Two weeks into Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, Western military analysts are watching a humanitarian catastrophe unfold as they try to make sense of events on the battlefield. So far, the war has been characterised not least by the unexpectedly poor performance of the Russian armed forces. This can be partly explained by inadequate operational plans based on wishful political thinking and an underestimation of Ukrainians’ determination to resist. Even after its initial failure to take Kyiv, the Russian military is displaying serious problems in logistics and the coordination of different branches of its forces.
All this raises the question of whether the Russian military is suffering just from incompetent and corrupt leadership or also from deeper organisational shortfalls. Russia certainly seems to have difficulty replicating the successful operations conducted by its elite expeditionary forces on a larger scale against a well-organised opponent. But the military’s approach to force generation also seems responsible for many of the challenges it has experienced in the field.
Beginning in October 2021, Russia deployed battalion tactical groups to the border with Ukraine, occupied Crimea, and then Belarus. In every Russian brigade or regiment, the first battalion includes only contract and professional soldiers. The same is sometimes true of the second battalion – in VDV airborne forces, of all battalions – and the first company of combat support battalions (such as artillery and air defence) and logistics units (usually transport). This means that, during a conflict, the Russian military can quickly generate forces without having to send conscripts or reserves into battle. Such an approach works fine for operations that are only designed to be a show of force, such as those that previously occurred near Ukraine’s borders, or that involve only involve low-intensity conflict. For example, Russian battalion tactical groups rotating through Donbas have created far less noise than recent efforts to empty entire garrisons in the deployment of a brigade.
However, the approach reaches its limits in full-scale manoeuvre warfare. There are reasons why Russia’s regular army is organised into brigades and divisions. And these reasons have become obvious in the last two weeks.
The first issue is coordination. In the weeks leading up to the invasion, Russia deployed army-level command and control equipment to various staging areas. One can assume that operative manoeuvre groups comprising roughly 12 to 20 battalion tactical groups are led by an army headquarters. But there was little evidence of Russia operating brigade commands between the army and battalion levels in the first – blitzkrieg – phase of the war. It may have improvised some in the second phase. When commanders attempt to lead too many elements of a force at once, they are overwhelmed and become unable to coordinate operations effectively. It is fair to conclude that this is what happened to the Russian military in Ukraine.
This problem is even acute for combat-support troops. For example, four air defence batteries from different units do not equate to an air defence battalion. Air defence battalion and regiment command structures need to coordinate firing sectors with one another and with aerospace forces. Without such coordination, air defence units cannot identify friendly aircraft, and vice versa. As a consequence, aircraft cannot effectively engage in close air support operations for fear of being shot down by their own air defence systems. And they cannot attack radars and air defence systems without a high risk of destroying friendly units – especially if the warring sides are using the same military systems. Equally, air defence units are reluctant to engage targets because they cannot distinguish between friend and foe. This is exactly what is happening to the Russian military in Ukraine. Kyiv’s Bayraktar drones are taking out Russian air defence systems at an astonishing rate.
Then there are logistics. Russian battalion tactical groups are accompanied by detachments of supply trucks to refuel and rearm them. But maintenance and repair workshops are brigade- and division-level assets. Before entering the war in Ukraine, Russian battalion tactical groups spent considerable time on manoeuvres near the border, increasing their need for routine maintenance work. Now, of course, Russian vehicles regularly break down due to wear and tear.
The Russian army would likely have gone to war in a very different structure – comprising brigades, divisions, and armies – if it had realised the true scale of the conflict. But the Kremlin made a political decision to hide the war from the public as much as possible, meaning that the military needed to generate its forces only through the deployment of battalion tactical groups. This is one of the many cases in which President Vladimir Putin and his entourage have underestimated the complexity of military operations.
Yet one should not assume that there is little to fear from a poorly performing Russian army if it wins this war. Moscow is unlikely to make the same mistakes when starting a different war on distinct political premises.
Meanwhile, the NATO Response Force is also a loose collection of battalions. Many smaller NATO nations in central Europe have armies comprising just a few battalions and lack the embedded structure to train for and fight in a high-intensity war. Therefore, it is hugely important that NATO develops integrated force structures.
But the most urgent task for the alliance is to help Ukraine survive. Russia may seek to create new forces by pressing conscripts to sign contracts with the army when they formally leave military service on 1 April 2022. Before it has a chance to do so, Western countries should urgently increase their military support for the Ukrainian armed forces and impose sanctions on Russia strong enough to crater its war economy.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.