AMU Europe Intelligence Military Original

Russian Military Strategy in Ukraine: The Historic View

By Ilan Fuchs, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, Legal Studies

Note: The opinions and comments stated in the following article solely represent the views of Professor Yagil Henkin and not the Command and Staff College of the Israel Defense Forces.

For many people, the situation in Ukraine raises many questions. There is so much to say about the developments in Ukraine and perhaps one of the most interesting and pressing issues has to do with Russian military strategy.

At our University, we have many students who study military history. So it was only natural for me to go to a military historian to see how he understand the developments in Ukraine over the past week. Professor Yagil Henkin is a professor of military history in the Command and Staff College of the Israel Defense Forces.

Professor Henkin has published several books on military history, writing about low-intensity conflicts and its evolution to high-intensity conflicts. His 2015 book, “The 1956 Suez War and the New World Order in the Middle East: Exodus in Reverse” was a great example of the changes in warfare after the end of the Second World War.

In his first book, published in 2007, “‘Either we win or we perish’: a history of the first Chechen war, 1994-1996,” Dr. Henkin analyzed Russian actions in Chechnya. He is a renowned scholar and can shed a valuable light on the latest Russian moves in Ukraine.

Analyzing Ukraine

Dr. Fuchs: As a scholar who spent years studying the Russian attack on Chechnya in the 1990s, are we seeing more of the same in Ukraine?

Professor Henkin: I think that the fact that amazed me most is how little Russian leaders learned and how fast they forgot. It is not as bad as in the first Chechen war in the mid-1990s, which probably remains the lowest point of Russian military performance, but it is still pretty bad.

But now in Ukraine, Russia has a logistics problem that is much bigger than it expected. Russian military forces get stuck in ambushes, and they are lacking logistic support. Many Russian soldiers do not even know what their objective is in Ukraine.

These failures are partly due to the Soviet tradition of keeping everything secret, including maps, until the beginning of a military operation. But you would think that after Russian successes in the second Chechen war and Georgia, as well as Russia’s former interventions in Ukraine and Syria, Russian leaders would have known better. 

Dr. Fuchs: How do you explain the limited use of the Russian air force?

Professor Henkin: People have noticed that relative to combat pilots in the West, Russian pilots fly half as much. Actually, that is an improvement in light of the fact that in the 1990s, those pilots flew 40-50 hours a year.

We have also seen the limited use of Russian drones. However, we are not sure why the Russians aren’t using more drones.

Why is there a limited use of the Russian air force? Perhaps it might be logistics problems, but Russia has so many planes it could put into service.

Perhaps Russia is saving the pilots and planes for escalation purposes if NATO intervenes in Ukraine. I am not sure.

Dr. Fuchs: Why did the Russian army choose to use smaller tactical units rather than move in brigade and division formats? 

Professor Henkin: In Donbas during 2014, Russia used battalion tactical groups (BTGs). These BTGs are small, relatively independent units, usually consisting of two companies of infantry and a company of armor (or vice versa) – with combat support elements (artillery, air defense, combat engineers, and so on) and logistics support. Altogether, there are 600-800 soldiers.

There are several reasons for using smaller tactical units. First, large battles between armies don’t happen too much today. Even in Iraq, you saw mostly battalions, not large-scale armor battles. Russia wants smaller units that can intervene like they did during Kosovo.

Second, smaller units enable faster response than the military behemoth that is a modern division. Third, the Russians could create a BTG of well-trained contract soldiers, unlike the less-trained conscripts. In theory, they would be maximizing readiness without having to use too many conscripts, which aren’t supposed to be used outside of the Russian Federation anyway.

Using smaller, independent tactical units is a sound military idea, but these units are not performing well in Ukraine. Why? Perhaps they were not employed well. We’ve seen many convoys lacking some or most elements of combined arms teams.

Also, if an enemy is not assessed properly, the smaller size of those formations compared to a BGT can be a significant disadvantage. That could explain why we see so many ambushes in Ukraine. According to Russian doctrine, the BTGs should be coordinated by a higher-level HQ, but that coordination seems to be lacking.

Dr. Fuchs: Does the Ukrainian army have a game plan that doesn’t involve turning itself into a guerrilla warfare force?

Professor Henkin: First of all, we should go back to the White Books of the Ukrainian army. Things have changed in recent years.

In 2014, Ukraine had a limited army. According to one estimate, Ukraine had only 6,000 combat-ready soldiers.

Reforms began after 2014 and Ukrainian training for its military forces became closer to the NATO standard. That created a better command structure and better repair capabilities in the field.

Ukraine also encouraged many soldiers to enlist. In 2017 alone, Ukraine had 70,000 soldiers.

Now Ukraine has one of the biggest armies in Europe – officially, at least 195,000 soldiers, maybe more, and 228,000 reserve soldiers. That’s more active-duty soldiers than the UK or Germany, and nearly as much as France.

We don’t know exactly how much working equipment Ukraine has, since many of its tanks and armored personnel carriers were inherited from the Soviet army. Some of that equipment is rotting somewhere.

Still, even the most conservative estimates, such as the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) “Military Balance” series, say that Ukraine had 854 more active tanks as of 2020 than the UK, France and Germany combined. Ukraine’s defense budget is low in absolute terms, but let’s remember that their production and manpower costs are much lower than the U.S.

Ukraine improved its equipment; training and defense spending grew after 2014. Ukraine’s leaders also created new doctrines. For instance, Ukraine restructured its military unit structure from top to bottom after 2015.

Also, Ukraine is big – 233,000 square miles. So in the case of an invasion, Ukraine military leaders knew that their best approach was to have forces spread across the country. Otherwise, they won’t be able to move in large formations and arrive on time – especially when they could not expect to have air superiority.

They planned to use delay tactics based on four regional commands, each with its own units. Ukraine also fought military corruption, so the result is a better trained, better equipped army with local units to delay the invader. There are some 88,000 paramilitary and many reserves, though the larger estimates of 900,000 are probably exaggerated and include people who have never served and never trained.

But Ukraine’s military leaders were surprised by the Russian invasion. That is why Ukrainian military leaders did not mobilize their reserves on time and why the people of Ukraine have been given weapons, even if they lack any training.

Think of the U.S. perspective. There is an ongoing debate about the Second Amendment. One of the arguments is that armed citizens can’t really stop an army or police force should a tyrant come to rule.

Well, the Ukrainians don’t share that view. In Ukraine, they believe that an armed population is a serious obstacle to Russian invasion. The plan was not to stop an invasion on the Ukraine border, but delay it and make the invader pay a terrible price. The Ukrainians are trying to do that now. 

Dr. Fuchs: Do you predict the Russians will do in Kiev what they did in Grozny in the 1990s – reduce the city to rubble?

Professor Henkin: I am not sure if Russia wants to have a second Grozny. Even if Russia wants that, Kiev is much bigger and has close to three million people. Grozny had less than half a million people.

Russia cannot expect to have a second Grozny without having pushback from the West. Putin says that he wants to get rid of the Nazis in Ukraine and free the locals, so bombing those very locals into oblivion is not a good idea.

But one cautionary note: Initially, Russia did not plan to destroy Grozny too in 1994. But after the devastating Russian defeat in the first battle of Grozny, Russia went all in. So who knows what will happen? I am not sure that the Russian military wants to make the effort to capture such a huge city foreseeing the opposition, but war has its own dynamics.

Let’s remember that the First World War began because a few unexpected events coupled with an overstretch of alliances brought everyone to a situation where the much of the world went to war even though almost no one was interested in fighting. Almost nobody predicted that World War I would turn into years of attrition warfare.

Dr. Fuchs: Is there something we are missing?

Professor Henkin: We are assuming Putin cares about sanctions and cannot withstand them. But I hope the West is preparing for the second contingency – what if Putin does not care about sanctions or if Russia can withstand them?

The price of failure for Putin is high. On a personal note, he may be ousted by his own people.

As for Russia, failing against the much-smaller Ukraine may force it to be a third-rate power with much less influence than it believes it should have. This position is similar to what happened to the United Kingdom after the failure of the 1956 Suez Crisis.

So if Putin is a gambler and if his gamble in Ukraine fails, he may cut his losses and run. He may also try to increase his bet – committing more soldiers, taking countermeasures against the West, and who knows what.

People talk about Russia as a gas station with missiles. They say it as a derogatory term.

But I find that description terrifying. First, it means that it may be hard to bypass European dependency on Russian gas.

Second, the fact that Russia has a significant nuclear arsenal and even a doctrine for using tactical nuclear weapons means that it may still have significant power and may even be ready to use it – or at least to create a threat to enforce its position. Pushing Russia back if you are not willing to go all the way, in the hope that Russia won’t go all the way, is dangerous.

When two drivers play chicken, the best way to win is to lock the door and throw away the wheel, but that strategy only works if the other guy swerves. If he does the same, a crash is inevitable.

I hope there is a plan for what to do if Putin loses or if he wins, because things are not over yet. Yes, the Russian advance seems bogged down in many places, yet less than two weeks have passed. The World War II blitzkrieg everyone is evoking took five weeks to capture half of Poland, and Ukraine is much bigger than Poland.

There’s also much we don’t know yet, and the fog of war still prevails. People think wars are won and lost over the period of a TikTok video, but reality is different. It is possible that the Russian military situation is as bad as it seems, but still, Russian forces have advanced within Ukraine and weren’t repelled in most places.

The long-term verdict is still out. Russia may fail or it may be able to re-organize, using its uncommitted-yet forces to snatch a victory. I don’t know. I just hope the West has a plan for either scenario.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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