Ben Morgan – Russia’s tactical evolution. What next?

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Ukraine continues to hold its line and Russia has not managed a large advance in the last week. Both sides prioritising the air war. Drones, missiles and bombs being thrown across the border. Russia attacking frontline units and Ukraine’s power grid. Scoring a notable victory on 11 April by destroying the large Trypillya generation plant, that supplies power to Kyiv. Ukraine meanwhile continues to interdict Russian oil exports and the flow of weapons to the frontline.

On land, Russia’s frontline units are demonstrating increasing sophistication and tactical ability.  Factors that combined with a more consistent flow of artillery ammunition contribute to an increasingly tough situation in the east. Ukraine’s Chief of Army, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, saying on 13 April that “The situation on the eastern front has deteriorated significantly in recent day.” It is clear that Russia’s military is learning, adapting and improving but serious questions remain about its capability to defeat Ukraine and how the war will develop. 

Russian improvements

Russia has learnt useful lessons over the last two years and is developing new tactics and equipment that make their ground forces more effective. The key evolutions are summarised below. 

Using strategic airpower to influence the tactical battle

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Russia’s drone and missile offensive against Ukraine’s cities and power infrastructure is an example of using a strategic action to ‘shape’ the enemy and create an ‘effect’ at the tactical level. In lay terms, Russia’s air attacks, deep behind the frontline, force Ukraine to move air defence weapons away from the frontline.  Less air defence missiles on the frontline means Russia’s war planes, drones and attack helicopters can provide more support for ground operations. 

Improved depth fire 

A month ago, we discussed attacks on Ukrainian Patriot and HIMARS launchers that indicated Russia’s ability to ‘look’ deep behind the frontline and hit high value targets was improving.  Russia is developing the ability to find important targets deep behind Ukrainian lines then hit them quickly before they move. 

Glide bombs 

Since the start of the year Russia has been repurposing large Soviet-era bombs, fitting them with wings and guidance systems that allow them to glide onto targets about 60-70km away.  An attack profile that allows the launch aircraft to stay out of range of most Ukrainian surface to air missiles. The glide bombs are accurate, most landing within ten metres of their point of aim.  Further, they are big, carrying between 500-1500kgs (1,100lbs – 3,300lbs) of explosive.  A NATO/US 2,000lb bomb would easily demolish a small building and can dig a crater about 40-60 metres wide and 10-15 metres deep or to kill or injure anybody standing up within a radius of about 400 metres.   

The most important point about these weapons is that Russia has enormous stocks of Soviet-era bombs that are easily converted for use this way.  Russia also has a large fleet of aircraft able to maintain a constant barrage on selected targets.  Many commentators link the fall of Avdiivka to their use, Russia simply demolishing the town and surrounding area.  Ukraine does not have an effective counter for these weapons.

Force re-constitution and logistics

Last week US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken and NATO Supreme Commander, US General Christopher Cavoli both stated that Russia has been able to re-constitute its force in Ukraine. General Cavoli telling Congress that the Russian army is now 15% bigger than it was at the start of the war.

Additionally, Russia and its allies have developed a logistic pipeline for ammunition and drones.  Currently, the expenditure of artillery ammunition is a at a ratio of 5-1 in Russia’s favour. General Cavoli predicts that this ratio will soon be 10-1.  Russia’s economy is now on a war-footing and is producing a range of new weapons like glide bomb kits and refurbishing tanks, vehicles and artillery from war-stocks.   

But… Russia is still not threatening to break through 

Since December, Russia has been on the offensive.  It pummelled Avdiivka into submission but has not made significant progress anywhere else.  Currently, Russia is attacking along the whole frontline but its focus and where it has concentrated most resources is in the north-east. Drilling down further Russia’s main effort appears to be concentrating on capturing Chasiv Yar. 


Chasiv Yar is a village that sits on the road junctions through which Ukraine’s defence of Bakhmut was supplied. The village’s access to the road network makes it useful as a base of operations for an advance north to reduce the Ukrainian salient demarcated by Lyman, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.  Chasiv Yar is also within artillery range of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk the last large cities of the Donbas still held by Ukraine.  However, to-date Russia is making incremental progress and regardless of media hype we are not yet seeing sudden advances that would herald a Ukrainian collapse.  Instead, we are seeing large concentrations of Russian armour being defeated and places like Chasiv Yar holding out. 

The data, or why we need to take commentary with a grain of salt!

Russia’s advance is painfully slow and the data demonstrates this fact.  In summer 2023, Ukraine re-captured .85% of Ukraine’s pre-war territory.  Since December 2023, Russia has captured .04% of Ukraine’s pre-war territory.  Further, in March it captured .01%, less than the .02% it captured in February.  Even though Russia is demonstrably learning lessons and improving its capability it is not making ground.  

Why isn’t Russia advancing? 

The simple answer is that we do not know, below are factors that may be contributing to the situation.

Is Spring rain slowing Russia down?

It is Spring and seasonal rain and melting snow flood the steppe bringing the raputitsa, or mud season that turns large parts of Ukraine into bogs that are difficult or impossible for vehicles to negotiate. Currently, this weather is impacting on operations but Russia’s offensive started in December so took advantage of the winter freeze through December, January and February.  Therefore, weather is a minor factor contributing to Russia’s slow movement since last December. 

Ukraine’s strategy in 2023 preserved combat power

In 2023’s offensive, Ukraine was counselled by US and British advisors to concentrate force at one point. Instead, Ukraine chose to attack in smaller groups at a range of different points on the frontline; Bakhmut, Orikiv and Velyka Novosilka.  This dissipated Ukrainian effort and meant that they were unable to achieve overwhelming superiority at one point. 

By not concentrating force Ukraine limited its chance of achieving a local overmatch but preserved its combat power.  At no point during 2023 did Ukraine suffer a crippling defeat.  Instead, Ukraine’s forces probed slowly forwards and eventually culminated.  Ukraine’s decision limited the 2023 offensive’s potential but probably preserved significant Ukrainian combat power.  It is highly likely that these resources are currently holding the line and stopping Russian advances while Ukraine digs stronger defensive positions behind the current frontline. 

The nature of land combat has changed

Another possibility is that omni-present surveillance provided by drones combined with improved anti-tank weapons reduces the ability for manoeuvre.  That it is simply too dangerous to concentrate large numbers of vehicles on a line of advance, reducing rates of advance to the speed of infantrymen moving through tree lines, forests, villages and other cover, avoiding drone observation. 

This argument is popular in the military blogger community, but I do not support it at this stage.  The reason why, is that sophisticated combined arms tactics have not been employed yet against strong defences.  Although Russia’s combined arms tactics are improving, they are still relatively unsophisticated. And, Ukraine’s decision to disperse its forces in 2023 meant that they could not achieve an overmatch on any of their axes of advance that would have allowed for an accurate assessment of the impact of drones. 

Russia is weaker than assessed

Last week, General Cavoli and Secretary of State Blinken both pointed out Russia’s re-constitution of its forces this year.  However, the ‘Devil is in the detail’ and while they are certainly correct and Russia is successfully re-constituting if forces, there is still a long way before they have a force fit-for-purpose. In February 2022, Russia had far too few soldiers for the invasion to be successful.  So, even a 15% increase in size does not provide the manpower Russia requires conquer Ukraine.

Russia is getting stronger and its forces are improving their tactics.  New weapons are making an impact especially the hard to defeat glide bombs.  But is this enough? Obviously not, or Russia would be advancing further and faster. 

Looking ahead to summer

Across mainstream media and in the blogging community people are discussing the idea of a large Russian offensive this summer.  Military bloggers, retired generals and commentators all drawing potential Russian lines of advance on maps.  

My assessment is that Russia’s offensive will continue into the summer, but that we can discount the idea of large offensives, for instance new attacks on Kharkiv or pushing west into Zaporizhia.  Instead, Russia is limited to moving slowly forwards probably concentrating on taking Chasiv Yar and reducing the Ukrainian salient demarcated by Lyman, Bakhmut, Kremina and Avdiivka


Russia has a large force of about 100,000 soldiers in the north-east and is already developing an operation to take Chaisv Yar. Capturing this village is an important step toward attacking Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Based on evidence from the battles for Avdiivk and Bakhmut, taking Chasiv Yar will require most of Russia’s available reserves and most of the summer. 

However, the fight for Chasiv Yar is an excellent indication of the balance of force in the east. If it falls suddenly then we know that General Oleksandr Syrskyi’s concerns are justified rather than a statement to rally support, and that Ukraine is in trouble.  If Chasiv Yar holds into the summer, then Ukraine is holding something back and in a better state than we are being told.  

Even if Chasiv Yar is captured soon, it seems unlikely that Russia has the resources to open other axes of advance.  Therefore, it is likely Russia will focus on consolidation around the village followed by operations to close the salient to its north.  

A longer period is required to build a force large enough to attack Kharkiv or open another offensive axis into Zaporizhia.  Therefore, expect a relatively limited offensive this summer, unless there is a sudden change in the military balance, for instance a Ukrainian collapse or US support coming ‘on line.’

Summary
The land battle is the key to victory in this war because how the line of control moves influences people around the world. When Ukraine moved ‘the line’ in their favour in late-2022, support flowed.  After Ukraine’s 2023 offensive produced disappointing results, support slowed down.  Now Russia is working hard to demonstrate that it is winning, that it holds the initiative because Putin knows that around the world, politicians that do not support Ukraine are being elected.  Russian information and cyber-influence operations possibly contributing to this trend, that could bring him victory. 

Russia is confident, Putin has not called for an out of cycle mobilisation.  By fighting conservatively and limiting their objectives Russia can incrementally build success and demonstrate to the world that they are ‘winning.’ Even though they have re-taken only a very, very small amount of territory. 

If America and Europe continue to waver and procrastinate, Russia will grind forwards in this manner indefinitely. Ukraine is unlikely to collapse but it faces the prospect of a long war, a battle of wills as both sides pummel each other like exhausted boxers. Both unwilling to call time but neither with the power to knock out their opponent. 

Unfortunately, the ‘upper cut’ that Ukraine needs is US support and even after sobering discussions with General Cavoli about the growing threat Russia poses, David Cameron lobbying Donald Trump, NATO statements and moderate Republicans trying to force the military aid bill onto the House agenda Speaker Mike Johnstone still has not tabled it. Let’s hope that US Congress representatives change their position and provide Ukraine with the resources it needs before Russia’s military gets better and can win a victory that reinforces the idea that Ukraine is about to lose the war. 

 

 

 

 

 

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

39 COMMENTS

  1. Ben Morgan for the second time this year asks us, “what is next” in Ukraine.

    I said the first time, you want to know what will happen in Ukraine? Look at Gaza. Russia will follow Israel’s example in Gaza with air strikes on civilian infrastructure and civilian lives.

    Meanwhile Russian ally Iran launches missile and drone strikes on Israel, helped with Russian version of GPS.
    The TDB mil blogger is missing in action in making an analysis of these events, how they relate to Ukraine, how the global superpower contest in the Pacific and the conflict in the strategic oil rich Levant and Gulf states, could easily escalate into a world war with one more escalation, with one more over reaction, or miscalculation.

    Israel like Ukraine, (unlike Gaza) has a powerful anti-missile air defense system. Iran learning from Russia’s success in Ukraine knows how to overwhelm such a system with a mass attack of inexpensive suicide drones, followed up with precision attacks against infrastructure with much more expensive missiles. For whatever reason, Iran chose not to follow up with the second part of the Russian tactic. The message to Israel was made clear, you are vulnerable, “attack any of our embassies again” and pay a heavy price.
    Israel (and the US) have chosen not to escalate to full scale war this time
    But the tensions are still there and will not go away. Another global recession, and the fracture points between the superpowers in the Middle East, in the Pacific, and in Europe will crack right open.

  2. I think the Russians realise that yes they could occupy Ukraine but that the resulting resources required to maintain the occupation are far greater then the expected rewards. The Russian speaking and sympathetic Donbass region is easy to occupy for that is what that population wanted. Quite another matter to occupy a hostile populace as history tells us.

    Already they have failed one of the primary goals of the invasion in securing the NATO buffer the occupation of Ukraine was to provide. The Finnish border and the Baltic Sea marking the new NATO sphere of influence. The dream of a buffer zone with NATO is gone.

    Russia has failed to keep dominion over the Black Sea with NATO preventing replacement warships to be sent there (one third of the Russian Black Sea fleet is destroyed). Ukraine now controls their western grain trade route and that of the NATO countries bordering the western Black Sea. To a large extend Ukraine controls Russian access to the Crimea via the Black Sea (in particular Sevastopol). Forcing Russia to build a new naval port at Abkhazia in occupied Georgia.

    Russia has an internal problem in regards unrest in the regions outside the rich Moscow and St Petersburg precincts.

  3. Where “demonstrating increasing sophistication and tactical ability” equals shooting raw conscripts in the back if they don’t advance.

    Russia has lost ~450,000 men so far and is intent on losing another 100,000 before it’s done. Even if they win in Ukraine, they’ve lost.

      • MediaZone’s estimates are ultra conservative. American and British figures are probably more accurate.

        • Damn the messenger eh PhuD, figures a little inconvenient perhaps? Seems a discrepancy of multiple times cannot be glibly pushed aside.

          • What about the wounded NJ? 3x the amount of fatalities. War figures are notoriously difficult to calculate anyway. They are always estimates.

        • I had to laugh the other day when Russia announced a new “Drone” called Ovod, Oh the delicious irony…..
          True story, look it up.

          • Of course it’s possible FG you idiot. Ovod овод is Russian for gadfly.
            It is also a film that Shostakovich wrote music for but I don’t expect you to understand any cultural subtleties.

    • You have literally no proof for any of this other than extremely dubiously sourced Washington Post + etc. articles and the infamously off-base government count of casualties. Reconsider your stances.

  4. “Ben Morgan – Russia’s tactical evolution. What next?”
    This, more likely than not.
    ‘Fallout’
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fallout_(American_TV_series)
    The show depicts the aftermath of the Great War of 2077, an apocalyptic nuclear exchange in an alternate history of Earth where advances in nuclear technology after WWII led to the emergence of a retrofuturistic society and a subsequent resource war. Many survivors took refuge in fallout bunkers known as Vaults.

  5. Russia is WEAKER? Really? It’s stronger now than before the conflict started & that’s a proven FACT! It’s survived the Military might of the entire West, the US & NATO who armed Ukraine to the teeth since 2014, America has contributed close to $1 Trillion dollars in Military support & paid for Ukraines Govt & that doesn’t include what Europe has provided & all for nought? Russia survived a unprecedented US & EU Economic Sanction War, 420 sanctions to date, to be exact & not only come out on Top, it’s Economy is growing by 7% while the sanctions have boomeranged back on every other Western Nation, especially Europe whose being deindustrialised & all these Nations, including NZ are being ravaged by double dip inflation. Since Russia detached itself from the Western Neoliberal System & is thriving, it’s set up BRICs with China & has 50 Nations lining up to join, Russia is Resource Rich & doesn’t need anything from anyone else unlike the Americans & Europe who still depends on Russian Gas, Oil, Diesel, Uranium & Rare earth minerals, metals etc? Russia’s MIC Weapons Manufacturing Industry is in overdrive, pumping out massive amounts of missiles, Tanks, artillery shells & other high tech weapons such as hypersonic missiles on a scale that the entire West & Europe combined, including America, can’t compete with! Russia has destroyed NATO, it’s being demilitarised & revealed as nothing more than a toothless lion & America & the Biden Regime has been humiliated in Ukraine with the defeat of Zelensky Govt, which is now on Life support, the lights are literally turning off all over Ukraine especially in places like Kharkov, Odessa & Kiev with Russia destroying the Ukrainian Electrical Grids, ITS OVER, Russia is just mopping up the dregs & taking out the Azoz Battalion garbage! Before the Northern Hemisphere Summer is over & certainly before the US Election, Putin will drive Home the dagger into Ukraine & destroy Biden’s prospects for Re-Election, handing Biden & the US a massive Geopolitical asskicking, a humiliation that will make its defeat in Afghanistan look like a picnic in the park & Zelensky will suffer the same fate that the West mettled out to Gaddaffi & Sadam Hussein!

      • How has Russia faced the military might of the entire west? Thats simply not true. Talk like that plays right into the hands of arms manufacturers in the west.

    • The improvements in the Russian political, economic, and security realms since Putin took steps to protect the people of Donetsk and Luhansk from the psychotic murderer Zelensky prove the need to kick out all american/zionist interests. It’s not surprising that foreign-owned traitors like Luxon and Peters and Hipkins want to tie us closer to the american dogs, rather than the rational choice of siding with human beings.

    • One the Antforce army trolls posts a top item from their imperialist paymaster’s bloody wish list to be ticked off on conquering Ukraine.

      Zelensky will suffer the same fate that the West mettled out to Gaddaffi & Sadam Hussein! Antforce

      I wonder whether Russia’s gruesome execution of the Ukrainian president will be videoed as Saddam Hussein’s was so the world can cower in awe at the might of the Russian empire?

      P.S. Whatever happened to Antforce62?

      Is he rostered off today?

  6. Russia has no intention of occupying the entirety of Ukraine. Indeed, that was never the military goal – can anyone provide any evidence whatsoever that the intention of Russia was ever to occupy all of Ukraine? They haven’t even declared war on Ukraine. Russia has by and large invaded and now occupied the stated region of concern (that we knew before the war even started), and is now simply digging in to defend it. As I see it, the ball is now on the shoulders of Ukraine to negotiate a deal of some sort.

    • If the objective was as Putin outlined, then there is no way they could achieve those without a complete takeover of the whole country called Ukraine.

      “Mr Putin said that “there will be peace [in Ukraine] when we achieve our objectives”. Those “objectives do not change”, he said, listing “denazification, demilitarisation and its neutral status”. These are themes he has highlighted from the start of the war.”

      https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-67711802

      • Mearsheimer and Davis agree that Russia will take the friendly pro Russian areas only, and then seal Europe off from Russian energy and mineral resources. Unlike NATO fantasists they believe Russia has no desire for further Western involvement, they have turned east. Europe is safe to wither on the vine.

          • PhuD despite my disdain for academia I’d wager that by comparison to Mearsheimer’academic status you are a flea. You wouldn’t even qualify as a midget. And I don’t even agree fully with Mearsheimer.

  7. Old man Bidens dream of being the heroic defeater of Russia and Iran is looking a bit shaky right now. He might have to settle for being the fool who wrecked the world economy instead.

  8. Twitter stuff..
    there is something brewing up within Ukrainian forces.
    The 3rd Assault Brigade (AZOV) refused to go to Chasov Yar – the 67th Mech Brigade (also a known as a “far right sector unit”) refused orders and left Chasov Yar and will be dissolved – same with the 25th Air Assault Brigade after a mass surrender.

  9. Ben, you are literally directly contradicting yourself in adjacent sentences when you note how much ground Russia has gained and then saying that Russia has not gained ground.
    And calculating territory gained as a percentage of Ukraine’s total area rather than in km2, casualties, resources and equipment lost looks like a “cope” move.
    How are gains in warfare usually measured? When the Axis moved against the USSR were their gains usually calculated in terms of a percentage of the entire USSR reaching back through Siberia and Kazakhstan? Or was it calculated in km2, casualties, resources and equipment lost?
    And this
    “…before Russia’s military gets better and can win a victory that reinforces the idea that Ukraine is about to lose the war.”
    is just post-modern discursive narrative nuttiness. As there already an idea that Ukraine is about to lose the war, then that victory has already happened. This discursive perception management thinking and info-war strategy is a big reason why Ukraine and the West is losing and will continue to lose.
    Western leadership in all areas military civilian, cultural and commercial is confusing the perception of reality for the nature of reality.
    They can’t make and ship enough men, tanks, planes, guns and ammo to win but they can transfer money into accounts, make power point presentations, spread sheets and blog posts about how any day now they will be able to.

  10. I’m afraid Jack that since the beginning of this conflict the Western political and media set, propagandists, columnists and bloggers here have been blinded by hubris. They just can’t imagine that the West for all of our technology could be matched. Ditto our economies, our currencies. It’s those stages of grief, currently it’s blind fury. Acceptance may take a while.

    • Boy are you deluded NJ! Russia’s economy is not much bigger than Australia’s! Life in Russia will not be worth living with all its infrastructure shot and it’s dictatorial regime with the war eating up 40% of GDP.
      Would you live there NJ?

  11. And the aid just passed in the House plus Trump is saying publicly that it’s important for the USA that Ukraine is supported

    So this conflict isn’t going anywhere

    • PC you are such an innocent. Naive fools think that the money is going to Ukraine. It is not, it is in orders to US military contractors to build and supply weapons. Problem for Ukraine is that they can’t supply, the lead times are too long, and if Ukraine survives it owes megabucks.

      • I actually agree with most of that surprise surprise but the loans to Ukraine will be forgiven. You‘ll see.

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