Can Russia win an artillery war against Ukraine? In the months preceding the war, military analysts who correctly concluded Russia was massing troops for a likely attack on Ukraine also thought they had a good handle on the tactics its ground forces would use. They based their expectations on the fighting that had already taken place, in Ukraine and in Syria, starting in the middle of the last decade.
The key elements would be ad-hoc combined-arms units called battalion tactical groups, or BTGs. They would follow a doctrine of so-called non-contact or next-generation warfare in which battalion-sized mechanized units serve as mobile artillery delivery systems.
Rather than push forward infantry and tanks to engage the enemy with direct fire, BTGs would rely on drones and electronic intelligence to locate opposing units and plaster them from afar with artillery. The tanks and infantry were there to screen the artillery, only seizing ground after the artillery had destroyed most of the opposing force.
This doctrine sought to rationalize Russia’s strengths — lots and lots of armored vehicles and artillery — and its weaknesses: not enough capable infantry.
A Wall of Thorns
But Russian forces did not use those tactics when they invaded Ukraine this February. Moscow’s war plans were premised on the belief that its troops would punch through Ukraine’s supposedly feckless military like a fist through wet cardboard. Russian forces therefore spread broadly across Ukraine’s borders, and mechanized columns barreled towards Ukrainian cities with minimal dismounted infantry (sometimes just one-third the numbers stipulated in Russian organizational charts). Meanwhile airborne forces were inserted deep behind enemy lines. The idea was to grab as much ground as possible and capture the capital before resistance could solidify.
But Moscow had badly misjudged the willingness and ability of Ukrainians to fight back. By plunging into Ukrainian cities and suburbs, its armor met a wall not of cardboard, but of thorns. Poorly supported armored columns were decimated by Ukrainian anti-tank ambushes and artillery. Elite airborne forces dropped behind Ukrainians lines were wiped out within hours of landing.
Russia’s poor logistics further confined advances to road networks (where they could be more easily ambushed), resulting in forward elements in many places failing to receive food, fuel, and ammunition. Combined with Russia’s heavily rail-bound logistics, the result was hungry, isolated Russian troops abandoning hundreds of fuel-starved armored vehicles outside of combat.
The aggressive warfare Russia attempted essentially highlighted weaknesses earlier identified in their doctrine and organization by a U.S. Army study: poor ability to fight at close quarters (a type of fighting unavoidable in assaults and urban warfare); overreliance on expendable proxy forces to hold ground and perform costly assaults; and dependence on thinly spread drone and electronic warfare assets.
It became evident that Russia lacked the drones and hardware to scale up its most effective tactics, earlier demonstrated by a select subset of forces from 2014-2018. Nor did it have abundant proxy forces in the Kyiv region to hold ground and serve as cannon fodder for assault.
Bogged down in a morass of military setbacks and war crimes, Moscow was forced to withdraw completely from northwestern and north-central Ukraine. Its primary objective of overthrowing the Ukrainian government was now off the table.
The only silver lining for Putin was that by attacking everywhere at once, Russian forces discovered and exploited a weak link: Ukraine’s southern defenses adjacent to Crimea. Russian troops went on to secure all of Ukraine’s coastline east of the Siverskiy Donets river, as well as the city of Kherson on its west bank. Ukrainian troops finally stemmed the bleeding in mid-March by rolling back Russian advances towards Mykolaiv, Odessa and Kryvi Rhi.
Russia’s military goes back to basics
As Russian forces withdrew from Kyiv, Moscow spelled out a new, downsized war aim: securing all of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts – the Donbas region – most of which it already held. Through a pincer operation via Izium and Popasna, Russia hoped to encircle and annihilate a significant chunk of Ukraine’s military and capture the last major city in Ukrainian hands there, Severodonetsk. Meanwhile, Russian forces would defend newly occupied territory in the south.
Russia’s military had pivoted to its lead-with-artillery doctrine, leveraging its large quantitative advantage to bludgeon Ukraine. The new strategy also greatly shortened Russian supply lines, which ran through secure terrain long held by Russian separatists.
The resulting attritional slugfest was not exactly brilliant – the attempted encirclement maneuver shrank in scope with each passing month, and Russian forces attempted multiple river crossings that failed with catastrophic losses. However, the sheer massing of firepower and forces exhibited some basic competence, and it enabled Russian batteries to slowly grind down Ukrainian defenses, allowing Russian troops to seize ground.
Ukraine’s favorable casualty exchange ratio in the first two months of the war declined due to the Ukrainian military lacking enough artillery. (One Ukrainian official claimed a 10:1 ratio vis-à-vis Russia, though that may be exaggerated.) Most ominously Ukraine was running out of Soviet-style 122mm and 152mm artillery shells, forcing it to judiciously ration counter-battery and barrage fires. More and more Ukrainian soldiers were dying under shell fire without even seeing the enemy.
Will Russia’s Non-Contact Strategy Work?
As Western media began grasping the bleakness of the Donbas artillery war by late May, that energized critics of Western military assistance to Ukraine. These critics argue that Ukraine has no hope of prevailing in a prolonged struggle with Russia and would be better off permanently ceding territory to Putin rather than pushing Western countries to endure the discomfiting costs of continued military aid, sanctions, and rising energy and food prices.
However, wars do not always proceed according to fixed trajectories. The early months of 2022 have already illustrated this. The seemingly endless war of attrition in the Donbas is one that neither side can sustain indefinitely. The victor will be the side that can manage economies of effort over time.
Since Russia has three times the population of Ukraine, many wrongly infer it can draw endlessly from a deeper supply of manpower, regardless of its losses. Indeed, Ukraine is fully mobilized, while Russia has refrained from doing so because President Vladimir Putin fears the political consequences. Thus in personnel (not in hardware) the forces approach parity.
Russian forces are still suffering substantial casualties, and they are running out of manpower. Intercepted phone calls reveal collapsing morale as Russians are sent into combat drastically under strength, with personnel resigning or deserting in numbers. Some Russian infantry units are reportedly refusing to advance unless they are assured that all Ukrainian forces at the position have been killed.
Admittedly, Moscow keeps on scrounging up new fuel to feed the furnace: Wagner mercenaries, riot police, short-term volunteer units full of middle-aged males, garrison troops, civilians forcibly conscripted in separatist territory, etc. The volunteers and Wagner are allegedly undertaking much of the costly assault work. Russia is furthermore deploying retired T-62M tanks and BMP-1 fighting vehicles to equip new forces.
But like scraping the last bits of jam in the jar, such measures cannot be scaled infinitely or produce great volumes. Furthermore, some commitments involve sending into combat personnel ordinarily responsible for training new cohorts of conscripts. And if Putin does bite the bullet and mobilize Russia, it will still take months of instruction for conscripts to become effective in combat.
Ukraine is certainly being worn down too. There are reports of new Ukrainian forces suffering from poor morale after being thrown into battle with inadequate training and fire support.
As more and more combat units become ineffective, eventually an operational pause to reconstitute and regenerate hollowed-out units becomes necessary, with a skeleton force left to defend the frontline. If one side pauses before the other, that may create an opening for a well-timed offensive to seize ground with less risk of being swept back by the usual, often successful, counterattack.
Ukraine’s combat power furthermore may increase over time as it receives advanced Western artillery systems and hundreds of thousands of 155-mm shells from NATO’s deep inventory. Weapons like the PzH 2000, CAESAR, Zuzana-2, M777 and M109 howitzers, and HIMARS and M270 rocket artillery systems are more precise, quicker to deploy and then un-deploy to avoid retaliation, and have longer range than Russia’s most common artillery systems. Those already in the theater are reportedly achieving highly favorable loss-exchange ratios when dueling Russian artillery. Their range and precision is already allowing the targeting of formerly safe rear-area logistical depots, headquarters, and railheads in Russian-controlled Donbas.
Thus, Russia’s artillery advantage may degrade through the summer. Further along, Ukraine may begin fielding more Western air defense systems, anti-ship batteries, and armed drones which could reduce Russia’s edges in tactical airpower, naval assets, and cruise and ballistic missile capability.
The southern front presents another complicating factor. There, Ukrainian forces have slowly but steadily gnawed away at Russian positions around occupied Kherson. If they become poised to assault Kherson itself, Russia may have to make hard choices about how to distribute forces between the Donbas and Russia’s last toehold in southwestern Ukraine.
Foreseeing the course of armed conflicts is challenging, and Ukraine’s sacrifices are not guaranteed to liberate key territories seized by Russia. However, if Western support remains steady, it is plausible that they could do just that. For now, most Ukrainians apparently believe it’s worth making those sacrifices to challenge Putin’s aggression. After all, the Kremlin might use ground ceded today to launch an even deeper invasion tomorrow, once it has rebuilt its forces and perceives more politically favorable circumstances.
Expert Biography – Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.