The Russian invasion looks nothing like it should. Why? And what happens next?
TLDRUpFront: Comparing doctrine to results Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is going badly so far. Whether because of incompetence, institutional sycophancy, or too-clever strategy: Putin has miscalculated. The invasion of Ukraine may go down as the largest strategic military blunder since the Iraq Invasion of 2003 – even if he makes territorial gains in the Donbas and the southern strip.
The Russian primary unit for offense are Tank or Motorized Rifle Brigades, sometimes listed as regiments, consisting of 3,000-4,500 troops. (1, p32) The punching power of these brigades are four battalions, each of ~500 soldiers. In a tank brigade, three battalions are armored and one rifle. This ratio is reversed in a motorized rifle brigade, with a 3:1 rifle to one armored battalion (5).
These assault battalions conduct the main attack supported by combined arms: air defense assets cover the advance, “fires” (meaning indirect fire support) consisting of both multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) and howitzer battalions conduct fire support, all supported by tactical fighter aircraft and helicopter. Supporting electronic warfare units (EW), engineering, and raiding detachments of reinforced battalion or company levels conduct disruption activities. Reserves consist of specific anti-tank units of several companies or a battalion and an anti-assault unit to repel counter-attacks.
A brigade has an attack zone of up to 6km and offensively targets objectives to a 5-15km depth from its deployment zone. The deployment zone is usually 5km from the assembly area or line of march. So the outer reach of an offensive attack from a brigade in assembly is 10-25km.
As of the 20th of February, a detailed breakdown showed 98 Brigades assembling in 10 locations that appear to be invading across six fronts.
The table below is my best guess on the general line of advance from these starting locations consolidates into the six fronts: Chernihiv, Donbas Breakout, Kharkiv & Northeastern Ukraine, Kyiv, Crimea Breakout, and Sumy (2). I’ve also added map markers to the map so that it’s easier to gauge force size along these
Putin wanted it one way – but it’s the other way.
If these large, combined arms, massive forces don’t sound like what you’ve been observing so far – it is not just the fog of war. Russia hasn’t been fighting according to its doctrine in Ukraine except for two areas.
The main battle force slowly moving south from Chernobyl and inching towards Kyiv is closer to the doctrinal approach than anything we’ve seen in or around Kyiv since the invasion started.
According to the UK Defense Ministry, the main battle force is still 30km north of Kyiv, meaning it is at its outer limit for an attack and needs to get into position. This isn’t unusual – the forecast for time-to-reach Kyiv under a full invasion scenario was 14 days from a Minsk approach, though that scenario forecast a looping advance rather than straight through Chernobyl, which may have cut the time in half.
In the south, Russia’s best troops with the most modern equipment are attempting a breakout from Crimea along three fronts. West along the Black Sea coast to take Odesa and link up Transdniestria. East along the Black Sea coast to complete the connection with Russia through Mariupol. A third advance has opened to the eastern side of the Dnieper towards Zaporizhian. From there, they can go east to add depth to the southern strip or continue north to Dnipro, which is the lynchpin of Ukraine’s eastern defenses against DNR and LNR expansion. Taking that may help cut off Ukrainian forces trying to contain the DNR and LNR along their current lines forcing them to fall back and cede much of the Donbas.
But for the rest of the country? What we are seeing is in line with “Raiding Detachments,” described as operating independently to disrupt disrupting command & control (C2), destroying air defense units, and block enemy maneuvers, reserve, or attack rear area. Raiding detachments are usually at company (30-100 soldiers) or battalion (500 soldiers) strength (1, p141). These raiding detachments serve a useful role when working on the fringes or in advance of a brigade-sized force.
But racing around unsupported and isolated, they are easy pickings to ambush and counter-attack. Putin’s thrown so many failed air assaults at Kyiv one might think Urban Meyer is coaching his air game. Logistics challenges continue to pile up. Reports of vehicles running out of fuel and breakdowns are common. Military communications are reported to be using civilian cellphones or unsecured radio channels. Resupply seems to be run by FedEx, with “out for delivery” being the current status for several days in a row.
Why did this happen?
Scenario 1 Incompetent Leadership & Outdated Kit
The simplest answer is that Russia’s military is incompetent and technically outdated. Conscripted troops without sufficient training led by a hollow force of NCOs and Officers that lack professional schooling and without modern equipment, the Russian army cannot undertake operations of this size, complexity, and sophistication. Proxy fights with Turkey had already seen Russia take the losing position three times in the last few years. The fierce Ukranian resistance, backed by highly sophisticated weapons – has proven too much.
If this is the case – then what happens next is what’s already begun. President Putin threatens the only card he has left, nuclear alert status and deployment levels, in an attempt to intimidate and save-face. That and hope that in the end, Russian numbers will prevail. But the number of vehicles Putin can put on roads won’t matter if they start running out of fuel. (Just ask anyone stuck in Snowmageddon.) The main battle group moving south from Chernobyl towards Kyiv is clustered on a single highway over a 3.25mile distance – this is setting up a Highway of Death scenario if Ukraine has any ground-attack aircraft or even halfway decent artillery left in the area.
Scenario 2 Institutional Sycophancy
Another way to look at this invasion is to view it as the consequence of deeply flawed operational assumptions. If one were to assume: 1) the Ukrainian military would collapse without putting much of a fight, 2) Russian-speaking people would rise and welcome Russian troops as liberators, and 3) President Zelensky would be toppled by coup, then the invasion to date makes a whole lot more sense.
Invading with light raiding detachments that expect to be welcomed, not fought, who can spread chaos to generate a general uprising and/or coup against Zelensky collapsing the country looks more like attempted. You don’t deploy Grozny rules against those you hope will join your side willingly. Of course, that could only make sense in the context of deep institutional sycophancy or pressure being put on analysts from on high to give Putin the answer he already believed in. The staged National Security Council meeting televised on 2/21 lends credence to this theory. Putin browbeating his top officials and publicly humiliating does not suggest an environment of robust debate and hard-nosed assessment of conditions.
Bolstering this scenario is Russia has only committed 50% of its troops in the initial invasion push – and many of those were woefully underequipped for the task.
What happens next if this was the case is that Russia can order advances of heavier, better trained and equipped units forward. Perhaps even shifting to Grozny Rules to punish resistance. Evidence of a strategy shift along these lines arrived as this article was being prepared as reports began circulating that Russian artillery began shelling residential areas in Kharkiv(4) as well as dropping cluster munitions on the city (6).
Scenario 3 Strategic Feint
The third scenario is based on Scenario #2 and #5 of major invasion options discussed prior to the war. Despite struggling in the north/northeast, Russia is less than a week out, maybe only a few days from securing the southern strip of land that runs from Russia through the southern Donbas, connects with Crimea, over to Odessa, and connects with Transnistria separatists in Moldova. That’s a significant strategic gain and Scenario #5 on the list of possible strategic outcomes.
At the current rate of advance and difficulty, any gains in the north will take much longer to secure, and until the main battle group from Chernobyl engages at Kyiv, I’m not sure how committed the Russian military is up there.
In addition to the southern troops being better trained, equipped, and modern, there are just as many in Crimea as are currently advancing on Kyiv. That shows prioritization of scarce resources that these are of equal weight at least. And as mentioned above, the forces in the south are the better ones. While the more poorly trained and less modern kitted forces (from Eastern Russia) are staging Chernobyl and moving south towards Kyiv.
If the southern strip and Donbas encirclement is Putin’s primary goal, I suspect his mental model is to escalate tensions with nuclear alert levels, accept losses in the north as long as it pins Ukrainian forces away from the south, while seeking “talks” with conditions no one will accept at first.
Slow-moving peace talks give a natural timing mechanism of a few days set facts on the ground in the south cemented by a cease-fire. International observers may breathe a big sigh of relief by “just” asking for the southern strip and greater Donbas because, after all, “just a few days ago we were worried about nuclear escalation,” and we didn’t go over that brink.
It’s a classic Putin move – escalate tensions so high that a lesser settlement which would’ve been unthinkable in the past, is now seen as preferable.
I could be wrong.
Indicators this is wrong will be serious, sustained attacks on Kyiv and other major cities by main battle groups: either in combat assaults or “Grozny Rules” siege (discussed last night.)
Another indicator it may be wrong is if he uses the nuclear chip as a tradeoff to get back on reversing the SWIFT ban. In which case, this is just diplomatic joseki.
A final indication would be…you know…nuclear weapons going off. Though I find that unlikely and wouldn’t be too worried about ya’ll rushing here to tell me how wrong I was anyways.
Regardless of Why it happened – this is a disaster for Putin.
Even if Putin is being clever in scenario three above, he’s being too clever by half. First – Russia’s military has been exposed as a paper tiger. Ukraine is 1/10th the size of Russia in population, and its military budget is a fraction. But over half of the entire Russian military is now fighting in the Ukraine theatre. It’s like Canada took on a full-strength US invasion and clown shoed it. And within Russia’s claimed sphere of influence are many local and regional competitors. Near-peer regional hegemon competitor Turkey, which gave Russia its three most recent bloody noses, will get more adventurists in the neighborhood.
Second – I don’t see President Zelensky willing to give an inch of Ukrainian soil over or EU/NATO countries in a favorable mood to grant Putin concessions. A change to Grozny Rules may adjust that calculus.
If ‘cracking’ NATO was the goal – the opposite appears to have happened. From Sweden to Switzerland, NATO and EU, countries are flowing military hardware into Ukraine. Defense budgets, often lagging, are being rewritten in real-time. By way of example, German Chancellor Scholz announced its spending on defense as a percentage of GDP would double to over 2%. That’s a 30-40% increase in defense spending by GDP. Scholz just asked for 100BN euros in the 2022 military budget, which doubled the current German spending. (3)
That’s before the economic pain is calculated. With harsh sanctions, the partial implementation of SWIFT bans, and other financial measures, the Russian economy collapses in real-time. In a move to support the ruble, the Russian central bank doubled interest rates Monday morning. Sovereign default is now on the table as Russian bonds collapse.
Whether Putin makes incremental territorial gains under Scenarios #2 or #5, or by some turn around can seize much larger swaths of territory in Scenarios #3-4 or #6 – it’s hard to imagine this working out. Conventional invasions against weaker countries are the easy part of modern warfare. Occupying and holding what you’ve gained against a determined insurgency can, and has, bled regional powers like Iran in Syria. The United States has suffered mixed results in countering insurgency anywhere you spin the globe and put your finger on it. Without too much hyperventilation, it’s easy to see the decision to invade Ukraine as the worst military miscalculation since the US decision to invade Iraq: for its military, its costs, and the ripple effects both near and far across state and non-state actor networks.