Russia is increasingly relying on unguided bombs and brute force in its assault on Ukraine as it seeks to regain momentum and runs out of more precise weaponry, according to Western defence officials.
Moscow’s dependence on heavy artillery barrages of urban centres and its use of so-called dumb bombs indicated a shift in military tactics following its failure to capture big cities or make major advances on other fronts, they said. The move will exact an even greater toll on Ukrainian civilians.
The change contrasts with Russia’s initial strategy, which involved lightning assaults and attempts to rapidly encircle cities but was undercut by Ukrainian insurgency-style tactics that disrupted the invading force’s supply lines.
Defence officials and analysts said Russia’s shift signalled Moscow’s understanding that the campaign needed to change course.
“The Russians are changing their tactics to those that are more attritional and subject Ukrainians to air and artillery bombardment,” said a Western official.
The reliance on dumb bombs and heavy artillery also feeds into a strategy of attrition that includes "the reckless and indiscriminate use of firepower", said James Hockenhull, the UK's defence intelligence chief.
A senior US defence official said in a briefing on Monday that Moscow was desperate to find ways to make gains as it struggled to take control of Ukraine’s big population centres or make significant territorial advances.
Some of the fiercest fighting is taking place in Mariupol in southern Ukraine, where Russian missiles last week destroyed a theatre sheltering more than 1,000 people and struck a school where children were seeking refuge.
A senior US defence official on Tuesday said Ukraine's forces were fighting hard to maintain control of the city and that there were some Russian forces inside, some of which are separatist forces from Donbas. Moscow has been shelling Mariupol since Tuesday from ships in the Sea of Azov.
US president Joe Biden on Monday discussed the "serious concerns about Russia's brutal tactics in Ukraine, including its attacks on civilians", in a conference call with the leaders of France, Germany, Italy and the UK.
Biden is heading to Brussels this week for Nato, EU and G7 meetings, and will later travel to Poland to co-ordinate US allies' response to the war.
Multiple countries, including the US, have provided anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, which have helped its forces inflict significant losses on Russia’s military. The US last week pledged an additional $1 billion (€909m) in assistance to Kyiv, including armed drones and more missiles.
Meanwhile, Russia is experiencing challenges with its supply of more “smart” weapons, say Western officials. “They are beginning to face some inventory issues with precision-guided munitions, [which] is one reason why you’re seeing the increasing use of what we would call dumb bombs,” said a senior US defence official.
“A not insignificant number” of Russia’s guided weapons such as cruise missiles had also failed, the official added. “They’re just not operating. They’re failing to launch or they’re failing to hit the target or they’re failing to explode on contact.”
Russia typically uses far fewer guided munitions than Western militaries, according to analysts. During Russia's campaigns in Chechnya and Georgia, fewer than 3 per cent of munitions fired from Russian aircraft were guided. By comparison, an estimated 70 per cent of weapons deployed by the US during the 2003 invasion of Iraq were guided – although military attacks in that conflict also killed many civilians.
Russia was experiencing command and control issues and its forces were struggling to communicate with each other, the official said.
However, another Western official said Russia had an enormous number of unguided munitions in reserve that could sustain the bombardment for weeks.
The increasing use of dumb bombs was part of a long-standing Russian strategy to destroy urban civilian infrastructure and intimidate populations, analysts said.
"This kind of illegal, brutal warfare is exactly what Russia has been practising in Syria for the past few years and ... in almost every conflict they have been involved in for decades," said Gen Sir Richard Barrons, former head of the UK's joint forces command.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Russia's use of such firepower was a hallmark of its military doctrine.
“They’ve always had a large artillery arm with cannon artillery and lots of rocket launchers. They are not hesitant to use that in built-up areas against civilians,” he said.
Barrons said Russia was almost certain to escalate attacks on Ukrainian civilians, adding: “I can’t see how a stalemate works for them.”
Videos have circulated on social media of Russian forces firing thermobaric weapons. These use oxygen from the surrounding air to generate a high-temperature explosion – an indiscriminate and powerful tactic first deployed by Russia in Afghanistan in 1989.
Crude heavy artillery and indiscriminate bombing of cities such as Kyiv, as has been inflicted on Mariupol, may mark the next phase of Russia's offensive, said Christopher Donnelly, a former adviser on the Russian military to four Nato secretaries-general.
“The Russians still have the capacity to do a lot more damage ... although I think they are going to need a lot more ammunition and firepower than they have brought so far,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022