Russia’s Adaptation Advantage

Early in the War, Moscow Struggled to Shift Gears—but Now It’s Outlearning Kyiv

Throughout the war in Ukraine, Kyiv and Moscow have waged an adaptation battle, trying to learn and improve their military effectiveness. In the early stages of the invasion, Ukraine had the advantage. Empowered by a rapid influx of Western weapons, motivated by the existential threat posed by Russia’s aggression, and well prepared for the attack, Kyiv was able to develop new ways of fighting in remarkably short order. Russia, in contrast, fumbled: a big, arrogant, and lumbering bear, overconfident of a rapid victory. The institutional shock of Russia’s lack of success, in turn, slowed its ability to learn and adapt.

But after two years of war, the adaptation battle has changed. The quality gap between Ukraine and Russia has closed. Ukraine still has an innovative and bottom-up military culture, which allows it to quickly introduce new battlefield technologies and tactics. But it can struggle to make sure that those lessons are systematized and spread throughout the entire armed forces. Russia, on the other hand, is slower to learn from the bottom up because of a reluctance to report failure and a more centralized command philosophy. Yet when Russia does finally learn something, it is able to systematize it across the military and through its large defense industry.

These differences are reflected in the ways the two states innovate. Ukraine is better at tactical adaptation: learning and improving on the battlefield. Russia is superior at strategic adaptation, or learning and adaptation that affects national and military policymaking, such as how states use their resources. Both forms of adaptation are important. But it is the latter type that is most crucial to winning wars.

The longer this war lasts, the better Russia will get at learning, adapting, and building a more effective, modern fighting force. Slowly but surely, Moscow will absorb new ideas from the battlefield and rearrange its tactics accordingly. Its strategic adaptation already helped it fend off Ukraine’s counteroffensive, and over the last few months it has helped Russian troops take more territory from Kyiv. Ultimately, if Russia’s edge in strategic adaptation persists without an appropriate Western response, the worst that can happen in this war is not stalemate. It is a Ukrainian defeat.

After struggling during its early military operations in Ukraine, Russia adapted its command-and-control structure. In April 2022, the country appointed a single commander to oversee its full-scale invasion, jettisoning the dysfunctional, fractured system through which Moscow had run the war to that point. The result was a more unified effort, one that shifted the Russian invasion from multiple separate and uncoordinated campaigns in the north, east, and south of the country to a more synchronized approach—with the main effort clearly being the ground operations in eastern Ukraine. This led to Russian advances and the capture of cities such as Severodonetsk, in mid-2022.

Russia also changed how it conducted close combat. Early in the war, Russia employed combined arms, battalion-sized ground units that were often not strong enough and that demonstrated a limited capacity to integrate air and land operations and carry out ground combined-arms operations. But over the last 12 months, the Russians evolved away from such battalions. They are now integrating elite forces and conventional forces—and buttressing that combination with what many Ukrainians deride as a “meatstorm”: waves of poorly trained, disposable forces who can overwhelm and exhaust Ukrainian soldiers before more talented Russian troops arrive.

Some of this tactical innovation has been driven by military necessity, including the lack of time Russia had to train mobilized troops to high levels of proficiency. But some of it was informed by strategic top-down directives. The Wagner paramilitary company’s leaders helped promote the “meat tactics” approach by using convicts who signed up with the militia as disposable bullet catchers during the successful campaign to take Bakhmut. After seeing Wagner’s success with this grotesque strategy, Moscow’s forces adopted similar approaches for other battles. Russian infantry tactics have shifted from trying to deploy uniform battalion groups as combined arms units of action to creating a stratified division by forming into assault, specialized, and disposable “meat” troops.

Russian forces have adapted on defense, as well. After only lightly fortifying its positions early in the war—and thereby opening itself up to Ukrainian offensives—Moscow constructed deep defensive lines in the south during late 2022 and early 2023. Coupled with Russian improvements in shortening the time between target detection and the carrying out of battlefield strikes, the Ukrainians faced an adversary in the second half of 2023 that was very different from the one it faced in 2022. To overcome this evolved enemy, Ukraine was forced to adapt its tactics, technology, and operations, in part by sending some troops to Poland and other European countries for additional combined arms training before the counteroffensive began. But Kyiv’s efforts were still insufficient to the task of retaking more of the south.

The quality gap between Ukraine and Russia has closed.
The Russian military has also become better at protecting its vehicles. In the early days of the war, Ukraine used drones and precision missiles to successfully destroy many of Moscow’s tanks and trucks, leading to multiple embarrassing Russian defeats. But in response the country’s troops began creating improvised armor. After large quantities of Russian logistical vehicles were attacked during the advance on Kyiv, the troops began adding improvised armor on these trucks. This makeshift armor eventually gained greater sophistication with what have come to be called “cope cages”—slat armor or cage armor. Such armor first appeared on German tanks in World War II. But it has also been used in modern conflicts, including by coalition forces deployed in the 2003 Iraq war and now on Russian tanks and self-propelled artillery. These cages have helped either crush the fuses of Ukrainian antitank weapons before they hit a vehicle’s main armor or forced antitank weapons to denotate before they can penetrate the vehicle. Together, the cages have provided another layer of physical protection to Russia’s tanks and trucks, and they appear to have given their crews more confidence to operate in places where there is a high risk of drone or loitering munition attacks.

This defensive approach may have started as a tactical innovation. But eventually, the adoption of cages was systematized. The Russian Army had its units, en masse, use cages as a systemic approach to defeating loitering munitions, top-attack missiles (such as the Javelin), and drones. In 2023, Russian commanders even issued formal direction on how to construct and mount cope cages to trucks, artillery, and armored vehicles. Moscow now offers such cages on export versions of its armored vehicles.

Moscow, meanwhile, has gotten significantly better at deploying drones itself—reversing an earlier dynamic. At the start of the war, Ukraine helped pioneer new ways of using remote controlled, semiautonomous, and autonomous drones to do everything from conducting reconnaissance to dropping bombs. The country’s self-proclaimed drone army, a collaboration of government, industry, and citizen crowdfunding, gave Kyiv an especially impressive early drone advantage. But although Russia was slower in adopting drones for a wide array of purposes, it has now overtaken Ukraine with the quantity of drones and loitering munitions and its ability to use them. Moscow has done so by mobilizing its indigenous defense industry and sourcing critical technologies from overseas, despite Western sanctions. Now, it outproduces Ukraine when it comes to drone and loitering munitions. This gap will probably continue to widen.

Modern war is almost impossible without deploying large numbers of unmanned aerial vehicles while actively countering enemy drones. Russia’s use of UAVs—in concert with its defensive lines, large amounts of artillery, attack helicopters, loitering munitions, and more responsive reconnaissance and surveillance systems—was a key reason for Ukraine’s failed 2023 counteroffensive. And as Russia learns more and continues to increase its drone production, it will gain more of an advantage.

Drones are not the only weapon with which Russia has flipped the script. Ukraine was an early adopter of precision weapons, or weapons that use GPS or other guidance systems to strike targets more accurately than older systems. Kyiv had to be; given the disparity in artillery and munitions at the beginning of the war, Ukraine could not afford to waste rockets and shells. But Moscow has since learned and adapted to reduce the effect of precision weapons. It has done so by better dispersing its combat forces, artillery, and logistics. It has also complicated Ukrainian targeting by using more secure means of electronic communications, including encrypted networks and older, wired tactical-communications systems.

Traditionally a strength of the Russians, electronic warfare appeared to play a minor role in the early days of the invasion. But it has returned with a vengeance. The Russian military has collaborated with its strategic defense industry to develop and deploy a variety of new and evolved vehicle- and personnel-based electronic warfare systems. These jam Ukrainian communications to break unit cohesion and slow down the country’s ability to launch attacks. Electronic warfare also cuts the link between drones and their operators, helps Russia find drone operator stations, makes it hard for Ukraine to pinpoint the location of Russia’s headquarters, and, importantly, jams or degrades the effectiveness of Ukrainian precision weapons (including High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, or HIMARS). Although Ukraine and its partners have worked hard to keep up, they still lag behind Russia’s electronic warfare capabilities, a point made by Ukrainian Commander in Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi in late 2023.

Perhaps the most telling area in which Russia has adapted and generated a strategic advantage is in its defense-industrial complex. The country’s September 2022 partial mobilization and other government initiatives have dramatically increased military output. Moscow has gained further arms through the contributions of North Korea, and it has bolstered its sophisticated weapons manufacturing by increasing trade with China—which has allowed Russia to acquire dual-use technologies it can no longer purchase from the West. As a result, Russia now has far more weapons and munitions than Ukraine.

Electronic warfare has returned with a vengeance.
To be sure, Russia is not better at adapting in every domain. When it comes to new ways of conducting long-range strikes, Kyiv has improved more than Moscow. Ukraine, for example, has developed the ability to undertake additional long-range strikes against Russian airfields, defense factories, and energy infrastructure over the past year. Whereas it was largely helpless to respond to the Russian strikes against its civil infrastructure over the winter of 2022, it now has a sophisticated capacity to respond in kind (albeit with United States–imposed limitations on using Western weapons to strike within Russia). Kyiv has used this capacity by judiciously hitting Russia, particularly in the wake of Moscow’s massed attacks on Ukraine during Christmas and New Year’s.

Ukraine has also developed an effective maritime strike capability using military and civilian sensors, long-range missiles, and successive generations of unmanned maritime drones. These sea drones are now able to fire missiles in addition to plowing into targets and detonating their warheads. As a result, Ukraine has destroyed multiple Russian warships and created a new maritime export corridor in the western Black Sea.

But these advantages may not last. As it has in other domains, Russia is likely to adapt around these Ukrainian developments. Russia, for example, is changing the composition and timing of its complex and massed-drone and missile attacks to identify weaknesses in Ukraine’s air defense system. And it has adapted some of its cruise missiles, such as the Kh-101, to fire flares as a protective mechanism against Ukrainian strikes.

The Russian military complex has developed an enhanced, continually improving adaptation cycle that links battlefield lessons to Russia’s industry and strategies. This may confer on the Russians a significant military edge in the year ahead. Left unaddressed, it could become a war-winning advantage. Russia could wind up with an improved ability to strike from the sky, overwhelming a Ukrainian air defense system that is being denied sufficient interceptor missiles and making it easier for Russia to advance and terrorize Ukrainian citizens. It could, relatedly, lead to further Russian gains on the ground, with Moscow seizing more territory in the east, in particular, but possibly also in the south. Capturing Kyiv is unlikely in the short term. But ultimately, Moscow looking more to change the political calculus in Kyiv to be more favorable to Russia, rather than to physically take it.

To avoid this fate, Ukraine must construct its own strategic approach to learning and adaptation—one that can complement its remarkable history of combat adaptation. Ukrainian units can start by sharing successful adaptations with other Ukrainian units at a faster pace. Although Ukrainian units do often send lessons to brigades, which then send them to higher headquarters, the military must also emphasize lateral sharing. Exchanging lessons across units not only cuts the time needed for troops to learn; it also assists in standardizing tactics. Still, to create a better system of lateral learning (and to standardize tactics), top commanders must get involved. The highest levels of the Ukrainian armed forces will need to order troops to exchange more information.

To become better at strategic adaptation, Ukraine must also remove the institutional and timing obstacles that stand between tactical learning and doctrinal innovation and training. A key lesson from the 2023 Ukrainian counteroffensive, for example, is that the combined-arms doctrine that NATO taught to Ukrainian troops is out of date. As a result of this failure, Ukrainian individuals and units lacked the intellectual armor needed to conduct offensive operations under modern conditions. It is imperative that NATO and Ukraine speed up their sharing of combat lessons and connect them to doctrine and training institutions, so that the alliance and Kyiv can rapidly come up with better doctrines and better forms of training. NATO should, in particular, use its vast analytical capacity to help the Ukrainians quickly figure out what works. By better linking tactical lessons with strategic changes, the West could remake how this war is fought in a way that makes it much easier for Ukraine to adapt its overall war strategy.

Russia currently holds the strategic initiative.
The West must also, of course, continue arming Ukraine with advanced weapons. But although increased overall Western provisions are important, it is crucial that the West focus on producing and sending the arms most likely to provide Kyiv with a strategic advantage. It must therefore create a stronger connection between Ukrainian tactical learning and industrial production. Combat lessons must pass quickly from the battlefield to manufacturers, making it easier for soldiers to influence the production of equipment and munitions. (Ukraine and its allies should, simultaneously, try to interfere with Russia’s ability to use tactical lessons to improve defense production, including by meddling with Moscow’s supply chains.)

Finally, Ukraine must generally increase the speed at which it deploys new adaptations. One of the Russian military’s remaining key weaknesses is that it is “a structure that becomes better over time at managing the problems it immediately faces, but also one that struggles to anticipate new threats,” as a recent Royal United Services Institute report stated. This is a significant chink in Russia’s strategic armor. It means that although Russia’s ability to respond to challenges has improved, it can still be caught on the back foot. To capitalize on this disadvantage, Ukraine must introduce and systematize its new adaptations quickly, so it can inflict as much damage as possible before Russia learns how to react.

Making these improvements will not be easy. All institutions possess limited capacity to absorb change over a short period—what the political scientist Michael Horowitz calls “adoption capacity”—and the Ukrainians have already undertaken an enormous variety of adaptations in this war. It does not help that to truly work, adaptation needs to be multifaceted and comprehensive. “Emerging technology is vital to each capability,” the military historian and analyst T. X. Hammes wrote in an April report. “But, like the development of the blitzkrieg or carrier aviation, these transformational capabilities can only be realized by combining several technologies effectively and implementing them in coherent, well-trained operational concepts.” This requires good leadership, rapid experimentation, and the humility to learn from one’s mistakes.

Ukraine has no time to waste in implementing these measures. Russia has significantly improved its ability to learn and adapt in Ukraine. The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, the more Moscow will improve its strategic adaptation. The most convincing justification for improving Ukraine’s strategic adaptation and hindering Russia’s is to ensure that Ukraine does not lose the war. Russia currently holds the strategic initiative—so unfortunately, defeat is still a possible outcome.

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