The battle to adapt to Russia's evolving war tactics is essential if Ukraine is to emerge victorious

The battle to adapt to Russia's evolving war tactics is essential if Ukraine is to emerge victorious

Originally published in the ABC


Earlier this year, Ukrainian soldiers were fighting to hold ground around the destroyed city of Bakhmut. Casualties among Ukrainian and Russian forces were high.

During this struggle for the city, British journalist Andrew Harding travelled to Bakhmut and interviewed several Ukrainian soldiers. Harding's story from his visit tells of Ukrainian courage in the face of overwhelming odds.

More importantly, it describes how Russian forces had learned from their battlefield experiences in 2022.

One Ukrainian soldier told Harding that "we understand that Russia is learning every day and changing their strategy, and I think we need to learn faster".

The battle to adapt

The battle to adapt faster than one's enemy is as old as warfare.

In a 1973 speech, soldier and scholar Sir Michael Howard declared that: "Whatever doctrine the Armed Forces are working on now, they have got it wrong. I am also tempted to declare that it does not matter that they have got it wrong. What does matter is their capacity to get it right quickly when the moment arrives."

Predicting the shape and outcome of future wars is all but impossible. What matters is the ability to learn and adapt better than an adversary.

This adaptation battle plays out every day in Ukraine's strategy and battlefield tactics. While building an advantage in the quantity of firepower and combat forces is crucial, even more important for the Ukrainians is generating an advantage by being better at thinking and adapting.

At the strategic level, the Ukrainians have continued their adaptation from a Soviet-era military to a more NATO-centric organisation.

This commenced well before the 2022 Russian invasion, with Ukraine adopting a policy in the mid-1990s of moving towards a military that aligned with NATO processes and equipment. Reform moved slowly before the 2014 Russian invasion, however, and as Margarita Konaev and Owen Daniels recently wrote "underfunded, poorly trained, and crippled by corruption, the Ukrainian military failed to repel the Russian-backed separatists in the Donbas in 2014".

Post-2014 saw an expansion in NATO training of Ukrainian leaders.

The Russian 2022 invasion supercharged Ukrainian strategic adaptation. Western military equipment, from howitzers to trucks to air defence systems to tanks have flowed into Ukraine's armed forces. Ukrainian tactics have also evolved to incorporate NATO ideas about mission command, combined arms warfare and precision engagements.

It is far from a complete transformation, but this strategic adaptation has been an important foundation for Ukraine's success so far.

On the battlefield, the Ukrainians have had to constantly learn and adapt their tactics to defeat a much larger, more brutal Russian Army that has an advantage in artillery, air power and electronic warfare. In the initial weeks of the war, the Ukrainians adapted their tactics in northern Ukraine to embrace small, mobile and semi-autonomous anti-armour teams. These engaged and destroyed Russian forces using the few roads in northern Ukraine.

Coupled with deliberate flooding by the Ukrainian government, this adaptation destroyed Russian logistic forces, denied combat units food, fuel and ammunition and forced the Russians to eventually withdraw back into Belarus.

The introduction of the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) in mid 2022 also allowed the Ukrainians to adapt. It provided a capability to strike Russian forces at much longer range than previously possible, and with great precision. It also permitted the Ukrainians to reduce the high attrition close combat operations they were then engaged in.

The new long-range precision firepower also forced the Russians to move headquarters and logistics hubs further to rear, making their coordination and support of combat operations more difficult.

More recently, the Ukrainians have had to again adapt their battlefield tactics. While a massive effort was undertaken to collect intelligence on the Russian defensive lines in southern Ukraine (called the Surovikin Line), initial Ukrainian attacks in June 2023 did not achieve the tactical breakthroughs hoped for. The minefields, trenches, strong points and anti-tank ditches across hundreds of kilometres may remind some of the First World War.

However, Russia's addition of drone and satellite based pervasive surveillance, attack helicopters, air cover and preponderance of artillery has made penetrating the Surovikin Line very difficult.

Three recent changes

Thus, the Ukrainians have adapted again over the past few weeks.

First, instead of concentrating armoured vehicles to breach minefields, they have shifted to a greater use of dismounted, disaggregated operations my combat engineers to breach the minefields. This is still a deadly mission, but the relative scarcity of mechanised engineer vehicles means there are few other choices.

A second adaptation has been to evolve their tactics. Instead of seeking quick penetrations of the Russian defences, the Ukrainians are now moving more deliberately and adopting a "bite and hold" approach to preserve their combat power.

This idea, developed in World War I, has forces seize and hold small portions of enemy territory, and then move forward again behind artillery barrages. This requires a lot of friendly artillery; time will tell whether it succeeds in Ukraine.

Finally, an important effort has been cultural adaptation led by Ukrainian Commander in Chief, General Zaluzhnyi. Leading a shift away from Soviet military ideas, he has described how "the most important thing that I try to change is the culture … so that everyone listens to the opinion of the subordinate. My subordinates know that if I find a little representative of some Soviet Army, somewhere at any post, I will not be looking into the matter for too long."

The transformation of Ukrainian fighting power — in its physical, moral and intellectual aspects — remains a work in progress. Some old Soviet ideas and processes remain. But given the Russians continue to evolve, the Ukrainians must be constantly learning, sharing lessons and adapting to stay a step ahead of their adversary.

The adaptation battle is one the Ukrainians must win if they are to emerge victorious in this war.


Areas of expertise: Russia-Ukraine war; military history and strategy; advanced technologies