Retired General Warns of Russia’s Ability to Adapt on Battlefield

The Russian military has demonstrated an ability to learn and adapt in its war against Ukraine despite critical observations made about its special military operation, according to a retired Australian Army general.

Russia and Ukraine are said to be in the beginning stages of their spring counteroffensives, with the latter reportedly “stealthily” building forces in the northeastern Kharkiv region in anticipation of heavier combat in the Donbas. Ukraine recently received MiG-29 “Fulcrum” fighter jets from Poland and Slovakia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, has flaunted his country’s military capabilities following naval drills that included 25,000 personnel, 89 aircraft and helicopters, and 167 warships including 12 submarines. Putin also met personally with Li Shangfu, China’s defense chief, in Moscow on Sunday to kick off a three-day visit causing more speculation as to the relationship between the nations.

Mick Ryan, retired major general in the Australian Army, wrote Monday in a Twitter thread and on his Substack that “contrary to the many ‘Russian are stupid’ stereotypes that have developed throughout the war” the nation’s military has improved in three main areas: strategic adaptation, operational adaptation and tactical adaptation.

Following what he referred to as “poorly conducted” close combat tactics in the war’s infancy that led to Ukraine successfully targeting Russian logistics and rear areas, changes were made.

“The Russians appeared to learn,” Ryan wrote. “Their conduct of the withdrawal from Kherson in October and November 2022 shows that they had adapted. They were able to undertake a large-scale river crossing operation and extract a large portion of the Russian forces that were deployed in the south of Ukraine.”

“Instead of more maneuverist [sic] tactics, they adopted a very attritional model,” he added, citing Russians’ use of more artillery guided by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to advance slowly but more cautiously as to not expose logistical targets.

The Soviet Union flag on February 23, 2023, flutters next to a Karl Marx monument during a rally, marking the “Defender of the Fatherland Day,” the former “Day of the Soviet Army,” in downtown Moscow. Mick Ryan, retired major general in the Australian Army, writes that Russia’s military is adapting but still has its faults.
Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/Getty

The deployment of mercenaries from the paramilitary Wagner Group, headed by wealthy financier and once-close Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, in Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine in 2022 was also important. The fighters have been recruited by Russia’s penal system.

“It is a more sophisticated adaptation to tactics where the initial human waves are just the first echelon of several, each successive echelon featuring more experienced and capable troops,” Ryan said, making a comparison to strategy exhibited in the Iran-Iraq war. “The Wagner Group … used convicts as first wave troops and essentially as bullet catchers for Ukrainian defending forces.

“Each successive wave would claw out small gains and eventually better trained and more experienced Wagner Troops would exploit any gains that these human wave attacks achieved.”

Prigozhin wrote Friday on Telegram that Putin should end his “special military operation” in Ukraine and tout “achievements” including eradicating a chunk of Ukraine’s male population. Controlling areas like Bakhmut is also viewed by the Wagner leader as a potential long-term victory.

Ryan acknowledges that Russia’s operation has not been without an array of issues across the breadth of its military units, and that its military adaptions are “hardly news.”

“But it is undeniable that some learning and evolution has taken place,” he added. “It is a military capability that will be central to Russia’s ongoing ability to conduct operations in Ukraine, and one that should be studied for weaknesses that might be exploited by the Ukrainian forces as well as Western intelligence agencies.”

Newsweek has reached out to Ryan via email for comment.

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