GUEST BLOG: Ben Morgan – What happens next? Understanding Russia’s tactical impasse and what strategic escalation means it may not be what we think.

We are seeing an escalation in both rhetoric and action; the war is escalating strategically, however there is complex interaction between the tactical level and the strategic level of operations that will drive Russian strategic decisions in the next few days.  The crux of this interaction is Russia’s current tactical impasse.  The world is starting acknowledge that within the parameters of their ‘special military operation’ the Russians are likely to have culminated.  Russian ground forces simply do not have the ‘boots on the ground’ to win.  

Specifically, they are short of infantry, the tough soldiers that actually close with the enemy and drive them out of defensive positions.  The Russians started their invasion of Ukraine with about a third of their standing army deployed in the invasion, roughly 120 ‘battalion tactical groups’.   Yesterday the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence published a report stating that a quarter of Russia’s battalion tactical groups are ‘combat ineffective’. This adds credibility to earlier reports that indicated similar levels of Russian casualties (see Russian plans in Donbas explained)

Russia’s battalion tactical groups were designed to provide a great deal of impact with minimal manpower.   With lots of artillery, sometimes as much as a NATO brigade (with two-three battalions) and about thirty tanks they look good on paper. Designed to move and operate independently for short periods of time they seemed like powerful asset and early in the war the Russia army looked formidable. Further, in recent conflicts the battalion tactical group concept appeared to work well. In the 2014 invasion of Ukraine and Crimea, battalion tactical groups were successful, defeating larger Ukrainian units. Combined with Russian claims of improved technology the prospect of a 120 ‘network enabled’ battalion groups swarming across Ukraine was frightening.  

However, the war has demonstrated two key flaws that cannot easily be solved, unlike logistics concerns.  The first is the lack of devolved authority and ‘mission command’ doctrine, the battalion tactical group could be a powerful battlefield asset if commanders at all levels were well-trained and able to make decisions quickly.  The second weakness is the lack of infantry, this war is proving that even in age of network enabled armies, precision strike and drones the ‘trunk monkeys’, ‘grunts’ or ‘footsloggers’ are still an essential part of any successful operation.  The poor old infantry ‘slogging it out’ either attacking or defending a piece of ground are still the most important people on the battlefield.  At the start of the war most battalion tactical groups had about 300 infantrymen and two months of tough fighting later they have even less. 

Doing some back of ‘cigarette packet’ analysis, the Russians started the war with about 36,000 deployable infantry soldiers.  Normally, about 40% of casualties in a battle are in the infantry. Therefore if we take British Defense Secretary George Wallace’s conservative figure of 15,000 Russians dead then it is likely that approximately 6,000 dead infantrymen (or roughly 1 in 6 Russian infantrymen) are dead.  Combine this with wounded and we can see the problem that the Russians have to manage. 

That is why the latest Institute for the Study of War’s daily summary (May 2) stated simply that across the whole front there were no Russian attacks that day. Some commentators will read into this that the Russians are being deceptive and preparing for a larger move.  Perhaps, that evacuation of civilians from Mariupol ties in with a broader strategy to deceive NATO before major attack is launched? 

 I prefer to apply Ockham’s Razor and based on what we know the hypothesis that Russia is running out of infantry soldiers so can’t take the offensive is the simplest option.  

Russia’s artillery fire and long-range missile attacks on places like Lviv and Odessa help to colour the picture that is emerging.  Lviv is suffering because it is a key point in the supply chain that brings forward weapons to Ukrainian forces in the south and east.  The Russians are trying to stop the flow of new weapons to Ukraine, history demonstrates that this will not work, but they are trying. Odessa is on the list because it is a logistics hub and because bombing it keeps people guessing about whether the Russians will push in that direction.  None of this activity requires infantry soldiers though.  If the Russians had the manpower, then they would be continuing their probing and reconnaissance.

In the last article we discussed Russian Chief of General Staff General Valery Gerasimov’s visit to Ukraine, obviously to ‘smell the battle’ as Arthur Wellesley described the role of a senior commander, to find out what is going on especially the morale and state of the soldiers ‘on the ground’.  Unfortunately, his visit coincided with a Ukrainian strike on the Russian headquarters running the Izyum battle.  There are reports that General Gerasimov was wounded.  The Institute for the Study of War assessed that this strike may even have temporarily paralysed Russian command and control in this area which is the only area the Russians are progressing.  Most importantly, this incident adds to the overall picture of an army culminating tactically, its manpower being depleted both on the frontline or at its most senior levels.

Last week there were credible reports of Russian battalion battle groups being hastily reformed and re-organised, essentially two or three combat ineffective battlegroups being ‘jammed’ together to create new one.  In military terms this is a last resort, think of a military unit being like a sports team, it trains together for years developing its own culture, drills and ways of doing things within the team.  Bringing two battered battalion battlegroups is like putting half of the Blues rugby team on the field at short notice, after a string of crippling defeats, with half of the Crusaders rugby team and expecting them to play well.  It is likely that the coaching staff are arguing about who was in charge and what tactics to use, there would be too many players in some positions and not enough in others, key specialists may not be there and most important – Who is the captain? 

In summary, the Russians are in real trouble at the tactical level and this problem is likely to be driving their strategy.  A first sign of Russian acknowledgement of this situation may be last week’s strategic escalations, cutting of gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, bombing Kiev during the UN Secretary General’s visit and using lots escalatory rhetoric.  Threatening behaviour deliberately designed to test NATO’s strategic resolve. NATO has met this escalation ‘head on’ and did not flinch. 

Last week also saw attacks on infra-structure by ‘unknown actors’ in both Transnistria and Russia.  At this stage we don’t know exactly who is behind these attacks, but it is likely that Russians are behind the Transnistria attacks.  Using special forces to mount small false flag operations in this area is a ‘cheap’ way to divert attention from the fight in the east and creates concerns about the war spreading into Transnistria or Moldova.  However, Russian forces in Transnistria are tiny and likely to be keeping a low profile at the moment hoping that the Ukrainians and Moldovans do not decide to remove the Russian ‘peace keeping’ force however the attacks may be part of a bigger political manoeuvre. 

Likewise, responsibility for attacks on Russian supply infra-structure in places like Belgorod is uncertain.  It could be a Ukrainian operation, local saboteurs or a false flag operation. We simply do not know.  But combined with the attacks in Transnistria these attacks on Russian soil may be an attempt by Putin to create a casus belli for full-scale mobilisation.  Full-scale mobilisation is one of the few options that Putin has left to win the war at the tactical level. In time it would provide the infantry soldiers that he needs to take cities and control the countryside.  However, it is big political and economic risk.  Mobilisation is enormously expensive and an admission to the Russian public that he has failed so it will need to ‘pitched’ carefully.

Which leads to Russia’s activities this week that started with their Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov walking back the previous week’s escalations.  Then over the last few days the Russians have allowed the evacuation of some civilians from Mariupol.   Another gesture likely designed to de-escalate the situation at a strategic level.  Meanwhile, Russian military resources are being diverted to creating a new republic of Kherson, free of ‘Nazi tyranny’.  

This all leads us to what we can expect in the next few days before Russia’s May 9th Victory Day celebrations.  I suspect the Russian’s know that they are in trouble and can no longer force an offensive in either the east or in the south. Instead of aggressive action it is likely that the Russians will consolidate and take a quick propaganda victory. Bidding their time and resources and preparing for the next move.

Kherson provides a fine natural boundary for a new pro-Russian territory; it sits on the Dnieper River a strong defensive flank for the new territory.  Clearing the civilians out of Mariupol is a PR victory. Further, when the Russians do pump poison gas into the Azovstal Steel Factory’s underground network of tunnels and bunkers to kill the defenders the world will not be watching as closely or as shocked as if there were civilians in the factory.   So far, the Ukrainians have not been able to mount large offensives so the Russians can safely assume that they can hold the land they have taken to date.  A picture is building of a quick PR ‘victory’ being claimed. However, it is also likely that there will be a ‘call to arms’ based on the ongoing struggle in Ukraine expanding into attacks on Russian and Transnistrian soil.  Putin, will tell the Russian people that they are fighting a proxy war against NATO and that pacifying Ukraine and ‘protecting’ their fellow Russians in Donetsk, Luhansk, Crimea and Kherson requires more soldiers and that larger mobilisation is required.  

On the ground the war is likely to slow down this week, the Russians in Ukraine protecting what they have taken because if the Ukrainians do have the capacity, then May 9th is the perfect day to launch an attack.  The Russians need to be ready so that if that happens, they defeat the Ukrainians. So it is unlikely that between now and Victory Day, we are going to see large and risky commitments by Russia in Ukraine.  Instead it is more likely that they will be bidding their time, they will take a PR victory in Kherson then mobilise to get the resources for a long war, hoping that NATO’s resolve will weaken over time.  


Ben Morgan is a tired Gen X interested in international politics. He is TDB’s Military analyst.

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