New Russian Strategy Does Not Resolve Underlying Military Issues

Reports indicate that Russian military forces are assembling along the Russia-Ukraine border, preparing for an expanded offensive in eastern Ukraine. They likely hope that this operation will be more successful than the initial invasion, where they took heavy casualties while meeting almost none of their tactical objectives. As such, this assault appears to be have adopted a new strategy. Rather than a multi-prong attack across Ukraine, the Russians are focusing their operations to the Donbas region. Although this strategy alleviates some of the challenges that the Russians have faced to date, it does not resolve some of the larger issues that have plagued this military operation.

On the surface, this strategy is rather sound, especially that it solves a large flaw from the initial invasion, where the troops were spread out across multiple fronts. This resulted in the Russians not being able to amass the necessary firepower to break the Ukrainian defenses. It also forced the Russians to spread out their strategic assets, including drones and air support. Consequently, the initial invasion stagnated into a stalemate. A focused surge of Russian forces in the Donbas region could give the Russians the combat power necessary to overcome the Ukrainian defenses.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians would need to shift forces from other portions of Ukraine, including Kyiv, to adequately counter this new assault. This will force the Ukrainian military to leave their fortified positions and move into the Donbas region, likely decreasing their combat effectiveness. This will also leave other areas of Ukraine vulnerable to potential other Russian incursions.

If this focused assault goes as planned, it will allow the Russians to secure the Donbas region. This would provide the Russian forces a large morale boost, while also allowing the Russian military to establish a larger foothold in Ukraine. This foothold would support follow-on efforts, especially since they have direct access to the sea, allowing for easier resupply.

Despite the merits of this plan, it does not resolve many of the large underlying issues faced by the Russian military. Indeed, the Russian military is large and rolled into Ukraine with 120 Battalion Tactical Groups, a formidable fighting force. Given their technology and equipment, they should have defeated the Ukrainian military across all fronts. Though the Ukrainian defense was stronger than anticipated, the Russian lack of success also stemmed from several internal problems.

Command-and-control has been a critical issue for the Russians during this war. The Russian officer corps and small non-commissioned officer corps have been blamed for much of the initial Russian failures. In particular, the Russian military was not able to synchronize and coordinate their attacks. Artillery, armor, and air support all appear to be out of sync. While some of these difficulties are due to the Ukrainians targeting communication nodes, much of the blame likely stems from the corruption and cronyism that has traditionally been an issue for the Russian military.

Concentrating the force onto a single objective would require increased coordination and synchronization to achieve battlefield success. Without the coordination between the units, the larger, more concentrated force simply becomes a larger, easier target. This issue is amplified by the large number of officer losses experienced by the Russian forces. Reports indicate that up to seven general officers have been killed and that approximately 20 percent of Russian casualties are officers. As such, a large portion of the officers leading this assault will be newly promoted into those positions and would lack the training and experience necessary to properly coordinate an attack at this level.

The second issue that has plagued the Russians is logistics. Modern armies require a constant resupply of ammunition and fuel to stay combat effective. However, the Russian logistical convoys have had a hard time providing the necessary resupply to front-line troops, especially with Ukrainian drones targeting the resupply convoys. As the Russians focus on a single region, these convoys will be easier for the Ukrainians to find and destroy.

Another logistics challenge is the current state of the equipment, especially the tanks, armored vehicles, and artillery. Along the border, the Russians have reportedly set up a number of refitting sites to repair this equipment. However, much of the equipment was in poor shape prior to the first invasion and subsequently got heavily damaged through the operation. Meanwhile, the Russian defense supply chain still has not recovered from COVID-19 or the sanctions, resulting in shortages in many critical parts. As such, the fighting force will be significantly less formidable than what was used in the initial invasion.

A more fundamental issue is related to Russian doctrine. Russian military doctrine is defensive in nature, heavily relying on artillery and cannon fire to destroy an enemy. These tactics do not necessarily work well for offensive operations, especially when going against a modern army that has its own artillery, drones, and counter-artillery systems. Moreover, as these operations push into cities, these tactics will likely only result in a large amount of damage to civilian infrastructure. While the Russian military has shown little concern on firing on civilian targets, it does not provide a military benefit. Rather, it makes their artillery vulnerable to counter-artillery attacks, while creating significant negative publicity for the Russian military.

As the Russian forces amass on the border, it is becoming clear that this assault will launch in the coming days. Although their new strategy is an improvement from that used for the initial invasion, they will likely face many of the same issues that they faced on the initial invasion. These issues, including command-and-control, logistics, and doctrine, will plague this new Russian offensive operation.