It’s fair to say that at this point in Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, the reputation of the Russian military has shrunk by, if not 100%, something like 99%. Every film that made Russian forces seem like an unbroken mass of Dolph Lundgren clones marching perfectly along in their smartly tailored coats needs to be updated to represent the combination of sniveling incompetence and thoughtless brutality that seems closer to the truth.
In a purely physical sense, the U.S. Defense Department estimates that Russia has lost about 25% of the force it sent across the Ukraine border. On top of that, the U.K. Ministry of Defense estimates that about 25% of the Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) that remain are “combat ineffective” due to lacking either personnel or equipment. In recent days, there have been reports of assaults from Russian forces that were far below the supposed scale of a BTG, and there have been translations like this one showing that a BTG with just two remaining tanks deliberately sabotaged one of them to keep from being sent into battle.
“Our tank, we broke it ourselves in the morning as to not go. BTRs went with out us and they have a lot of 200s [killed] and 300s [wounded] in critical condition.”
But losses on the battlefield and a withering loss of reputation aren’t the only ways the Russian military is shrinking. Based on some analysis from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, it seems like the standard BTG was literally not what it was cracked up to be.
Kos has written several times about the nature of Russia’s BTGs and what they’re meant to do.
A brigade combat team (BCT) is the U.S. Army’s basic maneuver unit. That is, the smallest deployable unit able to stand on its own (with intelligence, artillery, support, and other assets). Russia is organized around the much smaller BTG, which is what we see in Ukraine. Problem is, as that report states, it doesn’t take a lot of casualties to knock a BTG out of commission.
Exactly what constitutes a BTG has always been something of a question, but in general it’s supposed to be a somewhat self-sufficient army in the field, like a U.S. brigade combat team (BTC) . Only a BTC includes around 4,500 soldiers. A BTG contains something like 800 soldiers. Or maybe just 700. Or maybe it’s 600.
As it turns out, that last number turns out to be closer to correct, even if it’s still a smidge too high. The Ukrainian military has had a chance to see multiple BTGs in the field, and they’ve now issued a document describing a typical BTG. The document can be a little confusing because it includes numbers from a series of specialist BTGs, and the columns don’t all add up (Russia apparently does not play by U.S. spreadsheet rules). But the numbers at the bottom of the chart give away the game: 588 soldiers and officers. That’s what they’re seeing.
This helps to explain the high degree of BTGs that seem to have been easily knocked off kilter. As kos explained back at the beginning of the fight, the small size of the BTGs means that a single skirmish that takes out a few key elements can render the entire BTG unable to continue as a self-sufficient force—something that’s much less likely to happen with a larger, more robust U.S. BTC.
With that in mind, here’s a map put together by military analyst Henry Schlottman. Using the published positions of Russian BTGs that have been made available by U.S. and Ukrainian intelligence, Schlottman made an estimate of where each of those groups is focused, how much “front” each of them is addressing, and came up ultimately with a “kilometers per BTG” rating that shows where Russia is really putting in the effort. (I recommend that you click on this tweet, then on the map to see the image in its full size).
The results of looking at it this way show an order of magnitude of difference between the areas Russia seems to be beefing up for a push and those that seem more like efforts to secure any previous gains. For example, the area northeast of Kharkiv, where Ukrainian forces seem to be taking back towns and villages by the day, has a “density” of 20 km/BTG. Meanwhile, next door in the Izyum area, Russia’s big stack of men and material results in a 2.7 km/BTG figure. Poor little Popasnya is similar. Seven BTGs are focused on a very small area there, resulting in 2.9 km/BTG.
The “least dense” area on this map is down by Kherson, where the number goes up to 22 km/BTG. However, that one is a bit deceptive. Schlottman calculated that based on an extensive potential line of combat, but most of that line is actually the wide Dnipro river. Both Russia and Ukraine have their forces there concentrated within a much smaller area.
Looking at the map this way does seem to provide some kind of information. After all, those least-dense areas are the ones where villages have been changing hands. However, the other end of the scale doesn’t seem to be true so far. Neither Izyum nor Popasna has been the scene of big Russian advances in spite of incredible numbers of BTGs shoved together in a small space.
Why not? Well, that goes back to the other thing kos has written about on a number of occasions: the inability of Russia to coordinate their forces and conduct large-scale combined arms operations. As long as Russia can only send forces down the line one or two BTGs at a time, it doesn’t matter that they have 20 more in theater. In some ways, all those additional forces are more of a problem than a help because they put a strain on—say it with me—logistics, logistics, logistics.
Looking at the kilometer per BTG doesn’t give a very good idea of where Russia is going to be effective. However, it probably is a pretty good idea of where they want to be effective. That alone makes the map worth studying.
Oh, and don’t be too concerned if the Ukrainian forces on the other side of those lines seem puny in comparison. Those Ukrainian numbers are in brigades. Here are the components of a typical Ukrainian brigade—in this case the 24th, which is based in western Ukraine.
- Headquarters and Headquarters Company
- 1st Mechanized Battalion
- 2nd Mechanized Battalion
- 3rd Mechanized Battalion
- Tank Battalion
- 3rd Motorized Infantry Battalion, "Volya"
- Brigade Artillery Group
- Headquarters and Target Acquisition Battery
- Self-propelled Artillery Battalion (2S3 Akatsiya)
- Self-propelled Artillery Battalion (2S1 Gvozdika)
- Rocket Artillery Battalion (BM-21 Grad)
- Anti-tank Artillery Battalion (MT-12 Rapira)
- Anti-aircraft Missile Artillery Battalion
- Engineer Battalion
- Maintenance Battalion
- Logistic Battalion
- Reconnaissance Company
- Sniper Company
- Electronic Warfare Company
- Signal Company
- Radar Company
- CBRN-defense Company
- Medical Company
Each one of those battalions within the brigade is itself about 400 soldiers and 40 to 50 vehicles. In other words, this is a much larger structure than a BTG. And one that’s much harder to take out.
Just as with Russian forces, some of these brigades are going to be patched up and pieced together, with companies and battalions that have suffered heavy losses. Even so, none of them are likely to be “combat incapacitated.”
Russia has fired a number of weapons into cities across Ukraine, including some that had so far been untouched in the invasion. The targets appear to be primarily rail lines and electrical substations. On this occasion, at least, Russia doesn’t seem to have deliberately targeted civilian dwellings. Just civilian infrastructure.