After Russian forces’ rapid collapse and disorderly retreat from northeastern Ukraine, it is clear that the Russian military faces severe problems that go beyond bad logistics and incompetent commanders. Current structural weaknesses in the Russian military are the results of reforms initiated fourteen years ago. However, by the time of the invasion of Ukraine, some of the reforms had barely been implemented while others have led the Russian army to an assortment of dead ends.
The key idea behind Russia’s military reforms was to make mechanized infantry battalions the main form of organization on the battlefield. These were supposed to replace Soviet-style regiments that were deemed too slow and ineffective during the Afghanistan campaign of the 1980s and the first and the second Chechen wars. To remedy the small size of the 500-man Soviet-style battalions, the reforms transformed them into “battalion tactical groups” complemented by another 800 to 900 men. According to the Russian government, before the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian army had 170 such combat-ready battalion tactical groups. Reportedly, they were designed to be in “constant battle readiness.” Over 100 of them have participated in combat operations in Ukraine since February.
According to Russian military doctrine, each battalion tactical group is given responsibility for a frontline of five kilometers (3.12 miles) in length that can be narrowed to two kilometers (1.25 miles) during offensive operations. At the same time, it is expected that the battalions form echelons when attacking the enemy. Forming two echelons was a standard operating procedure in the Soviet army, with both echelons controlled by the same combined arms commander. The size and strength of the enemy dictate the composition of the echelons—a Soviet-style mechanized infantry regiment with a complement of 3,000-plus (enhanced during wartime) combatants could organize itself into two echelons. By comparison, today Russian ground forces must have two or more battalion tactical groups producing two-echelon formations with different commanders controlling each echelon. As the war in Ukraine has repeatedly demonstrated, this disunity of command affects the outcome of both offensive and defensive operations. The war in Ukraine also shows that smaller units might be more maneuverable but not necessarily more effective when they are expected to control larger spaces. It is unrealistic to expect a frontline of five kilometers to be maintained by an 800-man-strong battalion, especially when only about 200 are infantrymen.
Compromised unity of command is not the only headache Russian ground forces are facing in Ukraine. Inadequate command structures are exacerbated by untested or outdated combat communications equipment. The Russian political and military leadership became enthusiastic about the idea of smaller and more maneuverable battalion tactical groups after the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War, when the Russian army prevailed over its ill-equipped and undersupplied adversary. However, Russian leaders discovered that their army had significant problems with combat communications systems and decided to develop new ones. Thus, the Russian army invaded Ukraine equipped with two new communications systems: the “Azart” radio and the “Era” military smartphone. Neither of them worked well from the first days of the invasion, so much so that most Russian units abandoned them for older devices equipped with Ukrainian SIM cards. Therefore, it was relatively easy for Ukrainian military intelligence to intercept communications between Russian commanders. The older communications equipment did not work effectively either because it had a limited range of four kilometers (2.5 miles) and required more supporting equipment such as relay trucks and towers, and more support personnel such as truck drivers, communications engineers, and cipher clerks. Filling these positions is not normally prioritized by military organizations during peacetime but they have to be mobilized and deployed during combat operations. Somehow, the new Russian ground force structure based around the battalion tactical groups does envision the mobilization of additional wartime military personnel necessary for successful military campaigns.
Besides cipher clerks and communications relay operators, there are other military professions that are not employed full-time during peacetime but are essential for combat operations. Those who follow news reports from the Russo-Ukrainian War have seen Ukrainian farmers towing away Russian tanks and armored vehicles. This disabled equipment has to be towed away by Russian tow trucks operated by drivers mobilized for this purpose. Yet this was not done until seven months into the war and it remains unclear whether newly mobilized Russian soldiers will be trained in these professions. Russian military leaders did not add heavy equipment maintenance crews to their infantry battalion complements either. Russian tank and armored personnel drivers are trained mechanics so they can perform routine mechanical maintenance. However, when things go wrong, they need additional help because they do not carry specialty equipment into battle and cannot hoist heavy machines or bend metal.
Additionally, for seven months the Russian military did not mobilize combat medics (they are called “sanitars” in the Russian tradition). These medics accompany troops into combat, provide first aid to the wounded, and evacuate them from the battlefield. From February to October 2022, Russian forces did not have combat medics so the wounded had to be evacuated by other combatants. In other words, for each wounded soldier, Russian units lost one or two soldiers withdrawing from the battle to evacuate their wounded comrade.
One of the most significant weaknesses of the new Russian force structure is its leadership model. Military organizations everywhere are by nature conservative institutions, and even more so in Russia. Even if the structure of the armed forces changed, the respect and authority required for certain ranks does not. The old Soviet-style regiments were commanded by colonels or junior general officers—senior officers with significant experience and authority. Historically, these ranks carry a certain gravitas and charisma in the Russian armed forces. Today, however, battalion tactical groups are commanded by majors and lieutenant colonels—mid-level officers who are less influential and effective. In the context of the war in Ukraine, Russian battalions have suffered significant personnel and equipment losses. According to phone calls made by Russian officers that were intercepted by Ukrainian intelligence, Russian battalion commanders were not effective at demanding and receiving replacement personnel and equipment. One officer even noted in the early days of the war that his battalion commander (traditionally called kombat in Russia) did not even know their objective.
It is difficult to say what those who implemented Putin’s military reforms in Russia had in mind but Russia’s army is clearly not ready for warfare on a continental scale. Instead, the reformers have created a military organization more suited for short-term conflicts against smaller, less well-equipped, and unprepared enemies. Given that Russia itself is a very large country, this is a surprising outcome. Instead of creating a military that was supposed to always be ready for war, Russia has ended up with ground forces that are unable to sustain operations for an extended period. After eight months of fighting in Ukraine and the losses sustained there, it appears that even Russian political leaders understand that their conventional forces would not be of much help if their country was attacked. Hence, it is not surprising that Putin frequently invokes the nuclear option to compensate for conventional weaknesses.