KRAMATORSK, Ukraine — The team of soldiers had been out of their Ukrainian armored personnel carrier for only a few minutes when the tree line in front of them erupted with Russian gunfire. The dozen or more soldiers, sent to reinforce a trench, were pinned down for hours.
“I have never seen so much fire, from so many positions,” a soldier recounted in a mission report obtained by The New York Times.
One soldier fighting for Ukraine was killed and nine wounded in the battle, which took place in March near the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. The Russian troops, according to the report, displayed a “high level of skill and equipment.”
The ambush was part of a patient and disciplined operation that stood in stark contrast to the haphazard Russian tactics that marked much of the first year of the war, which began in February 2022. It was a deadly demonstration that the Russian military was learning from its mistakes. and adapt to Ukrainian tactics, having vastly underestimated them initially.
Russia gained ground early in the war with sheer firepower. Interviews with 17 Ukrainian soldiers, a Russian prisoner of war, officers, foreign fighters and Western officials, as well as a review of documents and videos, show that, in recent months, the Kremlin’s gains, especially in Bakhmut, are due in part a of a series of adaptations.
Russian armored columns, for example, no longer rush into areas where they can be quickly damaged or destroyed. Troops are more often using drones and probing attacks, and sometimes just shouting, to find Ukrainian trenches before attacking. And the mercenary Wagner Group has shown its ability to outrun Ukrainian defenders with a combination of improved tactics and disposable ranges.
As its long-awaited counter-offensive begins, Ukraine is well armed, backed by improved communication technology and American and European weaponry.
But Moscow’s forces have improved their defenses, artillery coordination and air support, setting up a campaign that could look very different from the early days of the war. These improvements, Western officials say, will most likely make Russia a tougher opponent, particularly as it fights defensively, playing to its strengths on the battlefield. This defensive turn is a far cry from Russia’s initial plan for a full-scale invasion and defeat of Ukraine.
To be sure, along a front line of roughly 600 miles, Russia’s military capabilities remain uneven. The prisoners have become part of their operations, having excelled in the battle for Bakhmut, despite their lack of training. The Kremlin’s increasing reliance on “kamikaze” drones or air-dropped gliding bombs reflects a shortage of ammunition as much as an innovative strategic shift.
“They are trying to find rear command posts of companies, brigades and destroy them at long range to disrupt communication between units as much as possible,” said Graf, a Ukrainian drone unit commander. Largely neutralized since the invasion, the Russian air force has adapted its tactics and munitions, including glide bombs, to attack Ukrainian forces without risking their aircraft.
US officials acknowledge that Russian tactics have improved. But those officials believe, based on intelligence reports from the battlefield, that the success at Bakhmut was due in large part to Wagner’s willingness to throw prisoners into the fight, no matter the cost in lives.
But the soldiers on the ground saw something else going on.
Soldiers fighting for Ukraine in Bakhmut described a fight that ended very differently from how it began. The prisoners were not so frequent. Instead, they said, Wagner’s professional fighters coordinated ground and artillery fire on the Ukrainian positions, then quickly outflanked them using small teams.
As Ukrainian territory was reduced to a final few blocks, for example, Russian forces saturated a Ukrainian-controlled building with artillery. Moments after they withdrew, Russian troops were inside.
“The Ukrainians just couldn’t keep up,” said a Foreign Legion soldier. To counter Russia’s strategy, Ukrainian forces wired buildings to explode, detonating them as they withdrew.
The March mission report shared with The Times alluded to this type of enemy: “Supposed to be the Wagner group,” the report said. “Evidence of being well trained.”
“He used effective fire and maneuver,” he continued, describing “the best equipped Russian soldiers.”
But prowess in an area or during a mission has yet to translate widely. And US officials say that while Russia has adapted her tactics, its troops are generally not getting more sophisticated.
The most experienced Russian soldiers died early in the war. Those fighting today, including recently mobilized and less-trained forces, fight to carry out offensive operations and coordinate the movements of large military units. And Russian tanks, which suffered significant losses throughout 2022, are now frequently withheld from the front line to be used as a kind of artillery.
“They don’t have enough tanks right now,” Graf said. “They don’t have enough artillery to create a barrage of fire.”
The change in Russian tactics can be seen from drone surveillance as well as from the depths of a Ukrainian trench.
Near the Russian-occupied eastern town of Svatove, Ruslan Zubariev, a Ukrainian soldier who calls himself the Predator, said the Russians used textbook tactics to try to breach his trench line in February.
“They have changed tactics in the last six months,” he said, describing an assault that relied on a degree of strategy over brute force.
For four days, Russian shelling destroyed the foliage overhead to reveal the Ukrainian positions. Then, he said, they advanced in an armored personnel carrier flanked by a dozen soldiers.
But in an indication of the limits of tactical improvements, Zubariev said, the Russians did not have sufficient intelligence on the location of the Ukrainian trenches. In the battle that followed, he captured on video, Zubariev, 21, managed to hold off the Russian assault almost single-handedly.
“They did everything perfectly,” he said. “But something didn’t work for them. Not enough information, as always.”
Around the eastern city of Kreminna, where Russian forces entrenched after being pushed northeast in September, both sides take turns launching small offensive operations in a sort of dance.
“Both sides are trying to show the enemy that we will now move forward,” Graf said. “And no one is sure who will do it or where it will be done.”
Around Bakhmut, Ukraine has gained territory in recent days to take key ground. Russian forces are hemorrhaging trying to defend the city which sits in a kind of bowl. Russian troops turned to former inmates, a tactic first used by Wagner, to dig trenches, according to a recently captured Russian soldier who was a former inmate.
Russian trenches have often proven to be better built than their Ukrainian counterparts, the Ukrainian soldiers said. The March mission report said the bunkers were similar to “Vietnam-style spider holes” and “so deep that drones cannot detect them.”
Such defensive positions will pose formidable challenges, a US official said, and it is too early to judge whether Ukraine can overcome them. Russia’s defenses are layered, and despite months of setbacks and casualties, they have shown their determination to keep fighting.
Russia’s air defenses continue to punish, as do its abilities to jam radios and shoot down drones. As the Ukrainian forces advance, the troops will be more exposed to Russian air support.
“What will happen next? Who the hell knows?” Zubariev said. “Pay with how many losses, they don’t care.”