The Russian generals have been slow to learn from their strategic mistakes. General Valery Gerasimov botched Russia’s first attack on Kiev, thwarted an attack on the eastern Donbass region last summer, and burned tens of thousands of troops in a futile offensive on the same front over the past five months.
Now a Ukrainian offensive is imminent. Despite all this, the Russian army still seems to be learning and improving in important respects.
A new report by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank, shows how Russian tactics have changed. Watling and Reynolds have made repeated visits to Ukraine over the past year and have published detailed studies of the war, which have been read with great interest by Western armed forces and defense ministries.
Their latest report is based on interviews with the Ukrainian General Staff and ten of its brigades. They point to several areas of change, many of which pose a serious threat to Ukraine’s offensive plans.
“Russia’s speed is remarkable”
Larger groups of better-trained stormtroopers, supported by tanks, grenade launchers and artillery, are approaching. “You can’t say the enemy doesn’t know how to fight,” says Major General Viktor Nikolyuk, who is in charge of training Ukraine’s armed forces, citing private military group Wagner and Russia’s increasing ability to fight at night. “We also learned a lot from them in terms of tactics.”
When a position is taken, it is usually secured within 12 hours. “The speed with which the Russian infantry are digging up their positions and the extent to which they are improving their fighting positions is remarkable,” said Watling and Reynolds. Russian engineers were particularly successful in building fortifications, constructing bridges, and laying minefields. In some areas, the defenses extend as far as 30 kilometers into the terrain.
The artillery is also becoming increasingly powerful. Although the rate of fire has dropped from 12 million rounds last year to a projected 7 million this year, Russian artillery is getting better and better. Reconnaissance drones are becoming increasingly effective, allowing artillery pieces to hit Ukrainian targets within three to five minutes of their detection.
This is aided by the increasing use of the Strelets system, a small computer that links drones and ground-based sensors to artillery batteries. A common tactic, according to the authors, “is for the Russians to retreat from an attacked position and then fire upon it as soon as Ukrainian troops attempt to occupy it.”
Electronic warfare often neglected but immensely important
Tank tactics have also evolved. Russian tanks no longer try to break through enemy lines with force and speed. Instead, they fire from a safe distance. The report points out that while Russia’s use of T-62s and T-55s – old tanks pulled from storage – has been widely derided online, their weapons remain effective and pose a serious threat to the world Depicting the battlefield when Ukraine cannot deploy anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs).
Even if ATGMs are available, it will be increasingly difficult for them. Russian tanks are becoming better and better at hiding, using thermal camouflage and fighting at dusk when their thermal radiation is less pronounced. Russia’s reactive armor, which explodes outwards to deflect incoming fire, “has proven extremely effective,” with some tanks surviving multiple hits.
One of the most neglected – but most important – aspects of war is Electronic Warfare (EW). According to Western and Ukrainian officials, Russian developments and improvements in this area have been particularly impressive. Russia has deployed large EW systems for every ten-kilometer stretch of front. They mainly specialize in drones. And they work: According to the report, Ukraine loses 10,000 drones every month, that is, over 300 a day.
About half of those losses are attributed to EW, a Ukrainian government official told The Economist. This shows that tactical reconnaissance drones have turned into disposable items that resemble traditional munitions rather than aircraft. Russia also uses EW to confuse Ukrainian units with decoys.
Russia’s air defenses are getting better and better
The Russian air defense systems, which were often ridiculed in the last year, are also getting better and better. Increasingly connected so they can exchange data on incoming threats, they thwart a significant portion of the GMLRS attacks — GPS-guided missiles fired by American HIMARS missiles — that devastated Russia’s military headquarters last year.
Russia has moved its command centers further back, decentralized and reinforced them and connected them to Ukraine’s “dense and robust” telecommunications network, extending lines to brigades closer to the front lines. The bases remain vulnerable to the Storm Shadow cruise missiles deployed by Britain in May, but their high cost and limited availability mean they cannot be deployed as freely as GMLRS.
“We’re lucky they’re so damn stupid”
One of the most famous quotes from the early days of the war comes from a masked Ukrainian soldier who mused on the inadequacy of the Russians. “We’re lucky they’re so bloody stupid,” he remarked. “They’re just idiots. They’re flying over us and they’re shooting God knows where.” The Russian army is still struggling: not only has it been trying to take Bakhmut for a year, but it’s now being pushed back from the outskirts of the city.
Nevertheless, the Russian armed forces are capable of learning. Initial Russian hubris has given way to a healthy respect for Ukraine’s capabilities, commanders say. “There is evidence of a centralized planning process to identify vulnerabilities and develop remedial actions,” the authors say.
These findings could give the impression that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is doomed to failure. This is far from the case. The key, Watling and Reynolds conclude, lies not so much in new weapons as in good tactics: “If Ukraine can disrupt Russian defenses and impose a dynamic situation on it, Russian units are likely to quickly lose coordination.”
In order to break through the defenses and exploit gaps, one must lay the foundations: a stockpile of spare parts for donated weapons, manuals translated into Ukrainian and good drills beforehand. On May 14, the British Defense Intelligence Service noted that Russian forces in Ukraine are unlikely to have “a large, capable, mobile reserve force to respond to new challenges…”. The Russian defense system has improved significantly, but it is also prone to failure. And it can still be smashed.