive in Donbass. Europe and the United States must do whatever is necessary to stop it before it begins.