Red-Team Analysis Of Russia’s Defensive Combat Strategy
By Can Kasapoğlu*
1. Stalemate as Strategy
One thing is certain: Vladimir Putin’s generals did not plan for this. In their optimistic pre-war strategy sessions, they envisioned Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) seizing the Antonov Airport before pouring into Kyiv, the Russian military assuming control of the capital as President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his cabinet evacuated in a hail of sniper fire, and Putin’s National Guard crushing what remained of the Ukrainian resistance.
Yet almost 15 months into what has become a grinding war of attrition, the best-laid plans of the Russian high command have led to disaster for Moscow. The Armed Forces of the Russian Federation remain bogged down in enemy territory, bleeding helplessly by the day. Meanwhile, their opponent continues to receive high-end weapons systems from NATO capitals.
Russian personnel and military equipment have been eliminated by the thousands. Gone are the plaudits for Putin, the praise for General Valery Gerasimov’s military wisdom or the so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” of hybrid warfare. Instead, Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company provides the new face of the contemporary Russian Federation, now an importer of arms from the Islamic Republic of Iran.
The Russian elite’s plans to revive the Soviet empire have backfired. Where the Kremlin once strove for the Finlandization of Ukraine, Finland itself is the newest NATO nation. Poland is arming to the teeth. From American HIMARS rockets to British Challenger-2 main battle tanks and Turkish TB-2 drones, NATO nations’ high-end weapons systems dot the Russian frontier. Things are going south for Moscow.
Putin began the war hoping for a lightning-quick victory. Events have forced him to adopt a different strategy: the strategy of stalemate. He now hopes to exhaust the West in a marathon slog, slowly consuming the political resolve supporting Ukraine’s efforts.
As necessity is the mother of invention, this strategy stems from the failure of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation and the resiliency of Ukrainian combat formations. Yet the Kremlin knows that if Ukraine fails in its upcoming counteroffensive, Western capitals will take note. Putin hopes that if Kyiv stumbles, Western support will slow, and that any Ukrainian failure will embolden those in Western political circles who favor de-emphasizing Ukraine and focusing on the Indo-Pacific region.
The previous special edition of Hudson’s Ukraine Military Situation Reportexplained why Ukraine has no choice but to conduct a decisive counteroffensive. With Western defense industries overstretched and Russian forces balkanizing its territory, Kyiv knows it must act. The Russian elite knows this too, and will formulate its defensive strategy accordingly.
2. The Military Strategy of the Russian Defensive
A smart Russian defensive combat plan can take advantage of the current battlefield geometry. To Russia’s advantage, open-source defense intelligence suggests that its echeloned lines will not be nearly as vulnerable to attack as they were during the assaults on Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall of 2022. Following the recent mobilization, Russian combat formations in the south have dug in, building fortifications, revetments, zig-zag trenches, dragon’s teeth, hedgehog barrier anti-tank obstacles, and hardened sniper positions deep in occupied Ukrainian territories.
This highlights a vulnerability for Ukraine as it gears up for its counteroffensive: it will not have the freedom of space for operational pauses between different phases of offensive action. Instead, Ukrainian combat formations—a mix of newly formed and trained brigades and old units—will have to maintain momentum in blitz fashion some 70 to 100 kilometers past Russian lines to sever Moscow’s land connection to Crimea.
The Russian defensive, therefore, could succeed by holding onto tactical chokepoints like the city of Tokmak to break the momentum of the Ukrainian push. Kyiv, with the advantages of a well-developed road network and a lowland landscape, will have its pick of possible assault axes, which could allow its military to bypass key population centers and outflank Russian positions. This is why maintaining fire control over the roadways, especially the E105 and P-37, will be key to the Russian defensive’s success.
The Ukrainian Air Force will cause little trouble for Russian Ground Forces. But the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) can pose a serious threat to Ukraine’s combined arms maneuver warfare efforts, especially if Kyiv fails to equip its army with an adequate strategic air defense umbrella and M-SHORAD (maneuver short-range air defense) systems. The VKS’s combat air patrols, flown predominantly by Su-35 and Su-30 aircraft, can engage Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems with Kh-31 and Kh-58 anti-radiation missiles, and will probably face little challenge from the air.
3. Anticipating Russia’s Defensive Combat Operations
It is no secret that the Ukrainian counteroffensive will likely focus on the southern sector. What remains unknown is which assault axis Kyiv will choose among Melitopol, Mariupol, and Berdyansk. Each of these options can be further segmented into different variations by choosing different highway networks, river crossings, and outflanking maneuvers. Given the situation’s complexity, the Ukrainian General Staff will most likely launch multiple offensive actions in the south to keep Russia guessing about the main line of action: for example, it can assault the Kamianske–Vasylivka axis to push for Melitopol in the southwest, or push into Polohy in the southeast while moving towards Berdyansk. To succeed, Ukraine does not have to destroy entire defensive positions; it needs only to cherry-pick the weakest points in Russia’s defenses and hope for rapid breakthroughs.
This myriad of options complicates the task for Russian military intelligence, which must hope for real-time surveillance and accurate intelligence analysis. Imagery intelligence input and drone footage will also be important when the action begins. When that action does commence, tactical-level commanders’ decision-making abilities and Russian forward detachments’ warfighting prowess will be key to preventing a collapse within the first 24 hours. Noting the depth of Russian concern for Ukraine’s breakthrough potential, British military intelligence recently reported Russian fortifications in Medvedevka—over 77 miles from Melitopol.
Once Ukraine’s mechanized formations start breaking Russia’s lines of defense, the onus will fall on Russian artillery, which will be challenged. Ukrainian artillery’s combat capabilities in Vuhledar showcased the effectiveness of its fire-support units against heavy armor in open and intensely mined terrain. Its multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS), paired with spotting drones and anti-tank mines, have proved extremely dangerous. When coupled with counter-battery radar systems, Western heavy MLRS in the Ukrainian arsenal (HIMARS, M-270, and TRLG-230) can inflict heavy damage on Russian artillery and rocket groupings. If these systems start preying on unprotected positions, Russian leaders have cause to fear a quick collapse.
To confuse its Ukrainian adversary, the Russian high command will likely implement its own strategic denial and deception efforts, fomenting clashes along the Belarusian frontier while launching large-scale missile and air attacks to distract Ukraine. This could prevent Ukrainian planners from allocating the bulk of their military power to the main effort.
4. Russia’s Vulnerabilities
These efforts to distract Ukraine cannot conceal two glaring vulnerabilities that Russia faces as it prepares to repel Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
First, the problems that have plagued its military from within—dating back to the 1990s campaign in Chechnya—continue to fester. Bad logistics, poor morale, low armor survivability, and incompetent intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB) have beset its efforts in Ukraine from the start. Second, the Russian political leadership has lost all sense of objectivity in planning and executing combat operations. The Kremlin is now resorting to throwing draftees into the fight without any accountability.
No Russian general has been able to achieve in Ukraine what General Vladimir Shamanov did in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War. In that conflict, Shamanov emerged from retirement, assumed command, and immediately stabilized the front. Russia’s current top military leaders, Sergei Shoigu and Valery Gerasimov, have been unable to do the same, and have blocked the ascension of more promising leaders such as General Sergey Surovikin of the VKS and General Mikhail Teplinsky of the VDV. Gerasimov and Shoigu have kept their jobs by being loyal. But political loyalty to the Kremlin cannot stop a Ukrainian armored offensive.
That offensive will be waged by two versions of the Ukrainian army on the same battlefield. One version is a typical post-Soviet army. The other has been trained by NATO nations to fight at NATO standards. When its counteroffensive begins, Ukraine’s fate will be shaped by which version of its army carries the day.
*About the author: Can Kasapoğlu, Senior Fellow (Non-Resident)
Source: This article was published by the Hudson Institute