The Russians Are Getting Better

Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive has moved more slowly than many of its allies and supporters had hoped. The Ukrainian military has proved remarkably adept at rapidly incorporating new capabilities and technologies into its operations, fighting bravely and for the most part effectively against an enemy with superior numbers, little regard for its own losses, and no regard for the laws of war. Even so, progress has been gradual, and every piece of liberated territory has come at an immense cost. Only after three months of grueling combat has Ukraine started to make more significant progress, penetrating some of Russia’s entrenched defensive lines in the country’s southeast and reclaiming territory in the provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk.

Some analysts have attributed the counteroffensive’s slow pace to the challenges of successfully executing joint military maneuvers or coordinating artillery, infantry, and airpower. Others have questioned whether the training the United States and NATO have provided—focused on conducting fast offensive operations rather than wearing the Russian military down through attrition—was well suited to the type of enemy and war the Ukrainians are fighting. Still others have argued that Kyiv’s Western allies have been too slow to provide weapons and equipment, which delayed the Ukrainian counteroffensive and allowed Russia to fortify its positions and mine large swaths of contested territory. Finally, the Ukrainian military is not a NATO-style force, and the armed forces’ legacy and doctrine remains, in part, beholden to the Soviet military when it comes to the way it organizes, mobilizes, and sustain itself. Although this is not necessarily a weakness, it does require that Ukraine’s Western allies reconsider what types of weapons, equipment, and training would enable Ukraine to fight the way it fights best.

Still, the challenges facing the Ukrainian military stem from more than its own actions and decisions and those of its Western allies and partners. They also reflect Russia’s changing behavior. For the first six to nine months of the conflict, the Kremlin seemed not to learn from its mistakes. But in the time since, the Russian armed forces have been improving their battlefield tactics—albeit slowly and at great cost in lives and resources. They have learned how to target Ukrainian units and weapons with more efficacy and how to better protect their own command systems. As a result, Russia has been better able to leverage its numerical and firepower advantages, turning what many had hoped would be a swift offensive push into a sluggish, brutal, and tough fight.


A year and a half into the war, Russia’s military is bruised and weary. Its leadership, headed by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Valery Gerasimov, either seem to be missing in action or busy keeping bad news about the war from reaching Russian President Vladimir Putin. At least half, perhaps even two-thirds, of the combat-ready tanks Russia had reserved for the war are gone, forcing the Kremlin to dip into its Soviet-era reserves.

Much of Russia’s other military equipment—including armored vehicles, artillery systems, and electronic warfare systems—has been captured, damaged, or destroyed; some systems are so decrepit that they barely function. Many of the most expensive and sophisticated weapons that remain in Russia’s arsenal, including hypersonic and high-precision missiles, are being used to target civilian infrastructure, depleting precious stocks that will be hard to replenish amid sanctions. Russia’s troops, meanwhile, are poorly trained, low on morale, and sometimes forced to fight. Some are fresh out of prison, and some are on drugs. And after the late Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin’s failed rebellion in July, many analysts have speculated that the Russian military will face mass military desertions, mutinies, and even a catastrophic collapse.

But as battered and inefficient as it is, Russia’s military is still capable of learning and adapting. This process has been slow, painful, expensive, and cumbersome—but it is happening, and it is showing results. Consider, for instance, how Russia has revitalized its electronic warfare capabilities. For more than a decade, Moscow had been modernizing these systems, which it used to great effect in Syria and in its initial, 2014 invasion of eastern Ukraine. Yet after Russia deployed them against Ukraine’s ground-based air defense systems in the first two days of its February 2022 invasion, these systems and capabilities essentially went missing in action. It is not clear exactly why Russia failed to capitalize on this seeming advantage, but experts pointed to Moscow’s broader failure to plan for the invasion, the Russian military’s poor coordination, and the fact that it would severely disrupt its own communications by using electronic jammers.

Russia’s military is bruised and weary.

But when the war shifted to the Donbas late in the spring of 2022, Russia began ramping up its use of electronic warfare systems. It deployed about ten electronic warfare complexes—collections of systems used to jam an enemy’s communications, disrupt its navigation systems, and knock out its radars—for every 12.4 miles of the frontline. Over time, that ratio has fallen—with approximately one major system now covering approximately every six kilometers of the front, with additional electronic warfare assets deployed as needed to reinforce its units.

These systems still have problems, including relatively limited coverage and an inability to avoid affecting one another. But on the whole, they have proved tremendously valuable, helping Russia degrade Ukraine’s communications, navigation, and intelligence-gathering capabilities; take down Ukrainian aircraft and drones; and cause Ukrainian precision-guided munitions to miss their targets. Russia has also used them to block Ukrainian drones from transmitting targeting information, to augment Russian air defense networks and capabilities, and to intercept and decrypt Ukrainian military communications. And thus far, Ukraine has had only limited success countering these enhanced Russian capabilities.

Just as it resurrected its electronic warfare assets, the Russian military has reconstituted its command-and-control infrastructure and processes, which were devastated by U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and other Ukrainian long-range precision missiles over the summer of 2022. In the process, Russia has made a number of relatively rudimentary but successful overall changes, including pulling its command headquarters out of range of Ukrainian surface-to-air missiles, placing its forward command posts farther below ground and behind heavily defended positions, and fortifying these posts with concrete. Russia has also found ways to ensure that communications between command posts and military units are more efficient and secure, including by laying out field cables and using safer radio communications. But communications at the battalion level and downward are still often unencrypted, and given their limited training, Russian soldiers frequently communicate sensitive information through unsecure channels.


From the start of the war through last summer, the Russian military was organized into so-called battalion tactical groups—essentially, formations of artillery, tanks, and infantry that were grouped to improve readiness and cohesion. In Ukraine, this force structure proved disastrous. Most of the battalion tactical groups were undermanned, especially the infantry units critical to fighting in urban terrain, where some of the war’s early crucial battles took place. They were also generally not well prepared, staffed, or equipped for a prolonged ground offensive or for holding territory.

But in the second half of 2022, as the conflict devolved into a war of attrition, mounting casualties compelled the country’s military leaders to change their approach. They revised their infantry tactics and consolidated their artillery into specialized brigades, consolidating their firepower, and using drones to more effectively coordinate and target their artillery strikes. These adjustments positioned the Russian military to exploit its two primary advantages over Ukraine: personnel and firepower.

The shift in infantry tactics was enabled in part by the arrival of conscripts from inside Russia, from inside the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, and from prisoners drafted by the Wagner paramilitary company. These troops were not well trained or organized, and they have mainly been used as cannon fodder in consecutive waves of assaults on Ukrainian positions. But however brutal and cynical, this approach enabled Russia to better defend its fortified positions and withstand the Ukrainian counteroffensive even as it suffered thousands of casualties. It also forced defending Ukrainian troops to reveal their positions and exhaust their ammunition and personnel. And it allows more specialized Russian units, such as airborne and naval infantry forces, to fight from well-defended positions with improved equipment and weapons. As a result, these better trained and equipped troops have been able to rotate in and out of action, and they have been spared major losses in recent months after bearing heavier costs in the war’s early stages.

Ukraine will need patience from its partners.

Alongside manpower, the ability to saturate targets with heavy artillery fire, whether to strike defensive positions or to blunt offensive maneuvers, has traditionally been one of the Russian military’s greatest strengths. That firepower advantage, however, was largely lost early in the war, when the Russian military was deployed in battalion tactical groups. The country’s artillery strikes were poorly directed, the military was slow to respond, and it was too dispersed and not prepared to maneuver across the multiple throngs of attack. As the war shifted to the Donbas, the static nature of fighting compelled the Russian military leadership to consolidate artillery into brigades. This move helped improve coordination and concentrate firepower in a way that is better aligned Russia’s traditional doctrine.

But the Russian army was still burning through ammunition faster than Russian factories could produce it. These shortages were compounded by successful Ukrainian strikes on Russian ammunition stockpiles across the Donbas in the second part of 2022. Facing ammunition constraints, and still reeling from the loss of many artillery pieces and experienced crews, the Russians have been forced to become more efficient in their use of ammunition, to improve the mobility of weapons to avoid destruction, and to find ways to target Ukrainian troops more effectively.

One adoption has been tightening the link between its reconnaissance systems and the soldiers carrying out attacks, allowing the Russian military to hit Ukrainian troops, command centers, and equipment and ammunition hubs faster and more accurately. Russia is also increasingly using relatively cheap Lancet loitering munitions or explosive drones to thwart Ukrainian advances by destroying expensive military equipment, such as air defense systems. These strikes sometimes deliver propaganda value for Russia, yielding videos that show the destruction of valuable Ukrainian assets that can be broadcast on television or on social media.


Despite the notable changes and improvements over the past year, there are still many areas in which Russia’s military continues to perform poorly or is failing altogether. The Russian armed forces still cannot horizontally integrate their command and control, nor can they communicate commanders’ decisions and share information across different units in real time. As a result, Russian units deployed in proximity cannot effectively communicate with one another if they belong to different formations. Often, they cannot support one another because they have separate chains of command.

This is not a technical glitch or a bureaucratic barrier. Rather, it is a deep structural problem that is unlikely to be solved without a systemic overhaul of Russia’s military and perhaps even its political system. Military command and control culture boils down to trust, and the militaries of authoritarian regimes such as Russia’s frequently have rigid and fragmented command-and-control structures because the political leadership does not trust the military leadership, and the military brass does not trust the rank and file. Such systems fail to successfully share information, discourage initiative, and prevent battlefield lessons from informing strategy or being incorporated into future military doctrine.

These structural deficiencies are part of the Russian military’s DNA. They help explain why some of the hardest lessons Russia learned in other conflicts—in Chechnya, for instance, about the difficulties of urban warfare, and in Syria about the benefits of flexible and responsive command and control—are being learned anew in Ukraine after staggering losses in personnel and equipment. The Russian military is learning and adapting in its own way, but it remains to be seen whether it is capable of real transformational change.

Russia’s learning is not Kyiv’s only obstacle. The slow pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive also partly reflects the inherent difficulties of conducting large-scale joint offensive military operations against an entrenched enemy, as well as the delays in getting the right weapons and materiel to the forces on the ground. But the adjustments Russia’s military has made are clearly hindering Ukrainian progress, as well.

These challenges and adjustments do not mean that Ukraine’s counteroffensive is failing, and they certainly do not mean that Russia is poised to win. Instead, they mean that Ukraine will need patience from its partners as it tries to wear down its enemy. The West will need to recalibrate its expectations to match reality, which is that this is a war of attrition. In the near term, NATO states must continue transferring weapons and other capabilities to Ukraine. They will need to give Kyiv political and military support for the long term, as well. More than anything, what Ukraine needs right now is time.


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