The Russian President, Vladimir Putindescribed the invasion of Ukraine by his country as a “special military operation”. But, from the beginning, this has not been a restricted and limited military campaign.
Some have referred to the raid as “Operation Z,” after the distinctive letter “Z” markings seen on Russian military and support vehicles.
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And it is the largest and most complex military campaign organized by Moscow since its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
It’s also the first chance the world has had to see the full might of Russia’s new military machine: a modernized, professional fighting force that has been completely revamped since Russia’s war with Georgia in 2008.
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Despite winning that war, the Russians were highly critical of its combat performance and embarked on a decade-long defense modernization campaign, fueled by a massive increase in military spending of around $700 billion.
But what did Russia learn militarily from that conflict, and how are we seeing that learning played out on the battlefield in Ukraine?
The Z force and the Chechen commandos
Russia’s current offensive is being carried out by two new “combined arms” military battalions from Russia’s western and southern districts near the Ukrainian border, which were created after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. in 2014.
These forces are made up of different military branches – such as armored vehicles, infantry, missile and artillery, aviation and engineering – and were prioritized in the Kremlin’s campaign to reform the army.
The initial wave of Russia’s invasion force comprised some 60 tactical battalion groups (up to 60,000 troops), as well as elite airborne troops and special operations forces, the airspace force’s long-range aviation branch (which launches nuclear or conventional attacks), and the Russian Navy.
In addition, the Russians have used the so-called people’s militias from the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, two army corps comprising around 40,000 troops, as its main strike force in eastern Ukraine.
As in Syria, the Russians are also using special operations units to conduct reconnaissance missions, organize sabotage operations behind enemy lines, and target key political and military leaders, possibly including Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
It is also worth noting the extensive use, by the Russians, of Chechen special commando units, popularly known as “kadyrovtsy”.
The Kadyrovtsy have become known as outstanding fighters, battle-hardened, highly motivated and ruthless. They are often used to strike fear into enemy forces.
Chechen units have supported most of Russia’s recent military campaigns abroad, including those in Lebanon, Georgia and Syria.
In 2014-15, some Chechen “volunteers” fought alongside pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
In the current war, the kadyrovtsy will probably be used in urban operations and during systematic “security searches” inside the Russian-occupied territories, which will undoubtedly result in numerous arrests and persecutions.
Russian military targets so far
The first phase of the offensive has been focused on various military targetsamong them:
- multiple waves of coordinated cruise missile and artillery strikes against Ukraine’s military infrastructure (including airfields, radar facilities, military intelligence and command headquarters, ammunition depots, refineries, and military and naval installations)
- large-scale cyber attacks and electronic warfare
- simultaneous air assaults and special forces raids in remote areas of Ukraine, including the capture of the strategically important Hostomel airfield outside Kiev
- a massive frontal assault on Donetsk and Luhansk intended to engage Ukrainian forces in protracted defensive fighting
- a partial naval blockade of Ukrainian ports
- the capture of several Ukrainian cities.
Although the Russians have faced strong resistance from Ukrainian forces, they have crucial advantages on the battlefield, including air superiority and control of some strategic areas.
The simultaneous military advance on several fronts has also forced the Ukrainian armed forces to respond more sporadically and focus on defensive operations, specifically in major urban centers.
Lessons from the Georgia conflict
A multi-pronged attack using sophisticated combat systems was not possible in Russia’s five-day war with Georgia in 2008.
Although Russia quickly won the war, suffered significant losses.
The conflict revealed glaring deficiencies in its armed forces, which were largely a holdover from the days of the Soviet Union.
For example, the Russian military hardly used high-precision munitions or cruise missiles in that conflict.
Instead, it was forced to deploy tactical and strategic aircraft in response to heavy Georgian air defense, which shot down several Russian planes.
In Ukraine, Russia now relies on long-range, high-precision strikes, from air, sea and land, which have minimized the risks to Russian aircraft.
In Georgia, Russia’s old tanks and other armored vehicles entered major urban areas and were forced to engage in protracted street battles.
There were other logistical failures on the way to the conflict, with many damaged vehicles or traffic accidents.
In Ukraine, Russian forces initially tended to encircle major cities in an attempt to pressure the Ukrainian army to withdraw.
Russians too are intensifying their missile strikes and air strikes against urban targets.
And in 2008, there was little the Russians could do to prevent the United States from docking a warship in a Black Sea port as a show of force near the theater of war.
Now, Russian naval battle groups in the eastern Mediterranean are successfully deterring US and NATO fleets from pressuring the Russians on the ground in Ukraine.
What could happen next?
The Russians and Ukrainians have agreed to start talks on the border between Belarus and Ukraine, but Russia says it will not stop its offensive.
In fact, his sudden announcement that he was putting his nuclear deterrence forces on alert showed a readiness to step up his military offensive.
The Kremlin is trying to dissuade the West from supporting Ukraine and applying strong economic pressure on Russia.
To speed up your progress, the Russian military is also likely to turn to other lethal assets, among them the TOS-1, a heavy flamethrower capable of firing thermobaric weapons.
These weapons, which were used by Russia in the conflicts in Chechnya and Syria, use oxygen to generate a high-temperature explosion.
So what could happen next from a military perspective? Russia’s goals will likely be:
The growing resistance of the Ukrainian army will undoubtedly force the Russians to intensify the pace of their operations.
We should also expect the ferocity of the fighting to shift more towards urban areas.
Elevating Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrence forces to “special combat duty regime” (a near-war status) also increases the risk of the war spilling over Ukraine’s borders.
*Alexey D Muraviev is Associate Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at Curtin University, Australia. This article originally appeared on The Conversation. You can read the English version here.
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