Streetwise Professor

June 25, 2022

Russian Tactical Failures in Ukraine: Where’s the Meat?

Filed under: History,Military,Russia — cpirrong @ 11:02 am

In the very early days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, after watching many videos of columns of Russian armor or individual tanks getting blown to smithereens, I remarked on Twitter several times that what astounded me is that the tanks were operating without infantry support, which left them vulnerable to being ambushed by a couple of guys with an ATGM fired within spitting distance. FFS, it has been known since the dawn of tanks in WWI, and especially since their widespread employment in WWII, that tanks without infantry are extremely vulnerable to one- or two-man antitank weapons. The bazooka is one example, but the panzerfaust (and subsequently its imitator the RPG-7) is the best illustration.

I had written down the Russian failures to a meatware problem: namely, badly trained or badly led troops, operating under bad doctrine. Well, it appears that it is a meatware problem, but a different one: a lack of meat. To modify the old Wendy’s commercial: where’s the meat?

For it seems that the vaunted Russian Battalion Tactical Groups–BTGs–have been deployed to Ukraine seriously undermanned. Fifty percent undermanned, in fact, a problem only exacerbated by the massive attrition that undermanned units inevitably suffered.

Many of the infantry fighting vehicles like the BMP-2 in its several variants have apparently operated without infantry: only the driver, commander, and gunner man the vehicles. So the reason that Russian armor has no infantry support is that it has no infantry period.

This is nothing short of criminal. Alas, the real criminals here (from Putin on down) will not pay the price. The poor Ivans incinerated when Javelins or Stugnas and other ATGMs demolish their vehicles have–and will.

Recently there have been fewer such images, because the Russians have changed tactics, due no doubt to the carnage of February and March. Now most Russian losses (at least the ones depicted on video) are from indirect fires.

For the war in Ukraine has become one of indirect fires. As predicted here when the original coup de main was smashed, the Russians have reverted to reliance on their God of War–artillery. In particular, after giving the Grozny treatment to Mariupol and winning a pyrrhic victory there, they have done the same at Severodonetsk.

The Ukrainians have wisely decided to withdraw. Perhaps a bit too late, but better late than never. By holding out the Ukrainians did cost the Russians time and materiel and casualties. But the Ukrainians suffered severe casualties as well. Judging when to make a tactical withdrawal is hard.

Severodonetsk is (or perhaps was) at the nose of a salient. The classic means of assaulting a salient is to strike on the shoulders and pinch it off, trapping the defenders. But the Russians have signally failed in their attempts to do so. So they bashed in the nose of the salient with brute firepower. It is a victory, of sorts, but one that will not have decisive because the Russians have proved that they do not have the ability to exploit such breaches through armored maneuver.

Severodonetsk was just a WWI battle, or a battle akin to the ones in the static phase of the Korean War July 1951-July 1953. A few kilometers are taken, at heavy cost (especially to the attackers) with no decisive strategic effect.

And the prospect is for more such battles, until one side or the other–or both–collapses due to an exhaustion of personnel or emotional/moral collapse.

Morale on both sides involved in the slugging contests is reportedly cracking. This is understandable. Especially on the Ukrainian side, given they are outgunned. There is nothing more terrifying or demoralizing to soldiers than artillery bombardment. The soldier feels utterly helpless, with no way of fighting back, and wondering whether the next whoosh of a shell is the last sound they will ever hear. What we now call PTSD was referred to as “shell shock” in WWI for a reason.

So, again as predicted early on, the war has degenerated into a war of attrition. The deciding factor will be which army, and perhaps which government, collapses first. Existing Russian forces have been hollowed out. Russia has additional manpower to draw on, but that would require Putin to mobilize, something he has been reluctant to do. And even if he does, re-manning depleted BTGs with unmotivated raw recruits will just permit extending the slow grind west, will not result in a decisive advance, and will push the Russian death toll ever closer to 6 figures.

Ukraine has made some marginal gains on the periphery in the north (around Kharkiv) and in the south (around Kherson). But nothing decisive.

Further, the events in Donbas have apparently been a rude awakening and cured the “victory disease” that inflicted Zelensky, the rest of the Ukrainian leadership, and many supporters in the West after the initial Russian thrusts were turned back.

But given that neither side seems willing to stop the fighting except on terms that the other finds completely unacceptable, the bloody, pointless war will drag on for the foreseeable future.

Astoundingly, even though it should have been apparent no later than mid-March that based on events on the ground and betting on form regarding Russian behavior that this is exactly where we would be, US military “intelligence” has supposedly been surprised at how the Russians have responded to their initial setback: “But U.S. intelligence apparently missed another possibility: that Russia would revert to its traditional “way of war” based on mass and attrition.”

How is that possible? I mean really. This should not have been complicated.

After Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Ukraine, U.S. military intelligence–especially the parts responsible for evaluating enemy capabilities and intentions–needs to be ripped down to the foundation and built from scratch. Ukraine is another example of “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” And it doesn’t even require looking at relatively ancient history, like, you know, WWII. It only requires looking back back 20-25 years, to Grozny.

These serial failures of US intelligence scare me far more than anything happening along the Don. An addle-brained president, with moronic advisors, acting on bad information. What could possibly go wrong?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Putin’s refusal to mass-mobilize is one of those things that makes me think the war is not nearly as popular as the polls suggest. After all, if this is an existential battle against Nazism and/or the entire Western world, wouldn’t Russian youth en masse want to sign up for it right away? But I see no sign of that happening. Putin’s dithering and hesitancy will just lead to more corpses piling up.

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — June 25, 2022 @ 1:44 pm

  2. The contest in Ukraine is between half measures by the Russians (no mobilization) versus quarter measures by the West (wholly inadequate equipment and logistical support for Ukraine). A slow grinding Russian progress is the result. The leaders of France, Germany, and Italy came to try to talk Ukraine into Minsk III. Zelensky took them out to see the Kiev suburbs and the atrocities. No meeting of the minds there. You can see how it went by the difference in body language between their visit and Boris Johnson’s second visit. Putin knows what happened – it’s not a coincidence that the natural gas flows were cut this week.

    Comment by WhoStruckJohn — June 25, 2022 @ 2:15 pm

  3. These serial failures of US intelligence scare me far more than anything…

    But under General Milley’s wise leadership, they all know one another’s pronouns.

    Comment by Pat Frank — June 25, 2022 @ 5:40 pm

  4. So you are war expert too?
    You americans are experts on all fronts 😉

    From Russia with love

    Comment by Constantine Firun — June 25, 2022 @ 11:06 pm

  5. > But I see no sign of that happening.

    Hey, Emperor of Ice Cream, are you in Russia to see that or you are looking from your chair in west?

    Comment by Constantine Firun — June 25, 2022 @ 11:09 pm

  6. My military experience is limited, I have never killed anyone and I have no such intention so I am at a disadvanrage with the commentators in this blog. Still it was hilarious to read here the preposterous reports about the great victories of the glorious army of Ukies (sadly that includes you, prof. FYI the river Don has nothing to do with Donbass or with Ukraine for that matter. Why couldn’t you check the map before your futile excersize in graphomania? Why couldn’t you keep writing about the price of nickel instead? that one was excellent)
    That said I should stress again that I am against the war but I never speak to Putin (and I have seen him in flesh only once in my life).

    Comment by A.russian — June 26, 2022 @ 12:14 am

  7. Professor, what do you think about Ukraine recently receiving candidate status in EU? It may be moral boost, but I doubt that Ukraine should ever become member of EU. It seems to me that the I dea of joining European Union is popular in Ukraine because countries of EU have much higher level of living and are more developed economically and so Ukrainians have illusions that by joining EU their country will reach success. But countries of Western Europe are rich not because of EU, which have vast, unaccountable bureaucracy. I fear that combination of Ukraine’s ills (corruption, low level of economic development) and EU’s (bureaucracy) will result in very bad outcomes for Ukraine and other European countries.

    Comment by mmt — June 26, 2022 @ 3:45 am

  8. What you say about Russian military failures may be so. Whether they pivot, change plans, revert to traditional military means (did they revert, or was that the plan all along?) is hard to say because none of us has had a look at the original plan.

    E.g., the “attack” (was it really an attack or a feint?) on Kiev. Total failure, or mission accomplished? I could go either way. Certainly, IT SEEMS Putin thought he could decapitate the Kiev government in a blink. But again, seems. If he thought that, well, he was wrong. But maybe he never thought that.

    I suspect that the narrative of brave Ukrainian soldiers squashing stupid, blundering, antiquated Ruskies and their tanks seems to have been pretty much the work of Ukrainian sources, U.S. State Dept, one of the Kagans (ISW) and the feckless and utterly corrupt U.S. intelligence services. Also, right, Boris.

    I looked up Kofman & Lee (War on the Rocks). They look pretty young, which is to say their knowledge of Russian whatever comes from books or college. Lee is a recent phd, Stanford, I believe. She’s at the Army War College, not what I’d call a nest of heterodox thinking (see Iraq, Afghanistan). She’s one of them what I call fast trackers. She’ll be at State before long, or maybe Brookings.

    She could be right, could be wrong. She’s more of an expert than me–I’m not an expert. OTOH, I have eyes in my head. For my money, the best source on this war is this fellow:

    Unlike the rest, all sides, he seems to have no axe to grind. Seems straight up. Please correct me if I’m wrong. Thanks for all your postings. This is a terrific, informative, intellectually honest blog.

    Comment by George O'Har — June 26, 2022 @ 11:52 am

  9. “except on terms that the other finds completely unacceptable”

    Yeah, as a well-known politician born in Ukraine once put it: “We intend to remain alive. Our neighbors want to see us dead. This is not a question that leaves much room for compromise.”

    Ukraine has had a problem with savage hordes coming from/over the Don for over a millenium now, nothing much new there. What is unusual is some support from the West. So let’s hope the hordes are stopped on the Don rather than on the Elbe this time.

    Comment by Ivan — June 26, 2022 @ 3:31 pm

  10. Yes, tactical failures.

    But they are losing less quickly than Ukraine.

    The G7 tell us that a Russian victory in Ukraine will be a strategic calamity.

    On present trends, Russia is on a path to victory.

    Where does that leave us?


    Re. the military intel failure: probably a case of ‘The only news I want to read is good news’ at the top. Yeah you can rip the institutions down to their foundations, and start again, but ultimately they have to be staffed by people – and what are you going to do about them? Tenured fellowships in intel reporting, to remove the career risk for speaking truth to power? ‘Hello, tenured Fellow. Here is your new desk, on level Minus-3. We should get around to installing your telephone, internet and electricity connections in 2032.’ Perhaps we should create the idea of ‘moron hazard’ to exist alongside ‘moral hazard’ in Principal-Agent theory.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — June 26, 2022 @ 5:45 pm

  11. In the words of Beloved Brandon, “C’mon, man!”

    I’ve ceased to take Michael Kofman and Rob Lee seriously; their work is little better than propaganda at this point.

    The reality is that the Russian army is annihilating the densest concentration of the Ukrainian army, fortified in the Donbass. Even the clowns running the Kiev regime have admitted that the UAF casualty rates are running in excess of hundreds per day. Ukraine’s regular army is largely gone, with successive waves of Ukrainian mobilisation pushing poorly-trained conscripts to the front without decent armour, artillery or air support. It’s just fodder at this point. Russia does not need to manoeuvre if they can achieve the objective of destroying the Ukrainian army in the field via overwhelming indirect fires, with minimal losses on their side. The Western weaponry being fed into this meatgrinder only delays the inevitable.

    Russia isn’t running out of weapons.
    Russia isn’t running out of men.
    Russia isn’t running out of morale.

    Absent direct US military intervention – aka WWIII – Russia will steamroller Ukraine. The sooner everyone accepts this, the sooner the carnage stops and the USA allows President Zoolander of Rump Ruthenia to negotiate the inevitable, humiliating defeat.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 26, 2022 @ 6:18 pm

  12. Looks like the Russkis are making on this blog the strategic breakthrough that they cannot achieve on the battlefield. I give it three days max before they encircle the “submit comment” button.

    Comment by Ivan — June 26, 2022 @ 8:08 pm

  13. Where’s the meat? Have you seen the pictures of General Pavel, the guy pulled out of retirement to replace Dvornikov? I mean, this guy is vast, even by American standards. I know he’s been recruited to tilt the balance in Russia’s favour, but I didn’t realise they meant gravitationally rather than militarily.

    Dvornikov was relieved of command reportedly because of concerns over his alcohol consumption. I’m guessing it was too little rather than too much (is there such a thing as too much in Russia?). If there’s one thing Russian troops detest it is a lightweight.

    Nice to see Vlad’s intray getting ever more busy, what with all those shenanigans in Kaliningrad and Kazakhstan. I’ve just read they’re also in technical default territory, thanks to the west buggering around with their payment mechanisms. Bobby Fisher eat your heart out…

    Comment by David Mercer — June 27, 2022 @ 4:22 am

  14. @ Fyodor: “Russia does not need to manoeuvre” Genuine LOL. That’s so funny. It’s simply incapable of doing so. Probably explains why they’ve recruited that fatty Pavel – he’s not going anywhere in a hurry.

    PS I’d go easy on the copium if I were you. You sound a little unhinged.

    Comment by David Mercer — June 27, 2022 @ 4:29 am

  15. meanwhile, at service academies they are actively indoctrinating cadets into CRT.

    Comment by Jeff Carter (@pointsnfigures1) — June 27, 2022 @ 7:26 am

  16. @ David Mercer. Please tell me you’re trolling with “General Pavel”. You didn’t seriously read a tabloid rag, look at a meme photo of a tubby bloke in a shitty uniform in some random street locale and think to yourself, “This is a credible photo of a high-ranking general in the largest army in Europe.” You can’t be that brainwashed, can you?

    Talk about copium, mate: delusion AND projection. LOL, indeed.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 27, 2022 @ 6:02 pm

  17. What a great victory of the largest army invading Europe over that Kremenchuk shopping mall full of civilians! Putler will probably cut short his Tajikistan trip to give medals.

    Comment by Ivan — June 27, 2022 @ 10:41 pm

  18. @Fyodor: Nope, it’s been widely reported. Take your blinkers off. Fattus Maximus is in charge now.

    @Ivan: Two theories doing the rounds about the motive behind this attack, the first that Putin was enraged by the G7’s banter (little man syndrome and all that). The second, and more credible IMO, is that HIMARS is really doing the business, with reports of multiple ammo dumps being successfully targeted. There are already reports of Russian arty usage dramatically declining along the front line as a consequence. As one commentator noted that, without artillery, Russia’s military is just a heap of mushy sh*t (not in those words, admittedly).

    Comment by David Mercer — June 28, 2022 @ 4:19 am

  19. Norman Davies (a distinguished historian of the region) writes that Russian myth is that anywhere that was once invaded / inhabited by a Russian is rightfully a part of Russia.
    (Watch out Alaska, the French riviera and Harrods lingerie department.)
    If this is true we have no option but to win, and put Russia back in its box definitively. Recover Konigsberg, demilitarise Sevastopol, etc.
    Whether we have the bottle to win is another matter.

    Comment by philip — June 28, 2022 @ 3:37 pm

  20. When you still a US Presidential election, nothing else matters.

    Comment by Joe Walker — June 28, 2022 @ 4:08 pm

  21. @ David Mercer. “Widely reported”, you say? Oh well that changes everything. I was under the impression that The Daily Star – the aforementioned tabloid rag – had grabbed a photo circulating memetically on Reddit and fabricated a garbage story out of whole cloth around it to be fed to gullible nitwits as infotainment.

    But now you tell me that real journalists have independently verified the story? Well, consider me unblinkered!

    Please, David, do enlighten me as to these other media outlets credibly reporting independently on this same story.

    While you’re at it, be so good as to explain why:

    – No full name is given for “General Pavel”. Pavel is a first name in Russia, the surname equivalent would be Pavlov.

    – The tubby bloke in the picture is wearing the cap of a Russian border guard (the distinctive “Kelly” green colour is the giveaway), not army.

    – His epaulette shows the rank of major (large silver star), not a general of any description.

    Let’s face facts, David. I gave you the opportunity at least to pretend that you were joking, that you hadn’t been suckered by an obvious fake. But no, you chose to double down as a gullible doofus. But you reckon I’m the one who’s blinkered? Thanks for playing.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 28, 2022 @ 5:23 pm

  22. hmmmm. Rob Lee and Michael Kofmann…I see…
    I have stopped following these guys weeks ago, as none of their assessments turned out correct (Kofman famously predicted that Russian combat potential would be exhausted by the end of March – most terretorial gains have been made since April, of course. Same for Bellingcat, which on March 4th predicted Russians would run out of missiles soon etc.).
    Now errors re normal in complex situations, but these are grave analytical errors that disqualify these analysts – I simply do not have the time to follow parody accounts.

    I think this thread is worth a read, lots of food for thought

    Comment by Viennacapitalist — June 29, 2022 @ 1:39 am

  23. In keeping with Lord Chesterfield’s comment that a very bad man can make a very good soldier, I would suggest that the Ukrainians follow Nathaniel Forests dictat: Want to Beat the enemy’ throw a scare into them!.

    Assuming the cowards and pi mom’s in the pentagon don’t throw a fit. A quick strike towards a lightly defended Bialistock, along with promoting the obvious unhappiness in Belorussia, could go a long way to changing the meat grinder they now face. In other words go where their artillery isn’t.

    Unfortunately our glorious senior ties seem to give the Ukrainians just enough to bloody themselves, and would faint at “expanding” the war. Another Vietnam like grabbing defeat from the jaws of at least a stalemate.

    Comment by Sotosy1 — June 29, 2022 @ 6:10 pm

  24. “Russia isn’t running out of weapons.
    Russia isn’t running out of men.
    Russia isn’t running out of morale.”

    This MUST be true, because the invasion of Kyiv was a complete success for the Russians! 😛

    Comment by HibernoFrog — June 30, 2022 @ 5:48 am

  25. Can anyone explain why the Ukrainian tactics seem to be (I emphasis the “seem”) to let their infantry sit in trenches as targets for the Russian artillery?

    Comment by dearieme — June 30, 2022 @ 10:44 am

  26. Heh. A propos du sujet de reddition, les crapauds arrivent.

    @ dearieme. TINA. The Ukrainians don’t have many options without armoured mobility while Russia has fires and air superiority. All the Ukrainian army CAN do is conduct a static defense in fortified positions and wait for the Ghost of Kiev or Western Wunderwaffen to save them.

    They could obviously negotiate a peace, but their bargaining position is…weak. That’s assuming the DC neocons permit Zoolander to negotiate, of course. It only gets worse from here.

    Comment by Fyodor — June 30, 2022 @ 4:28 pm

  27. Ahh, Snake Island, yet another feint. Even during its evacuation Russia demonstrated its astute tactical nous, losing yet another helo and forcing the troops into leisure craft, presumably so as not to attract the attention of nearby Ukrainain ASM crews. And then a humiliated and vengeful Putin lashes out the only way he can i.e. by flattening yet another civilian target, this time in Odesa.

    That NATO summit was a veritable bonanza for Ukraine. Shame the poor Kurds had to be thrown under the bus to accommodate Sweden and Finland, after all the sacrifices they’ve made for us in Syria. Realpolitik, eh?

    Its also been a bumper year for US defence companies – I’ve lost track of the number of European countries who’ve said they are buying this or that from them.

    @Fyodor: Russia has air superiority?? Bwahahahahaha!!

    Comment by David Mercer — July 1, 2022 @ 3:22 am

  28. Could it be that the Russians have learnt from their experience? They’re not much cop at soldiering but they are pretty good at lobbing artillery shells.

    Do you think NATO – which effectively means the USA – has learnt much?

    Comment by dearieme — July 1, 2022 @ 2:56 pm

  29. Who was the first to say “the first casualty of war is the truth?”
    There are many comments above that to my mind reflect acceptance of western propaganda, an acceptance of untruths. If, in fact Russia is losing ground then why are there no news stories of ground recovered by the Uke’s, why has the posturing of US military elites gone suddenly quiet? Why?

    Comment by Sandy K — July 2, 2022 @ 6:32 am

  30. Thank you for yet another insightful post, SWP

    I had previously posted about the Rooshan army buying fake Michelin tires from the Chicoms for their military vehicles – corruption, etc. The tires blew up in use.

    A couple more recent example – missile fired by rooshan does a 180 and promptly blows up where it came from

    And – rooshan ship in Black Sea gets blowed up real good by rooshan mines

    The rooshan are conducting such a “humanitarian” war – blowing up homes, shopping malls, cars, hospitals, office buildings, etc.

    And Peskov, the guy that has expensive skull-head jewelry, immediately announces that roosha targets only “military targets.”

    I’d like to see Putler’s palace in Sochi blowed up real good.

    Rasha has conclusively proved that is is not a superpower.

    It is not a country – it is a territory with a kleptocratic brutal mafia state.

    As always.

    PS You’ve got a couple of Kremlinoid trolls back on your blog – again. Means you must be doing everything right.

    Comment by elmer — July 3, 2022 @ 10:23 am

  31. Another view:

    Comment by Richard Whitney — July 4, 2022 @ 9:20 am

  32. The day after this post, the NY Post ran with this story:
    The only problem with this is that it is completely false:
    There have been so many PR stunts by the Ukraine and its supporters…Russia is out of rockets…the Ghost of Kiev…Shoigu is dead…Putin is ill (where did you read that?)…Kromatorck rail station…Bucha…the ‘evacuation’ of the Azovstal…and more.

    Comment by Richard Whitney — July 13, 2022 @ 8:21 am

  33. If the Russian ground forces were a maneuver-based force, the BTG would probably be the most relevant factor for estimating the course & outcome of the war.

    But its not. The Russian ground forces is a fires-based force. Maneuver supports fires, rather than fires supporting maneuver as in Western armies.

    Look at the composition of a Russian brigade, 3 maneuver battalions, supported by 2 organic howitzer battalions and an organic MRL battalion, rather than the usual 2-3 maneuver battalions supported by 1 organic howitzer battalion as is usual in Western armies. The tactical center of gravity is fires, not maneuver.

    The way it works is that the Russians send out drones & recon elements to direct & observe fires, and when the target is adequately ground down, then the maneuver elements move. Rinse & repeat on the next fortified line. For particularly hard cases, there’s TOS-1.

    They’re in no particular hurry, they’re sending 5-10 times as many shells into Ukrainian fortifications as the Ukrainian Army is sending back, including a lot of counterbattery, so they’re taking their time and grinding the Ukrainian Army to powder.

    Comment by rkka — July 16, 2022 @ 9:34 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress