Myths and Realities of the Russian/NATO NCO Systems
A few days ago Russian war correspondent Sladkov made an interesting post where he showcased two new videos from Western/pro-Ukrainian military experts that go into detail in describing Russian tactics and military strengths in the Ukrainian conflict.
It’s a good jumping off point to highlight some of the ongoing tactical developments I’ve been covering from time to time over the past few months. Also, much of the information underlines or confirms many things we’ve been talking about here, such as the misconceptions about the structure and tactics of the Russian armed forces which I’ve tirelessly dispelled in several articles like this one.
The first video from popular YouTube channel “Battle Order” gives a rundown on a set of documents I myself covered a while back in this article:
Thus I won’t go into too much detail as the video covers the same info I already had done previously, but it does give a few useful new ways of thinking about some of the most important battlefield developments. Plus it gives a handy visual guide to the things I wrote about, as it includes convenient graphics and footage which can be used to understand some of the finer points, for the people who are more the visual learners.
As a quick summary, a Ukrainian reserve officer who posts on Twitter claimed to have gotten in his possession this captured Russian manual for a new assault style unit, which in general describes a smaller, more heavily armed, and independent type of unit geared towards assaulting the various forest/plantation positions of the AFU.
When posting the video, Sladkov gave a type of coy implication that the video creator may have been right, in part, about his chief condemnation that, prior to the SMO, Russia had an inadequate number of “ready-made assault units”:
English-speaking researchers come to the conclusion (which, due to secrecy, I can neither confirm nor refute, but only bring you for your information) that before the start of the NWO, there were an extremely small number of ready-made assault units in Russia. Those were only in the Marine Corps, the Airborne Forces and the Wagner PMC. Also, historically, there were special assault units of the engineering troops, from which the assault units of the Soviet and Russian armies originate, but their modern appearance in the NVO zone has not yet been caught on video and little is known about it.
Recall that Sladkov is a retired officer of the Russian armed forces, from a military family. He is likely the longest serving frontline military correspondent in the country, having begun doing reports in the late 80s. He’s covered everything from the Afghan war, Transnistria conflict, Tajikistan civil war, Chechen wars, Georgian War, and now the Ukrainian conflict. Due to his long established reputation and previous service, he has a lot of insider access and info.
His coy ‘secrecy’ reference above seems to imply that this information could have some truth to it, at least in part. That’s because if it weren’t true, there would be no reason to withhold it, as it would not in any way compromise Russian security to “reveal” that Russia was actually strong all along. Further, the whole point of his posting these videos from Western military experts is in some ways to highlight the fact that they do make certain accurate points about Russia’s deficiencies. If most of what they were saying wasn’t true, he wouldn’t have bothered posting them.
But why would Russia lack enough assault units? For one, Russia has mostly been defense oriented toward the encroaching NATO threat, not offense. NATO is the imperialist power with the unquenchable obsession with “assaulting” everything on the planet. Russia had no need for a preponderance of assault for the same reason they didn’t invest in a mass amount of force-projecting aircraft carriers.
Russia had an adequate amount for what it felt was within the purview of its doctrinal needs—to defend the motherland. Another reason, of course—and this gets down to the brass tacks of things we’ll cover—is that in the past two decades Russia has relied on a conscript-heavy armed forces. You can’t really teach conscripts good assault as they don’t stay on long enough to gain that type of experience, only serving 1 year terms.
But now that’s changing.
In the post you can read here, Sladkov further summarizes the video’s points in that a strong assault heritage mostly existed in Russia’s Airborne, Marines, and Wagner forces. And we have seen that Russia has in fact leaned on these units in the areas where it’s actually conducting assaults and trying to make advancements, rather than where it’s simply holding out on defense. Of course, there’s many other smaller non-standard units that specialize in certain types of assault as well—most obviously spetsnaz and various Chechen units; but we’re talking mostly the main branches.
Getting back to the video, the author describes Russia’s “new” assault detachments built specifically for small independent operations against Ukrainian defensive positions. The most important thing he notes, which will be the main theme of this article, is that according to the author, the structure of the new assault detachment proves that Russia lacks NCOs.
Before we go on, a quick primer on the difference between NCOs and officers. In most militaries around the world, an officer is a “commissioned” rank which you can only get by going to officer school and having a college degree. In general, you cannot ever become an “officer” simply by enlisting into the armed forces as a grunt and then “working your way up” with repeated promotions. If you enlist off the street to become a “private”, you can only work your way up into the NCO ranks, i.e. corporal, then various forms of sergeant (staff, first, master, etc.). You cannot become a lieutenant, captain, colonel, major, or general just by working your way up. Those can only come from officer schools like West Point in the U.S.
According to the video author, the structure of Russia’s new assault detachments uses small-sized platoons led by an officer, i.e. most likely a lieutenant. He states that a U.S. Marine “squad” of a similar size is led by a sergeant, which is an NCO. Thus, he believes this points to a lack of NCOs in Russia, whereby Russia is forced to use full-on officers to lead “squad-sized” detachments.
One problem with this thinking is that these detachments are officially platoons even by the document’s own admission, and they conduct platoon/company type tasks, not squad tasks. A squad in the U.S. may operate semi-independently, but only in the sense that it may be sent a few hundred feet ahead by its platoon commander to secure some perimeter. It’s not going to be doing an assault operation dozens of kilometers away or behind enemy lines by itself. Thus, it makes sense that an actual officer leads Russia’s smaller-sized assault platoons as they operate far more independently than the “squad” the video author erroneously compares it to.
Secondly, he contradicts himself by subsequently describing this Russian assault platoon as highly complex, having its own drone teams, fire teams, heavy weapons teams, mortar teams, etc. U.S. squads or even equivalent platoons have nothing of this sort, and thus their NCOs are not equipped to handle such complexities—so why expect Russian “NCOs” to do so?
He goes on to describe the actual tactics of the detachment, most of which we’ll skip because I covered that in the previously linked article. The final interesting part comes when he mentions that this “new” style of Russian assault seems to lack a “follow-on” philosophy. Meaning, it’s not designed to create break-throughs with a large follow-on reserve force to pour through the gap and continue on to the enemy’s operational rear, like so many WW2 and previous manuals and doctrines depict.
This only serves to confirm things I’ve talked about at length before. That the operative tactic from both sides currently revolves around capturing one trench system at a time rather than attempting the mass deep battle / blitzkrieg breakthroughs of WW2; but we’ll get to why that is, and why it’s only temporary, later.
In the interests of keeping as linear a thought process as possible, let’s transition now to the second video because it picks up on where this one left off in the most important aspect of the conversation.
Let’s quickly dispense with the second video author’s background. He’s a popular Youtuber named Ryan Mcbeth who’s an ex-U.S. army officer with the following credentials, as per his own site:
Think Tank is a graduate of PLDC,
BNOC, ANOC, ITC, TAITC, and Heavy Weapons Leader Course. He has qualified expert with the M5 rifle, BGM-71 TOW, AT-4 and Javelin anti-tank systems. He
also holds multiple masters degrees in software development and cybersecurity. When he's not killing tanks or defending networks he's keeping the Joes on their toes as the unit's platoon sergeant.
He spent 20 years as an anti-armor and heavy weapons infantryman with two overseas deployments. He also spent time performing C4ISR intelligence collection for various government customers and currently consults on intelligence collection and analysis methods.
Pay attention particularly to his credential of being a platoon sergeant, as that colors a lot of his commentary around the much squabbled-over and misunderstood differences between Russia and NATO’s NCO corps.
This video is from late June and grudgingly lists 7 things that Russia is “doing right” in the war so far. For the record, for a biased Western and pro-Ukrainian source, he makes a valiant effort in attempting to sneak in the truth to his blinkered viewership, and actually does about as impartial a job as you could expect, all things considered.
The video starts off by stating that Russia believes in an “officer centric military”, i.e. a military run by commissioned officers rather than a focus on NCOs which are the lifeblood of Western militaries.
He correctly states it’s a myth that Russia doesn’t have an NCO corps. This immediately confirms one of the chief points I’ve been fighting to dispel since the beginning. It’s a mischaracterization so many irresponsible NATO commentators have lazily continued to spout.
He specifies that Russia does have NCOs, but they are more “junior level,” not the all-important mid-level ones, which, in the U.S. army, serve as the backbone of organization, knowledge, training, etc. One of the chief differences, according to him, is that these vaunted “mid-level” NCOs have invested a huge amount of time in special training courses to gain vast amounts of knowledge and wisdom. If you’re an E-5 sergeant in the U.S. army, you have to go back to school and take special leadership courses to get promoted to E-6 and onward for each higher rank. An E-8 “master sergeant”, for instance, also has to master every weapon type in the company with high marks, so he’ll be able to instruct or correct everyone under him no matter their job specialty.
Having such a sergeant gives the platoon a “manager” figure with a high amount of training to impart on all the grunts, and gives the commander-lieutenant someone to do all the “dirty work” of taking care of logistics issues, dealing with the men and their “barracks problems”, etc. In the U.S. army, the rule of thumb is that an officer should never have to walk into a barracks and deal with the men directly—that’s the NCO/sergeant’s domain—whereas Mcbeth claims in Russia the officers deal with the barracks directly.
As Sladkov writes in his commentary:
Mcbeth believes that in general we do well where it depends on the officer. And we do poorly where we need competent NCOs. For those who don't understand, he explains that our NCOs are, by American standards, junior officers. But where we need to have a middle NCO, we actually don't have one.
Where we can put a competent officer and solve technical issues, we are doing well. In fact, this is how he explains our successes in the technical branches of the armed forces: Air Force, Air Defense, REB, artillery. The analogy is clear, a competent engineer can work well on a single installation and with mid-level workers. But on the ground, where everything depends on each soldier, and where a platoon in the infantry has to command, but he can't manage everyone directly, we lack professionals, especially at the middle level!
Where Mcbeth begins to err, is he seems to quote out of date information on the Russian armed forces. Yes, there was a dire lack of NCOs two decades ago, but part of the infamous Serdyukov reforms of 2008 began an initiative to change that.
I had written before about how those reforms were viewed as devastating by many of Russia’s top brass. This was mostly due to the cutting down of so much of Russia’s armed forces. However, there are a few areas where the changes appeared positive. One is the establishment of an NCO school, which does exactly the types of things Mcbeth is talking about; i.e. provides higher level training for mid-level NCOs.
This RT article from 2010, two years after the reforms went into motion, goes into further detail and gives an update on the progress:
Training of professional sergeants becomes one of the main priorities as Russia is reforming its army.
With Russia's military reform in full swing, the focus is shifting to raising the number of professional sergeants. Experienced career sergeants will be able to quickly and effectively train contract soldiers and conscripts.
It specifies that all the trainees are already experienced enlisted troops, which means they are in fact getting exactly that type of step-wise advancement that Mcbeth talks about, like going from E-5 to E-6 in the U.S. army.
For the record, Russia has multiple official NCO ranks. There is младший сержант (mladzhi serjant) or junior sergeant, regular sergeant, старший сержант (starshi serjant) or senior sergeant. There’s also прапорщик (praporshik) or ensign/warrant officer and старшина (starshina) which is the equivalent of a higher level sergeant, like first sergeant or sergeant first class. It’s a little confusing because the 2008 reforms actually got rid of all warrant officers, over 150,000 of them being wiped out in the restructuring, but in recent years Shoigu brought them back.
It’s important to note that while the NCO corps in Western militaries are more varied and deeper in general, with many more positions/specializations, Russian NCOs and officers can be said to train longer. To become a Russian officer takes 5 years in school, NCOs can go for nearly 3 years, depending on specialization. Here’s one of the seminal modern works on the Russian army, written and hosted by the official U.S. army page: https://www.armyupress.army.mil/portals/7/hot%20spots/documents/russia/2017-07-the-russian-way-of-war-grau-bartles.pdf
Called The Russian Way of War, it’s written by Lt. Colonel Lester Grau and military expert Charles Bartles, and plainly states on NCOs/officers that they can graduate from a comparatively long, nearly 3 year program specializing in small unit leadership:
As you can see above, Russia does value “training and educating its contract NCOs,” particularly in small unit leadership—precisely the area Westerners claim they lack capability.
However, lacking as many NCOs as in the West, Russia has been much more ‘officer heavy’. Here’s an older chart showing a comparison from years ago:
But in terms of commissioned officers, Russia has much more on average—30% of the armed forces were officers in Russia, while only 16% for NATO countries, from one statistic.
In fact, years ago Russia had begun staffing officers into NCO roles. So you’d have lieutenants doing sergeants’ duties, for instance. This partly explains why even Russia’s previous “lack” of NCOs was to some extents misunderstood and overestimated. After all, if you have much higher trained, actual officers doing the work of an NCO, on top of the officers leading the unit, then where’s the problem?
Some in the West believe this partly explains why Russian officers are known to fight more on the frontlines, compared to their Western counterparts. And perhaps there’s some truth to that. Some experts say that Russian sergeants perform more of an “SME” (subject matter expert) role rather than a “leadership” role. i.e. they can teach the grunts the intricacies of all the weapons systems, but don’t have the leadership capabilities to “take over” for the officer, should he be absent for whatever reason—i.e. killed or simply leading “from the rear”. Perhaps there was some truth to this long ago, but like I said, there have been strong reforms and investments in training sergeants and they no longer resemble those of the pre-2010 period.
Also, since Russia is much more officer heavy, more officers tend to die on average than in comparable countries just by their sheer overabundance. This feeds the perception that they always haphazardly “fight on the frontline”. In reality, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Interestingly enough, a Donbass commander relayed the story of how Ukraine faced disastrous losses in the SMO partly for this reason. When NATO came to overhaul the AFU into their much-vaunted Western NCO system, the Ukrainian officers subsequently saw opportunity to “pull back” from the frontline, considering that to be an obsolete “Soviet” tactic, and figuring the new NATO-trained sergeants can handle leading the charge.
The problem is that in the U.S., as Ryan Mcbeth repeatedly emphasizes, sergeants undergo many years of progressive training in order to truly develop the leadership and famed “initiative”-building qualities touted in the West. You can’t just turn someone into a sergeant overnight, pull all the commanders off the field, then tell the sergeant to take over.
This naturally resulted in clueless AFU “sergeants” leading a bunch of helpless conscripts straight to their deaths in endless meat assaults, where no one had any idea of what they were doing. You know all those recent videos where entire trenches full of AFU personnel surrender, and in their “interviews” state how they had no clue where the commanders were and haven’t seen or heard from them in days/weeks?
If you pay attention, in many of the videos you can see the AFU soldiers refer to their ranks as “starshi serjant”, i.e. senior sergeant, but you’ll almost never see a lieutenant. These are the guys NATO trained and tasked with “independently” commanding the hapless platoons, while their officers quietly retreated to second or third echelon lines 5-15km to the rear.
Take this interview with a captured AFU grunt, for instance. Note the highlighted text:
He says there were privates and sergeants there, but no company or platoon commanders (lieutenants and captains).
The main difference between American and Russian NCO tracks has been the fact that the sergeant in American terms is considered a truly “career” professional. Once you become a sergeant you’re on a career track which allows you to gain years of experience and impart that on your units. In that way, a sergeant may be far more experienced and in some ways knowledgeable than his own commanding officer, who just came straight out of officer candidates school. And that’s by design—the sergeant should be the facilitator who simplifies the lieutenant’s job and allows him to just focus his energies on strategy and leadership.
Take this example: the average age of a lieutenant who commands a platoon is somewhere around ~25, straight out of officer school. The average age of a sergeant first class who would be that lieutenant’s right hand man can be ~32-35 or even much older. So you can begin to see the wealth of experience that the lieutenant has at his disposal to lean on.
Previously in the Russian armed forces, the difference was that Russia was a conscript-heavy force. This created a situation where many sergeants were actually conscripts who only stayed for their call-up, then left. Other sergeants signed on for 3 year contracts or so, but then would leave, the retention being low due to non-competitive pay and general poor morale in the armed forces. Keep in mind, this refers to that early to mid-2000s period.
However, now Russia is transitioning to a professional force, with the majority being paid contract troops. This is creating a reborn image of the armed forces as a career viable pursuit, thanks in part due to the vastly improved pay and social benefits, which have no equal in the world. That means the unicorn of the “career sergeant” is now becoming a reality in the Russian armed forces.
Is the depth of the NCO corps as developed and varied as in the U.S.? No, and it may never be because Russia is not necessarily trying to precisely mirror the U.S. system. It believes in its own unique path which sits somewhere in the middle of the NCO-heavy Western system and that of the so-called “officer-heavy” one.
The West perennially proclaims their system to be superior but no where has that ever been actually demonstrated, as the U.S. has never faced what can even remotely be considered a ‘peer level’ force. The Russian system’s putative “inferiority” is only a product of anecdote, mostly stemming from a few well-known U.S. generals and think-tank propagandists like Breedlove, Hodges, McFaul, etc., who visited Russia in the early 2000s for some brief training exchanges. They vocally derided what they saw for years afterwards, and it became the standard and accepted image of a dilapidated and demotivated Russian armed forces. None of them have a single clue as to how Russia’s forces are structured now, mostly because they don’t care as, at this point, to them only ideology matters.
Though it’s only adjacently related, I wanted to share this excerpt about how commanders in the Donbass corps differed from the officers in the Russian army proper:
In the Donbass corps, the command staff grew naturally in a combat situation. From the very first days, personal leadership qualities and the trust of subordinates were put at the forefront when being appointed to a command position. Yes, the physical fitness of yesterday's miners and metallurgists was lame – at best, it was compensated by moral and strong-willed qualities. Naturally, there was a lack of specialized knowledge and they were acquired by trial and error, sometimes at a high price. I won't say anything at all about drawing up all sorts of paperwork and staff culture. But as the sages said: "The one who walks will master the road."
But there was one very significant disadvantage, which entailed a number of"inconveniences". The fact that the commanders came from the rank and file of the units that they were to command, imposed on the further service the imprint of familiarity. You can, of course, look for positive aspects in this, but there are very few of them. The commander often has to make "unpopular" decisions and, when appointing performers, should be guided not by friendly relations, but by expediency and competence. This led to appointments to lower-level command positions, people who did not have team "virtues", but simply had good relationships. But everyone remembers that "nice guy" is not a profession. And the more successful the career of an ordinary person was, the higher the mediocrity became, which inevitably entailed consequences. Very few people could separate service from friendship. Thus, they sat on their own eggs – I can assume that the widespread criticism of the Donbass officers at the beginning of the SVO, from the "academicians" of the Russian Armed Forces, is most likely due to such "friends".
It highlights the difference between the early ragtag Donbass militia days, where “officers” were merely enlisted/conscripts who graduated in rank, and were chummy with everyone in the unit, to that of a proper system like in Russia, where officers graduate from the academy. When those officers come into the unit, there is a deliberate and important ‘distance’ between them and the men, allowing the officers to make difficult decisions without being compromised by favoritism or swayed by “friendship”. And the gap between the two is exactly what the career sergeants are supposed to fill.
Now, getting back to the Ryan Mcbeth video. It goes into the final and main subject I want to cover. His chief thesis is: “if it involves professional officers, Russia does it well. If it involves professional NCOs, Russia probably doesn’t do it as well.”
The problem is, in Russia the officers do the jobs that American NCOs do. So it’s not that those things arent’ being done, but rather the responsibilities are distributed differently. For instance, Russian officers train the men directly whereas in the U.S. system, NCOs are meant to do that. And since Russia has more officers in general it can get away with it. However, he may still have a point that there are obvious benefits to having highly trained NCOs; it’s simply that the issue is not as black and white as Western commentators would pretend, at least not anymore in the modern era.
But to get to the main point which combines the ideas of both videos. The first video spoke about the infamous stereotype that Russian forces follow the “Soviet style” command push vs. pull system, where orders are given and small units don’t have autonomy. The problem is, the video contradicts itself and actually proves the opposite, particularly when you combine what Ryan Mcbeth said in his video.
Think about it for a moment. Mcbeth said that Russian officers—that is, lieutenant (platoon commander) and up—are very good and highly trained, which I proved with a U.S. military manual showing they’re actually trained far longer—5 years—than U.S. army equivalents. Mcbeth said that it’s when the NCOs have to lead or try to do an officer’s job that Russian forces show their weakness.
But recall—the first video said these new force structures Russia has been employing sees an officer leading smaller platoon units, which he compares to U.S. Marine squads. It tried to characterize this as a bad thing, yet the actual U.S. military expert on NCOs, officers, and small unit tactics says that Russian officers excel at their jobs, and are the strong points of the military.
By this admission, you can deduce that Russia is doing something right. Additionally, Russian officers are specifically taught unit autonomy and initiative in a concept called operational management in combat, which allows them to operate in a pull fashion with leadership, and demonstrate initiative and autonomy in achieving objectives. Remember, by their own admission, it’s only Russian NCOs that can’t do this, yet these new types of assault squads are led by officers who are capable.
I mentioned earlier how the first video discusses the fact that these assaults are intended only to capture the immediate position and not force breakthroughs for follow-on forces. Here’s where the stereotype gets completely flipped on its head. The common notion is that Russia is good at centralized operational level maneuvers but is not good at small unit leadership and tactical innovation or initiative.
But everything discussed here proves the opposite—at least insofar as what we’ve seen in the war so far. Russian forces have actually excelled at small unit tactics and initiative, but rather it’s in the larger operational capacity and grand combined arms maneuvers that we have yet to see true success. It’s what everyone complains about: Russia massacres Ukrainian forces in attrition warfare, capturing endless series of trenches and small positions, but has not achieved any overwhelmingly decisive result in the way of mass maneuvers operations. For the record, I believe that will probably be seen, it’s simply that for now Russia bides its time.
But getting back to the thought, we’ve consistently seen Russian units show unparalleled autonomy—in fact so much so that it’s even puzzled Westerners, as they can’t comprehend why Russia is operating in small independent units, seemingly without any oversight, and lacking a grand-gestural strategy.
I’ve mentioned in previous writings how this can be seen on a daily basis from a variety of sources. For instance, in Russian medal ceremonies which the official MOD channel publishes frequently, they describe a laundry list of heroic acts, almost all of which demonstrate some kind of unit acting independently on their own initiative.
One recent example was the famous ‘Alyosha tank’ crew which destroyed a Ukrainian column of 10+ vehicles. Artillery assisted them, but they were the only unit actually on the field facing off against this column. In the various interviews from the now ‘famous’ tank commander afterwards, he described specifically how their wider unit had originally been tasked with securing the village of Novodorovka nearby. But as the threat was relayed, they acted in full autonomy, choosing their routes, targets, modes of engagement themselves without having to call to any battalion HQ, or anything of the sort.
And by the way, tank units are led by officers. In the video above, those are lieutenant’s epaulettes, which confirms the type of officer-led autonomy and initiative I’ve been describing all along.
In fact, the second clean-shaven one is also a lieutenant, and underlines my points about the preponderance of officers in the Russian army. The story was: their mechanic-driver got injured while the situation became urgent. So the lieutenant-commander of the tank went into the driver’s position, and another lieutenant from a different crew took the tank commander’s position. It further demonstrates the officers’ level of training. The tank officer knew every position in the tank and could swap at need.
Another example that just saw light is this Russian unit advancing on a long assault in the Zaporozhye direction:
There’s no exact information yet as to what type of unit this is exactly, but there are clear small unit leadership capabilities on display here, like what we’ve been talking about. Considering this is a small unit, this could be one of the fabled Russian sergeants issuing the clear and calm commands; or perhaps it’s one of those “officers” reportedly taking charge of small units. Also, it shows the drone coordination I mentioned. As they move forward you can hear the interaction with a nearby drone team who watches them and warns them of approaching enemy units.
Here’s another example. Though it may be an irregular Chechen unit, it shows the type of autonomy displayed by small unit commanders in coming up with unique and creative ways of assaulting enemy positions.
Russian units not only have autonomy, they have so much that it at times becomes a detriment. In some sectors units operate so independently that adjacent units have no clue about one another. One of the reasons for this is the very peculiarly atomized composition of the total forces on Russia’s side—with paramilitary fighting shoulder to shoulder with volunteer units, PMCs, and everything in between. It’s all confused further by the fact that the LPR/DPR armies were separate and independent armies at the start of the war, and literally began a bizarre transition of full assimilation into the Russian armed forces proper during the middle of the conflict—which is unprecedented.
LDPR forces started off as independent militias. At the beginning of the SMO, on February 22, Putin first declared them as independent republics. Then in September of last year he signed them into the Russian Federation. That meant their army had to make a sudden and historic transition in the middle of the war, being absorbed into an established order. The DPR became the 1st Army Corps of Russia, and LPR forces the 2nd Army Corps; which is why you often see them abbreviated as 1st AK or 2nd AK in videos, as AK is armeyski korpus or army corps in Russian.
Due to the completely hectic and unprecedentedly mutable nature of the conflict, many Russian units and formations had operated quite independently. The first year at times resembled a struggle of warlords, further exacerbated by Russia not only changing commands several times, but not even having having an overall theater commander initially. They only appointed Surovikin as head of the ‘southern group’ in late last year, then Gerasimov as a sort of ‘supreme allied commander’ early this year. Prior to that, there were just disparate generals and their autonomous army zones of influence, with minimal interoperability. Though this can all be chalked up to various levels of unpreparedness by high command, that’s an entirely different topic for another article.
The fact is, for a large part of the war, many Russian units have operated with unprecedented freedom and autonomy. To some extent, Prigozhin and the Wagner saga lifted the veil on this, because he gave us a glimpse of how independently Wagner was wheeling and dealing for their own ammunition and supplies. Recall the Russian MOD actually confirmed it when they admitted during one of the ensuing ‘reconciliations’ that they simply “did not know of the issues” and would work toward resolving them. Of course, part of this could be deflection, but it still showed a remarkable level of autonomy with which Wagner was allowed to operate.
These may be larger formations, but it percolated down to the smaller units, particularly in light of the aforementioned tactics of limited assault. If you’re doing a major operational/theater level maneuver, then the core approaches and objectives have to be centrally planned out and delineated, as there are far too many pieces that have to fall into place simultaneously to achieve breakthroughs and follow-ons.
But if you’re just assaulting one trench position at a time, you’re free to give that platoon/company full discretion as how to best utilize their forces. This is particularly true due to smaller Russian units having many more capabilities in-house than equivalent NATO forces. It’s a well known dichotomy that American/Western forces have to call up to divisional/brigade artillery, and for things like drone units, recon, etc.
But Russian units have such things down to company level or smaller, which grants the company much more autonomy as they have all their own information about the targets/objectives at their fingertips. They don’t have to call up to division command to get ISR data and subsequent “permission” to engage. They have their own drone teams telling them exactly where the enemy is, and can then designate their own approach on how to dislodge or assault him.
To be fair, this isn’t because Russia is particularly special in that regard. They just happened to have a war at a time when these technologies were coming of age, and were forced to adapt. If the U.S. were presently fighting a high intensity conflict, they too would push to bring such capabilities down to company/battalion levels. Of course, I don’t think they’d do as well of a job because their structures are much more rigid, bureaucratic, and inelastic, in my opinion—but they would still attempt it; to what extent they’d succeed is another question. Necessity is the mother of invention.
The conclusion is, the evidence shows us that Western thinking is literally the opposite of reality: Russia does not lack small unit leadership, initiative, autonomy, etc. It in fact lacks—for now—the larger operational scale maneuver capabilities and leadership.
However, in my view this is merely because Russia is currently biding its time, as it hasn’t yet developed the doctrinal force disparity necessary to attempt such operational level assaults. Recall that to avoid mass casualties, you need a minimum 3:1 advantage when going on assault. Sure, you can still succeed without one, particularly when you have massive firepower advantages as Russia has, but it will come at a major cost, and is not optimal or preferable.
Russia has at best only matched Ukraine’s total force numbers on a 1:1 scale, and by many counts, it is still outnumbered in theater. Thus, I believe Russia will wait until it attritions the AFU enough to the point where they can bring to bear significant force disparities onto key strategic breakthrough points, and then we may see the much larger combined maneuvers to create real breakthroughs.
Of course there’s also the possibility that Ukraine manages to successfully carry out indefinite mass-mobilization without society collapsing or going into revolt, keeping their numbers always at a minimum parity. That being the case, Russia may choose to continue the piece-meal attritional warfare phase for much longer. We’ll know for certain which path is likelier after this fall/winter, when the now certain mass mobilizations in Ukraine bear their—potentially rotten—fruit.
Until then, led by the indefatigable Russian officer, the Russian small unit rules the battlefield.
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