Ben Morgan: Russian tactics improve but is it enough?

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Recently, there are indications that there may be a sudden change in the land campaign. Currently, the front line remains static, Ukraine defending and Russia continuing to make marginal gains.  Probably, the spring mud season contributes to the stasis. However, a recent change in Russian tactics may provide important information about how the situation might change in coming weeks. Russia’s tactics evolving in a way that could indicate Ukraine’s defence is weakening. 

However, Ukraine’s strategic air campaign against Russian oil infra-structure continues to develop and may be having a significant impact. Not just economically but also on the frontline. 

The land campaign – Russian tactics continue to evolve

General summary

Russian disposition and main effort remain consistent, the large concentration of force in northern Luhansk indicating a focus on the Ukrainian salient demarcated by Lyman, Kremina, Bakhmut and Avdiivka. Russia’s aim is probably to push from the north near Lyman and from the south near Bakhmut to reduce the salient and bring their artillery within range of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. 

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Regardless of this focus Russia continues to attack along the length of the frontline but without gaining significant ground. However, last week reports from the front line indicate a change in tactics that may indicate Russia is creating conditions for success on the battlefield. 


Changes in Russian tactics, larger formations in attacks may indicate Ukraine is in trouble

In recent weeks we have been charting the evolution of Russian tactics.  Starting with improvements in Russian targeting procedures like the use of more advanced and longer-range drones.  Then the increasing use of Russian manned aircraft closer to the frontline. 

This week though we started to see another noteworthy trend. An increase in the size of Russian formations in attacks.  A feature of this war has been that the size of attacking formations has shrunk because precision-guided artillery, missiles and drones mean that large concentrations of force are rapidly and effectively engaged. In turn, the size of attacking formations has shrunk. Russia’s ‘storm tactics’ that involve using very small (7–10-man, squad or section-sized) groupings evolved as a response to this situation. Until recently feedback from the frontline is that attacking in any formation larger than a company (about 100 men and a dozen vehicles) is suicidal.  

However, this week the trend seems to be reversing and Russian attacks are increasing in size.  Reports indicate that Russia launched several company-sized attacks against Chasiv Yar between 4-6 April. A battalion-sized attack was also reported on Ukrainian positions near Tonenke, on 4 April. The increase in size and scale of Russian attacks may indicate that Ukraine’s defences are weakening.  Larger formations are better artillery and drone targets.  The use of bigger formations may confirm that Ukraine’s ammunition and supplies of drones is diminishing allowing Russia to attack in greater strength.

If this is true there may be some sudden and dramatic changes in the front line over the next few weeks.  If Russia can concentrate large numbers to attack a position, then it is likely that it can also constitute a reserve in depth.  A large reserve can be used to immediately follow up a successful attack with an advance into opposition territory.  The increasing size of attack formations indicates that the Russians may be close to achieving a concentration of force sufficient to create an exploitable breakthrough.  

The Russian’s are unlikely to make huge advances (i.e. tens of kilometres in a day) but we may see some sudden local advances (i.e. kilometres in a day), probably in the area highlighted.  

Ukraine’s top military commander, General Syrskyi discusses strategy for the land campaign

Meanwhile in Ukraine., Commander in Chief of Ukraine’s military, General Oleksandr Syrskyi discussed Ukraine’s plan for the land campaign stating that “Our goal is to prevent the loss of our territory, exhaust the enemy as much as possible, inflict the greatest losses on him, and form and prepare reserves for offensive operations.”

General Syrski’s strategy is currently being delivered on the frontline. Ukraine digging defensive lines, an indication that they intend to settle into a long-term defensive posture.  By digging trenches, installing obstacles and laying mines Ukraine limits the loss of territory.  Strong defensive positions are hard to attack, forcing Russia to accept casualties if they want to continue to advance.  Further, prepared positions require less manpower to defend allowing units to pulled back for rest, re-training and re-supply.  Less manpower on the frontline means more soldiers available to build reserves ready for the next offensive phase of operations. 

The strategy is pragmatic and reflects Ukraine’s uncertain position, waiting for external support.  General Syrski is playing safe, a sensible option as Ukraine bides its time, attrits Russia and prepares for future offensive action. The timing of this transition will depend on foreign support and until then I think we can cautiously expect to see relatively limited movement on the frontline.  However, the ‘wild card’ is whether Ukraine’s artillery and air defence ammunition is sustainable. We noted previously that Russian attacks formations are getting bigger, this combined with more and better artillery support could see the tactical battle swing in favour of Russia and allow a break through. 

And don’t forget the Dnipro River

Last week, there was more fighting around Krynky. On 4 April, Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that the bridgehead had recently defeated several Russian attacks.  The fighting here indicates that there are still Ukrainian forces in the area and raises questions about plans for this area.  It is strange that this small force has not been driven back over the river yet, and that Ukraine is willing to expend resources keeping the force in position.  Both questions combined with the area’s proximity to Crimea make this an area to keep watching.

US aid package, political infighting continues 

Next Tuesday, the US Congress returns from its break and US Speaker Mike Johnstone may allow a new funding bill to be debated. Ukrainian aid has been held up by vicious infighting that has stopped the bill from progressing for two months, even though it was approved by the majority of the Senate.  Trump supporting Republicans, empowered by the recent Presidential nominations race are willing to sacrifice not only Ukraine but generations of US foreign policy that has placed America firmly in the centre of international trade, finance and culture.  

This week NATO celebrated its 75th anniversary and member states discussed supporting Ukraine and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg summed up the situation stating that although NATO relies on the US “North America also needs Europe. European allies provide world-class militaries, vast intelligence networks and unique diplomatic leverage, multiplying America’s might.”  He is right, the international rules-based order that has made the world prosperous relies on collective security, or members of the international community working together to deter aggression. 

And, the European community continues to rally support ‘putting its money where its mouth is,’ Germany committing to scour the world for Patriot launchers and missiles. Stoltenberg stating that “Allies will now go back and look into their inventories, look into if there are any ways they can provide more systems, in particular Patriots, but also of course ensure that the systems which are already there have the ammunition but also the spare parts.” Statements that will be appreciated in Ukraine.

The strategic air battle continues 

Large numbers of Russian and Ukrainian drones and missiles continue to cross the border. Russia’s weapons targeting Ukraine’s power network. Ukraine’s targeting oil production infrastructure and armament factories. The big news last week were two Ukrainian strikes; the first hit a drone factory and Russia’s third largest oil refinery both located in Tatarstan on 2 April, 1300km from Ukraine.  The second big news was the 5 April attack on Morozovsk Air Base, near Rostov-on-Don. Morozovsk Airbase operates Russian Su-24 and Su 34 bomber aircraft, and Ukraine claims that six were destroyed in the attack. 

Ukraine’s deep strikes on Russian oil infrastructure are causing concern in the US, the Financial Times in particular reporting the unease in Washington with the campaign.   A Ukrainian objective is to undermine Russia’s oil exports and they are succeeding with Russian production dropping by an estimated 14% (See https://oilprice.com/Latest-Energy-News/World-News/Russias-Offline-Oil-Refining-Capacity-Reaches-14.html ) . Additional indicators of the campaign’s success are that Russia implemented a six-month ban on petroleum exports on 1 March to ensure domestic supply at low prices followed last week by an announcement that oil production will reduce. 

However, the success of the campaign may be a double-edged sword. American warnings about the campaign may be politically motivated because this year is an election year and the last thing that President Biden needs when campaigning against Donald Trump is rising petrol prices.   Ukraine’s campaign against Russian oil production may have a significant impact on the US election.  

Another objective of the campaign is forcing Russia to remove air defence units from the frontline and redeploy them to protect industrial targets.  The successful attacks in Tatarstan demonstrate Ukraine’s reach and will force Russia to make tough decisions about the deployment of its air defence assets.  

Soon, F 16 fighters will start to arrive in Ukraine. February’s successful attacks on Russian aircraft especially airborne early warning and command planes (AWAC) are probably synchronised with the strategic campaign.  Ukraine aiming to open a ‘window of opportunity’ in Russian frontline air defence for the new fighters by targeting AWACs planes (that can monitor large areas and control Russian fighters), using drones to destroy aircraft and by pulling air defence missiles away from the frontline to defend oil infrastructure. 

Summary 

The situation in Ukraine is fluid and hard to interpret, neither side is transparent so assessments must be made based on observations.  In recent weeks, Russia is performing better tactically initially increasing its ability to use indirect ‘fires’ (artillery, bombs and missiles) tactically.  Now we are seeing a developing trend towards larger formations being used in attacks. A change that may indicate Russia is developing tactical fire supremacy on the front line because either; they are getting better or because Ukraine is running out of artillery and air defence ammunition.  This trend might culminate with Russia advancing suddenly in the next few weeks.  

No matter how a Russian advance is presented in main stream media it is important to qualify any movement. Russia’s ability to achieve a war winning advance is severely limited because it still lacks the logistics and manoeuvre units to sustain an advance of more than a few kilometres.  Therefore, even if Russia advances it is likely to be over a relatively short distance and my assessment is that the aim will be limited, to get within tube artillery range of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.  At which point there will be an operational pause as the cities are reduced by persistent bombardment. The pause providing time for Russia to build a force large enough to try and take these cities. 

And, this is where the strategic air campaign will impact. Both sides are intent on drawing air defence assets away from the frontline.  Russia is already starting to use its bombers closer to the frontline, accepting the risk of their loss in exchange for their versatility and large payloads. Soon Ukraine’s air power will increase, not by a huge amount but by enough to attack a key target like the Kerch Bridge or to establish air superiority over a sector of the front.  The side that wins the strategic air defence battle and can maintain protection over is ground units will hold a considerable advantage. 

The next few weeks will be interesting; Which side’s front line air defence will fail first? Can Ukraine hold on?  Or is Russia’s use of larger attack formations a signal that Ukraine is starting to culminate and will soon be pushed back?  Will the US Congress approve the $ 95 billion aid package? Questions that it will take time to answer and that will change the course of the war. 

 

Ben Morgan is a bored Gen Xer, a former Officer in NZDF and TDBs Military Blogger – his work is on substack

32 COMMENTS

  1. “He is right, the international rules-based order that has made the world prosperous relies on collective security, or members of the international community working together to deter aggression.

    And therein lies the crux of the matter, Western “democracy’s” never held a vote on the “Rules based order” do as we say, not as we do.
    When we talk about the world being prosperous make no mistake we are talking about Western country’s only, the rising east rejects the Rules based order that’s based of racism, theft and wanton destruction.

    • Exactly. The US’s unprovoked attacks and/or occupation of Iraq, Syria, and Libya followed exactly zero “International Rules Based Order”, and I’m pretty sure Israel doesn’t care about it either if their occupation of Gaza and the bombing of Lebanon and even Iran Consulate is anything to go by. China has occupied and ethically cleansed Tibet and was rewarded by “favoured nation status” by just about every Western country.

      • Ethnic cleansing of Tibet? I’m aware of some CIA-sponsored traitors who wanted to maintain the enslavement of the Tibetan people by the lamas being killed, but no more than a fraction of the massive holocaust of the innocent that ‘israel’ and its American proxy have murdered in the last two decades alone.

        • They forced Tibetans to marry only people from China. That is how you ethnically cleanse a country – i.e. over time every single Tibetan will have Chinese blood flowing in their veins (and that was forced upon them).

          • Hahahahah how’s the weather in ‘tel aviv’ buddy? Noone on earth believes your nonsense.

  2. “Trump supporting Republicans, empowered by the recent Presidential nominations race are willing to sacrifice not only Ukraine but generations of US foreign policy that has placed America firmly in the centre of international trade, finance and culture.” Ben Morgan

    Trump supporting republicans will never “sacrifice” US foreign policy that has placed the American empire firmly at the centre of international trade, finance and culture.
    Simply put; As the most extreme and chauvinist supporters of US global might, Trump supporting Republicans, put US domination of the Middle East above US interests in Europe.
    Key to the US domination of the oil rich Middle East is the state of Israel which acts as the US bully boy and unsinkable aircraft carrier in the region.
    The US political establishment are as brutal and avaricious as any other imperialist power in history. This is true regardless of who inhabits the Whitehouse.
    Ben’s naivety toward this political reality, comes from denial of the nature of American imperialism, of which Trumpism is just its most extreme manifestation.
    The question for all supporters of US imperialism outside America is, will they still choose to follow along behind the US empire when Trump extremism will be directing US foreign policy?

  3. Bens column is what is called a “soft let down”. It is happening across the Western MSM, after two years of nonsense propaganda reality is becoming too obvious to ignore. Russia is winning on every front, and has been all along. The people have been lied to. The piper must be paid.

    • Come on NJ. You are painting a false picture. You are swallowing Kremlin propaganda holus bolus. As does FG.
      I don’t agree with Ben either. I want the war to stop.
      Ben is not capable of analysing the politics of the Kremlin and is guilty of many a miscalculation. Admittedly calling Kremlin politics is notoriously difficult and a large amount is guesswork. There is no more opposition in Russia. All ‘opposition’ candidates declared allegiance to Putin. In effect Putin got 100% of the vote.
      The death penalty will be restored in Russia soon. This is being discussed in the Russian Senate currently.

      • Selective outrage again Ovod, no issues with the US death penalty for terrorists though? Russia talking about the death penalty for terrorists that murdered over 140 is the new crime of the century. Piss off with your selective moral outrage. For a alleged scholar you bias is in plain view, bit of a joke really.

        • It is not the terrorists that will suffer, it will be the Russians who dare to oppose the war who will be labelled as extremists committing treason.
          You really are a hard-liner FG. I don’t support the death penalty for anyone! And you throw in an ad hominem attack on me as well. What’s wrong with you? What has contributed to this jaundiced view of mankind?

      • Tell me PC, who was Bandera? Why is he revered by the Kiev regime. Why does the avenue running up to Babi Yar (where 000s of Jews were murdered by SS and Ukrainian Banderists) bear his name? Who are the Azov thugs? Why are the insignia of their battalions copies of SS insignia? Now tell me with a straight face neoNazis don’t rule in Kiev.
        PhuD seems to think this acceptable, maybe you too.

      • PhuD, for a so called academic your powers of observation and reasoning seem very limited. I don’t watch the Kremlin much, nor Putin. Are you too foolishly obsessed with them that you don’t track events? I’d conclude that you are missing the ruination of the Ukrainian army, their economy, of NATOs ability to even arm itself, of Western economic aid, of German industry, of the Biden regime. All in glorious technicolour if you only care to take your head out of your arse.

        • Don’t be an idiot NJ. Do you actually believe the Kremlin myths about neo-Nazis? You are feeble minded if you believe that rubbish. FYI Russia is falling apart. Look at the recent flooding in Orsk. The dam which was barely fit for purpose due to corruption collapsed. The revolution is coming.
          I do look at the wider picture but not through your jaundiced lens.

  4. Actually neither side is winning.

    As with many conflicts however, neither side can afford to lose. Putin’s reign would end, and Russia’s western borders have few natural geographical determiners – they might lose 100s of kilometers. Or Zelensky would be killed, and Poland and the Baltic States would be en pris.

    The stakes are high however, for the rest of Europe. Even if the US is stupid enough to go Trump, Europe has a lot to lose. And their resources dwarf Russia’s.

    • I agree 100%. Both sides have the tiger by the tail. Putin has committed now to taking Ukraine (at least that’s the message that his foreign minister et al keeps parroting) and his own dialogue to the people of Russia has changed, moving from a “SMO” to “war” to help justify the military spend and more conscription.

      Zalenskyy also cannot afford to lose or he is also a dead man walking.

      And as you say Europe is not sitting there idly either. Their own spend continues to increase and yes they do have vast resources.

    • Is that why Germany has been deindustrialized, courtesy of the collaborators with the American occupation? What an absurd claim.

    • I wonder why it is Francesca, that you never repost any of the frankly enormous number of instances of Russia targeting civilians. Could it be that your biases get the better of your judgment to the point that you’re little better than a Russian bot?

      • Certainly the author of the article referenced is a complete Russian bot.

        I could create a new drinking game from the number of times he mentions “Nazi” in his articles

        And people complain about the MSM

        • Agreed PC! What is wrong with the old Bolshevik that calls themselves: ‘Francesca’? He/she is well versed in the dark arts of agitprop. The Soviet Union was propped up with lies from the very beginning. Now Putin is building the USSR mk. 2 – also on a foundation of lies.

        • You ought to explain Mohammed – you’re the loon so far down the dysinformatsia rabbithole you expect us to humour your unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

          Where’s your evidence? Or do you hear voices?

      • Have you not noticed that all reports of russian attacks mention civilian casualties especially children but Ukrainian attacks apparently don’t affect Russian civilians? I don’t know the exact details but I recognise propaganda when I see it.

  5. Stuart, PhuD, PC, how dull your self congratulatory nonsense is. That’s fine, go ahead, be losers.

    • It is not a zero-sum game NJ. There are no winners. After all Russia has lost 300,000+ not to mention the walking wounded. I saw the aftermath of the Afghanistan War and I can’t see Ukrainian War veterans being treated any better.

      • Hey PhuD, check your numbers against MediaZone (a BBC affiliated project). They say 50,000 Russian dead. You are 6 times over. Seems Baud, McGregor, Johnson agree. Seems you merely repeat Zs propaganda.

    • Got sources in Russia? No, RT doesn’t count.

      Putin dupes are on a par with the IDF – murderous idiots.

  6. Idiot, I’ve explained prior that you don’t believe any MSM. RT or WAPO, NYT etc. Find independents, triangulate the info. Or is that too hard? Are you too lazy?

    Putin dupes, that’s pathetic. Who is arming both Kiev and the IDF?

    • I can’t believe that you would triangulate anything NJ. The devil is in the detail. Who are these independents? I’ll wager you don’t read Meduza, Moscow Times, Kyiv Post, Novaya Gazeta or watch Dozhd so you will be using your own confirmation bias to choose your sources. Your triangulation is therefore useless.
      The broadsheets and national broadcasters do corroborate their reports. Independent sources are far less likely to do this.

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