25.05 War Review

Meatgrinder tactics: the Russian army is getting better at fighting, requiring the Western coalition to adjust its military aid to Kyiv


After its defeats and heavy losses of equipment and manpower in Ukraine throughout 2022, the Russian army has largely adapted to the current conditions and become better at fighting. Among the 'success factors' are the use of poorly trained troops as 'disposable' infantry, i.e. 'cannon fodder' to reduce professional army losses, and significant spending on defensive structures and effective engineering innovations. These transformations could complicate a planned counteroffensive by the Ukrainian Armed Forces (AFU) and require the Western coalition to adjust its plans to supply arms to Ukraine, according to a report by the UK's Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).
The report by RUSI analysts, 'Meat Grinder: Russia's Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine,' was based on interviews with Ukrainian servicemen — officers and enlisted men, officers of the General Staff and operational-level headquarters of the AFU. These interviews were conducted in and before April-May 2023, and the information gathered from these was compared with independent assessments and open source data. The Russian army has learned from its failures and has significantly improved its effectiveness in a number of areas, the authors conclude.

Infantry

The most notable change in Russian army tactics has to do with infantry and was a reaction to the unsuccessful use of mechanised battalion-tactical groups in the first phase of the war. Such formations included mechanised infantry, tanks, artillery and other auxiliaries, but lacked cohesion on the battlefield. As a result, the Russian army has returned to the practice of using different types of infantry units: 'disposable', linear, assault and specialised units.

The main innovation has been the use of 'disposable' infantry units, which are mainly formed from conscripts from the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR, prisoners recruited by the Wagner PMC, as well as undertrained mobilised Russians. These infantrymen are armed with small arms and are the first to be used in an attack, forcing the AFU to continuously defend, waste ammunition and expose the location of their defensive positions, which then become targets for either assault or shelling.

Specialised infantry units are formed from airborne troops, professional Wagner PMC units and special forces and are deployed while Ukrainian forces are resisting the 'disposable' infantry. 

The Russian assault infantry is the most effective during an offensive as it receives additional training comparable to that received by NATO light infantry. The assault infantry usually advances with the support of armoured vehicles and artillery. 

As the report's authors highlight, the use of such an echeloned structure is a cynical but effective solution to the problem facing the Russian ground forces. Russia is able to mobilise large numbers of personnel with little training. Although casualties among 'disposable' infantry are extremely high, their use allows specialised units to fight from well-trained positions. Assault units are deployed only in the best of circumstances, and once they have achieved their objectives they are relocated to other parts of the front with few casualties.

Artillery

Russian artillery continues to have a major impact on the course of hostilities, RUSI analysts note, but the scale of shelling in 2023 has noticeably decreased. During the first quarter of 2023, the intensity of shelling ranged from 12,000 to 38,000 rounds per day, while the number of days in which more than 24,000 rounds were fired has significantly decreased. 

While the total consumption of ammunition by the Russian army in 2022 was about 12 million rounds, the RUSI analysts have calculated that in 2023, if the current rate is maintained, it will not exceed 7 million. At the same time, Ukrainian sources have estimated that Russia is currently producing about 2.5 million shells per year. From this, it can be assumed that the intensity of fire will continue to decrease.

After the AFU began using HIMARS systems in the summer of 2022 and the Russian army's supply chain was disrupted, the Russian Armed Forces began to adjust the timing and direction of its artillery strikes to achieve the greatest effectiveness, in which improved reconnaissance assets, in particular the use of Orlan-10 drones, have played a role. Moreover, artillery began to be used not only to hit Ukrainian defensive positions, but also to repel attacks.

Armoured vehicles

After suffering huge losses of its armoured vehicles, the Russian army has stopped using tanks for breakthroughs. Now, they are generally used for three purposes. First, they complement artillery capabilities, especially in sectors where Russia does not have sufficient air defences to protect the logistics architecture. Second, they are used as high-precision fire support assets capable of detecting and destroying firing positions from up to 2 km away. Third, they carry out attack raids during rotations of AFU units.

Significant changes have been made to the tanks themselves to reduce the effectiveness of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) used by the AFU. For this purpose, the armoured vehicles have been fitted with anti-thermal material and their engine compartment has been modified to reduce the heat plume from their exhaust gases and engine. The Russian army has also increased its use of armoured vehicles at dusk and dawn, when the vehicle temperature is close to ambient temperature.

The reactive armour of Russian tanks has also proved highly effective, rendering them beyond the reach of most anti-tank systems.

Air defence and aviation

The Russian air defence system has become considerably more reliable. The S-400 systems are now deployed around key logistics and command and control centres. Tor and Pantsir-S1 systems are also connected to the fire control radars, which has significantly improved situational awareness and the effectiveness of short-range air defence systems. This has closed the airspace to Ukrainian aviation and significantly improved the quality of Russian defence as a whole. Those interviewed estimated that Russian air defence systems are now able to intercept a significant number of GMLRS guided missiles. The effectiveness of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems also remains high.

The Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) remain reluctant to invade Ukrainian airspace, despite having considerable firepower and a large fleet of available aircraft with munitions. The majority of Russian aviation is used to launch long-range cruise missile strikes from Tu-95 aircraft. The Air Force also occasionally strikes Ukraine with FAB-500 bombs, but with a potential range of up to 70 km, these munitions have relatively low accuracy. 

Nevertheless, the report stresses, Russian aviation, and especially its large fleet of attack aircraft, are able to inflict a huge amount of damage to Ukraine, even if it costs Russia a lot of money. This threat must be taken into account when preparing a counteroffensive by the AFU.

Engineers and electronic warfare

One of the most effective units of the Russian Armed Forces in Ukraine is the engineering forces. Each brigade of the Russian army has two engineering companies, one dedicated to mines and the other to building defence structures.

As outlined in the RUSI report, Russian defensive positions usually consist of two or three lines. The first includes infantry fighting positions. The second consists of trenches and pillboxes preceded by several obstacle courses, including anti-tank trenches four metres deep and six metres wide, 'dragon teeth' and barbed wire fences. The third line usually includes retreat positions and shelters for reserves and vehicles.

Minefields have become an important element of Russian defence. According to the Ukrainian military, the Russian army has no shortage of mines and creates mixed fields with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines. 

Another area in which Russian engineering units regularly demonstrate their competence is bridge-building. The Russian forces are so confident that they can build bridges quickly that they sometimes destroy them even on routes they intend to use in the future in order to create a nuisance for the AFU.

An important element of combat operations is electronic warfare. The Shipovnik-Aero system, which can be used to shoot down drones, is highly effective: their losses to the AFU are estimated at about 10,000 per month.

RUSI experts also foreground the ability of Russian forces to intercept and decode radio communications. In particular, they were able to crack the cipher used by Ukrainian troops in communications using Motorola radios with 256-bit encryption.

Command and control

GMLRS missile strikes pushed Russian headquarters 120 km away from the line of contact, which created significant tactical difficulties for the Russian troops in the autumn of 2022. By winter, however, these problems had largely been overcome. Russian headquarters are now more dispersed and connected to command posts by wired communication, which in the occupied territories is often achieved with the help of the captured Ukrainian telecommunications network. The command posts are moved up to 20 km away from the front line and are well protected. The main limitation in Russian defensive operations remains that the units involved have virtually no horizontal communication. Instead, information is transmitted up the hierarchy, and only from there does it come down.

Priority assistance for the AFU

To break through Russian defensive lines, Ukraine must build up serious combat power, and the length of Russian defensive fortifications along the entire front makes bypassing them virtually impossible. 

Thus, the training priority for Ukrainian troops is to train in assault operations against fortified positions.

The report underscores that the first priority for the Ukrainian Armed Forces will be to win the duel of artillery fire. International partners have provided Kyiv with a large number of artillery systems and ammunition, but the AFU's firing system remains lopsided. It needs to be provided with counter-battery systems to suppress the superior numbers of Russian artillery.

Winning firing duels in direct confrontations will also be crucial. So far, Ukrainian units have been equipped with 50-calibre heavy machine guns, but the AFU should also be provided with Mk19 type automatic grenade launchers, which, given the arc-shaped trajectory of their shots, will pose a greater threat to enemy forces. 

The AFU continues to face numerous obstacles when it comes to sharpening the skills, tactical coordination and group cohesion of its units. Collective unit training must be a priority for Western partners. 

In the event of a defensive breach, Ukrainian units will also need to be able to exploit the resulting gap, i.e., maintain the tempo of the offensive and remain able to defend as they advance. Therefore, the availability and serviceability of equipment is important: the AFU must have spare parts for all the equipment it has been transferred, and all manuals must be translated into Ukrainian. 

Protecting breakout units from Russian reserve counterattacks requires destroying the enemy's command and control infrastructure. This involves suppressing air defences, conducting electronic attacks and using UAVs.

As the authors of the study point out, Russia is using its enormous ammunition stockpiles extremely inefficiently. Firepower actually serves as a crutch for Russian forces to compensate for their tactical shortcomings in other areas. Therefore, the greatest danger for Ukraine in the long term might be a situation in which some third country provides Russia with the capacity to build additional ammunition production facilities.

Ukrainian forces, despite their superiority in terms of morale and as is often the case, in training, continue to face a range of military and tactical challenges. Addressing these requires sustained and adequate support from international partners.