An Assessment of Russia’s Warfighting Strategy

Posted: March 12, 2022 in Geopolitics, Readiness & Strategy, War
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by Richard Martin

This is a longer post than usual. My aim is to provide a better understanding of Russian strategy, operations, tactics, and logistics in its invasion and attempt to conquer Ukraine.

War is the systematic application of violent means to attain political ends. It is a contest of wills, with the aim of imposing one’s will on the enemy. The ultimate Russian aim is therefore to destroy Ukraine’s will to resist and to neutralize NATO’s will to commit to the war other than through indirect and long-term means.

We must therefore analyze the war from Russia’s perspective at the four levels of the hierarchy of ends, ways, and means: grand strategic, military strategic, operational, and tactical. Each level provides the ways to achieve the higher level. To this we add logistics, which provides the means to implement the ways to achieve the ends.

Grand Strategic Level

Ukraine conquered, fully merged into Russia, either de jure or de facto. Rally the international Axis of Lies and Resentment (Iran, North Korea, China, etc.). Keep the rest of the world guessing and off balance, wondering how far Putin is willing to go, up to and including World War III and global thermonuclear exchange.

Military Strategic Level

Destroy Ukrainian armed forces and national will to resist. Isolate Ukraine geographically and militarily, while keeping NATO off balance with threats of nuclear escalation. Exploit Western and NATO reluctance to engage in the conflict. The following diagram provides a quick visual overview of the military strategy.

Assessment of RU War Plan as of 12 Mar 22.jpg

Operational Level

Manoeuvre on exterior lines. Attack on 4 axes to keep the Ukrainian military dispersed and guessing as to the focus of main effort. Since the start of the invasion on 24 February, the Russian main effort has been on the Belarus-Kyiv axis. The initial attempt to execute a coup de main to capture or eliminate the Ukrainian government in Kyiv failed. It was based on seizing the major airport at Hostomel with heliborne forces then bringing in air transportable mechanized forces to rush to seize Kyiv. The aim was apparently to install a puppet regime. Ukrainian forces foiled the initial and repeated attempts to seize Antonov Airport (Hostomel) and the subsequent “thunder run” to Kyiv. This forced the Russians to fall back on a ground assault plan. I won’t speculate on how far the apparent “plan B” was developed in advance, but I will say that weather, logistics, and terrain were major factors in slowing the Russian advance.

Tactical Level

The Russian army basically follows military doctrine developed and honed during the Soviet era. The best way to characterize Russian tactics is as follows: “Who needs tactics when you can mass a thousand tanks in a square kilometer?” As best I can make out, tactical proficiency, low-level and individual initiative, and welfare of troops on the ground are the last consideration of the Russian command. Russian units, up to and including divisions, tend to follow prescribed patterns of movement and rigid drills while relying on concentrated mass at points of breakthrough followed by exploitation forces. What is considered basic field craft in Western armies is, for all intents and purposed, non-existent in the Russian army.

Sidebar on Russian Logistics

We need to also briefly consider Russian logistics doctrine, which is closely intertwined with fighting doctrine, as in all armies. The best way to do so is to compare US and NATO logistical methods with Russia’s.

NATO armies mainly use a “push-pull” system and keep large groupings in the field for extended periods. Combat stores (ammunition, rations, water, and fuel) plus spare parts and medical supplies are kept close to the front lines in the logistics train and called forward by combat units as their stores are depleted, at minimum daily, and more often in high intensity combat. Smaller armies, such as Canada’s, tend to be more “forward focused” in their logistics and maintenance. For instance, Canadian Army doctrine is based on forward maintenance of equipment: repair as many vehicles and weapons as possible as far forward as possible. The US Army approach is based more on workshops and depots in depth that can exploit specialization, replacement, and economies of scale. This obviously stems from its huge size compared to smaller countries’ armed forces. Regardless of the implementation, the basic philosophy is the same: soldiers are the most important resource; they must be cared for and treated with respect.

The Russian army basically follows Soviet doctrine, upgraded somewhat to reflect the evolution of combat since the end of the Cold War. From what I gather, Russian units and soldiers basically go into combat with a basic load of ammunition and fuel, and they are expected to fight until depleted, to be replaced by new units. When I was studying this stuff in the 80s and 90s, the expectation was that a Soviet unit or formation could be in the line until it was down to 30% fighting strength. If you look at the 2nd World War, sometimes it even went lower than that. We’re currently seeing that approach being tested, especially north and west of Kyiv, but it fits with what I know of Soviet logistics doctrine that the Russians have adapted. They fight with smaller, more flexible units than under Soviet structures, e.g., Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs) grouped into task-organized brigades, divisions, and armies. However, Russian fighting forces appear to have about two thirds less support units within their organizations than NATO/US ones.

© Richard Martin

Richard Martin was an infantry officer for over 20 years in the Canadian Army. He is currently an entrepreneur, strategic advisor, and information warrior focusing on extracting valuable information and signals from chaos and noise.

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