Russian war strategy and tactics give Moscow ‘the edge’ over NATO, Moscow analyst says

Russian occupation force entering a captured town in the Donbas, Ukraine in April 2014 (Image:

Russian occupation force entering a captured town in the Donbas, Ukraine in April 2014 (Image: 

Analysis & Opinion, Military analysis, Russia

The Russian way of war is very different from the American way, Yevgeny Krutikov says. In the past, the weaknesses of one side were balanced by those of the other. But now, as even some in the West acknowledge, the Russian model at the tactical level “threatens the US” because the Western model is based on aviation support of ground troops.

In a frightening–because so calmly expressed–article in today’s “Vzglyad,” the longtime Russian military commentator says that the West has become accustomed over the last three decades to relatively easy victories over secondary powers based on airpower and thus has not developed its military strategy to cope with a major one.

But now there is a growing realization among Western commanders, Krutikov says, that “the lack of correspondence between Russian and NATO’s military strategy for land forces” is not only large but does not guarantee the quick and easy kind of Western victories many expected or make NATO’s moves around Russia’s periphery entirely sensible.

What makes this article so disturbing is that it suggests that some in the Russian capital are now thinking about a real war with the West, not at the level of the bombastic propaganda of the political leadership and the media but rather in terms of the specific moves that could give Russian forces the advantage or even a victory.

Because Krutikov points to Russian victories in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and to its successful projection of force and re-orientation of Damascus’ military strategy and tactics in Syria, his words suggest that there are at least some in the Russian high command who think they could win against NATO, thus making a Russian challenge to it more likely.

But what matters most about this article is not whether it is true – and parts seem overstated – but rather whether those in and near the Kremlin believe its claims and thus are prepared to act on them in the Baltic countries, Georgia or elsewhere.

Krutikov begins his article by noting that since the Cold War, computer-assisted games have been the basis in the West for testing tactical and strategic ideas and coming up with doctrine. But “the main problem” with such an approach is that both the red and the blue teams are “people with a similar approach and style of thinking.”

Recently, he continues, NATO officials were surprised, even shocked by the fact that American officers who were assigned to play the “red” or Russian side behaved far differently than was expected. These people conducted themselves “extremely aggressively, especially in offensive actions.”

At the same time, those officers assigned to the “blue” or NATO team “acted slowly and cautiously.” And thus while “the reds” advanced quickly without paying too much attention to their losses, “the blues” focused on how to avoid those and did less well in terms of achieving their objectives.

But what is “the most interesting thing” about these new games is that “the losses of the attacking ‘reds’ turned out to be significantly smaller than the losses of the careful ‘blues’ who sought to avoid excessive casualties.” In short, Krutikov says, “the ‘reds’ began to win. Always. [And] often very quickly.”

Some analysts in response to this began talking about the mysteries of the Russian soul, but more thoughtful commentators focused on three major aspects of Russian tactical doctrine that has evolved over the last several decades. They are:

  • “First, Russians clearly acknowledge that in war people are killed and there is no practical sense of slowing down an attack operation because of each tank put out of commission. Vacillation in the final analysis leads to defeat and as a result to still larger losses.”
  • “Second, support and reinforcement should be given to those units and those directions which achieve success” instead of the Western practice of reinforcing those which are in trouble.
  • “Third, the Russian side devotes enormous importance to massed support of the attack by artillery” and recognizes that “for the foreseeable future,” Moscow may not be fighting in places where it has air superiority.”

“The basic error of Atlanticist doctrines was and remains arrogance,” Krutikov argues, and the assumption that airpower can always be called in to defeat any land operation. But Russia’s successes in Georgia and the Donbas, both promoted by these principles, show that confidence is unwarranted because Russian anti-aircraft weaponry eliminated this advantage.

“Russian military doctrine (not in its written politicized variant but in practice) over the last 15 years has evolved significantly,” Krutikov says, “while American (and NATO as a whole) remain in the framework they had in the 1980s and 1990s.” And that gives Russia an advantage in any conflict as recent events in Syria demonstrate.

American military ideas still focus on their accustomed “short air war against countries of the third world” and assume that putting a few tanks in Georgia or some personnel in the Baltic countries will be enough to trigger a Western air response against any Russian moves against NATO — without thinking about what would happen if Russian forces eliminated the West’s air superiority at the start of any such conflict.

“No one is saying that we expect such a clash, but no one has cancelled the general state of readiness. The war games which are taking place in the Pentagon confirm this,” the military analyst concludes, noting that “in Russia [such games] are also being conducted. Only the goals are entirely different.”


Edited by: A. N.

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  • Brent

    “Russian victories in Ukraine”…..

    Considering “Novorossiya” turned out to be the size of “Novo-Delaware”, and that the best of Russia’s forces was fighting a poorly funded and equipped Ukrainian army, and it took 7 months for Russia’s terrorists to capture one airport, this can hardly be considered a “victory”.

    The only real battles they won were at Ilovaisk when they ambushed retreating Ukrainians after promising they would allow them to withdraw, and at Debaltseve, after signing Minsk II.

    • Steve

      Brent I agree with what you have written. But Russia hasn’t tried a full, all out effort in Donbas. For the West it is not only time to dust off the book :”Soviet Airland Battle Tactics” and some others but also to revisit the Exercise “Cloggy Emotion” conducted in 1982 in then West Germany where Attack Helicopters were for the first time invited to participate in Air Defense exercises and “wiped out” the Air Defense giving the fixed wing Attack and Fighters no opposition from Air Defense. Also need to revisit the opening events of Desert Storm where Attack Helicopters “punched a hole” in the Air Defense Ring around Baghdad one of the most heavily defended Air Defense areas defended with, at that time, the best the Russians had and had given to Iraq. I realize things have changed but it amazes me how I continue to read about the U.S. Air Force having to obtain air superiority before bringing in the A-10 and the AH-64 for anti tank ops. The U.S.A.F. is still stuck in the sexy fighter pilot mode and hasn’t paid any if very little attention to the Close Air Support (CAS)/Air-to-Mud mission they are obligated to support. Thus my discussion of the above. It is time to think about them first to defeat Air Defense. Also a very heave envelope of ECM is necessary as was in Desert Storm.

      As a side note the USAF has “hated” the A-10 since its inception, was forced by Congress to take it, has been trying to get rid of it since, and currently has the stupidity to suggest the F-16 replace it. Yeah right. Compare the two aircraft and you will see the idiocy of that idea. It is like replacing a heavy weight boxer with a ballerina. Maybe that is why Congress as told the Air Force no for at least another four years and even then I suspect it will still be around until the Air Force comes up with a viable replacement.

      • Murf

        “But Russia hasn’t tried a full, all out effort in Donbas”
        No it has not because Putin lacks the political will and the economic power.
        In March of 14 Putin had 50k troops in assault columns uploaded for bear. He had 4 days to give the go order.
        The Ukraine was in such a state of disrepair they couldn’t even get out of the motor pool,literally. They had to buy batteries from local auto parts stores and had to have civilian mechanics help get their vehicles running. For all due purposes there would have been no real opposition to an invasion east of the Dinepier.
        On or about Mar 17th he stood them down and went with plan B the Hybrid War. Which has been barely successful and cost him 50% of his GDP.
        If he couldn’t risk an invasion then, he won’t do it now.

        • gregg walker

          I’ve been watching their maneuver training, close combat tactic, and ambush training very closely. While I will say they are hard chargers and will charge you like a bull; they’re sloppy, uncoordinated, and more likely to accidently shoot one of their own guys in the back by accident if they fought any force with real experience in warfare. They costantly flag one another while running with one hand rambo’ing their weapon and firing. They have a really horrible breach and clear method. It’s hard to tell whether their MG troops are rambo, Iraqi insurgents doing a quick ambush, or a mixture of both. They constantly take cover by kneeling in an open field. Their VIP protection consists of taking fire, running, and then twisting around while running and firing blindly. For some reason, after ambush, a few of the ambushers come out to check bodies while waiting for evac. Too easy, if you shoot and they fall down, keep your sectors until evac arrives. If they get back up, shoot them again. It really seems anything area that’s open, be it a room, a hallway, or a field requires them to charge the enemy while hipfiring.

          These tactics are horrible. I guess that’s why they have China backing them. Probably a good idea. They got it covered. These tactics would work with the overwhelming force of the Chinese Army. Or a large charge would melt under carpet bombing after we show them their air defense isn’t as great as they thought. Not saying it would be an easy fight. Russia would just bleed ground troops at a rapid pace. They need to get back on the drill grounds and rethink their tactics.

          • Murf

            Oh I agree they need a lot of work.
            Mainly they need to give up on the old soviet model that stress mass over quality.
            It takes a good 4 months to produce a soldier. their 1 year conscripts can barely tie their boots by the time they were sent to front line.
            But if you look at the act that fact that only 5% of the military were combat ready and now 60% of the the soldiers are contract.

  • Murf

    “Russian military doctrine (not in its written politicized variant but in practice) over the last 15 years has evolved significantly,” Krutikov says, “while American (and NATO as a whole) remain in the framework they had in the 1980s and 1990s.” And that gives Russia an advantage in any conflict as recent events in Syria demonstrate.

    What a bunch of self congratulatory BS.
    1) Russian doctrine has evolved significantly because it was so far behind the west. Their weak performance in Chechenya and Georgia is proof of that And that is their own assessment.
    2) The author seems to place a lot of faith in Russia’s air defense systems. He forgets that in Desert Storm the Iraqi Air defense (the most comprehensive out side of Russia) was reduced to ineffectiveness in a matter of hours. While their newest systems have improved so have our ways of dealing with them. He assumes that the West does not train for SEAD missions(Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses) this could not be further from the truth. The USAF have entire air wings devoted to the mission.
    3) He feels that the West does not train for land warfare. He should research the National Training Center, the Mounted Urban Warfare Center and the Joint Readiness Training Center The Russian military has and that is why Putin was paying Germany to build a duplicate training system for Russia before the crisis began.
    Imitation is the highest from of flattery.
    3) The victory in Georgia had far more to do with the state of unreadiness of the Georgians military than any merits on the Russians part. Their poor performance was the basis of the current Russian modernization program.
    4) Ukraine only points out the weakness of Russia. At no time did they have the political, economic of national will for a all out invasion. The west’s superiority in was able to prevent Putin from using the full force of his military. Contrast that with Bush’s invasion of Iraq even over his Allies objections. Putin’s victory at Illoviansk was due to the UA army being widely separated, exhausted by months of fighting and with bad command and control.
    The Victory at Debla’stve took them over a month and everything they could spare,. In the end they lost critical ground in front of the more strategic port city of Mariupol and at Pisky village because they focused on the railway junction. Ukraine traded and painfully exposed position for an strong defensive position at the most critical locations. I think they came out a head.
    In all Russia has achieved little in Donbas. An equivalent would be the US in 03 seizing Basra and claiming victory over Saddam.
    5) Syria- Even with no real air defense to contend with their progress has been glacially slow. According to IHS Jane’s:
    Since the the second article they have gained some ground but not much.
    So while they may feel good about their “victories” so far they are far from exceeding the west.

  • Kruton


  • Alex George

    Krutikov has a lot of good points. But he appears to be making the same mistake as NATO – assuming that his opponent will not learn and adapt.

    Does he really think that the various British, US, Canadian etc military missions in Ukraine are there only to train the Ukrainians? They are also there to learn.