Toward the end of 2022, details of a Russian military manual emerged on the internet. Titled I Live, I Fight, I Win! Rules of Life in War, and aimed at newly mobilized conscripts, the manual is part propaganda and part tactical-level advice. A physical copy was claimed to have been captured on the battlefield. Latvian journalist Kristaps Andrejsons discovered it on the website of the Russian Defense Ministry and described it on his podcast. Lethal Minds Journal, an online military outlet written by and for active military members and veterans, shared a translated version of the manuscript here.
Collectively, the manual’s curated guidance, based on the experience of Russian veterans of Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Crimea, highlight several key themes that, given its distribution through official channels, yield hints about the expectations of the Russian military for the future of the war. First, the manual focuses on objectives beyond the occupation of illegally annexed regions. Second, mobilized troops are expected to face continued supply shortages including water, ammunition, medical equipment, and weapon-cleaning supplies. And third, Russian military thinking is biased toward approaches that seek to overcome a technologically superior force with overwhelming numbers of infantry and artillery.
On September 30, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia as “four new regions” of Russia. Since this declaration, Russian ground fighting has largely remained localized within these four eastern regions of Ukraine (Figure 1).
This declaration, coupled with centralization of ground combat within these declared regions signal possible limits to Russian military objectives. These objectives are centered on creating a land bridge to Crimea to guarantee the flow of fresh water, fuel, and supplies to Russia’s critical naval port of Sevastopol. This assumption of limited objectives is further supported by Putin’s openness about seeking a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine.
However, I Live, I Fight, I Win rejects these limited strategic objectives by framing the “special military operation” literally as the “Great Patriotic War 2.0.” Aimed at conscripts, this comparison is clearly intended to add credibility to the war they are waging. It also, however, insinuates an ultimate goal that is not limited to these illegally annexed regions, but encompasses the entirety of Ukraine. The manuscript emphasizes this point:
More recently, 96.7% of Ukrainians were Russians. But for 30 years of independence, they were deprived of a normal education, culture, native language and turned into “wild” Russophobes. They still have something left of the Russians. They, like us, were brought up on the exploits of their grandfathers who defeated fascism. They are the same brave fighters—staunch on the defensive, daring on the offensive. Someday, after denazification, they will become Russian again, but for now they are enemies. Cruel and insidious. This means that they must be beaten until they lift their hands up, without relaxing, until our very victory.
A manual aimed at mobilized conscripts is not a strategic document, of course, but it could still prove unwise for Ukraine to engage in any peace negotiations that are not directly in Kyiv’s favor. Any diplomatic resolution will likely be used by Russia to give itself time to rebuild its military and the capabilities needed to launch further attacks on Ukraine—much like the Minsk agreements reached in 2014 and 2015 following Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Occupying all of Ukraine would lend several strategic benefits to Russia. It would, for example, allow Putin to benefit from the Ural Mountains as a geographic barrier between Russia and NATO, along with the opportunity to expand into the pro-Russian breakaway Moldovan region of Transnistria.
Short on Supplies
The beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine was marked by notable supply shortages. Ukrainian villagers reported Russian troops begging for scraps of food as long convoys stalled outside of Kyiv. Initial supply shortages for mobilized troops were also reported on widely. In response to these shortages, I Live, I Fight, I Win suggests ways to improvise in the field and make up for shortages.
The document encourages Russian soldiers to “study the map” to find wells, streams, and other water sources, recommending portable filters for purification when needed and giving instruction on how to create an improvised filter. In built-up areas, it continues, troops should seek water at fire departments, hospitals, and even in “special storage facilities for disinfected water” at “sanitary and epidemiological stations.” The manual offers similar field-expedient advice for weapon maintenance, suggesting that soldiers use “kerosene, diesel fuel, WD-40, and even soapy water” when supplies of cleaners and lubricants for weapons are unavailable—but never “automotive, transmission, [or] vegetable oils.” The manual also suggests sanitation methods. “Existing effective sanitization products, as well as pest control chemicals, are often not available on the front lines,” it reads, before describing “an ingenious solution to this problem” that Russian soldiers had developed.
Despite the manual’s encouragement for soldiers to improvise to overcome anticipated supply shortages, it also reassures them that they will be issued everything they need. In fact, the first lines of the manual address rumors that conscripts need to purchase their own body armor, recommending instead only a basic set of travel items when checking in for their enlistment.
Still, the document diverges from this optimistic outlook throughout, which points toward an expectation that Russian soldiers will continue to operate in a supply-degraded environment. Instructions in the manual detail how to make field-expedient footwraps in lieu of socks. These instructions contradict statements made by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who ordered in 2013 that footwraps, which had long been a staple item in the Russian military, be fully replaced with socks as part of modernization efforts. This small example of contradiction between this recently published manual and years of modernization efforts is an indication of how systemic supply shortages are for the average Russian conscript.
Supply and logistics function at all levels of war, from the last tactical mile to the strategic reserve—and can likewise fail to function at any level. The supply shortages indicated in this document may exist along the entirety of the supply chain. At the tactical level, the reliance on rail logistics limits Russian capability to resupply. At the operational level, corruption plagues industry, with, as an example, reports of fake body armor designed for airsoft infiltrated into the military supply system. At the strategic level, the integration of post-Soviet Russia into the international economy and the sanctions put in place as a result of the war have left Russia with a degraded industrial capacity, and few international allies to help it.
Finally, according to traditional Russian logistics doctrine, it is expected that the units deployed farthest forward will operate in a state of degradation. According to a study published by the Scandinavian Journal of Military Studies, traditional Russian logistics is focused on a two-echelon approach (Figure 2). This means that while one echelon is engaged in combat, instead of being resupplied by a Material Technical Support brigade, that support is focused on replenishing a second echelon that will leapfrog as soon as the first is exhausted. This method ensures that fresh forces are constantly being prepared for battle, but exhausts currently engaged units. I Live, I Fight, I Win appears to be written in alignment with this operational concept, with its emphasis on self-reliance while on the front lines.
The Quality of Quantity
Soviet doctrine during the Great Patriotic War (World War II) was less about fine-tuned tactical maneuvers than it was about throwing soldiers and ammunition at the problem. In the Ukraine war, the sentimental righteousness of the Soviet victory in World War II used in propaganda is accompanied by the use of Soviet-style tactics from the same war. Hints of this are visible in I Live, I Fight, I Win. “Ukrainian artillerymen usually fire in ‘series,’” the document describes, with “2–3 shots, 3–4 minutes pause to make adjustments, then again 4–6 shots to finish off.” Russian artillery fire, by contrast, is recognizable because it “is rapid with a high consumption of ammunition.”
This Soviet strategy of victory through mass, however, is a grave miscalculation. It attempts to marry old tactics with a military and an economy that are no longer designed to support them. After Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia, Putin set out to lighten and modernize his forces to better suit small-scale local and regional conflicts. Nuclear deterrence was determined sufficient to adequately address any bigger national security concern. This made the military effective when rapidly seizing limited, local objectives like Crimea in 2014, but sacrificed its ability to conduct a successful large-scale invasion in February 2022. Putin may have expected a swift victory in Ukraine that would align with his modern military’s capabilities. However, now that the conflict has become entrenched the military is reverting to Soviet-style tactics for which it is not up to the task.
The Russian economy is also struggling to support this transition toward a resource-intensive, Soviet-style campaign. During the time these tactics were being implemented, the Soviet Union was a relatively closed economy, with internal industrial capacity built to support a large military. Since Russia’s integration into the global economy, this capacity has slowly degraded, as economic linkages formed a reliance on relationships with other countries that are now severed in many cases due to sanctions.
As a result, guidance on some of the technological aspects of the war is limited. In some cases the advice is simplistically improvisational, as when the manual instructs soldiers, in order to counter Ukrainian night-vision capability, to illuminate bright lights in the area to “force him to stop observing and protect the lens of his device.” In other cases it is obvious and rudimentary, as with the warning against using personal cell phones and posting images to social media. These actions are used to Ukrainian advantage to quickly locate and target Russian troops through sophisticated means. Finally, there are instances where guidance effectively amounts to a fatalistic shoulder shrug regarding particular threats. The document repeatedly mentions the Ukrainians’ use of light and medium drones to observe and strike Russian positions, for example. The authors acknowledge this advantage by simply saying, “We need funds here for EW [electronic warfare] and air defense.”
This commentary indicates that Russian forces acknowledge a technological advantage for Ukraine. Without the capability to modernize to meet these differences, the manual instead offers basic fieldcraft advice and the authors’ sympathies. However, superior technology alone is not a decisive measurement of pending victory. While Russia appears to face the future of the conflict using dated tactics with an unfit force, underestimation of the threat Russian forces pose is perilous.
Based on this analysis of I Live, I Fight, I Win, it appears that the Russian military understands the challenges it faces when it comes to supply support and the technological superiority of Ukraine. The document’s rhetoric reflects a focus on the entirety of Ukraine, not just the eastern regions where ground combat is currently contained. Whether that focus remains shared by Putin and his inner circle is a different question, but any wider focus will increase the challenges Russian forces are already facing in Ukraine. Based on the manual, the Russian military appears intent on dealing with these challenges by reverting to tactics that are as dated as its propaganda. From a practical standpoint, this will result in great difficulties for a Russian military modernized after 2008 to meet different requirements, and for an economy that is no longer designed to operate behind an iron curtain.
The manual proclaims its intent in its title, to equip mobilized Russian soldiers who continue to stream into Ukraine with the knowledge to live, fight, and win. At the moment, Russia’s forces are struggling to do all three. Based on the themes that emerge from the document, they should expect to continue to do so.
Patrick Griffin is a US Marine Corps veteran and current graduate student at Harvard Extension School, working toward a master’s degree in international relations. Patrick holds an undergraduate degree in international affairs and enjoys reading and writing on international relations and national security topics. Find more by Patrick Griffin at https://firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons