Written by Diana Coman
On the 24th of February last year, the world held its breath as Russian ground forces invaded Ukraine on four main fronts after building up over 150 000 troops at different points along the border. However, what was supposed to be a swift victory, turned into a blundering stalemate. Failures occurred at all levels of warfare, from the strategic to the tactical, resulting in the Ukrainian Defence Forces launching a counteroffensive that succeeded in recapturing 54 percent of occupied territories. Both sides are thus wrestling to gain the strategic initiative in the war. Yet as the staging for the much anticipated Russian Spring Offensive has already begun in the Luhansk Oblast, the world finds itself holding its breath once more. Could Moscow potentially recover from its initial strategic errors? Whilst Russia’s performance on the battlefield has displayed gross ineptitude in effective force employment, NATO must abstain from underestimating Russian military capability.
Revisiting the 2022 Invasion
Using psychological operations to pervert the Western principle of the “Responsibility to Protect”, the Kremlin cited a genocide against the Russian ethnic minority in Ukraine as a casus belli in order to launch a “special military operation” to “de-Nazify” Ukraine. Russia’s strategic aims were to install a puppet government in Kiev and capture as much territory as possible to counter NATO expansion into what it deems as its “sphere of influence” in Eastern Europe. Nevertheless, none of these aims have materialized due to Russian military shortcomings and fierce Ukrainian resistance backed by extensive Western support.
Following the 2014 successful annexation of Crimea, panic in the West regarding the concept of Russian “hybrid warfare” may have led to dangerous presumptions being made by the Russian General Staff. Heralding cyber-attacks, electronic warfare, and psychological operations that would paralyze their adversary, Russian military leaders overestimated the efficacy of these tactics beyond their immediate impact in the opening of the offensive. The cognitive domain was essentially captured by British and American intelligence agencies who exposed Russian disinformation strategies meant to place the blame on the victim, rallying Western favor for the Ukrainian defense forces.
As for the more conventional elements of the invasion, Russian strategy was excessively concentrated on seizing Kiev and decimating the Zelensky government, assuming that Ukraine would immediately capitulate if its capital fell. Russian paratroopers descended upon Hostomel Airport, attempting a lightning coup de main attack meant to be reinforced by the rapidly advancing armored vehicles from the Belarussian border in a blitzkrieg style assault. Ultimately, the initial offensive failed.
Instead of gaining a foothold into Ukrainian territory, Russian paratroopers became an isolated target as the armored element advanced faster than its respective logistical support. A serious lack of coordination between Russian ground forces and the air force is therefore evident. Lacking substantial air cover as well as infantry support, Ukrainian forces were able to destroy a significant number of Russian vehicles using highly mobile Javelin and NLAW missile systems supplied by Britain and the US. Furthermore, the extent of Russia’s poor logistics went as far as deficits in food supplies, repair and medevac capabilities, as well as a viable refueling system, resulting in many tanks and armored vehicles being left abandoned whilst troops resorted to looting for food.
Considering that military success depends on the ability to reassess and adapt to the dynamics of warfare, Russia’s attempt to salvage its initial offensive proved equally as disastrous. The same mistakes were repeated when the 64-kilometer Russian armored column progressed in only one direction. Russian operational military planning simply decided to forgo the meaning of rough and urban terrain which would mainly restrict them to roads that could easily be blocked by defenders. Consequently, the Russian advance was critically impeded since military trucks carrying equipment and supplies were stuck for nearly two weeks north of Kyiv. The ominous looking convoy thus served more as a feeble attempt at a show of force in order to consolidate ongoing PSYOPs meant to degrade Ukrainian morale rather than a concrete military operation meant to capture a strategic geographical objective.
Arguably, the fault for the inauspicious course of the invasion can be attributed to the strategic level. The Kremlin has pursued a confused strategy, disregarding its own military doctrine and endeavoring erratic emulations of what it believes to be a Western operationalization of “hybrid warfare”. Its initial goals to seize the capital and try its hand at foreign imposed regime change (FIRC) was a political gamble inspired by Western interventions in the Middle East and Latin America and endorsed by Soviet successes in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Kabul in 1979. Emboldened by its triumph in Crimea, Moscow placed all of its hopes on its strategy to capture Kyiv without preparing any alternative plans.
Strategic confusion ensued when Russia simultaneously moved into Ukraine along multiple axes, attempting to incapacitate Ukraine via overwhelming force. However, Russia underestimated the military capacity necessary to be able to secure victory which left every element of its invasion lacking adequate air defense, close-air support, and electronic warfare capabilities. Because resources were directed towards seizing Kyiv, Russian forces did not open the offensive with extraordinary firepower for the purpose of obliterating the enemy’s defenses, as their military doctrine prescribes. Hence, firepower was used to disorientate the enemy, relegating to a mere tactical function rather than its intended strategic purpose.
Lessons in Contemporary Warfare
The term “hybrid warfare” has been used to signify the amalgamation of conventional and irregular methods of warfare to subvert an opponent’s social fabric and shape the battlefield according to one’s will. In modern Russian strategic thought, this has been equated with the Gerasimov Doctrine which advocates for the adoption of military and non-military measures to control the information space of a campaign. Yet there is little evidence that hybrid methods played a significant role in Russian strategic planning with the exception of the initial attack. The sloppiness of the application of hybrid methods may suggest that more traditional blood-fire-and-steel doctrines were utilized to achieve strategic effects.
On the contrary, Russia interprets hybrid warfare as Western conception of war employing non-military subversive activities meant to erode the Russian political system and civilization. This stems from the Marxist-Leninist belief of the Soviet era that democratic social movements are the product of Western information warfare orchestrated by covert forces. In trying to dominate the information sphere, Russia is trying to emulate what it conceives to be a Western concept. Foreign analysts must therefore refrain from trying to ascribe Western theories of contemporary warfare to Russian military strategy. Far from encouraging a better understanding of the opponent, such attempts only create misleading assumptions of what is truly happening on the ground.
Logistics and interoperability
Modern operations rely on the interoperability of distinct combat specialties for the maneuvering of military arms. When various combat areas of expertise (i.e. infantry, tanks, artillery, attack aviation…) operate in a unified and complementary effort at the tactical level, then lethality and survivability are increased, hence leading to greater operational effectiveness. Russian forces, though, centered on amassing as much firepower as possible without accounting for the synchronization of tactical effects. By yielding to a war of attrition, Russia raised serious questions regarding their capacity to conduct combined arms maneuver warfare. For example, Ukrainian anti-tank guided munitions could have been suppressed had Russia thought outside pure tactics and coordinated with close air support.
Moreover, it has become clear that logistics are the backbone of military operations. Thought to be the arbiter of strategic opportunity, logistics can be defined as “the practical art of moving armies and keeping them supplied”. Nevertheless, logistics are an inherently difficult affair since they involve the synchronization of all maneuver units in order to sustain the desired tempo of offensive action. By attacking on multiple axes, the Russian military already placed their supply lines under enormous strain, quickly becoming overstretched as it advanced further into hostile territory. Additionally, logistics convoys were not properly secured. Being located at the rear of the advancing combat forces, logistics vehicles suffered heavy fire from Ukrainian forces.
Command and Control (C2)
As illustrated by the high concentration of armored vehicles during the initial invasion, dispersion and mobility are crucial elements to be mastered for ensuring survivability in contemporary warfare. The emerging technology environment in the practice of intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) at the tactical level has created additional vulnerabilities for land forces. Concealment has become incredibly difficult due to the pervasive layering of multiple sensors so troops have to rely on becoming an uneconomical target through dispersion. On the other hand, dispersion poses serious challenges for command and control since commanders must be able to maintain a palpable presence throughout their unit. Therefore, considerable strain is placed on tactical commanders to conduct beyond line of sight C2 when dealing with small subunits.
However, rigid hierarchies are characteristic of the armed forces of autocratic states, generating great challenges for the development of effective beyond line of sight C2 tools. Seeing that an example of these tools would be incorporating essential leadership skills into every soldier’s training, this would run contrary to the highly centralized authoritarian decision-making tradition. Indeed, the very command structure of Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) assigns insufficient trained personnel to manage subordinate conscripted elements. This makes effective dispersion impracticable because troops are dependent on direct instructions, which in turn transforms them into vulnerable targets.
The Urbanisation of Warfare
Historically, the city has always represented a strategic objective for armies coveting its wealth and power. But contrary to the sieges of medieval warfare where mass armies would surround and exhaust a city’s resources, war in the 21st century has essentially been forced into the city’s streets. Cities in Ukraine have become the primary tactical and operational focus of the war due to their critical infrastructure, concentration of political power, and transport nodes. The reduced armies of today are no longer able to pursue a war of fronts, thus battles occur in urbanized terrain in the form of micro-sieges where belligerents fight over buildings, streets and districts.
So far, the Russians have pursued a strategy of heavy bombardment, intending to destroy the city’s infrastructure and weaken Ukrainian morale, subsequently having troops move in to clear any remaining combatants. Yet this model of warfare does not take into account the asymmetric advantage offered to Ukrainian forces in defensive positions. Heavy bombardments have actually weakened the Russians’ ability to conduct an offensive operation into urban terrain because concrete rubble and debris become versatile materials for the construction of barricades and hiding explosives. Ukrainian forces have exploited this advantage well, using cities as urbanized fortresses to perform ambushes on the flanks and rear of Russian attackers via close defense and deep strikes.
The Russian Spring Offensive
In light of the successful Ukrainian counteroffensive last autumn, Russia has been forced to recalibrate its strategic ambitions to the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine. Currently, Russia has regained the strategic initiative in the conflict with attacks escalating along the Svatove-Kreminna line in the Luhansk Oblast for the past 2 weeks. Overall, Russia has made advances all along the frontline on 6 distinct axes, namely: Vuhledar, Marinka, Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Bilohorivka, Kreminna, and Kupiyansk. Most fierce fighting has been concentrated around Bakhmut as it sits at an important transport node on Highway M03 which would grant Russia access to the longest state highway in Ukraine, linking Kyiv with Dovzhansky on the border with Russia. Ukrainian forces are likely going to retreat from Bakhmut as their position is no longer tenable after being under heavy fire and facing a Russian encirclement maneuver. This may be the axis that Russia will try and exploit in order to advance towards Kharkiv and recover the territory it has lost during the Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Breaking through Ukrainian lines in Luhansk would bring Russian forces closer to the city of Kramatorsk which serves as a key Ukrainian military hub. Conquering Kramatorsk is likely to absorb a lot of Russian combat power because of its substantial fortifications. Bearing in mind the critical losses incurred at Vuhledar, it is doubtful that Moscow is competent enough to sustain such large-scale ground assaults. Recent observations indicate that Russia is engaging in a war of attrition by amassing as many forces and firepower to wear down the defending Ukrainian Joint Forces. Therefore, it is vital that Ukrainian forces benefit from a greater flow of military weapons and equipment from the West so that they may withstand Russian offensive efforts. Consequently, these developments display an underwhelming offensive campaign which is likely to increase in intensity but not in scope.
Moscow has revaluated its objectives and shifted its offensive operations towards Eastern Ukraine in a desperate but intelligent strategic move. To some degree, Russia has learned from its previous mistakes and is attempting to solve its logistical problems through this change in area of operations. By attacking along fewer axes and in much closer proximity to the Russian border, resupply distances, convoy security requirements and logistics support are much easier to manage. Russian forces have fortified and reinforced some railheads, bridges, and roads, facilitating the delivery of spare parts, munitions, fuel, and other materiel to forward-deployed Russian forces. However, many of the aforementioned shortcomings of the Russian military are structural, and thus it can be presumed that Russia will still underperform despite undertaking a somewhat easier mission.
Furthermore, the Russian Army’s operational readiness will be subject to steady degradation the longer it remains in continuous combat in Ukraine. According to Clausewitz, offence is inherently weaker than defence as it proceeds into hostile territory, resulting in the rapid expenditure of resources causing the offensive spearhead to lose strength. This is especially true in the case of urban warfare occurring in Ukraine where offensive action reinforces defensive potential. The widespread destruction of Russian military equipment would have certainly diminished mobilization readiness. Offensive campaigns will probably be hindered by readiness problems considering that Western sanctions have impacted the Russian defence industry’s capacity to replace military material fast enough to conserve the requisite combat power. Observers have already noted that Russian forces may be rationing artillery. Indeed, Russian military planners have employed faulty strategic assumptions, forgetting that policy affects the attacker more than the defender in achieving the desired outcome.
Russia may have rushed taking the strategic initiative through offensive action. Sergey Surovikin, the former commander of Russian Joint Forces in Ukraine, stabilized the situation by pursuing a defensive strategy. He intended to wait for the summer to launch a big offensive which would allow Russia more time to mobilize and plan its campaign. Moreover, if Russia would have waited longer, it would have ceded the initiative to Ukraine to continue the offensive it has started in the autumn of 2022, so Russia would have absorbed the vast majority of Ukrainian offensive potential. Nevertheless, the Russian political leadership is impatient to prove the resolve of its military might despite Russia not being sufficiently mobilized in time for the one year anniversary of the invasion.
The principal architect of the present offensive, Valery Gerasimov, obtained control of Russian forces in Ukraine claiming he would be able to correctly allocate the mobilized personnel and manpower, rebuild formations and supply combat specialty arms to achieve victory. Yet he is under tremendous pressure to achieve results before the beginning of the muddy season that would impede armored manoeuver operations in Ukraine. Even more significantly, Gerasimov must act fast enough before Ukraine’s combat power is augmented by its newly promised armaments from the West, including Leopard 2 tanks, Himars rocket launcher systems, and air defence systems. In light of this, Ukraine might resort to tactical retreats so as to take the initiative later down the line with a low risk of counteroffensives after the Russians have exhausted themselves with their ongoing endeavours.
Above all, it is important to understand the wider implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for international security. Russia’s employment of “hybrid” strategies against the West threaten the stability of the established liberal world order whilst Russia attempts to impose a distinct sphere of influence around its borders that would restore the imperial status it reveres. Disinformation and cyberattacks, as well as economic and diplomatic challenges disrupting Europe’s energy security, are the main means with which Russia is attempting to erode social trust in Western democratic institutions. To withstand these threats, NATO must strive to track and counter Russian information operations through its Joint Intelligence and Security Division, exposing Russian plans and narratives as they have done at the start of the invasion. Lastly, Western strategic analysts must recognize Russia’s historical perspective and cultural idiosyncrasies within its own strategic thought without forcing it to fit into Western logics of military affairs.
The war in Ukraine is likely to remain protracted. Russian President Putin has no intention of giving up his imperial ambitions of turning Russia into a regional hegemon dominating Eastern Europe. On the other hand, Ukraine is unlikely to concede its sovereignty to Russia in return for an oppressive peace. Therefore, the conflict is likely to eventually become frozen along a line of control that neither side accepts given the strong incentives on both sides to continue the fight. Instability in the region will remain for a prolonged period of time, compelling NATO to revise its strategy of deterrence so as to secure its Eastern flank and strengthen its political cohesion.
In conclusion, the invasion of Ukraine may have been a grand strategic error for Putin’s regime, and it may be too late now to right the course in Russia’s offensive campaign. However despite serious military shortcomings, Russia still poses a serious threat to NATO as the conflict in Ukraine may persist for an extended period of time. Russian “hybrid” methods might have proved ineffective in the face of a conventional military confrontation, yet they are nonetheless a destabilizing force to Western societies and their respective democratic institutions.
About the author: Diana-Alexandra Coman
Diana is a passionate irregular warfare researcher, focusing on military strategy and civil-military interaction. Currently, she is undertaking a Master’s degree at Leiden University in International Relations. Her research mainly concerns the changing character of warfare in the present information age where cognitive dynamics drive strategy. As an intern at Dyami, Diana is responsible for editing and contributing publications due to her experience in academic research writing.