What I want to do here is put the Russian BTG (battalion tactical group) into its current context in Ukraine with the assistance of this article written by Cpt. Nicolas Fiore published back in 2017. It was more recently summarized in Forbes just before hostilities started and it’s also clear its the source of several other numbers put forth in other commentary. It’s worth a read if you haven’t already.
The first aspect I want to highlight is the fluid nature of the BTG. It’s often portrayed as the org chart above outside of the context in which is was intended to be deployed in. The BTG itself is meant to be a core of higher skilled soldiers around which other units can be attached to depending upon mission and condition. When deployed, it is meant to be paired with poor quality infantry units, and whatever additional resources the parent brigade determines it needs, such as an extra tank company, logistics units or artillery battery. Most brigades have 2 BTGs so one BTG may “lend” the other BTG some of its units. So while there is an “ideal” BTG core, actual BTGs may be vastly different.
The part that seems to be most often forgotten in discussions of BTG force deployment is the paramilitary, separatist or conscript infantry that are supposed to be attached to it. This infantry is responsible for both defending the BTG as well as acting as cannon fodder for the first wave on attack, but is never considered an “organic” part of the BTG itself. Even though this infantry is not considered part of the BTG, the BTG needs it to function as intended. The three infantry companies organic to the BTG are there to perform the skilled jobs, but not the most dangerous jobs. The most dangerous work is meant to be done by the poorly trained attached conscripts. So when deployed “properly” the BTG has far more than the 200 fighting infantry organic to it. How much is impossible to determine as the point is that the BTG simply needs these extra bodies around and it doesn’t matter to the Russians where they come from, so it’s highly situational.
But these extra soldiers are critical to the effective functioning of the BTG. As poorly trained soldiers, they serve as human tripwires on the defensive. The BTG sets up for operations and positions these troops around it to protect the rear elements such as command and artillery. The BTG then focuses its 3 companies of trained mechanized infantry and tanks on the target. But even there they use some of the conscripts. On the offensive the conscripts act as recon by fire where they discover enemy positions by walking forward and getting fired at. Once the enemy positions are discovered, then the organic BTG elements are brought forward to conduct the actual attack. This is meant to preserve the more skilled contract soldiers and equipment. Let the cannon fodder find the enemy, then use the experienced troops to defeat it.
This means a few different things. First, a BTG that has been stripped of its attached conscripts is a whole different beast than a BTG deployed with conscripts. BTGs with conscripts have more human eyeballs detecting enemies and (from the Russian commands view) a buffer of expendable troops to absorb enemy attacks or counter-attacks. A “naked” BTG (without conscripts) would be far more fragile. It would have a much harder time covering its assigned frontage and have far more difficulty defending its rear units. The difference would also present much differently to the attacker. A Ukrainian unit attacking a BTG with conscripts will first find easily defeated troops and then get pounded by Russian artillery and get counter attacked by organic BTG units. Ukrainians attacking the infantry companies of a naked BTG would find the defenders to be much better trained and armed, but relatively few.
This would produce some of what we are currently seeing. It was recently reported that Ukrainians took heavy losses assaulting a town north of Kharkiv. This is an area Russia has controlled for a while. It may be that the BTG stationed there still has its attached conscripts and because it possibly hasn’t moved in a while the officers have had time to get everyone on the same page. Meanwhile elsewhere, we have frequent back and forth attacks between the two countries. In a more fluid environment, the attached conscripts for the Russian BTGs are more likely to get separated and be out of place relative to the core of the BTG. In these cases the Ukrainians may encounter easily run over units, or face stiff opposition depending upon who they run into. All these armor units moving without screening conscripts makes for easy ambushing for the Ukrainians, which is also what we have seen.
This dependence upon conscripts would also explain much of the difficulty Russia has on the offensive. As the attached conscript units have not trained extensively with the core BTG, there is more friction in getting them to move where the generals want them. Whether it’s misunderstandings, lack of experience, or a desire to not be the expendable masses Russian command wants them to be, the attached units may move at a different pace than the core BTG, essentially slowing it down. When the colonel of the BTG has difficulty getting the “cooperation” of the conscript forces it may occasionally take a General to come in to make the conscript force move. As the conscript forces have poor equipment, including radios, this is possibly one of the reasons we see Generals coming to the front lines more often.
It also may explain some difficulty coordinating multiple BTGs. Each BTG will have its own attached conscripts who don’t always move as intended. So getting multiple different groups to all move at once suddenly becomes far more difficult. Particularly when conscript officers want the other conscript units to bear the brunt of the attack. Even if the core BTGs are motivated and mobile, coordinating with multiple conscript units ends up slowing everyone down, preventing large unit maneuvers.
On the flip side, BTGs will work far better on the defensive. The attached conscripts simply have to stay in place with the organic infantry acting as a local mobile reserve to respond to enemy threats. It is imperative then for the Ukrainians to do their best to keep the Russians moving. Every time the Russians have to move a BTG, there is a significant chance for the attached infantry to move in an uncoordinated fashion leaving gaps in lines.
Another aspect to consider with all this, is that Russian losses are not all equal. Losses to conscript units are easier for Russia to replace than losses to core elements of the BTG. The point of the BTG core unit is that is has the best trained troops. As poorly trained as they are relative to the US military, it’s still training that takes time. It’s also troops that need to be contract solider, something Russia is having difficulty recruiting.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Daily Kos Ukraine article without talking about logistics. BTGs have an organic logistics unit to keep them supplied. However, (per the article at the top) western analysts feel this unit is only sufficient to keep the core BTG supplied in non combat conditions. The BTG is estimated to have roughly 3 days of combat supplies on it before running out. The core logistics unit is not sufficient to replace the extra combat usage. Therefore, the parent brigade needs to provide additional logistics units. Whether these were provided is unknown, but if not may account for some of the logistics problems. Furthermore, this supply only accounts for the core BTG itself. It does not account for supplying the conscripts. The Russian military doesn’t strike me as the sharing type, so its most likely we have much different levels of supply in units attached to each other. Rampant theft by the conscripts most likely becomes necessary to their survival.