Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight. He has written a definition of new Russian warfare and a study of Kremlin activity in eastern Ukraine.
The tactics with which the Kremlin started this war are not the tactics with which it will end it. Initially, Russian forces sought to fix Ukraine’s most battle-ready troops in the east whilst conducting a relatively quick strike to Kyiv to seize the Government and install a puppet regime.
That has failed. The war is now likely to evolve into a series of city sieges. To minimise Russian casualties (it is noteworthy that this may already be a factor), mercenaries will be increasingly used – hence the recruiting now taking place in Putin’s client state, Syria, and elsewhere.
What is clear is that the Russian army is not living up expectations. In particular, it seems unable to conduct simultaneous advances along multiple axis. This is slowing, but not stopping, its advance.
Soviet/Russian tactics have historically been based around clear concepts: deception, unity of purpose, psychological manipulation of the enemy and the ability to use surprise and speed. These are underpinned by theories such as Operational Art – combining military capabilities into a seamless whole – and Deep Battle – self-sustaining, shock offensives driven deep into the enemy – developed by Soviet thinkers in the 1920s and 30s, which remain influential today.
However, Vladimir Putin’s ‘surprise’ strike resembled the military equivalent of a disorganised bimble. Whilst this looked shocking on social media, it could, albeit generously, be interpreted as ‘reconnaissance by attack’, whereby Russia pushes forward secondary units into initial contact with enemy forces. Higher-calibre units then follow up, aware of Ukrainian positions.
However, this next wave fared little better, in part because armed drones and anti-tank weapons supplied by Turkey, the US, the UK and others have taken a toll on Russian armour. One has to ask if this war, and the 2020 Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, herald the end of the age of armoured/tank warfare.
Russia now appears to be encircling cities for prolonged artillery and air strikes prior to entering them. Kharkiv and Kyiv may follow the example of bombed-out Mariupol in southeast Ukraine. This tactic is not new to Russia. Whilst the Soviet Army liked to portray itself as a fast-moving tank army, it used artillery and air power to pulverise when coming up against an immovable objective. Some experts argue that Russian/Soviet armies were not so much tank armies as artillery armies.
Ground forces are recalibrating as we speak. Where possible, urban assaults following bombardment will likely be conducted by the Kremlin’s mercenary forces. A counter-tactic for Ukrainian forces, therefore, must be to continue to target Russian forces rather than just its mercenaries.
Nuclear and chemical weapons remain options for the Kremlin, but with potentially very high political costs. Would Russia’s alliance with China survive the use of such weapons in Kyiv?
There is no public doctrine on chemical weapons because, technically, they do not exist. However, their successful use in Syria will not be lost on Putin. His ally, Bashar Assad, besieged Aleppo for four years with conventional weapons without success. With chemical weapons – chlorine barrel bombs – he raised the siege after a dozen days. Heavier than air, the chlorine gas flowed into basements, silently suffocating civilians driven to despair and madness. Chemical weapons induce panic.
Finally, Russian military tactics are highly integrated with politics. Military tactics are designed, not as an end in themself, but to regain the political initiative. The Kremlin will now try to create a series of puppet mini-republics, like the separatist enclaves established in 2014 (in reality Kremlin front organisations, as my 2019 report showed) which will then demand a federalised, pro-Moscow Ukraine, with the threat of violence and secession ever present until Kyiv effectively submits to Moscow’s dominance.
Talks are still ongoing. Russia will likely pocket any Ukrainian concessions already offered whilst preparing mercenaries for a new phase of the war. Without a deal, for which we can hope but which may be unlikely, the siege of Kyiv will soon begin. At its worst, and with the potential tactics on offer, it is likely to present images unseen in Europe since the raising of Berlin.