Lessons for the West: Russia’s military failures in Ukraine

Ukraine has proven that it can counter Russian military tactics and strategy. To continue to do so, the country will require greater support from the West.

This satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows destroyed Russian aircraft at Saki Air Base on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2022, in the Crimean Peninsula, the Black Sea peninsula seized from Ukraine by Russia and annexed in March 2014. Ukraine’s air force said Wednesday that nine Russian warplanes were destroyed in a deadly string of explosions at an air base in Crimea that appeared to be the result of a Ukrainian attack, which would represent a significant escalation in the war. (Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies via AP)
Satellite image provided by Maxar Technologies shows destroyed Russian aircraft at Saki air base in Crimea
Image by Associated Press / picture alliance
©

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been going on for almost six months. Enough time has passed that policymakers in the United States and the European Union should now be able to pinpoint the weaknesses of the Russian military. And they will need to do so if they are to determine how best to help the Ukrainian armed forces. The recent explosions at Saki air base in Crimea – a facility that is 225km away from the front line, in an area the Russians have declared to be shielded by their air defence system – show that Ukraine has found new ways to exploit flaws in Russia’s military machine. So, what should the West have learned about Russia’s motives, tactics, and strategy?

President Vladimir Putin’s use of inaccurate data often undermines his decisions. Putin’s wishful thinking about the power of the Russian military is reflected in his apparent expectation that it could conquer Ukraine with only 150,000 military personnel. This is significantly less than the 250,000 soldiers in the Ukrainian armed forces and far off the ratio of offensive to defence forces traditionally needed for a successful campaign – 3:1. Putin seems to have decided to launch the invasion based on the expectation that Ukrainian citizens would surrender without a fight and their political leaders would run away. Clearly, the data he drew on was deeply flawed. Several publicly available studies conducted shortly before the full-scale invasion showed that Ukrainians would resolutely take up arms to defend their homeland. But the Kremlin – like many Western experts – must have simply ignored them.

One of the main reasons why Russian forces have incurred huge losses is that the Kremlin prioritises political goals above military objectives

Therefore, in supporting Ukraine, the West will need to account for Putin’s biases and the imperfect data at his disposal. Russian politicians’ repeated threats of military aggression against NATO countries – particularly the Baltic states – could turn out to be more than just propaganda. However, given that such aggression would be suicidal for Russia, Ukraine can use these threats against it.

The Russian army relies on massive artillery strikes. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the Russian military entered Ukraine in marching columns rather than combat formations. The Russians’ assumption that they would not face resistance caused them to suffer huge losses in the first few days of the war, forcing them to withdraw from the Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumy regions. The inadequate training and incompetence of Russian military personnel – combined with the strict hierarchies in which they operated, which left officers incapable of acting on their own initiative – meant that they were unable to quickly coordinate advances deep into enemy territory.

The Russian military responded to these failures by reverting to tactics based on barrage fire: it launched massive artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions that lasted several hours, clearing the way for offensives involving infantry and armoured vehicles. The Russians mainly used this tactic – which resulted in more territorial gains than any other approach – in eastern Ukraine, where they concentrated more than half their forces.

But the situation changed after the US provided Ukraine with M142 HIMARS – mobile multiple rocket launchers that the Ukrainian armed forces used to destroy more than 50 Russian ammunition stores in just a few weeks. This severely inhibited the delivery of ammunition to Russia’s artillery units, thereby reducing the intensity of the shelling in several areas and slowing the Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. However, the missiles Ukraine has received from Western states only have a range of between 15km and 92km, meaning that they cannot reach many key Russian ammunition depots and other infrastructure.

Logistics are a weak link in the Russian army. All military campaigns rely on logistics. A tank without fuel is of little use – as the Russians showed in the early days of their full-scale invasion, when they abandoned many vehicles and other equipment due to a lack of supplies. The episode revealed that the Russian military’s logistics were so poorly organised that many units simply could not reach their destinations. There are many causes of such disorganisation – Ukrainian forces’ operations to disrupt Russian logistics, corruption and negligence in the Russian army, the indolence of Russian generals, and so on. But the fact remains that this is a glaring area of weakness in the Russian campaign.

The Russian army’s concentration of forces in eastern Ukraine reduced the length of the front it was fighting on while shortening its supply lines to Russia and occupied Luhansk and Donetsk. But, as discussed, Ukraine’s subsequent use of HIMARS and other systems disrupted Russia’s logistics once again.

The Kremlin will allow the Russian military to incur huge losses. The Pentagon estimates that up to 80,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed or wounded in the war. This is more than the Soviets lost in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. Russia has also sacrificed a colossal amount of equipment, including more than 1,700 tanks (equivalent to 65 per cent of its pre-war inventory); 4,000 armoured vehicles; and 200 aircraft. For example, in a single battle in Bilohorivka in May, Russia lost almost 1,000 soldiers and nearly 100 pieces of equipment while trying to cross the Siverskyi Donets River.

One of the main reasons why Russian forces have incurred huge losses is that the Kremlin prioritises political goals above military objectives – as one could see in Izium and Severodonetsk. The capture of Severodonetsk became a political goal simply because it was the last city with a large population in the Luhansk region. The Kremlin wanted to seize the city as proof that it controlled the entire region. However, the operation had limited strategic value and required the Russians to weaken their positions on other fronts. The Ukrainian military evacuated civilians from Severodonetsk before using the city’s political importance to draw in a large number of Russian troops, who were forced to fight in an area where they were unable to use their full artillery forces.

Unless Russia announces a general mobilisation (which would be politically costly for Putin), these losses of personnel will erode its combat capabilities. Nonetheless, Russia has already begun to draw on its substantial reserves of Soviet systems such as Grad multiple rocket launchers, T-62 tanks, MT-LB armoured personnel carriers, and 2S7 Pion self-propelled guns. Although this equipment is far from new, it poses a tangible threat in large quantities.

Terrorism against civilians is a part of the Kremlin’s strategy. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Russian shelling has killed more than 5,000 civilians and wounded at least 7,000 others. Russia has deliberately targeted civilians to intimidate them, using cluster munitions and multiple rocket launchers, air and missile strikes (including with S-300 anti-aircraft systems), torture, and rape.

The Kremlin employed a similar strategy in the wars in Chechnya and Syria. As with the Russian military’s massive and indiscriminate bombing campaign in Aleppo in 2016, these attacks on civilians are also designed to cause a migrant crisis in the EU and thereby force the union to negotiate with Moscow as soon as possible, on unfavourable terms for Kyiv. So far, however, the strategy has only made it less likely that Western states will try to force Kyiv to make concessions. Moreover, the brutality of these attacks on civilians provides a justification to tighten sanctions on Russia and declare it to be a state sponsor of terrorism (a move that some countries have already made, and that others – including the US – are considering).

How the West should support Ukraine

The West can help Ukraine counter the Russian military’s tactics and strategy in all these areas. It should do so in the following ways:

  • Increase the supply of counter-battery radars with self-propelled guns, including the American M109A6 and M109A7 Paladin (Ukraine currently has the less advanced M109), the German PzH 2000, and the French Caesar. Together, these systems would enhance a Ukrainian counter-battery capability that has already proven its value in battle.
  • Continue supplying Ukraine with HIMARS and M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems, as well as additional munitions for them – particularly ATACMS, which have a range of 300km. This would allow Ukraine to further disrupt Russian logistics by destroying ammunition depots hundreds of kilometres away from the front line.
  • Continue to improve Ukraine’s missile defence capability by providing it with NASAMS anti-aircraft systems, which are capable of intercepting cruise missiles. These authors estimate that Ukraine will need at least ten NASAMS batteries to effectively protect Ukraine’s largest cities and the civilians living there from Russia’s terror bombing. Another option would be to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia (a topic that has been under discussion for several months). Ukrainian pilots have repeatedly proven that they can shoot down incoming missiles if they have the aircraft to do so.
  • Step up Western sanctions on Russia, which are reducing its capacity to conduct offensive operations. Western countries’ designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would be a crucial step in this process, as it would cut all official ties between Moscow and Western capitals – thereby making it even more difficult for the Kremlin to gain economic or other support from elsewhere in the world.
  • Increase deliveries of armoured vehicles to Ukraine. As the Ukrainian military is still coming under intense barrages from Russian artillery, it will only be able to reinforce vulnerable parts of the front line and react to Russian breakthroughs if it has the armoured vehicles and tanks it needs, including infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, and main battle tanks (systems that allow it to transport infantry and destroy targets on the battlefield).
  • Finally, Western states should not allow themselves to be intimidated by Russian threats of escalation if they provide Ukraine with more advanced technology, such as ATACMS. Given the Russian command’s tendency to rely on inaccurate data, indulge in wishful thinking, and pursue political goals no matter the cost, its attempts at escalation are likely to backfire.

Western support remains a decisive factor in Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian aggression. And Ukraine has demonstrated its capacity to both withstand the Russian army and employ Western weapons effectively. Ukrainian forces will require more such support if they are to continue to protect Europe by grinding Russia’s military machine down.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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