The recent death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, former leader of the Wagner Group, represents not just a consolidation of power by Putin, but also the culmination of a strategic shift in Russia's warfare methods. Lasha Tchantouridze argues that the Wagner Group has served its purpose in Ukraine by providing a human shield for the Russian military while it reoriented towards old and tested Soviet methods. This new adoption of old ideas marks a pivotal moment in the trajectory of the war, significant enough to alter its outcome.
Observers of the war in Ukraine have noted that the Russian army has done considerably better in 2023 than last year. Ukraine’s ground offensive of 2023, aimed at recapturing the territory lost to the Russians in 2022, has progressed slowly and methodically. Still, the Russians have so far avoided significant concessions and even managed occasional counterattacks. Ukraine's slow progress has been primarily due to the Russian troops' good battlefield and logistics organization. By comparison, Russia’s 2022 campaign was dominated by chaos and confusion. The infamous “meat grinder” push for Bakhmut, headed by the recently deceased Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, is what separates these two distinct phases of the war in Ukraine. The chaos of the first months of the war were the direct product of the 2008-2021 unsuccessful military reforms initiated by Putin and guided by General Valery Gerasimov. What’s responsible for the change of fortune the second year of the war has been the reversal of those reforms and a return to old Soviet military textbooks on defensive operations. Thus important shift in strategy could alter the outcome of the war.
Putin's military reforms over the past decade centered around a fundamental concept: elevating mechanized infantry battalions as the primary organizational unit on the battlefield. This was a replacement of the slower and less effective Soviet-style regiments and divisions that proved inadequate during the campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s, as well as the 1st and 2nd Chechen wars. To address the limitations of the modestly sized 500-member Soviet-style battalions, the reform strategy aimed to restructure them into entities known as battalion tactical groups, or BTG, each comprised of 800 to 900 personnel. Official Russian government data indicates that prior to the Ukraine invasion, approximately 170 such combat-ready battalion tactical groups existed within the Russian army, purportedly maintained in a state of combat readiness. Notably, more than 120 of these units were engaged in active military operations in Ukraine over an eight-month period from February to October 2022. Dimitry Utkin, a former Russian special forces officer, organized the mercenary forces of the Wagner group alongside the same new battalion tactical group logic as the Russian military; he was also killed on August 23rd in a plane crash alongside Prigozhin.
Even though they performed well during the first Ukraine invasion in 2014, as well as in Syria, where they faced relatively ill-equipped and ill-trained opposition, they completely faltered when they encountered a battle-ready and determined armed force in Ukraine.
Putin, while Prime Minister, initiated these military reforms after the 2008 Russo-Georgian war and the near humiliation of the large Russian force by the much smaller Georgian army. The Russian ground forces were saved by the Black Sea Fleet, the fact that without any outside help, the Georgian army quickly ran out of ammunition. By 2008, the Russian leadership had a better idea of the Russian army’s performance from the second Chechen war (1999-2000), in which Valery Gerasimov took part as the army chief of staff and then as its commander. In this war, battalion-size Russian units performed well, especially in the battles for mountains. Smaller Russian units were more mobile, nearly self-sufficient, and effective in fighting Chechen resistance that numbered at most 3-4 thousand active combatants throughout Chechnya.
In contrast, the Soviet armed forces had been created, trained, and maintained for a massive, continental-scale infantry war. The lessons of World War II and the creation and proliferation of strategic arms informed the Soviet armed force's doctrine and preparation in the second half of the 20th century. The Soviet leadership saw NATO, led by the United States, as its main enemy and expected to fight the next war with NATO troops somewhere in central-eastern Europe. The main Soviet army unit for ground operations was the mechanized infantry regiment, which numbered 2,500-2,800 troops in peacetime but was supposed to reach 3,000-3,500 personnel in wartime.
The Russian military reforms replaced these large and sluggish units with small and maneuverable tactical battalion groups. Theoretically, these new battalions or BTGs were supposed to be permanently battle-ready. The Russian army invaded Ukraine with the BTGs leading the charge, but they turned out to be battle-ready for only 2-3 days or as long as their own ammunition and fuel supplies lasted. They were not designed to be enhanced in wartime with additional personnel, or additional equipment, and were not given proper communications and logistical support. Even though they performed well during the first Ukraine invasion in 2014, as well as in Syria, where they faced relatively ill-equipped and ill-trained opposition, they completely faltered when they encountered a battle-ready and determined armed force in Ukraine.
When combat units on a battlefield resemble chess pieces in the middle of a match without a coherent front formation, the logistical demands for their support increase exponentially.
The mode of their deployment further exacerbated the chaotic phase of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Instead of creating coherent front lines and advancing slowly and methodically, the Russian BTGs rushed toward various Ukrainian settlements, including Ukraine’s capital city, sometimes deep into enemy territory. Their advance and control of various Ukrainian towns and villages resembled the deployment of American and allied NATO troops to various Afghan towns and villages in 2009-2010. In Afghanistan, the commanding officer, American General Stanley McChrystal, had a strategy to station small detachments of NATO troops in various Afghan settlements once they were cleared of the enemy. McChrystal, who had a special forces background, had a noble goal – to provide physical protection for the local population – but the strategy didn’t work. Logistical support became very difficult, and the small NATO troops became convenient targets for insurgent attacks.
Similarly, the Russian battalions that took control of random settlements throughout Ukraine in the first phase of the war became convenient targets for Ukrainian attacks, and they soon started experiencing massive losses. As the war progressed, the Ukrainians acquired more air defense systems, making Russian efforts to support their troops on the battlefield extremely difficult and ineffective. When combat units on a battlefield resemble chess pieces in the middle of a match without a coherent front formation, the logistical demands for their support increase exponentially. But the Russians did not have this kind of logistical capability. They had sent their battalions into battle as if they could rely primarily on speed, the element of surprise, and military prowess to achieve victories in a handful of days. But those qualities weren’t enough.
As the speed and military prowess of Russian special units failed to produce desirable results and the invasion settled into a protracted ground war, Russia’s special units turned out to be nothing but light infantry units undersupplied and underequipped to defend themselves.
The armed forces of Ukraine can breach the Russian defensive lines, but it will require much fight and sacrifice, and much more support from the West.
Remarkably, it took the Russian military leadership more than six months to understand that their military reforms led to a dramatic failure in Ukraine, requiring an immediate and drastic change of strategy. This change came in the fall of 2022, when the Russian command stopped deploying troops in the battalion formations, and the Russian president announced “partial mobilization” of the reservists. This signaled a transition to the old Soviet model of military operations, with the Russian ground forces in full strategic defensive mode. However, the change required time and space, and a combination of factors, including the winter season and the insufficiently equipped and supplied Ukrainian armed forces, allowed for a relatively successful transition. Still, this change would not have happened without Prigozhin’s Wagner group. Wagner’s months-long storm of Bakhmut, a relatively insignificant strategic outpost in Ukraine’s Donbas region, kept Ukraine’s armed forces occupied from late fall 2022 to spring 2023. Prigozhin’s mercenaries, composed mostly of Russian convicts, sustained appalling losses estimated at 22 thousand killed. But Wagner did give the Russian ground forces enough breathing space to create layered defenses against the anticipated Ukraine’s spring-summer offensive.
The Russian army’s return to a traditional battle formation and defensive strategy has made the task of Ukraine reclaiming its territories extremely difficult. Ukraine can still win this war, but it is highly unlikely to happen if the center of gravity remains on ground operations. Kyiv probably understands this well, but in the absence of long-range strike capabilities, they did not have an option for another strategy. NATO leaders might have arrived at the same conclusion, hence the recent transfer of F-16 fighter aircraft to Ukraine. The Russian military has deployed hundreds of thousands of mines, very likely more than a million, across all lines of contact with Ukraine’s armed forces. These are both ant-tank and anti-personnel, buried and scattered, installed by sappers, and deployed remotely (Russia has an advanced remote mine-laying system, Zemledelye). The Russian military engineers have built hundreds of kilometers of anti-personnel and anti-tank trenches and concrete strongholds or Ukreprayons. If the latter are constructed under Soviet specifications, they are rated to withstand nuclear blasts. Accompanying these layered defensive installations are traditional anti-tank hedgehogs, assault guns, artillery batteries, and army aviation.
Russia’s readoption of Soviet strategy marks a new reality for Ukraine and its allies. It also outlines the opportunities missed by Ukraine and its Western supporters, and changes in Moscow’s military thinking. The armed forces of Ukraine can breach the Russian defensive lines, but it will require much fight and sacrifice, and much more support from the West. Ukraine had a golden opportunity to rout the Russian invaders in 2022 had they had enough proper equipment and ammunition. A year later, Ukraine faces much more difficult conditions, on top of not being fully equipped and supplied. Russian leadership’s frequent claim that they were defending themselves from NATO by attacking Ukraine appears rather disingenuous. Had they feared NATO or anticipated a war with NATO troops, they would not have transformed the ground forces created precisely for this purpose into something entirely unprepared and untrained for continental-scale warfare. Finally, the hybrid war concept based on Wagner-type mercenary force has become irrelevant, at least for the time being. In the end, the sacrifice of the Wagner group has been marked by the death of its leadership in dubious circumstances and the wholesale destruction of the cemetery of the Wagner war dead in the Russian village of Nikolayevka.