Lessons from Ukraine the West should learn

Opinion: A new defence think-tank report about the war against Ukraine is a valuable insight into what has worked best against Russia in combat, and what needs improvement, says Stephen Hoadley.


The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the British defence and security think tank, has just published a unique insight into the Ukrainian view of combat operations against Russia, and Ukraine’s strength and vulnerabilities.

Drawing on documents made available by the Ukrainian General Staff, the RUSI analysts have summarised the lessons the Ukrainian armed forces have learned on the frontline since Russia invaded on February 24. The RUSI analysts caution that because of the ongoing war they were unable independently to verify all of the information and assessments provided by Kyiv military sources. Their conclusions, while incomplete, tend to confirm official statements, media reports and open-source analyses, and – pending more comprehensive research after the war ends – provide a valuable insight into the tactical competence of Russia's and Ukraine's military, the strengths and weaknesses on both sides.

The RUSI analysts divided their report into two parts, first a critical assessment of Russian tactics, and second an assessment of how Ukraine and its Western partners, particularly the British Army, could better respond to Russian or Russian-style attacks in future.

Russia’s problems are seen in the analysis to be fundamentally political and structural. Putin failed to appreciate that Ukraine’s ‘strategic depth’ extended well beyond its legal boundaries into Western Europe and across the Atlantic to the United States. Ill-advised and overly ambitious, he picked a fight not only with a smaller neighbour but also with all of Nato.

Russian field forces lacked ‘reversionary options’, that is, Plan Bs and Plan Cs and the authority to quickly adapt them to rapidly changing combat circumstances.

Specific problems arose from Russia’s centralised, hierarchical and rigid command structure with Putin at the apex. Russia prioritised its tank corps in the initial thrust at Kyiv and subordinated the other elements – infantry, artillery, air, missile, and logistics. This resulted in poor coordination with the Russian spearhead units – in other words, suboptimal combined arms manoeuvres.

When the tank thrust met Ukrainian anti-tank missile defences and took heavy losses, Russian field commanders persisted with losing tactics while awaiting orders from the Kremlin to retreat back to Belarus. In the RUSI analysts’ terms, Russian field forces lacked ‘reversionary options’, that is, Plan Bs and Plan Cs and the authority to quickly adapt them to rapidly changing combat circumstances. Deficient leadership skills and lack of experience among junior and non-commissioned officers failed to connect the Russian battalion, brigade, and division commanders with their frontline soldiers, resulting in poor decisions, unnecessary casualties and erosion of morale. The recent deployment of hastily trained conscripts to the frontlines will only exacerbate this Russian weakness.

Consequently, having failed to capture Kyiv, Russia abandoned its manoeuvre tactics, regrouped in Belarus and Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine. It reverted to indiscriminate bombardment by artillery, missiles, and air-dropped munitions, which inflicted huge Ukrainian civilian casualties and property damage, but failed to win for Russia significant territory or centres of Ukrainian governance. Instead, it catalysed Ukrainian nationalism, mobilised the citizenry, and legitimised international military support for Kyiv. Further, poor intelligence and lack of effective Identification Friend or Foe capacity resulted in Russia shooting down their own drones and cruise missiles, and friendly fire casualties.

Many lessons were learned by Ukraine (and indirectly by the British Army). These included the need for larger Western ammunition stockpiles and a speedier weapons-industry that can meet unexpected demand to counter Russia’s quantitative superiority in military hardware.

This asymmetric advantage to Russia is tolerated by Nato because it gives the high moral ground to Ukraine as the clear victim and Russia as the clear aggressor. And it avoids escalating the conflict to the nuclear level.

The weapons systems of Nato allies proved not entirely compatible with each other or with Ukraine’s, and the analysis recommends greater standardisation among allied and partnered militaries. New weapons such as drones, precision-guided munitions, anti-tank missiles, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (Himars), and US satellite-enabled intelligence and GPS, have proved their value in the defence of Ukraine. But the RUSI report also notes the effectiveness of older weapons such as Soviet-era tanks, artillery and aircraft if deployed appropriately. Trenches guarded by riflemen now criss-cross south-eastern Ukraine, so lessons can be learned also from the tactics (and mistakes) of World War I.

But with the deployment of advanced and long-range strike weapons comes the overarching conclusion that in modern warfare there are no sanctuaries, no safe rear areas. All of Ukraine is vulnerable to missile and air attacks. Massed forces, command centres, and logistics depots are tempting targets easily identified by drone surveillance. Civilian utilities can be targeted by an unscrupulous adversary. Accordingly, the RUSI report recommends the doctrine of dispersal, the spread of military assets to deny lucrative targets to the enemy – in this case, Russia. That means decentralisation, movement, and redundancy – having back-up or reserves to quickly replace assets lost in combat. Modern information and communication technology, and upskilling of soldiers, must be enhanced to meet the challenges of coordination and command of dispersed personnel, weapons, and supplies in constant motion.

Why has Nato allowed Russia to retain a sanctuary behind its own borders? The US has declined to supply long-range Himars rockets that could enable Ukrainian gunners to strike at forces and depots inside Russia. This asymmetric advantage to Russia is tolerated by Nato because it gives the high moral ground to Ukraine as the clear victim and Russia as the clear aggressor. And it avoids escalating the conflict to the nuclear level.

Finally, the RUSI report notes the importance of timely, reliable and accurate intelligence, rapid assessment, and flexible adaptation to risks and opportunities on the modern fluid battlefield. These qualities have been promoted by strategists throughout history. Their enhancement in the ethos of today’s fighting men and women is more urgent than ever if promising new weapons systems are to be employed effectively.

As the Ukraine war enters later phases, more information about what has worked best in combat, and what needs improvement, will emerge in the public domain, allowing analysts to make better assessments. Meanwhile, the RUSI report, reflecting the Ukrainian experience as interpreted through a British Army lens, is a valuable interim insight.

Stephen Hoadley is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at the University of Auckland’s Faculty of Arts.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This was first published on Newsroom, Lessons from Ukraine the West should learn, December 6, 2022. 

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