Russia’s battle-hardened army is learning – and it’s very bad news for Nato

Russia is clearly gaining the upper hand in Ukraine. The Russian army is adapting and beginning to exploit its advantages to take and hold territory, most recently in its operations near Kharkiv. A senior officer from one of the Baltic states and no friend of Russia recently told me “the Russians are not stupid; they learn; and when they decide on something, they’re relentless.”

The army defeated by the Ukrainians in 2022 has been destroyed. Russia is in the process of building a new, larger and more effective force. It will not be efficient, it will not be fast-moving or dynamic, Russian armies rarely have been any of these things. It may be capable, though, of achieving at least some of the objectives set by their leadership.

First and most-importantly at the political level, Russia’s military economy, despite the pressures of western sanctions, is doing well. Just as happened during the Secod World War, Russia has transferred much of its industry towards military production. Its ammunition supply has improved, albeit with the assistance of North Korea. Iran too has pitched in with its slow but effective Shahed drones in addition to thousands of other weapons systems. Very recently, the UK has claimed that China has begun to supply “lethal aid”.

Russia has lost many thousands of its more modern tanks and armoured vehicles and a great many more older ones; production of new tanks cannot keep up. However, deploying old tanks is a whole lot better than none at all, and Russia has not yet run short of its Cold War stocks of tanks and armour – stocks long since scrapped in the West.

russia’s battle-hardened army is learning – and it’s very bad news for nato

Military policemen guard an exhibition of tanks, APCs and guns of Ukrainian armed forces captured during the fighting displayed near the World War II museum on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow (Photo: Dmitry Serebryakov/AP Photo)

As for the single most important factor – manpower, despite ludicrous claims of vast casualties inflicted by Ukrainians, the likelihood is that given the nature of the fighting both sides sustain deaths and injuries at a rate of two to one (at most) in Ukraine’s favour. In a war of attrition like this one, numbers matter, and this is a proportion Ukraine is unlikely to be able to sustain.

The Ukrainians have had huge problems with recruitment and the long-delayed new conscription laws, are unlikely to make any real difference this year. Meanwhile Russia’s fearsome casualties of the war’s first year have been replaced though the simple but highly effective expedient of recruiting and paying contract troops who are not press-ganged, conscripted or convicts. We have also seen that failed generals are replaced, sometimes at a fairly rapid clip. This has had the result of ensuring that generals will often have combat experience and more of an appreciation of what the forces under their command can do.

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The Russians have proved themselves to be effective at regularly neutralising Ukraine’s initial edge in technology. Russia, though, has maintained its superiority in electronic warfare. For example, jamming of precision Western weaponry has considerably reduced its effectiveness. New missile systems have a “grace period” of only a few weeks before Russia develops countermeasures.

Finally, on the equipment front, not only have the Russians proved themselves able to jam Ukrainian signals to their lethal FPV drones, but Russian drone production has outstripped the Ukrainians’ capacity. This advantage has been compounded by the lack of Ukrainian air defences – a product of the Ukrainians running critically short of old but effective Soviet-era missiles and slow western supply of replacements. Consequently, over the past year Russian air power – articulately its old but brutally effective glide-bombs, have caused mayhem. They were arguably decisive a the key Battle of Avidiivka, won by the Russians in late-February.

Russia’s current programme of reorganisation and development is part of a larger project in anticipation for a conflict with Nato sometime in the next decade. Estonian intelligence reported earlier this year that structural reforms, announcements of new units and an increase in personnel of the army from 1.1 million to 1.5 million aim to create a “Soviet -style mass army”.

The recent appointment of a new defence minister far more focussed on defence economics than command and control was significant, since it signals an awareness of the need to place the reforms on foundations that will be sustainable well into the 2030s.

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