The war in Ukraine – reflections. Editorial
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine proved to be a defining event for the Russian armed forces, 14 years after they fought a short and unsatisfying war against Georgia and subsequently launched the “New Look” military modernisation process. The war in Ukraine also proved to be a defining chapter for President Vladimir Putin’s leadership. The operation had been telegraphed. Russian troops had massed near the Ukrainian border in April 2021 to put pressure on Ukraine, and by the end of the year they began to return. These forces remained in place for several weeks. Western analysts from open sources – and quickly declassified US intelligence assessments – indicated after mid-February that some troops were deploying from assembly areas in assault formations.
Early on 24 February, the invasion began. Even in the early stages, instead of quickly extinguishing Ukrainian resistance, Russia suffered a series of setbacks. Since then, Moscow has been bogged down in an often-anxious war that has exposed shortcomings in its high-level political and military decisions, while highlighting structural weaknesses in its armed forces, especially its ground forces. At the same time, the course and conduct of the war is leading to renewed attention to the effectiveness and future of various modernisation initiatives undertaken in recent years, such as the battlegroup concept. It also raises questions about Russia’s military culture and organisation and the extent to which Moscow can learn and implement the lessons learned, as well as the future of the equipment modernisation plans pursued under the latest state armament programme.
Overconfidence and underestimation
Russian forces advanced along several axes in the initial phase of the operation, estimated to involve 127 battalion battlegroups and 150,000 troops, as well as additional forces brought in by Russia. The aim was reportedly to quickly overthrow Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government in a much larger version of the 2014 Crimean operation, with a rapid assault focused on capturing Kiev’s ruling centres while Ukrainian forces and society would be effectively crippled by the operations deployed However, the campaign was flawed before it was executed. There were poor intelligence assessments of the attitude of the Ukrainian population, combined with an underestimation of the combat capability of the Ukrainian armed forces and an overestimation of the capability of the Russian armed forces. Russia hoped for a quick victory as its forces were not prepared for a long fight.
Early in the war, Russia’s advances did not benefit from the massive artillery fire traditionally associated with its ground forces, while Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure was not extensively targeted. The forces deployed in the initial attacks do not appear to have been prepared or supplied for sustained high-intensity combat. Initially poorly coordinated and with inadequate air, fire and logistical support, these formations suffered very heavy losses in both personnel and equipment, and many became combat ineffective within the first month of operations. Moreover, political imperatives to demonstrate success on the battlefield meant that battle-weary units were given little or no time to recover and recover, and were instead quickly thrown back into combat.
Russia’s comparative success in fighting Ukrainian forces in 2014-15 likely led to considerable over-reliance, as did the air-led campaign in Syria. The deployment in Syria allowed the air force to rotate crews and gain experience in close-in operations and test new weapons, but it nevertheless took place in a permissive air environment. Meanwhile, Russia’s large-scale annual exercises (each year one of Kavkaz, Tsentr, Zapad and Vostok takes place), with extensive use of artillery , missiles and combat aviation – Zapad 2021 was the largest in several years, involving several military districts and large force groups – may have led to a distorted assessment of capability and readiness by both outside observers and the Russian armed forces. Similar doubts persist about the value of the combat readiness assessment. Such exercises, deliberately or not, have masked the structural problems that have now been exposed in Ukraine. Perhaps more fundamentally, while peacetime training and maintenance have improved and at the same time become more realistic, in practice, poor supervision, corruption and rapid turnover of both contract and enlisted personnel have seriously hampered the qualitative development of individual soldiers.
In addition, Russian forces had to account for large-scale personnel losses, including among the more experienced personnel who participated in the opening phase of the invasion. The subsequent influx of reservists and, later, mobilised personnel has exposed weaknesses in training, with many of the newcomers apparently lacking both adequate equipment and sufficient ammunition, while the infrastructure does not seem to be able to cope with their increased numbers. The war has also highlighted long-standing command and control problems, both at primary and senior command level, with inflexibility proving a major weakness. There are indications of some adjustment following the initial failures of the campaign. Commanders were replaced and there was a move to improve and unify operational command and control. Once Ukrainian forces defeated Russia’s offensive towards Kiev, forces were redeployed to eastern Ukraine. Subsequently, Russian forces were concentrated on two axes, with efforts focused on the two “self-proclaimed” Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LPR and DPR). Russian tactics were also revised, leading to a much greater reliance on artillery. However, this highlighted another challenge related to ammunition supply. Estimates by some analysts suggest that Russian forces sometimes used more than ten times as much ammunition as Ukrainian forces on a daily basis, and while it is difficult to verify such claims, it is clear that ammunition supply has become a more important factor as hostilities have progressed.
Russia’s initial operations failed, in large part because Russia’s exercises had not adequately prepared its forces for action against a determined, well-prepared country. and well-armed country. And while the air war was extremely destructive to Ukraine, Russia’s relatively haphazard application of air power, including missile attacks, did not allow it to gain air control. These failures forced Russia’s helicopters and ground attack aircraft to adopt unconventional strike-launching tactics, with its planes forced to attack targets from a greater distance and commanders using a greater number of long-range strikes. Both Russian and Ukrainian helicopters and ground attack aircraft flew, at best near the front lines, at an extremely low level to minimise the threat from air defences.
The way Russia has used its precision-guided weapons, coupled with problems with production growth, means there was a shortage of such systems at the end of the year, while there were likely reliability issues. Russia’s defence industry may have improved slowly, but it remains plagued by inefficiencies.
In terms of personnel, there is an ageing workforce and although there is little information, the flight of thousands of Russians from the country after February certainly doesn’t help. It also seems to have failed to appreciate the need for near real-time intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) integrated into the targeting cycle. And in late summer, when Ukrainian forces used offensive manoeuvre operations to regain swathes of territory in the north and south, Russian troops had neither a tactical nor an operational response. While these are problems recognised by many in the armed forces and the defence industry, they seem to go unrecognised within policy-making bodies, which remain conservative. In addition, Moscow’s practice of simply replacing senior personnel, or moving commanders from one military district to another, has not addressed the underlying problems of leadership culture in the Russian armed forces. A rigid hierarchy with a rigid structure remains embedded in military education and tradition. Achieving change in Russia will require political will combined with fundamental improvements in education and training.
After avoiding declaring mobilisation for more than six months, Russia was finally forced to mobilise in September 2022 following the collapse of its position in the Kharkov region. Putin’s 21 September announcement was probably prompted by the recognition that a general defeat was a growing possibility. According to official statements, the goal was to call up 300,000 reservists, but some Russian commentators put the figure at nearly a million. The mobilization was implemented too late, with those called up receiving only two weeks of training before being deployed to make up for combat losses in existing units. Prior to mobilisation and since then in parallel with it, Russia has also used “volunteer battalions” as well as private military companies, the largest of which is the Wagner Group.
Russia adopted a new Maritime Doctrine on 31 July 2022, replacing the 2015 document. In particular, the revised document identified the United States and NATO as “threats”. In the previous document, the US had only been described as a “rival”. The 2022 document is also more ideological, with echoes of Soviet-era rhetoric. Maritime dominance was claimed as the US goal, with the additional objective of reducing Russia’s ability to develop maritime resources. The doctrine also recognised the challenge posed by Russia’s lack of overseas naval assets, Russian bases, and sanctions-based constraints on shipbuilding capacity.
However, the paper identified the construction of “modern aircraft carriers” as a priority. But the practicalities of this are a different matter. For years, Russia’s surface ship program has funded only relatively small warships. The revised doctrine reflects adversarial relations between Russia, the US and NATO, but is unrealistic about the state of Russian shipbuilding.
The Russian navy suffered some spectacular failures in 2022, and its impact on the invasion of Ukraine was less than might have been expected. The Black Sea Fleet has shown poor command and slow response to threats, as well as questionable operational readiness. Nevertheless, it continued to exert influence through at least partial and remote blockade, and in addition by using surface and submarine platforms to launch land-based cruise missile attacks against mostly civilian Ukrainian targets.
In the run-up to the opening of hostilities, there was a significant concentration of Russian naval forces in the Mediterranean, including from the Northern Baltic and Pacific fleets, as well as activity in northern European waters, ostensibly for exercises but no doubt for strategic warning and pressure. There has also been a reinforcement of the Black Sea Fleet with a number of amphibious ships, including an Ivan Gren-class ship from Project 11711 and several Ropucha-class landing craft from Project 775.
After 24 February, this enhanced amphibious capability played only a limited role, in part because of the known dangers of such operations in the area, the fact that the ground war did not advance as Moscow had planned, and also, later, the innovative approaches Ukraine used to challenge Russian naval vessels. It is possible that Russian maritime forces in the Mediterranean were aiming for some deterrent effect, for example with the Project 1164 Slavaclass, cruisers in the Northern and Pacific fleets that have been pursuing NATO carrier formations in the area for some time. However, Turkey’s decision to close the transit route to and from the Black Sea to warships has likely affected Russia’s ability to both sustain its presence in the Mediterranean and strengthen its forces in the Black Sea.
Russia’s biggest naval failure was the sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s battleship, the Slava-class cruiser Moskva, design 1164.
Poor operational tactics in the use of the ship and questions about the training and efficiency of both the crew and the ship’s systems appear to have contributed to the sinking. This raises new questions about the combat effectiveness of the other large Soviet-era surface combat ships, which the Russian fleet continues to rely on for most of its blue-water operations and power projection missions.
The Navy also lost an Alligator-class Project 1171 ship docked in Berdyansk harbor in March 2022, plus a number of minor warships in various attacks. The late October air and surface drone attack on the naval base at Sevastopol appeared to cause damage to the Black Sea Fleet’s new warship, the Grigorovich-class vessel of Project 11356 Admiral Makarov. Again, Ukraine’s use of new capabilities and combinations of capabilities, as well as bold tactics, hampered Black Sea Fleet operations.
The Russian Navy continued to demonstrate its ability to conduct operations globally. These have included several joint, albeit relatively limited, manoeuvres with the Chinese navy in the Western Pacific, including in waters around Japan.
There were a number of important developments in the equipping of the submarine fleet. The second nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN) Project 955A Borey-A and the second nuclear-powered guided missile submarine Project 08851 Yasen-M, which were commissioned in late 2021, joined the Pacific fleet, increasing its capabilities. A third Project 08551 Yasen-M underwent sea trials in mid-2022. In July, the new nuclear-powered special-mission submarine Belgorod was commissioned, although uncertainty remains over the operational status of the nuclear-powered and potentially nuclear-powered Poseidon torpedo it is designed to carry. The last 941UM Typhoonclass SSBN design, which was for a time essentially used as a backup and for training and testing, now appears to have been withdrawn.
Otherwise, additions to the fleet have been limited, reflecting the continued poor performance of the naval industrial base. This has no doubt been exacerbated by additional Western sanctions. The ambition emphasised in the new maritime doctrine has only served to highlight the hard-fought and accident-prone modernisation of the sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov; the timetable for its completion is uncertain, as is the ship’s likely combat effectiveness, even if it returns to the fleet.
Land forces, airborne forces and marines
Russia’s initial invasion used about 75% of its total deployable ground combat forces. Many of the formations committed in February suffered heavy attrition in the following months. This initially forced the Russian armed forces to turn to a variety of sources to find new personnel to support operations, including reservists, mercenaries and recruits from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, before eventually opting for a large-scale mobilisation in Russia. Older armoured combat vehicles and artillery pieces were taken out of storage and reactivated to replace combat losses. These measures have so far proved almost sufficient to maintain a “functioning army” in Ukraine. However, attempts to generate the operational and strategic reserve forces needed to resume large-scale offensive operations on the ground appear to have been repeatedly thwarted by battlefield pressure from Ukrainian forces. It is likely that Ukrainian forces will seek to maintain this pressure by seeking to prevent Russia from gaining the space necessary to reset its forces before the spring of 2023.
The current focus on short-term operations also raises questions about the future shape and sustainability of Russian ground forces and combat power. Under the New Look military-modernisation programme, which began in 2008, the ground forces have been the least modernised of all the armed forces by 2022, and have been the source of failure for most of the committed formations.
Between 2012 and 2022, and especially after 2014, ground forces, airborne forces, and marines tried to balance their relatively low level with relatively low budget priority and the requirement to generate an increasing amount of deployable ground combat assets as ground power.
In the short term, the prospects for the project to deliver new equipment to land forces are unclear.
Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014. Russia’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent encouragement of dissent and its political and military support for forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions provided the impetus for significant changes in Ukraine’s armed forces. By then, they had been significantly degraded since the post-Soviet period.
Post-2014 reform activities were designed to improve not only the capacity of Ukraine’s armed forces but also its defence and security institutions. These reforms were designed to produce armed forces and a defence sector more aligned with Western military standards and capable of territorial defence. Volunteer battalions were formed and territorial defence units were established. But also important were measures to empower and strengthen the resilience of local administrations and to develop civil defence measures. The 2016 Strategic Defence Bulletin presented reform plans and guided the strategic development of the armed forces. Defence assistance from Western states since 2014 has contributed significantly to institution building, boosting capabilities in areas such as cyber security and providing limited amounts of military equipment, including Javelin anti-armour systems
Defence education has also been important. Since 2008, NATO has provided a Defence Education Enhancement Programme (DEEP) which has been used as a framework to provide training assistance in a number of countries. DEEP projects in Ukraine have included assistance to Ukrainian forces in developing professional military education capacity, as well as plans to develop professional NCOs. Some Western states have also provided training assistance to Ukraine, including at the training centre in Yaroviv. This has resulted in a force that, since 2014-15, has rotated large numbers of personnel to the front lines in eastern Ukraine, with personnel no longer in regular service going into reserve. It has also triggered a culture change that has included the development of a group of officers and non-commissioned officers who are more empowered than their predecessors to make battlefield decisions.
As the 2022 aggression dragged on and Ukrainian casualties mounted, continued support for training became more important. Mobilisation led to a significant influx of recruits.
Since mid-year, the UK has been running a training programme that initially aimed to train 10,000 Ukrainian personnel by the end of 2022. It also includes trainers from NATO allies and partners. The training includes modules on weapons handling skills, basic patrol and combat tactics, and battlefield first aid in a compressed five-week package. According to the UK Ministry of Defence, this has meant that, over time, the Ukrainians have also brought their battlefield experience with them, which has brought mutual benefits for Western training personnel. The European Union also launched a training initiative in October under which Ukrainian personnel will be trained in Germany and Poland.
Adaptation and innovation
In the course of 2022, the Ukrainian armed forces that have been building up since 2014 countered Russia’s attempt to seize the capital and occupy other cities, including Kharkov and Mykolaiv. Ukraine’s post-2014 forces, which had been developed for what Kiev called counter-terrorist operations and, after 2018, joint-force operations, faced a different kind of warfare in 2022 because of the geographic scope of Russia’s assault and the greater number of artillery and (at least initially) assault troop personnel. By the end of the year, Ukraine had regained territory in the north and forced a Russian withdrawal from Kherson in the south, using its strengths and exploiting weaknesses in Russian ground forces. Losses of personnel and combat equipment increased on both sides during the year, but Ukrainian forces managed to gain an advantage in several important areas through adaptation, flexibility and innovation.
The provision of robust communications systems, including the much-publicised Starlink, has been an important factor. The deployment of these systems – said to have reached down to company level and below – gave Ukrainian commanders the ability to correct artillery fire through aerial surveillance and maintain operational control of units, including those on the offensive. It has been reported that they have been an important element in maintaining control of forces in efforts to recapture territory around Kharkov and Kherson, among others. There was concern that these signals sometimes failed, such as when Ukrainian forces moved into previously occupied territory. This highlighted the importance of counter-jamming activity and the steps data providers can take to prevent Russian troops from exploiting any captured material. At the same time, many Russian troops relied on systems that proved vulnerable, including commercial radios and mobile phones. Ukrainian security services regularly published intercepted conversations for propaganda purposes.
The rapid increase in manpower after mobilisation, as well as the broad front of operations and the related mobility and supply demands, created problems in the provision of transport vehicles. The civilian car market has become the main source of increased mobility for these formations. Here again, private funding has been vital. Limited funds, even before this invasion, meant that Ukrainian forces were already using vans, jeeps, minibuses and minivans as well as cars. This was partly due to insufficient funds to purchase more suitable vehicles, but also to the limited availability of four-wheel drive vehicles on the second-hand market, including in Europe. The dry conditions during the Kharkov offensive somewhat obscured the weaknesses of these vehicles, but the mobility challenges increase as weather conditions change, increasing the demands on military vehicles – military-type vehicles or civilian 4x4s during the winter and into the spring.
Aerial reconnaissance and surveillance
While some foreign and Ukrainian aerial drones are available, commercial quadcopters have also proven their tactical utility. Ukrainian specialists rely mainly on the DJI Mavic 3, DJI Matrice 300 and 30, as well as the Autel Evo 2, including a version with a thermal imaging camera. These were mainly provided by charitable foundations and voluntary organisations or purchased by individual soldiers and their families. The quadcopters were important because they enabled commanders and subordinates to deploy reconnaissance assets and improved information exchange horizontally (between units) as well as vertically (with higher formation headquarters). They helped increase the effectiveness of Ukrainian artillery, mainly mortars and towed and self-propelled artillery, and were also used to strike munitions directly at targets. In addition, they had an important psychological effect in that they were used to directly target troops, including in apparently defensive positions.
Ukraine’s inventory of Soviet-era legacy artillery was depleted due to battle losses, overuse, and also because the high rate of fire caused ammunition supply problems. Foreign assistance provided a large number of 152-millimetre projectiles, but foreign stocks were also dwindling.
Ukraine’s widespread use of GMLRS has made these systems an essential part of the offensive operation and, because of the increased range they provide over Ukraine’s traditional systems, has allowed Ukrainian forces to attack Russian forces, command posts, supply depots and other targets previously out of range. It also appears to have allowed Ukraine to assign to these assets some tasks previously performed by tactical aircraft.
Western deliveries of anti-armor weapons have expanded Ukraine’s stockpile of such systems, from disposable light grenade launchers to more advanced NLAWs and Javelins-a small number of the latter were supplied after 2018. Some Ukrainian specialists argue that the result has been a significant loss of Russian armor, as well as an apparent shift in the way these forces operate, focusing instead on long-range engagements, often from covert locations. In turn, this has encouraged Ukrainian anti-tank units to actively seek out enemy armoured vehicles, using mobile teams with four-wheel-drive vehicles and assets employing anti-armour weapons, including the Stugna-P, Corsair, 9K111 Fagot (RS-AT-4 Spigot) and the Western-supplied FGM-148 Javelin weapon. At the same time, the groups use grenade launchers and NLAWs in contact combat
Although Russia has proven unable to establish control over the air, its air forces and missile strikes have forced Ukraine’s air force to disperse in order to survive, in turn increasing demands for supplies and maintenance. Although Ukraine has lost a number of aircraft and helicopters, it has managed to maintain a level of effective capability. Equipment provided by the West has been important. Although no Soviet-era aircraft were supplied, weapons were sent, including AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles, which were used by Ukrainian aircraft against Russian air defences. In addition, Ukraine managed to retain some S-300 and Buk air defence systems and used them to defend areas behind the front. This prompted Russia to largely abandon attempts to penetrate deep into Ukrainian airspace with manned aircraft and switch to stand-off munitions. By the same token, Russia’s frequent use of systems such as cruise missiles (coupled with increasingly effective Ukrainian defences) has reduced the number of such systems available. This pattern was established before the reception of modern Western surface-to-air missiles such as NASAMS and IRIS-T. On the battlefield, man-portable air defence systems (MANPADs) have become Ukraine’s main air defence assets. Indeed, the threat posed by MANPADS has forced tactical adaptation on both sides, with ground attack aircraft and helicopters having to not only fly extremely low, but also to adopt new ‘high launch’ tactics for unguided missiles, reducing the effectiveness of these attacks.
The war in Ukraine is a major event in international politics, with long-term consequences for international relations and the situation in the Eastern European region. Russia violated international law by annexing Crimea and intervening militarily in Ukraine, causing a humanitarian and military crisis that has had and continues to have a negative impact on the civilian population and Ukraine’s economy. Overall, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that military conflicts of this scale are destructive and costly and that peaceful solutions are preferable to avoid unnecessary human and material suffering and loss.
Maritime Security Forum analysis