When Ukrainian forces launched offensives last September in both the country’s northeast and the south, retaking six thousand square kilometers of Russian-occupied territory, it reinforced a narrative about the war in Ukraine that weaved together a series of disparate facts into a concise story of the conflict: Russia’s initial invasion was blunted by a spirited and effective Ukrainian defense, after which Ukrainian forces combined tactical agility, wise operational planning, and international material support to inflict shocking numbers of casualties and persistent battlefield disappointment on their Russian adversaries.
Yet, there are features of the war—and of both sides’ performance—that are lost in this simplified narrative. Among these are the fact that, despite the numerous and obvious shortcomings displayed in Russian military forces’ performance in practice, on a conceptual level they are actually ahead of their time. Tracing nearly a century of Soviet and Russian strategic culture and military thinking makes this clear. More importantly, exploring this history of military thinking in the context of Moscow’s competition for advantage with its Western competitors and adversaries highlights dynamics that evolve in a continuous fashion, influencing the character of warfare today and in the future. In essence, then, by studying the history of ideas that shaped battlefields of yesterday, we can better understand those of today and conceptualize and prepare for those of tomorrow.
Understanding the Evolution of Russian Military Strategy
Foresight and forecasting are concepts in Russian military strategy that are generally associated with predicting the character of future warfare, which is then translated into forms and methods of warfare, like operational concepts, force structures, and necessary military equipment. As a survey of decades of history illustrates, Russian military strategy over the past decades has correctly forecasted a number of implications of advancements in weapons, as well as sensor technologies, that are currently affecting the character of warfare in Ukraine.
The capacity to detect and strike targets at ever-greater distances and with ever-growing precision increases the vulnerability of dense troop concentrations, and therefore limits the ability to conduct large-scale sequenced and concentrated operations. As such, in order to enhance survivability, current battlefield conditions are forcing military units to disperse into smaller formations, dig in, or both, unless these conditions are effectively countered. As a result, the battlefield tends to become more fragmented, offering more independent action to lower tactical formations as the depth of the front is expanding to a considerable extent.
In 1936, Georgii Isserson, one of the key architects of operational art—the effort to organize and align the effects of tactical actions against overarching objectives—within the Soviet Union during the 1930s, described the value of history in recognizing military developments:
Each historical period is pregnant with a new one and displays new rudimentary tendencies and forms.
Given Isserson’s maxim, it becomes especially valuable to examine two Soviet/Russian military concepts—nonlinear warfare (on the fragmented battlefield) and noncontact warfare—which originated during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both of these concepts have had a significant impact on contemporary Russian military thinking regarding the conduct of large-scale conventional warfare. Primarily born out of advancements in military technology that were initially developed during the 1980s, these concepts have now finally reached maturity. They reinforce a trend in the Russian view of large-scale conventional warfare that has been ongoing since the advent of nuclear weapons. A properly contextualized historical examination must therefore begin during the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s Great Patriotic War—World War II—and continue through the Cold War to the present day.
Deep Battle and Deep Operations
The Great Patriotic War is considered to be the high mark of practicing Soviet operational art, whose theoretical foundations had been laid in the 1920s and 1930s. Its two primary elements, deep battle and deep operation, sought to attack enemy forces simultaneously throughout their entire tactical and operational depth by using long-range artillery, air strikes, and air landings. The aim was to penetrate enemy front line and follow this with a powerful mechanized second echelon that exploited the initial breakthrough. Needless to say, this necessitated an enormous troop density along an uninterrupted front line, multiple echelons deep, and the Red Army’s force structure was organized accordingly.
Soviet military strategy remained centered around what was called the strategy of destruction for most of the Cold War, preparing to conduct large-scale offensive operations during the initial period of war. Nonetheless, adaptations were made to this strategy over time. The first major change occurred during the 1950s, following the realization that any large-scale conventional war would involve the employment of nuclear weapons. This had a significant impact on Soviet military strategy and subsequent military force structure, as it increased the vulnerability of the traditional concentration of forces necessary for conducting deep operations. Units would need greater mobility to increase survivability. The subsequent Zhukov reforms therefore aimed to transform the larger and more cumbersome mechanized and rifle divisions of World War II into smaller and more mobile tank and motor rifle divisions.
This persistent threat prompted the Soviets during the late 1970s to gradually abandon deeply echeloned and densely packed forces, instead opting for more forwardly deployed tactical detachments and operational-level maneuver groups. This strong forward posture and added mobility aimed to further reduce vulnerability by increasing Soviet forces’ rate of advance. The necessary concentration of forces for offensive operations was no longer to be achieved by massed formations, but rather through rapid movement from dispersed positions and shifting fires, raising the importance of independently operating formations. Consequently, according to the Soviet view, the battlefield would become increasingly fragmented in nature, offering more independence of action to commanders of combined arms formations.
In 1978, under a program called Assault Breaker, the United States Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency began working on a number of advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems, long-range strike capabilities, and precision-guided munitions. These deep strike and deep attack capabilities would enable US armed forces to detect and engage targets at far greater distances with a high degree of precision, aimed specifically against heavily concentrated Soviet rear-echelon forces before they could join the battle. This represented a technological solution to overcome the imbalance in conventional forces between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and formed a key component of the United States’ overarching AirLand Battle concept.
Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, chief of the Soviet General Staff at the time, devoted much attention to these emerging technologies, acknowledging their major implications for the character and conduct of conventional warfare. He even discussed the use of unmanned flying machines in 1984. The Soviets were quick to recognize the offensive potential of these weapons systems. Acknowledging the Soviet Union’s technological backwardness, Ogarkov became the driving force in developing new concepts and capabilities in order to counter these emerging threats, in large part laying the foundations for current Russian military strategy.
The capabilities that the Soviets sought to develop became known as the reconnaissance-strike and reconnaissance-fire complex, which enabled them to preemptively attack Western deep-strike and deep-attack systems. The reconnaissance-strike complex would utilize high-precision long-range weapons like ballistic and cruise missiles against operational- and strategic-level targets. The reconnaissance-fire complex was its tactical-level equivalent, using artillery like howitzers and rocket artillery, as part of brigades and divisions, firing both conventional and precision munitions. Based on active reconnaissance through advanced ISR sensors, combined with automated command and control and long-range precision-strike systems, the conceptual aim was to accelerate the process between detection, decision-making, and destruction of the target. Major General Ivan Vorobyev, one of Ogarkov’s contemporaries, envisioned these systems operating in a network of reconnaissance assets, enabling the near-real-time destruction of targets.
The Soviets’ concept development sought to mitigate the destructiveness of these new Western capabilities by further dispersing Soviet forces on the battlefield, including logistical support elements, to make them less vulnerable. In doing so, they recognized that maintaining momentum and achieving the necessary concentration before battle would become more difficult. Toward the end of the Cold War, these developments matured into what the Soviets called nonlinear battle. In 1990, Lieutenant Colonel Lester Grau, of the Soviet Army Studies Office at the US Army Combined Arms Center, wrote a report on Soviet forecasting of future war, stating:
The Soviets see non-linear battle as one in which separate “tactically independent” battalions and regiments/brigades fight meeting battles and secure their flanks by means of obstacles, long-range fires and tempo. . . . Large units, such as divisions and armies, may influence the battle through employment of their reserves and long-range attack systems, but the outcome will be decided by the actions of combined arms battalions and regiments/brigades fighting separately on multiple axes in support of a common plan and objective. . . . Tactical combat will be even more destructive than in the past and will be characterized by fragmented [ochagovyy] or non-linear combat. The front line will disappear and terms such as “zones of combat” will replace the outdated concepts of FEBA, FLOT and FLET. No safe havens or “deep rear” will exist.
These new NATO and especially US precision-strike capabilities, initially designed against Soviet follow-on echelons, were eventually deployed against Iraq during the First Gulf War in 1991. While the coalition air campaign went on for thirty-nine days, the ground offensive lasted a mere one hundred hours. Eight years later, the NATO campaign against Yugoslavia was even fought entirely without deploying ground forces. Both conflicts strongly influenced the Russian view of future war and determined the types of attack that Russian forces must be able to defend against, especially the threat of a massed aerospace attack.
According to late Major General Vladimir Slipchenko, arguably one of the most influential Russian military theorists of recent decades, Operation Desert Storm was the first manifestation of what Ogarkov had called a “revolution in military affairs”—a reference to the increasing use of long-range precision-strike systems in future war. Slipchenko’s own concept of sixth-generation warfare signaled the computerization of warfare and the increased use of standoff weaponry. Its most important element was therefore called noncontact warfare, as opposed to traditional fourth-generation contact warfare.
In future war, Slipchenko stated, the role of noncontact distant warfare would increase, using long-range strike systems and precision-guided munitions, directed by enhanced ISR and command-and-control capabilities and supported by space-based systems like surveillance, navigation, and communication satellites. He emphasized that the increased ability to find and strike targets at both greater speed and greater distances, today referred to as the kill chain in Western militaries, would make traditional mass concentrations of troops a dangerous undertaking.
Besides its tactical employment, remote, noncontact strikes as part of reconnaissance-strike complexes would also be conducted at operational and strategic distances, aimed at military, economic, and infrastructural targets, using cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and weaponized unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as traditional airpower using precision munitions. Consequently, the battlefield would expand and Slipchenko concluded that:
Fundamental concepts such as “front,” “rear,” and “forward line” are changing. . . . They are now passé and being replaced by just two phrases: “target” and “non-target” for a high precision remote strike.
As a result, deep battles and deep operations were steadily being countered and replaced by the concept of deep attack. Because Russia, at the time, was lagging a generation behind, Slipchenko stressed that it needed to develop its own sixth-generation warfare capabilities.
Over the last several decades, the concepts of nonlinear and noncontact warfare have been recurring themes among Russian military writers. Prominent theorists S. S. Bogdanov, a retired lieutenant general, and Colonel S. G. Chekinov agreed that, as a result of advancements in information technologies, remote engagement of the opponent using precision munitions would form a significant part of what they referred to as new generation warfare. This involved increasingly exposed flanks, blurring front lines between opponents, and expanding the strike range far beyond the front lines. Likewise, Colonel General Kartapolov pointed to the shift from large-scale operations to precision strikes along the front as well as deep inside an opponent’s territory.
In several fairly recent statements, General Valery Gerasimov, current chief of the Russian General Staff, himself has mentioned the expanding spatial scope of modern warfare, in which both the use and impact of precision weapons is increasing. Stating that long-range, contactless strikes are now conducted throughout the entire depth of the enemy’s territory, using reconnaissance-strike and reconnaissance-fire complexes. According to Gerasimov, “frontal engagements of large formations of forces” conducting “sequential and concentrated operations” are being replaced by dispersed, mobile, combined arms formations, linked in a single intelligence-information space, placing greater demands on command and control.
While theoretical developments do not necessarily mean that concepts are cast into doctrine and successfully translated into practice, both concepts have strongly influenced current Russian military thought and the forms and methods of warfare it anticipates. Instead of fighting along thousands of kilometers of uninterrupted front line, Russian military thinkers envisioned a future war in which linear contact warfare would occur only at specific locations, and nonlinear combat along most of the front, with effects substituting for troop concentrations in order to establish a main effort. Together with the prospect of more common small wars along Russia’s periphery, these views have strongly influenced Russian reorganization and modernization efforts, undertaken based on the increasing need for smaller, high-readiness, tactical formations capable of independent action and noncontact warfare.
In 1999, Slipchenko asserted that noncontact warfare had not yet fully matured. Since then, however, the technology enabling it has finally come of age. In February 2020, Turkish forces employed UAVs and artillery against Syrian troops in a short, sharp engagement, destroying dozens of armored vehicles form a standoff distance. In in an even more convincing demonstration, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War saw large-scale deployment of weaponized UAVs and loitering munitions being employed to great effect. Most Armenian casualties were inflicted by Azerbaijani standoff weapons, instead of through traditional close-combat engagements, undermining Armenia’s ability to concentrate sufficient forces in order to conduct combined arms counterattacks and ultimately inflicting a decisive defeat rarely seen in modern warfare.
Russia was watching both of these cases, but the Russian army had itself already demonstrated its reconnaissance-fire complex with frightening efficiency. On July 11, 2014, near the Ukrainian village of Zelenopillya, in the first of many cross-border artillery strikes, a Russian UAV spotted a Ukrainian tactical assembly area inside Ukrainian territory. The ensuing artillery strike, lasting under three minutes, killed over thirty Ukrainian soldiers, wounded another hundred, and destroyed two battalions’ worth of vehicles and equipment. Since then, Russian forces have continued enhancing their precision-strike capabilities and have expanded their concepts with several other variants, including radio-electronic strike, aimed primarily at disorganizing the opponent’s command and control and reducing the effectiveness of the enemy kill chain.
The Ukrainian Battlefield
Although not always portrayed as such, the war in Ukraine is, or at least has become, a peer conflict, largely because of the extent of Western and especially US support, providing Ukraine with significant amounts of advanced weapons systems—not to mention real-time battlefield intelligence to help identify Russian targets for Ukrainian long-range precision strikes. As a result, this is the first war in history in which both sides are capable of striking throughout the opponent’s tactical and operational depth with a high level of accuracy.
After the failure of the initial invasion, the subsequent period of the fighting in the Donbas was at first marked by Russian dominance in fires. Besides precision munitions, the employment of UAVs for target detection greatly enhanced the effectiveness of Russia’s large numbers of legacy artillery systems. Russian artillery batteries employing UAVs for target detection generally showed themselves capable of engaging Ukrainian positions within minutes after being detected. As a result, Ukrainian infantry companies were forced to disperse and often occupied front lines up to three kilometers wide. Consequently, battalions covered frontages that are traditionally the responsibility of brigades. Russian artillery superiority and sensor density even prevented Ukrainians from concentrating in units above company size, because anything larger would be detected prematurely and effectively targeted from a distance.
It was only when Ukrainian forces managed to establish their own effective kill chains that their artillery was partly able to counter this—particularly through the use of US-provided HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System), which is itself an offshoot of the Assault Breaker program. By effectively targeting Russian ammunition stocks, the Ukrainians steadily degraded Russian artillery superiority during the summer of 2022, forcing Russia to displace its railway logistics distribution centers from fifty to one hundred miles behind the front. Ukrainian long-range precision strikes also proved exceptionally effective in destroying Russian command posts. On the Kherson front, for example, over a period of eight months, they destroyed several high-level Russian headquarters, degrading Russia’s ability to conduct large-scale operations.
Whenever offensive or defensive maneuver is conducted, safety is found in mobility, with periods of concentration kept as short as possible. This was demonstrated during Ukraine’s Kharkiv offensive, where Ukrainian troops relied on speed and surprise, using lightly armed and fast moving reconnaissance units, and Russian troop density was relatively low. Whenever large formations remain static and concentrated, they become easily targeted. This was on display during the failed Russian crossing of the Siverskyi Donets on May11, 2022, when significant elements of a Russian motorized rifle brigade were located and destroyed by using aerial reconnaissance and artillery.
Currently, troop density and intensity of the fighting varies considerably along the front. This results in open flanks that need to be secured by other means. Meanwhile, the Russian army is adapting and its reconnaissance-fire complex continues to evolve, becoming highly responsive and with its artillery less vulnerable to counterbattery fire. Russian forces are also increasingly relying on loitering munitions for counterbattery fire and effectively using electronic warfare to counter Ukrainian UAVs. Ukrainian HIMARS strikes are even partially countered by Russian air defenses, while Russian command-and-control infrastructure has become much more resilient. Russian forces also rarely employ armor and infantry in concentrated assaults and in the defense occupy dispersed positions, while increasingly drawing on artillery to blunt Ukrainian attacks.
Implications for the War in Ukraine and Beyond
We are witnessing the maturation of deep-attack capabilities that were developed during the 1970s and 1980s. As Soviet/Russian military theorists have long understood, these advancements in weapons and sensor technology, over the course of several decades, have made large troop concentrations extremely vulnerable. Additionally, although this has not led to the removal of terms such as FLOT (forward line of own troops), FLET (forward line of enemy troops), and FEBA (forward edge of battle area) from the military lexicon, targets are now being struck throughout the entire depth of the front and beyond. These theorists also recognized at an early stage that there are two possible military solutions to counter this. The first is by improving the effectiveness of their own reconnaissance-fire and reconnaissance-strike complexes, in order to degrade the opponent’s deep-attack capabilities. The second is by dispersing formations on the battlefield in order to increase survivability.
However, current battlefield conditions are adding the related difficulty of achieving the concentration of forces necessary for establishing main efforts during offensive operations. This is reducing large-scale engagements and thereby necessitating a concentration and synchronization of effects, rather than a traditional physical massing of troops. In turn, this places an extra burden on command and control, especially when contested by electronic warfare. Only by disrupting the opponent’s kill chain can larger formations regain the ability to concentrate and engage in maneuver warfare. During the war in Ukraine, superiority in kill-chain effectiveness has become one of the prime objectives for both sides. In this war and any other characterized by the same dynamics, this superiority becomes an essential condition for victory.
Captain Randy Noorman MA is an officer in the Royal Netherlands Army and currently working as a military historian at the Dutch Institute for Military History, part of the Netherlands Defense Academy.
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: Russian rocket artillery at Shikhany proving ground, 2018 (credit: mil.ru, via Wikimedia Commons)