Dr Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds
Russian tactics are changing as lessons are learned from military failures in the war in Ukraine.
The scale of Russian losses in 2022, combined with the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation confronting NATO systems they had not previously contended with, has caused a significant deviation in Russian operations from the country’s doctrine. This report seeks to outline how Russian forces have adapted their tactics in the Ukrainian conflict and the challenges this has created for the Ukrainian military that must be overcome. The report examines Russian military adaptation by combat function.
Russian infantry tactics have shifted from trying to deploy uniform Battalion Tactical Groups as combined arms units of action to a stratified division by function into line, assault, specialised and disposable troops. These are formed into task-organised groupings. Line infantry are largely used for ground holding and defensive operations. Disposable infantry are used for continuous skirmishing to either identify Ukrainian firing positions, which are then targeted by specialised infantry, or to find weak points in Ukrainian defences to be prioritised for assault. Casualties are very unevenly distributed across these functions. The foremost weakness across Russian infantry units is low morale, which leads to poor unit cohesion and inter-unit cooperation.
Russian engineering has proven to be one of the stronger branches of the Russian military. Russian engineers have been constructing complex obstacles and field fortifications across the front. This includes concrete reinforced trenches and command bunkers, wire-entanglements, hedgehogs, anti-tank ditches, and complex minefields. Russian mine laying is extensive and mixes anti-tank and victim-initiated anti-personnel mines, the latter frequently being laid with multiple initiation mechanisms to complicate breaching. These defences pose a major tactical challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations.
Russian armour is rarely used for attempts at breakthrough. Instead, armour is largely employed in a fire support function to deliver accurate fire against Ukrainian positions. Russia has started to employ thermal camouflage on its vehicles and, using a range of other modifications and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), has significantly reduced the detectability of tanks at stand-off ranges. Furthermore, these measures have reduced the probability of kill of a variety of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) at ranges beyond 1,400 m.
Russian artillery has begun to significantly refine the Reconnaissance Strike Complex following the destruction of its ammunition stockpiles and command and control infrastructure by guided multiple-launch rocket systems (GMLRS) in July 2022. This has resulted in much closer integration of multiple UAVs directly supporting commanders authorised to apply fires. Russian artillery has also improved its ability to fire from multiple positions and to fire and move, reducing susceptibility to counterbattery fire. The key system enabling this coordination appears to be the Strelets system. There has been a shift in reliance upon 152-mm howitzers to a much greater emphasis on 120-mm mortars in Russian fires; this reflects munitions and barrel availability. Responsive Russian fires represent the greatest challenge to Ukrainian offensive operations. Russian artillery is also increasingly relying on loitering munitions for counterbattery fires.