Kharkov and Krasny Liman: Reflections on the Possibilities of Adaptation and Evolution of the Russian Army

Christelle Néant
The situation in the Kharkov region, and then the loss of Krasny Liman, has led to a lot of debate in Russia about how the Russian army operates in Ukraine, and who is responsible for these failures. Although I did not have a military background, I was trained in various disciplines that taught me principles applicable to several fields. This article is an analysis of what I perceive to be at least some of the causes of these failures, and suggestions for dealing with many of these problems.

Let us start at the beginning and analyse the potential causes of the failure of the Russian army in the Kharkov region and then in Krasny Liman. Some, such as Ramzan Kadyrov and Yevgeny Prigozhin, have pointed to the responsibility of General Alexander Lapin, who is leading the Russian troops on this part of the front. Several journalists, including Alexander Khartchenko, defended the Russian general, stressing that he had asked for the mobilisation as early as June, and that he did the best he could with the little he had. These journalists pointed to systemic problems and called for an end to scapegoating.

As is often the case, I think the reality is somewhere in between. There are officers who do their job badly, or make mistakes (mistakes are human and only those who do nothing make mistakes), and who must be identified and eventually punished. Among others, those who assured their hierarchy that their men were ready for combat when this was sometimes not the case.

But the biggest problem, in my opinion, comes from the inertia resulting from the immense size of the Russian army, and the difficulties of interaction with the other military units (Wagner, popular militias, volunteers) present on the ground (among other things, problems of secure communications systems that are incompatible with each other). As a fellow journalist pointed out, when target coordinates and a firing order requested by a popular militia or volunteer unit have to be validated by too many officers before going back down to the Russian artillery unit, there is a good chance that the targets are no longer there.

As the UNIX philosophy says, “small is beautiful”. Why is this so? Because the bigger a system is, the more likely it is that one component will interfere with (or slow down) the work of another, and the greater the inertia of that system. Clearly, the bigger a system is, the less it is able to adapt because too many components have to be reworked, and faced with the difficulty of doing so, many people give up, saying to themselves “why change everything when it’s working?”, until it no longer works…

Due to their smaller size, the units of the popular militia, Chechen battalions, volunteer units like the Bars, or those of Wagner have shown a better adaptability to the new combat conditions. This is because there is less inertia and hierarchy interfering with the adaptation processes.

And while at this very moment Russian mobilisers are training with soldiers from the DPR and LPR people’s militias (which from my point of view is an excellent idea), I would like to put forward some ideas, which are open to criticism and suggestions for improvement.

I think it would be good if the mobilized did not just train with the soldiers of the people’s militia but were integrated into their units, rather than being sent to Russian army units. Why? First of all, because they will thus perfect their combat training in the field with soldiers and commanders who are well versed in current combat techniques and Ukrainian tactics.

In addition, they will be able to acquire adaptive reflexes more easily within these units due to their smaller size. They will then be able to import these adaptive reflexes (such as always thinking about how to do things better, even if the current system apparently works well) into the Russian army more easily, thanks to the fact that there will be several hundred thousand of them (then dispersed in a large number of different units) who have acquired these reflexes.

Two other principles that seem important to me are those found in survivalism or permaculture: versatility and redundancy. Each element must be able to be used for several functions and each function must be covered by several elements and not just one.

Instead of having a huge Russian artillery unit separated from the other units on the front line, with whom communication is complicated by the problems of interoperability of transmission systems, we should, in my opinion, have smaller but versatile units all centered on a single, smaller command and a single communication system.

Clearly, the front line should be made up of small units comprising infantry, artillery, tanks, and reconnaissance units both on the ground and by drones, which are autonomous from each other, but which can call on neighboring units (or be replaced by them) in the event of a problem (enemy overruns requiring reinforcements, or elimination of one of the units which is then immediately replaced by the neighboring units, for example). Versatility and redundancy.

By also giving more autonomy to the commanders of these units, while ensuring overall tactical coherence at the level of Russian headquarters, this will speed up decision-making on the ground, and therefore the reactivity to Ukrainian attacks. We are no longer in 1942 when reconnaissance was a slow process. We are in the age of satellites and drones. We must therefore adapt the speed of decision-making by decentralizing as much as possible, thus drastically reducing the number of hierarchical steps necessary to validate an order.

The Russian military also needs to allow more freedom of initiative from ‘below’. I know that there has been a lot of public discussion, for example, about the need to modify the software of the commercial drones used to prevent them from being hacked, and that this requires a centralized effort to unify the software modifications. This is true. But this brings us back to the problem of the inertia of the “behemoth”. But I am sure that there are soldiers on the ground who have sufficient IT skills to propose a solution that could then be rapidly adopted on a general basis. But for this to happen, these initiatives must be publicly allowed and encouraged to take place and even multiply.

Finally, the last point that seems important to me is counter-power. The mistakes made at the beginning of the mobilisation in Russia, or in the Kharkov and Krasny Liman regions, forced Russian journalists to take on this role, and to solve problems by denouncing them publicly. This shows that Russian journalists are playing their role as the fourth estate very well, and this is to be welcomed (instead of trying to censor them as some are currently trying to do again to hide their mistakes). The problem is that in wartime these public displays of dysfunction served Ukrainian propaganda.

Several journalist colleagues then proposed the creation of an independent verification body that would answer directly to the supreme commander: Vladimir Putin. This would allow most of the problems to be solved without spreading them all over the place in public. I think this is a very good idea and I will go even further.

Sometimes you have to use history to find ideas that worked pretty well. As Alexandre Zakhartchenko said, there were good things that worked during the time of the USSR and one should not hesitate to take back these good things, avoiding recovering the bad with them.

In the USSR, Red Army units had political commissars who played several roles: patriotic education of soldiers, control of the conformity of military decisions with political orders, permanent link with the intelligence services, and a disciplinary function against errant soldiers or officers. And most importantly: these political commissars were not subject to the military hierarchy! They were independent of it.

Well, I think we need to resurrect the system of political commissars, with a different name and more or less the same functions (I exclude the disciplinary function, which in my view should be handled by military prosecutors, whose numbers have just been increased by Vladimir Putin).

In view of what happened on the Kharkov front, Russian soldiers need to be reminded why they are fighting (patriotic education), to check that officers are following government orders (among other things in the military recruitment offices), that there are no reports of complacency about the real state of combat readiness of such and such a unit, and to have a permanent link with the intelligence services in order to obtain more quickly the information needed to take decisions.

These new political commissars should report to a body that is exclusively dependent on the Supreme Commander and the Russian Defense Minister, so as to avoid an officer or a high-ranking official blocking information because it implicates an officer with whom he is friendly, or for some other personal reason.

These proposals are only a basis open to criticism, and there are surely other ideas that could improve these proposals or complement them by targeting other problematic points.

Translation Vz. yan for Donbass Insider

Ramzan Kadyrov on Liman failure 

“I have always said: there is nothing better than the voiced truth, albeit bitter, offensive, but the truth. This is the only way to move forward. Therefore, I cannot remain silent about what happened in Krasny Liman.

The defense of this section was led by the commander of the Central Military District, Colonel-General Alexander Lapin. The same Lapin, who received the star of the Hero of Russia for the capture of Lisichansk, although de facto he was not there and was not around. Lapin was also given over to the troops of the Western Military District.

The colonel-general deployed mobilized fighters from the LPR and other units on all frontiers of the Liman direction, but did not provide them with the necessary communications, interaction and the supply of ammunition. Two weeks ago, Major General Commander of the Akhmat Special Forces, my dear BROTHER Apty Alaudinov, personally reported to me that our fighters could become an easy target. In turn, I informed Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, about the danger. But the general assured me that he had no doubts about Lapin’s leadership talent and did not believe that a retreat was possible in Krasny Liman and its environs.

A week later, Lapin moves his headquarters to Starobelsk, a hundred kilometers from his subordinates, while he himself sits in Lugansk. How can you quickly manage units, being 150 km away from them? Due to the lack of elementary military logistics, today we have left several settlements and a large piece of territory.

It’s not a shame that Lapin is mediocre. And the fact that he is covered at the top by the leaders in the General Staff. If I had my way, I would have demoted Lapin to the rank of private, would have deprived him of his awards and, with a machine gun in his hands, would have sent him to the front lines to wash away his shame with blood.

Army nepotism will not lead to good. In the army, it is necessary to appoint people of a strong character, courageous, principled, who worry about their fighters, who tear their teeth for their soldier, who know that a subordinate cannot be left without help and support. There is no place for nepotism in the army, especially in difficult times.”

A collection of opinions about Liman, from people qualified to have them. WELL worth reading!

A selection of statements and comments on the abandonment of Liman:

Ramzan Kadyrov
Evgeny Prigozhin
Anastasia Kashevarova and reaction to her post by Semyon Pegova
Andrey Murz and Vladimir Grubnik (also a reaction to Anastasia Kashevarova’s post)
Andrey Medvedev
Sergey Karnaukhov
Rinat Yesenaliev
Alexander Kharchenko and Russian Spring Military Correspondents