Published On: Sun, Apr 3rd, 2022

The Russian way of warfare

The 2017 Rand Corporation paper after which this article is named says that the Russian military has a warfare doctrine whereby highly mobile forces and superior firepower in a conflict “with a capable peer or near-peer adversary” would be aimed at seizing objectives to bring cessation to hostilities “before an adversary with superior long-term potential military power could bring the full weight of a response to bear”. Unsurprisingly,  the analyst(s) who wrote the paper are conjecturing about an inevitable defeat that a resourceful NATO would inflict upon Russia, and one can tell this is so by such statements as: “it appears Russian leaders understand the disadvantages Russia faces in the event of a prolonged conflict with an adversary like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).”

Now, there is a problem with US/UK military think-tanks because it appears to be their remit to propagandise from the position of a firm conviction in previous exercises of perception building; i.e. they believe their own hype. The reality of a Western understanding of Russian conventional capability against NATO as it was pre-Ukraine is now being revealed as inadequate by the fact of the sudden clamour in the US , UK and other NATO countries for increased defence spending budgets. Indeed, in the UK, the Financial Times has been asking, “does the UK need to change its defence strategy after the Ukraine war?”  Moreover, if NATO strategists thought they could count on Russia running out of men and materiel before their own side did, the Special Military Operation in the Donbas would have indeed come as a shock, because it has shown that through an advantage in firepower, and through stand-off missile systems that actually work, a numerically disadvantaged Russia can neutralise its adversary.

If there is some minds being changed in NATO about certain aspects of Russian conventional capability to triumph in a conflict between the two, wariness about a nuclear defeat has been constant. The reader will perhaps recall how, after the Russian president, Putin, warned of events unparalleled in the histories of those aspiring to interfere in and over Ukraine, the current President of the United States made the public admission that the Russian nuclear threat prevented the US military from becoming drawn into a direct confrontation. The Rand paper says the following about the subject:

Russia is likely to consider nuclear responses to nonnuclear attacks that it believes present a grave threat to its territorial integrity and sovereignty; continuity of government; and the viability of its strategic nuclear deterrent. The destruction of integrated air defenses arrayed around Russia’s heartland or in Kaliningrad, in conjunction with other critical losses sustained by Russian conventional forces during conflict, could also be considered an existential threat to the state.

So much for a general overview, but in the most particular respect of the situation with Ukraine, the Rand paper predicted the following:

…rapidly generated forces, intended to respond to instability along Russia’s periphery, could potentially overwhelm most of Russia’s neighbors in an offensive before an effective response could be mounted.

That “effective response” could be referring to one effected by NATO, given that several of Russia’s neighbours are members or closely affiliated – and arguably, the level of incorporation with Ukraine amounted to defacto membership, and perhaps should have elicited support (that NATO realised it was too weak to provide). We should note, at this point, that the Rand paper does not go beyond predicting  the overwhelming of the likes of the armed forces of Ukraine as an end in itself as part and parcel of a strategic defence posture, and notably records the following:

Russian military theorists retain a strong bias in favor of offensive action. Their view is essentially that at the tactical and operational levels of war, the best defense really is a good offense; if Russian leaders judged that a conflict was inevitable, there would be a strong impulse to seize the initiative and go on the attack.

Putting all the information together, it appears to predict the overwhelming of Ukraine even if that country had readied itself for war with Russia. Moreover, this analysis tells us of the belief that the only way that Ukraine can be saved from being overwhelmed is NATO intervention.

Of course, that NATO is without the means to counter what Rand and other US/UK strategists know to be the expected measures that Russia would take is a desperate failing. On the other hand, the notion that Russia would want to wrap things up as quickly as possible to avoid this threat of counter-attack that exists only in mythology is an error in judgement, as the “special operation” in the Donbas is currently demonstrating. However, to give this Rand paper some due, it does state an understanding of potential Russian flexibility, even though the same mindset cannot escape from the erroneous idea that Russia is constrained by NATO:

Russian operations can take many forms, depending on scope, escalation potential, and desired end results. Overall, however, Russian military operations against a conventional adversary would be characterized by an emphasis on achieving operational objectives in the earliest days of a campaign through the coordinated use of forces across all the relevant domains of warfare. There would be a concentrated effort to achieve surprise (if possible), leverage superiority in firepower, seize objectives using highly mobile forces, and subsequently terminate a conflict before an adversary with superior long-term potential military power could bring the full weight of a response to bear.

As mentioned above, and because it is so important it must be stressed again, that NATO cannot live up to what its strategists conclude would be the preventative measure against the very thing happening now in Ukraine is a huge failing. To put it another way, the go-slowly expression of Russian flexibility (an aspect of it that NATO mythology evidently obstructs vision of in NATO think-tankers) that is the Special Military Operation in the Donbas, must be causing major shockwaves and feelings of inadequacy  in London and  Washington. The rest of this essay is dedicated to creating a little understanding as to how Russia has been able to achieve it.

On the eve of their Special Military Operation, Russian armed forces would have had objectives and restrictions that would have determined the form of their incursion into Ukraine. Numbers that appeared in UK corporate-media suggested that upwards of 100,000 Russian troops had been assembled on Ukrainian borders to stage an invasion – according to that narrative. However, the Russian Ministry of Defence has never, to the best of the author’s knowledge, published any data regarding the amount of its forces dedicated to its “special operation”. Indeed, there seems to be a consensus had by many observers in the “ears-to-the-ground” social media community that a good deal less than 100,000 Russian troops were involved in the first five weeks of the operation. With Ukrainian ground forces to be estimated at a quarter of a million (including 100 thousand gendarmerie and irregulars), the Russians could have been outnumbered by something like 4 to 1. Having a larger armed forces than the Ukrainians, logic dictates any significant numerical disadvantage wouldn’t be enforced on the Russians,  and instead they must have elected the situation in the understanding that it would not negatively affect their ability to achieve their objectives. Indeed, it appears that the Russians could be outnumbered because of the larger artillery-to-brigade ratio that they enjoy.

This is what the Rand Corporation says about the subject:

The employment of indirect fires en masse at the tactical level is one of the signature characteristics of Russian ground forces. A typical Western maneuver formation might have a single artillery or indirect fire subunit for each unit—for example, a U.S. Army brigade combat team has an organic artillery battalion—but Russian combined arms (tank or motor rifle) brigades have smaller maneuver elements and more numerous fire support elements. A motor rifle brigade, consisting of three motor rifle battalions and a tank battalion, will also frequently have two self-propelled artillery battalions, a rocket artillery battalion, and an antitank artillery battalion (with primarily direct fire systems) before it is augmented with additional artillery support from its parent formation. The main effort of a major Russian offensive operation likely would have maneuver units supported by an equal or greater number of artillery units. They will use large quantities of cluster munitions and artillery-delivered mines. Figure 2 represents RAND’s assessment of the typical volume of indirect fires available to a U.S. Armored Brigade Combat Team, compared with that of a Russian motorized rifle brigade. On a onefor-one basis, U.S. Army ground units would face an adversary with quantitatively superior artillery that had a broader variety of munitions available and the ability to strike at long ranges.

The advantage that Russia enjoys on a brigade-to-brigade basis is shown in the diagram below, which is taken from the Rand Corporation paper (where it is labelled Figure 2).

By the end of this article, we will have discussed the meaning of the ability to shoot more, and to shoot it further, and why this can mitigate a disadvantage in smaller numbers of tanks or (armoured) light infantry.  In the meantime the reader is urged to understand the basic principle that Russia can field a small army that has a punch equivalent to a larger force. Indeed, the Rand paper categorically states that given certain circumstances, the Russians in this context would be the side most likely to enjoy an advantage:

 Russian writings on the conduct of operations and tactical engagements emphasize the importance of the long-range fires contest. Russia’s military can employ overwhelming firepower against any of the country’s neighbors, and Russia has invested heavily in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to mass fires quickly and effectively. Russia’s strategic, operational, and tactical air defenses would pose challenges to its adversaries’ air operations and joint air-ground integration. Russian ground forces are typically heavily defended with air defense systems rather than by air support; in a situation of mutual air denial, Russian ground units would most likely enjoy a substantial advantage derived from their numerical superiority in ground-based fire support. Again, Russian views are consistent: They believe the advantage in modern warfare goes to the side that can gain and sustain fire superiority over the adversary, and in some scenarios they would likely feel compelled to attack to secure that advantage. Russian forces’ continued reliance on a small but elite set of rapid reaction forces is an additional unique feature of the way they carry out operations that emphasize speed and maneuver. The VDV, Spetsnaz (special forces), and Naval Infantry regiments and brigades are highly mobile and able to put light mechanized forces in the field and conduct combined-arms maneuver. The VDV has had important (and frequently central) roles in virtually every major Soviet or Russian operation since World War II. It is the core of a “fire brigade” capability with a more direct command and control chain to military leadership than the Ground Forces.

It has been hinted to the reader that he should especially note the part in the above extract regarding a Russian advantage to be had when there is mutual air denial because it must feature when this discussion turns to the practical example of the current “special operation”, where in fact there is no mutuality in denying air power: the Russians dominate the skies.

Indeed, Russian air defence is part of a broader defence-by-attack component of Russian way of warfare provided by the general use of stand-off weapons (cruise missiles) to destroy enemy command and control, and also the enemy’s own stand-off capability. As we have seen, right from day one of the “special operation”, the Russians acted to comprehensively decimate Ukrainian stand-off power so that it became unable to hinder the way that the Russians wanted to operate. By 26th February, Russia was claiming it had caused the following Ukrainian losses; note the implications for waging a stand-off fight: “27 command posts and communication centres, 38 anti-aircraft missiles systems, 56 radar stations, 31 aircraft on the ground, 46 multiple launch rocket systems, 254 tanks and other armoured vehicles, 103 field branch artillery weapons and mortar launchers. 164 units of ‘special military vehicles’”.

As for that way of operation that the Russians wanted, and would impose, the idea appeared to be to kick the Ukrainians out of the Donbas, with supporting action elsewhere in Ukraine. That meant that in certain places Russia was interested in shifting the enemy, but not in others. Let us deal with the latter category first.

Operating according to a criteria that insisted on keeping civilian casualties low, it meant that the enemy who had holed up in a town and amongst the settlement’s residents would be allowed to stay there. If the Russians did pass by these places leaving them encircled, they presumably did so to tackle the enemy where it was in the open at a certain depth of Ukrainian defensive line that would need to be engaged for the integrity of the operation. The Rand paper discusses this, and although it doesn’t anticipate a Russian motivation to keep innocent people alive, the following extract reminds that the Russians would still bring their firepower to bear on an encircled town (with a humanitarian corridor to encourage citizens to leave) in order to degrade the defenders as much as possible:

The techniques that Russian units employ at the operational level  will also have an influence on the tactical fight. Russian units will not seek a parity confrontation against a peer-competitor with superior training on a unit-by-unit basis. Rather, they will employ maneuvers to find and fix an adversary and use fires to destroy it. Blocking tactics (blokirovanie) will box in an enemy force to facilitate its destruction by massed artillery fire. A variety of sensors, including ground-based battlefield surveillance radars, electronic warfare support, and tactical unmanned aerial systems, will be employed to isolate and target adversaries, especially headquarters units and concentrations of combat power.

This extract also reminds that besieged Ukrainian forces can also be thought of ones that are trapped because of their desire to remain in relative shelter, and who would be putting themselves in greater danger by venturing out of their fortress cities. On this note, the drawing down of Russian forces around cities in the north and north east of Ukraine should be seen as an invite to the Ukrainians to proceed into places where they are more vulnerable. Indeed, if the reports are to be believed, the Ukrainians are taking the bait to reinforce their positions against the advancing Luhansk and Donetsk forces, at which time the Russians could close a trap and make central eastern Ukraine quite the killing zone.

In the other category, where the enemy would need to be shifted, not to get in a direct tangle would not be an option for the Russians, so both in urban built-up areas and in the open country (which would include smaller settlements), there would be a need not just to degrade the enemy, but evict him, or (as in the case in Mariupol) fight him to the death. And logic dictates, when it comes to close contact engagement, of the two types of Russian mobile grouping discussed in the Rand paper, the light infantry would be for the fighting in the urban areas (in Mariupol it is being done by irregulars along perhaps with Russian special forces), whereas the tanks would be better suited for the open country – and this is why the author has a problem with the alleged success of Ukrainian forces against tanks with anti-tank weapons: these guns will produce better results when operators can get close to their target without being retaliated against, as we can see if we move away from the Rand Corporation paper as source material for a moment, and consider the following extract from Forbes:

Unfortunately for Ukraine, modern Russian “non-contact warfare” military doctrine emphasizes destroying enemy forces from long distances with artillery supported by drone surveillance assets, rather than aggressively pushing tanks and infantry forward to engage with direct fire. By this doctrine, most of the destruction of enemy forces is achieved at distances the target simply can’t shoot back at.

Of course, Ukrainian forces will attempt to use terrain and concealment to avoid long-distance fires and ambush Russian forces at more favorable engagement ranges. But Ukraine is largely made up of open plains lacking in natural cover.

In urban environments in which buildings limit lines of sight, however, shorter-range weapons like the NLAW come into their own and can exact a steep toll on armored vehicles…

From the above extract the reader is asked to notice the reiteration of the prime mover in Russian doctrine with its accent on using artillery at long distances that frankly makes a mockery of grossly overinflated Ukrainian and US/UK corporation claims about Russian casualties. In truth, by their doctrine, the Russians have not put themselves at that risk – and this makes perfect sense when the execution of this same doctrine demands that non-artillery troops can be considerably outnumbered by the enemy.

Also, when considering what has thus far been seen in Ukraine and at the same time relating it to the Rand Corporation paper, the following content strikes a chord:

It is therefore highly likely that Russian operations would feature a swift coup de main and then transition to defense and consolidation of gains…

If pressed to carry out sustained combat operations, Russian forces would operate in a few distinctive ways. Russian commanders will place a high priority on disrupting and destroying an enemy’s headquarters and communications capabilities. This will take several complementary forms:

  • a deliberate effort to identify and destroy (through kinetic means) or neutralize (through electronic or cyber means) the adversary’s command and control systems
  • the practice of maskirovka, which involves concealment of forces and intentions, as well as the use of decoys and deception to misdirect the adversary
  • a high rate of advance to minimize the time the adversary has to identify the primary Russian course of action and develop an appropriate response.”

It could be argued that at this time we are seeing the Russians transition to defence and consolidation after rapid gains, where in the achievement of them the Russians have indeed destroyed Ukrainian command and control, and practiced a degree of deception with a feint on Kiev (also useful for blocking the defenders there).

If one looks at the changing maps of Ukraine over the 5 weeks of the campaign, the significant areas are in the south and south east, and the central eastern area – these are places where the Russians would be attacking where they need to shift the Ukrainians. We can see by these maps that there was rapid progress through the south and on the central eastern Ukrainian border, and there was more deliberate advancement in the south east which supposedly reflects the presence there of sturdier emplacements in the path of Luhansk and Donetsk forces. This much information alone tells us that the Ukrainian ability to prevent the Russians using the ground ahead of Ukrainian positions as they please had been hugely degraded.

Which meant, in turn, that in the other places where the Ukrainians didn’t have to be shifted, the Russians could sit a long way away from the enemy, laying down its own artillery, but without being attacked by the Ukrainian equivalent. Remember, the Ukrainians are integrated in NATO, and fight differently from the Russians, and although they have some Soviet-era artillery that can fire between 37 and 47km, and also some brand new NATO-specification guns that fire between 35 and 40km, where it is concentrated, this is not dedicated on a brigade level, but at an organisationally higher one so that it might not always be brought to bear where it is needed, if indeed it survived an initial Russian onslaught.

Also important in this same sphere of the conflict, the fact of Russian artillery range advantage infers protection of accompanying mobile units with a screen that the enemy has to move into to engage without their own fire support. It would follow that the Russians could sit off the Ukrainians and pin them down. Crucially, by the advantages created for themselves by destroying Ukrainian stand-off and command capability, the Russians had the option to sit off that their enemy didn’t have.

Moreover, once the Russians had arrived in their rapid, or even their more measured advances to where they wanted to be, whether they had been shifting the Ukrainians, or bypassing them, they could establish their own defensive positions in front of their artillery which is devastating enough to keep the enemy at bay for huge distances where ranges overlap. We can therefore understand why the Russians don’t have to pack their invasion force shoulder to shoulder with troops to match or outnumber the enemy.

In the latest developments of the “special operation”, that the Russians were able to make an orderly withdrawal from around Kiev without fear of harassment from the Ukrainians, who could only follow at a distance then to make fallacious claims about having effected a liberation (and to fabricate, or execute, a massacre of civilians in Bucha to be blamed on Russia), is more solid evidence of successful outcome of the Russian doctrine put into practice. The Russians are free to move as they please, and in the north, choose to do so away from a containment of the Ukrainians that no longer needs to be done. Observers in the “ear-to-the-ground” social and alternative media think that the Ukrainians in the north will rush south to join in the defence there, but one must remember, actually, that they will not want to leave that area unattended, even though it does seem as if the Russians are inviting them to stretch themselves. It’s worth remembering, at this juncture, that although around 150 thousand Ukrainian troops are regular, not all are of the highest grade, and if Russia did cause 30 thousand Ukrainian casualties as of 25th March, and have acted according to doctrine to eliminate the greatest threats as soon as possible, one must wonder if Ukrainian crack troops have been seriously depleted. It could well be that the majority of the Ukrainians in the north are only fit to guard the border in any case.

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