A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 17, 2023

How Ukraine Is Adapting To Russia's Evolving Tactics

The Russians have demonstrated some ability to evolve at the tactical, if not the strategic level. But the Ukrainians have consistently adapted in ways that have thwarted the Russians. 

The Ukrainians - and their military in particular - have proven to be more adept at learning and then turning their knowledge and interpretation into battlefield advantage. Given that the Russian evolutions have been local and historic rather than strategic and innovative, the Ukrainians have an opportunity to study the changes made - and then create means of turning them to their advantage as they have done before. JL

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

The Russians have demonstrated the ability to learn and to adapt at the tactical level. This has been uneven, not evident across the breadth of Russian military operations, and many of the ideas are hardly new. It is a military capability that should be studied for weaknesses that might be exploited by Ukrainian forces. (But) the Ukrainians have demonstrated the ability to learn on the battlefield and adapt. They have also shown a knack for the rapid assimilation of new equipment such as HIMARS, then applying these systems with great tactical competence. This Ukrainian capacity must focus on a better understanding of Russian systems so their tactical adaptation is made less effective and less systemic.

Contrary to the ‘Russian are stupid’ stereotypes that have developed throughout the war in Ukraine, they have demonstrated an ability in some areas to learn and adapt. This isn’t a statement of admiration; far from it! It is however necessary, through military prudence, to understand where the Russian are adapting and to assume that they may continue to do so in the coming months. In understanding Russian adaptation, we can ensure Ukrainian forces understand tactical and operational risks, and that they are best prepared for the months ahead.

Several areas of Russian adaptations during this war bear closer examination. Three key areas of learning stand out: strategic adaptation; operational adaptation; and tactical adaptation. Within each of these areas, there are sub-topics which deserve deeper exploration.  I intend to cover these three levels of Russian adaptation in a series of posts.

Tactical Adaptation

Tactical excellence is core to the military effectiveness of military organisations in a theatre of war. It is the foundation skill, and set of experiences, for military leaders in any service and in any nation. You can’t win wars if you can’t win battles.

At the most basic level of military operations, armies, navies, air forces, and their supporting elements must be able to fight and win battles within their domains. The tactical level of war is therefore focused on the planning and employment of military forces in battles, engagements, and other activities to achieve military objectives.

In my book War Transformed, I conducted an extensive study of tactical effectiveness in the 21st century. It is also a topic that is explored in even more detail by Williamson Murray and Allan Millett in their superb three volume series called Military Effectiveness.

Tactical adaptation is those actions that underpin learning and improvement on the battlefield, as well as the dissemination of those lessons to other battlefield elements as well as the training institutions that prepare reinforcements and new units. There are many tactical adaptations which have occurred over the period since the beginning of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this article I will explore close combat, tactics, the use of mercenaries and an evolved approach to defensive operations.

One area of adaptation has been how the Russians have conducted close combat. Early in the war, the Russians sought to conduct sweeping manoeuvres that coordinated airborne and airdrop operations with ground offensive operations. Unfortunately for the Russians, air-land integration as well as ground combined arms tactics were poorly conducted. Shortfalls in infantry also played a part. Combined, this permitted the Ukrainians to attack Russian logistics and rear areas, destroy armoured vehicles while also killing many of the dismounted infantry soldiers of the Russian invading force.

The shortfalls in infantry and the armour-heavy ‘thunder runs’ of Russian tanks towards Kyiv early in the war demonstrated either a lack of tactical competence or an impatience on the part of commanders to take the time to orchestrate the various elements of the combined arms team on the ground. It ultimately led to the Russian retreat from Kyiv and Kharkiv.

The disastrous crossing of the Severskii River by Russian forces in May 2022 was another exemplar of poor Russian tactical integration in their combat operations. Over the course of a full day on 11 May 2022, the Russian attempt to cross the river was repulsed by Ukrainian forces. They lost over a quarter of personnel committed to the crossing and nearly 80 percent of their armoured vehicles. It was decisive defeat, and indicative of an army that was still coming to grips with modern surveillance and targeting, and the complex integration of ground and air units when crossing obstacles.

However, after this, the Russians appeared to learn. Their conduct of the withdrawal from Kherson in October and November 2022 shows that they had adapted. They were able to undertake a large-scale river crossing operation and extract a large portion of the Russian forces that were deployed in the south of Ukraine. As one review of the operation describes:

The Russians succeeded in withdrawing two army-sized groupings from the Dnipro right bank:  the Crimea-based 22nd Army Corps in the south; and a mixed northern grouping comprising formations from 35th Combined Arms Army and 49 CAA.  42,370 troops got away …253 tanks and almost 400 armoured personnel carriers of various types were also evacuated alongside several thousand wheeled vehicles. A Russian Army got away, and a Russian President escaped a humiliating defeat on the battlefield.

Their poor tactical performance also drove the Russians to adapt their design for battle in the Donbas. Instead of more maneuverist tactics, they adopted a very attritional model. The Russians turned to massed artillery guided by UAVs to ‘lead the way’ in their offensive thrusts. It resulted in the Russians advancing more slowly, and more caution, in order to not expose their logistics to attack.

Two other more recent tactical adaptations bear mentioning. The first that emerged was the large-scale deployment of Wagner Group mercenaries in 2022, particularly in the Bakhmut area of eastern Ukraine. Their adaptation was essentially a return to human wave attacks that have featured in conflicts such as the Iran-Iraq war.

This was not just the simple application of human wave tactics, however. It is a more sophisticated adaptation to tactics where the initial human waves are just the first echelon of several, each successive echelon featuring more experienced and capable troops. The Wagner Group, which had actively recruited convicts from the Russian penal system, used convicts as first wave troops, and essentially as bullet catchers for Ukrainian defending forces. Each successive wave would claw out small gains and eventually better trained and more experienced Wagner Troops would exploit any gains that these human wave attacks achieved.

Another recent tactical adaptation by Russian forces has included the formation of Shock Troops and the use of infiltration tactics to bypass Ukrainian strongpoints. Perhaps the best exploration of this topic has been provided in several posts by the @Tatarigami_UA twitter feed. I recommend following if you don’t already. There is also a good review of the evolved Russian tactics here.

These tactics, developed in the First World War to overcome the operational challenge of kilometres-deep defensive zones, demand tactical discipline and good leadership. They are also meant to enable the penetration of exploitation forces that can rapidly move into an enemy’s rear areas and destroy enemy reserves, logistics, artillery and headquarters. Despite the tactical adaptations we have seen from the Russians, we are yet to see them achieve an operational breakthrough and exploitation during the 2023 offensives.

The Russians have also evolved their conduct of air support to ground forces. In order to avoid the deadly Ukrainian air and missile defence network, the Russians have adapted their aerial tactics to employ longer range weapons. In March, it was revealed that the Russians have been using in combat for the first time their 1.5 ton UPAB-1500B glide bombs. Not only do these increase the survivability of the launch aircraft, but they are also very difficult to intercept.

Concurrently, Russian forces have been quite busy adapting their defensive tactics and developing successive defensive zones in the east and the south. Back in November 2022, I examined the utility of tactical and operational obstacle belts and zones. Since then, the Russians have further developed these eastern and southern defensive belts. The twitter feed maintained by Brady Africk (@BradyAfr) is an excellent resource in following Russian construction of these obstacle belts and zones. These are likely to pose a significant challenge to Ukrainian offensives in the short term.

There are several other tactical adaptations which I will cover in a subsequent post. These include Russian logistic systems, vehicle protection systems, and the use of drones and loitering munitions.

Countering Russian Learning

Thus far, the Russians have demonstrated the ability to learn and to adapt at the tactical level. This adaptation has been uneven, not evident across the breadth of Russian military operations, and many of the ideas are hardly new ones. But, it is undeniable that some learning and evolution has taken place.  It is a military capability that will be central to Russia’s ongoing ability to conduct operations in Ukraine, and one that should be studied for weaknesses that might be exploited by the Ukrainian forces as well as Western intelligence agencies.

Notwithstanding the Russian ability to learn and adapt in this war, it is also clear that the Ukrainians have also been quick studies in modern war. Indeed, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, they have demonstrated the ability to learn on the battlefield and adapt. They have also shown a knack for the rapid assimilation of new equipment such as HIMARS and western armoured vehicles, and then applying these systems with great tactical competence.  

Part of this Ukrainian capacity for individual and institutional learning must be a focus on developing a better understanding of Russian learning systems and outcomes. In doing so, Russian learning can be impeded or stopped, and their tactical adaptation made less effective and less systemic.

I look forward to sharing more on this topic in the near future in the hope of assisting the Ukrainian armed forces to develop a capacity for counter-adaptation against Russian forces.


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