Russia: It Was A Very Bad Year


February 28, 2023: It’s been a year since Russia invaded Ukraine and the Ukrainians are seen as the unexpected victor against the theoretically more powerful Russians. The Russian effort was poorly planned and carried out by poorly trained and often reluctant Russian troops. The Ukrainians were prepared and determined to defend their independence. This was the largest war Russia has been involved in since 1945 and Russian commanders and troops were not ready for what they faced in Ukraine. It’s common for Russian forces to perform poorly in the early stages of a war, especially when they are the attacker. The Russian government thought they had solved all these problems. That was not the case and in some respects Russian reform efforts made matter worse

From the start of the invasion the Russians under-performed. Initially this was seen as the Ukrainians getting lucky. After a few weeks it was clear that Russian and Ukrainian forces were using very different tactics. The Ukrainians have been winning from the beginning by using better tactics and having better leadership in general. These differences led to Russia suffering more combat deaths in the last year than they suffered in all the wars and conflicts their troops were involved in since the end of World War II in 1945.

The original plan was to make a massive attack from many directions on an unprepared Ukraine. That failed in a spectacular fashion because the Russians overly dispersed their attacks and the Ukrainians were far more prepared than the invaders. Ukrainian war preparations were no secret and Russian intel (FSB and GRU) had lots of people inside Ukraine observing and reporting back to Russia. These reports were accurate but, by the time they reached senior leaders, especially Vladimir Putin, they had been modified to tell Putin what he wanted to hear. Putin believed the Ukrainians were incapable of organizing an effective resistance against his planned massive land and air attack that would paralyze and demoralize them. Russia expected to take control of the country in a matter of days. A year later Russian military operations are still crippled by similar delusions which probably only Putin believes, with any senior dissenters being retired or reported as a victim of a fatal accident.

Russia had a hard time accepting the fact that the Ukrainians were better trained, armed and led. To an outside observer Russia has two major problems with their armed forces. The most obvious one is continued use of outdated (pre-1991) Soviet-style planning and command techniques. Plans are still created to be followed precisely by subordinates who make no deviations without orders from above. This works if you use overwhelming force against a foe who does not react in an unanticipated fashion. During World War II German dictator Hitler often ordered troops to not retreat and that is one of the reasons for this Russian military style. Many major Russian World War II victories were due to frequent German “stand fast” orders. This did not work against the more flexible Ukrainians, who were using planning methods and tactics developed in the West during the last century and tested and found effective many times during and after World War II. The standard Russian tactics don’t work against a more flexible defender and the Ukrainians were yet another demonstration of that.

Another Russian problem is a lot more corruption than in Ukraine. This makes it difficult for Russia to recruit or even conscript more troops. In contrast Ukraine had about a million regular and reserve troops a year after the invasion began. In Russia, corruption in the recruitment and training process is common and discourages new soldiers from fighting. Desertion in the combat zone is common. Those who don’t desert face almost certain death or injury making suicidal frontal attacks on well prepared and determined Ukrainian defenders. In response to this the Russian plan is to keep the war going for as long as it takes to wear the Ukrainians and their NATO supporters d0wn. The Russian people are suffering most from all this and Putin believes the Russian people will put up with this because this is what Russians have done in the past. Currently most Russians still support the war. At the same time there are also a growing number of Russians trying to get out of Russia to avoid military service or staying and subverting or sabotaging the war effort.

Russia is trying to produce some victories, no matter how minor, by carrying out dozens of small offensive operations. Some of these do gain minor amounts of territory and are declared as great victories even though they usually have no value at all and were gained at the cost of thousands of Russian casualties.

Captured documents indicate Russia has developed a new solution to the problems revealed a year ago when the BTG (Battalion Task Group) system that Russia expanded since the 1980s was a major failure in combat. The new combined arms units contain fewer than a hundred troops and about a dozen tanks and other armored vehicles. The BTGs had as many as 800 troops and Russian officers (there are few NCOs) were unable to handle the many different weapons and other systems found in a BTG. The new, smaller task groups are more the size of an infantry company and could be called CTGs (Company Task Groups). As simplified as they are, the key problem is the lack of small unit officers in general and combat experienced officers in particular.

The BTG concept was based on the success Western armies had with task forces. The Russian BTGs missed that point that a successful task force required trained, and preferably combat experienced officers and NCOs to work. Russia didn’t have sufficient small unit leaders for the 170 BTGs they had before the invasion and lost a lot of combat officers in the first months of the Ukraine war. It is believed that Russia will form far fewer CTGs and use only as many as it can find competent junior officers who are able to command them in combat. In Ukraine Russia sought to replace heavy losses of junior combat officers by offering competent soldiers officer rank and command of small units. Historically, officers given battlefield promotions to officer rank are not reluctant to point out problems to their superiors. This apparently led to the CTGs. Russia is desperate for some battlefield victories, no matter how small and the few CTGs in action so far seem capable of delivering some wins.

Before the invasion the BTGs became the standard for Russian divisions, which now consisted of two or three brigades. Each of these usually had just two BTGs. The division had fewer support units because most of these troops were now assigned to BTGs or brigades. BTG combat elements consisted of one tank company, two or three infantry companies and one or two batteries of artillery. These contained contract (volunteer) troops while most of the rest of the BTG depended on conscripts. The conscripts had several shortcomings. They could not be used in a combat zone outside Russia. The Conscript's term of service was only one year and they were not as well trained or trained at all compared to the contract troops. Many newly formed BTGs were sent to the Ukrainian border in late 2021 to threaten Ukraine and if that did not work, to invade. Most of the troops in BTGs were not aware of the invasion option.

The flaw in the BTGs was not obvious until they encountered well-armed and motivated opponents. That happened soon after they crossed the border into Ukraine. The leadership in these BTGs could not handle the complex composition of BTGs. Senior Russian leaders knew this from the performance of BTG leaders during military exercises. This was not a surprise as the quality of officers had declined in the last decade and there were still not enough experienced NCOs.

The lack of competent leadership meant the troops in the BTGs were poorly used during combat and troops increasingly abandoned their vehicles and fled if they encountered Ukrainian troops, who concentrated on hitting the very vulnerable tanks and light armored vehicles. BTG commanders failed to carry out effective reconnaissance or get the infantry out of their armored vehicles and protect their tanks from Ukrainian infantry armed with modern Western anti-tank weapons. Worse, the Ukrainians concentrated on attacking the BTG supply trucks and vehicles transporting maintenance personnel. The Ukrainian attacks on these trucks meant that the combat units could not refuel and had to stop before they reached their objectives. The Ukrainians now had stationary Russian armored vehicles to attack. The few competent or determined BTG officers were soon killed as they tried to get their troops to put up an effective fight. These young officers had no experience and many had little or no training for combat. An example was a weather officer forced to serve as an armored reconnaissance officer. Senior Russian officers (colonels and generals) who did have experience were under tremendous pressure from their military and political commanders to get the problem fixed. Many went to the front line BTGs to show the junior officers how it was done, often by example. Many of these senior officers were killed or wounded. This further weakened the leadership of the brigades and divisions that went into Ukraine dependent on their BTGs.

It remains to be seen if the CTGs can be turned into a success. The BTGs were a major embarrassment; the CTGs appear more the result of practical necessity than damage control by embarrassed Russian generals. Ukraine is the first major war Russia has fought since World War II and after two years of heavy losses in 1942-2, the surviving Russian officers and troops had become practical and effective in how they fought, and eventually defeated the Germans. In Ukraine the Russians are the invaders and the Ukrainian defenders have been far more innovative and effective at defending themselves and killing Russians. For Russia, this is not World War II and the Russians are the bad guys in Ukraine.

Ammunition Supply Problems

Russia is also running out of ammunition and weapons because its defense industries are not large enough to build the needed replacements. Economic sanctions also limit defense production and war-related spending in general. Few countries were willing to sell to Russia. The solution was to find countries willing to barter instead. Russia found two suppliers. Iran offered Russian ammunition as well as more UAVs. Iran manufactures a wide range of artillery and infantry weapon ammunition, and some UAVs. Many of the Iranian made mortars, assault rifles and machine-guns are compatible with Russian weapons. In return Iran wanted modern Russian military aircraft, including recent jet trainers and electronic warfare systems. Russia is apparently reluctant to provide Iran with assistance in developing nuclear weapons. North Korea was willing to provide artillery munitions in return for food and fuel.

Atrocity Blues

Another cost of the war for Russia is legal and international. Ukraine has assembled a large quantity of evidence, including recorded cell phone conversions, captured cellphones and testimony from Russian prisoners as part of an effort to bring charges of war crimes against Russian troops in Ukraine, especially those in Russian occupied territory. There the Russians have been particularly brutal against Ukrainian civilians who refuse to accept Russian rule. Food and access to utilities (electricity and water) is limited for those who refuse to accept Russian identification documents or use Russian currency.

Russia continues to send kidnapped Ukrainian children to Russia where they are adopted by Russian couples and raised as Russian. Details of these war crimes have been smuggled out or Russian occupied territory and formal war crimes charges have been brought for more 65,000 separate incidents including mass murder, deliberate attacks on civilians, rape and kidnapping. Many of these continue to occur in Ukrainian territory or were discovered when the Russians are driven out of Ukrainian territory. Many of these crimes have no Ukrainian witnesses, just a lot of dead bodies. Ukraine is accused of killing Russian troops seeking to surrender and sometimes firing artillery shells at civilian occupied areas. Russia is way ahead of Ukraine when it comes to bad behavior in or out of combat.

February 27, 2023: Russia continues to face problems with its neighbor and sometimes ally Belarus. Efforts to persuade Belarus to join Russian forces inside Ukraine continue to be turned down. The main obstacle to that happening is that Russia wants to annex Belarus as well as Ukraine. This was confirmed recently when a classified Russian document describing how Russia planned to absorb Belarus without a war. This was not news. Before 2022, Belarus was seen as the next former Soviet territory to be annexed by Russia. The response of Ukrainians to the Russian invasion changed attitudes towards annexation of Belorussia. This is despite the fact that the longtime (27 years so far) Belarus president-for-life Alexander Lukashenko has ruled Belarus as a loyal ally of Russia. That has not helped the Belarussian economy or improved the lives of Belarus voters. A new post-Soviet Union generation of voters has seen how life is better in democracies, especially other former victims of Russian rule like neighboring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Ukraine. They blame Lukashenko for the poverty and mismanaged economy in Belarus, as well as an incompetent response to covid19. Since 2020 Lukashenko has faced growing popular protest against government incompetence and decades of rigged elections, corrupt rule, and inability to do much of anything effectively. Since the late 1990s Lukashenko has won reelection with 80-90 percent of the vote in visibly fraudulent elections. Lukashenko is a Soviet era official, who runs Belarus using the Soviet Union as a model. Belarus is a police state, where elections, and everything else, is manipulated to keep the same politicians in power. It's a tricky business, but so far Lukashenko has kept the security forces up to snuff, and on his side. He bribes or bullies key officials to keep the country running. Lukashenko has maintained good relations with Russia, getting him cheap fuel supplies and other aid. Belarus is small (9.5 million people) compared to neighbors Russia (146 million) and Ukraine (42 million) and Russia wants to absorb Belarus and Ukraine to rebuild the centuries old Russian empire that the czars created and the communists lost. Lukashenko, like most Belarussians, opposes annexation by Russia. So far Russia is not actively seeking to annex Belarus or send in security forces to help suppress what has turned into a rebellion against Lukashenko. Lukashenko is becoming more of a liability for Russia but is currently still a “favored ally.” Russia would like to be rid of Lukashenko but there is no one in Belarus with his skills, experience and pro-Russia attitude. Russia has created a major problem for itself in Belarus. Not as bad as the mess in Ukraine, but still another setback in the Russian effort to rebuild the Soviet-era Russian empire. Lukashenko noted what happened to pro-Russia Ukrainian politicians after the Russians invaded and most Ukrainians joined or supported the fight against Russian domination and any pro-Russia Ukrainians. Currently Lukashenko is on his way to China for a three day official (state) visit that will involve discussions with China about helping Belarus retain its independence from Russia, even if that means becoming dependent on China.

February 26, 2023: The Ukrainian economy shrank by over 30 percent in 2022 and deliberate Russian attacks on the Ukrainian economy mean post-war reconstruction will cost between $140 billion and one trillion dollars. Emergency rebuilding efforts for essential services (medical and utilities) are being paid for by a few billion dollars in emergency economic aid.

The Russian GDP shrank by about five percent but the number of Russians living below the poverty line reached 60 percent. The government is managing the economic decline caused by growing sanctions. This involves ensuring that no one starves to death and concentrating military mobilization efforts in regions with the largest number of military age men who are unemployed. The growing economic problems are accompanied by more corruption, especially by officials who distribute emergency aid and manage military mobilization efforts.

February 25, 2023: Ukrainian military intelligence keeps track of Russians losses and so far this year the Ukrainians estimate (usually based on observable evidence) that Russian forces have lost (dead, wounded, prisoners) about 149,000 troops in the last year. In addition, Russia has lost over 3,300 tanks, twice as many other armored vehicles, 2,800 towed or self-propelled artillery systems plus nearly 500 MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems), nearly 600 hundred aircraft and helicopters and over two thousand UAVs. About 5,500 trucks were lost, including fuel tankers and cargo transports of various sizes.

February 24, 2023: On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, Ukrainian counterintelligence forces discovered and arrested six Russian FSB members who were operating in southern Ukraine. The Russians were responsible for finding and reporting to Russia targets for Russian missile attacks. Ukrainian counterintelligence personnel have been busier in the past year than before the invasion. Russia is losing a lot of FSB professionals and local hires in Ukraine. The FSB and the smaller GRU (military intelligence) are more active in Russian occupied Ukraine. Both Russia and Ukraine use internal security agencies based on Soviet era agencies. The SBU is the successor to the Ukrainian branch of the KGB. After Ukrainian became independent in 1991, obvious KGB loyalists were fired but many vets remained and they perpetuated a culture of corruption along with the formidable deception and operational skills the KGB excelled in. The SBU is a large organization, with 35,000 employees. That is the same size as the American FBI, for a country with seven times more people. Equivalent European agencies, like DST in France and MI5 in Britain are equally small, relative to population, as the FBI. On a per-capita basis Western internal agencies have about 109 agency personnel per million population. For the Russian FSB it is 591 and for the SBU it is about 850. For the Soviet KGB it was 1,600. The SBU, like its predecessor the KGB, demanded high performance and discipline. In return, KGB personnel were free to make a little extra on the side, The KGB was literally above the law as the only ones who could arrest KGB personnel were other KGB personnel. The post-Soviet FSB and SBU have similar immunities. The Russian invasion has meant more work for the SBU and less tolerance for the remaining pro-Russia SBU personnel.

February 23, 2023: The Czech Republic has gone public with information about its line of fake (inflatable rubber) versions of the American HIMARS and larger M270 GMLRS missile launchers as well as M777 155mm howitzers. Russia claims to have destroyed dozens of these vehicles while Ukraine insists they have lost none to Russian artillery, rocket or airstrikes. What Russia has destroyed is many of the Czech inflatable replicas. This form of deception was first used during World War II when hand built fakes began getting replaced by the inflatable versions.

February 22, 2023: Russia admits that the Ukraine War has further damaged the frail Russian military aircraft production industry. Economic sanctions and loss of many export customers resulted in Russia building only 27 combat aircraft in 2022. China was producing much more than that and the United States was delivering about 150 F-35s a year, in three models. Most of this was for American forces but more and more are going to export customers. The F-35 is a combat proven success and very popular with pilots. A thousand have been built so far and there are orders for 2,000 more, to be delivered at the rate of about 150 a year to American and export customers way into the 2030s.

Russia used to be a major producer of military aircraft. Late in the Cold War the Soviet Union was still producing several hundred combat aircraft a year. The Soviet Union collapsed and dissolved in 1991. So did Russian production of combat aircraft. During the 1990s, production of a hundred combat aircraft a year was only possible by obtaining many export sales. Twenty years after the Soviet Union collapsed, Russian warplane production was increasing because exports were still strong and Russia could afford to buy more aircraft for itself. The Soviet Air Force had 10,000 warplanes in 1991 and most of those went to the fourteen new countries where they were based. Russia could not afford to maintain the few thousand combat aircraft it was left with after 1991 and, by 2000, found it could not maintain more than a thousand combat aircraft. Another loss during the 1990s was the ability to design and build new aircraft. Most Russian defense firms went out of business in the 1990s while some managed to switch production to items that were still sold. In the last decade most Russian producers of military aircraft were merged into one state-owned United Aircraft Corporation or UAC. A similar merger created a similar company for helicopters.

UAC had a lot of work to do producing new model aircraft as well as older designs that were still popular, especially with export customers. UAC could produce over a hundred aircraft a year and until 2014 it looked like the Russian demand for military aircraft would keep growing along with export sales. UAC had to be profitable and achieved that by shutting down many of the facilities it acquired via all those mergers. Aircraft design and production was concentrated in three facilities and MiG finally disappeared, leaving only Sukhoi (Su series) warplanes in production. The Su-27 and MiG-29 appeared late in the Cold War and while the Su-27 kept evolving and improving, the MiG-29 did not. That eventually put MiG out of business.

February 21, 2023: A year of fighting in Ukraine has left the Russian army defeated, depleted and demoralized. Most of the army personnel available before the invasion have been killed, wounded or missing (captured, deserted or body not found). About half the troops were conscripts untrained for combat. Conscripts only serve for a year and are called up twice a year (spring and fall) and, by the time they have acquired useful skills, they are discharged and placed in the reserves. In Russian the government has your last known address and will try to notify you if there is a national emergency and all veterans of the military are needed quickly.

Few conscripts were prepared for the intensity of combat encountered in Ukraine. The other half of Russian military personnel joined voluntarily to serve longer and receive higher pay. These somewhat more experienced troops are what passed for NCOs, since Russia has not been able to recreate the NCO Corps it had a century ago but destroyed because the new communist government believed (with some justification) that sergeants are more likely to lead a revolution than more carefully selected and trained officers. Using junior officers to supervise the troops and lead them in combat did not work as well as the Western system of having sergeants supervising the troops and a junior officer to command and lead them in combat.

Junior officers in combat units, who aren’t already veterans, require years more of training and dutifully try to carry out their orders. In Ukraine that got them and most of their troops turned into casualties, or prisoners of war. Russian combat zone medical care was also a mess and not able to handle the large number of wounded. As a result, most of the wounded died or developed conditions that rendered them unfit for further military service. Russia still has not solved this medical problem, even after trying to improvise by taking over local civilian hospitals and their staffs to just treat military casualties.

February 20, 2023: A month ago the United States began imposing sanctions on members of the Russian Wagner Group and those affiliated with Wagner Group. The United States defines much of what Wagner Group does as a form of terrorism. Some of it definitely is. Most of the criminal offenses were committed by Wagner Group personnel sent to Africa, where the profits from legal and illegal activities were abundant. More recently, a Chinese space satellite manufacturer and satellite operator was sanctioned for selling the Wagner Group satellite imagery of Ukrainian military units and facilities. These imagery services aided Wagner Group in its recent offensive against Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. During these operations Wagner Group members committed numerous atrocities and war crimes. Then there was the Wagner Group activity in Ukraine, which received far more publicity than the more lucrative dirty deeds Wagner was guilty of in many parts of Africa. For Ukraine the Wagner Group recruited convicts with the promise of a pardon if they served six months. This backfired when it became known that only about 20 percent of the first convicts recruited survived their six months and received their pardons. Recent recruiting efforts show that far fewer convicts are willing to volunteer and, justifiably, feel safer serving out their sentences. Russia has now officially banned Wagner from recruiting prison inmates. Instead, the Russian military does the recruiting and offers more survivable terms of service as well as the pardon after the term of service is completed.

February 19, 2023: Russia has started using their new Strizh-3 EW (Electronic Warfare) against the many different UAV models used by Ukrainian troops. Strizh-3 disrupts the operator control signal or the video images sent back by the UAV.

February 18, 2023: A major Ukrainian advantage during the last year of fighting Russians has been logistics. Not just keeping Ukrainian troops supplied but making it difficult for the Russians to supply their own troops with munitions and much else. This became a critical problem for the Russians once the Ukrainians began receiving and using the HIMARS vehicle and the six GLMRS guided missiles each of these vehicles (a 6x6 truck with the six missiles stored in a single box-like launch container) carried and fired. The GMLRS missile used by HIMARS has a range of 85 kilometers and the Ukrainians always had good information on where Russian supplies of munitions, fuel, food and so on were. Ukraine had access to the Starlink satellite communications system as well as NATO satellite and aerial surveillance of Russian occupied Ukraine. Before HIMARS arrived the Russians could store supplies within 20 or 30 kilometers of the front like and be out of range of Ukrainian artillery. With HIMARS the Russians had to store supplies more than 80 kilometers from the fighting. GLMRS missiles are GPS guided while most Ukrainian artillery shells are not. Because of Starlink and locally produced UAVs Ukrainian forces could quickly spot Russian supply storage areas and order an artillery or GLMRS attack. This meant that the Russians were chronically short of supplies because so many of them were being destroyed with Ukrainian artillery or missiles. Russia was, and still is, less capable of attacking Ukrainian supplies for frontline troops. This situation has caused Russia to shut down all cell phone and Internet service in an area where they plan to move a lot of troops and supplies around. With cell phone and Internet service active the Ukrainians would often disrupt and destroy a lot of those movements with artillery or missile attacks.

February 17, 2023: Russia does have some international support for its invasion of Ukraine. Those supporters have a lot in common with Russia as they tend to be aggressive and warlike dictatorships or those with ideological or economic reasons to back Russia. These supporters include Belarus, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Mali, Myanmar, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria. All these supporters agree that ”the West” is a problem for them and Russia. Russia continues to insist that its operations in Ukraine are part of an effort to defend Russia from growing NATO efforts to destroy Russia.

February 16, 2023: Iran announced that it would have to complete major oil industry projects without Chinese investments or Chinese specialists. While China quietly withdrew its participation, Iran had to explain the change, especially since Iran will miss the Chinese money most of all because Iran is very short of cash. A delegation of senior Iranian government officials ended its official visit to China today. The Iranians wanted more cooperation and investment from China and instead were told there would be way less until the political and economic situations in Iran calm down. The growing unrest since last September and Iranian involvement with Russia in the Ukraine war are seen as creating a very risky situation for foreign investors.


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