Russia’s army uses convicts, marines, and special-ops troops to strengthen its frontline defenses in Ukraine.

Russia's army uses convicts, marines, and special-ops troops to strengthen its frontline defenses in Ukraine.

Russia’s “Disposable Infantry” Strategy: A Cynical yet Effective Approach to Warfare

Russian Marines

The Russian Army has long been criticized for its disregard for the lives of its soldiers in Ukraine. However, it is now implementing a strategy that combines its “disposable infantry” with elite troops, in a cynical but effective effort to hold the line against Ukraine’s ongoing counteroffensive.

In recent months, the Russian military has been fortifying its positions in eastern and southern Ukraine, while also integrating convicts, conscripts, regular troops, and special operators to counter Ukrainian attacks before they gain a breakthrough. This strategy is a response to Russia’s unexpected losses in late 2022, as explained by Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

“Russia has a kind of varied force quality,” Lee said on a July 20 episode of the War on the Rocks podcast. “And we’re seeing in the south, they’ve developed ways of dealing [with] and mitigating some of those kinds of weaknesses.”

To implement this strategy, less crucial sectors are defended by newly conscripted troops with limited training and equipment, as well as by Storm Z units consisting of convicts who have agreed to fight in exchange for their release from prison. This frees up higher-quality troops, including regular motorized rifle units and special forces.

Regarding the deployment of elite units, Lee explained, “Naval infantry, the more elite units, are being used either to counterattack or they’re being used at strong points, the most important parts of the frontline.”

Initially, Russia misused its Spetsnaz commandos as assault infantry. However, these units armed with anti-tank missiles are now being reserved for leading counterattacks. By doing so, Russia can reinforce its weaker units when Ukraine commits to an advance in a specific direction. This strategically ensures that the less capable units are more likely to engage in combat, as psychological factors come into play.

The Russian Army has thus far followed its doctrine for defense, placing heavily entrenched disposable troops on the front line, supported by dense minefields and abundant artillery. However, the availability of Russian artillery ammunition has become an increasing concern. On the other hand, elite troops are held in reserve for counterattacks, aiming to dislodge Ukrainian assault units before they can consolidate their gains.

“In many cases when they counterattack, this is fundamentally a battle of tree lines,” described Lee, referring to Ukraine’s advance. The Russian soldiers engage the entire tree line at a range of a couple of kilometers. Unless Ukrainian forces have effective anti-tank guided missiles, they face challenges in resupplying and bringing in additional capabilities due to possible minefields on the field behind them.

Contrary to the perception of the Russian military as rigid and slow-moving, it has demonstrated its adaptability following significant setbacks, such as the loss of Kharkiv during a Ukrainian counterattack in the autumn of 2022.

“Russia underestimated Ukraine’s ability to counterattack,” Lee explained. “They did not entrench. They did not use mines. They did not have multiple [fortified] lines. Their coordination was terrible. And I think it was a broader breakdown of Russian command-and-control. They simply did not expect this was going to happen.”

The defensive buildup in Russia since late last year reflects a response to these failures around Kharkiv, with Putin and senior commanders determined to avoid similar embarrassment. “Ultimately, they’ve learned lessons, and they’re fighting in a competent way,” commented Lee, acknowledging the Russian leadership’s improved tactics.

This competent defense strategy, coupled with the soldiers’ increased willingness to fight, presents a daunting challenge for the Ukrainian army, which is already outnumbered and outgunned. Russian units are actively involved in combat rather than surrendering en masse or fleeing, as some had hoped.

The implementation of the “disposable infantry” strategy showcases the Russian Army’s ability to adapt and exploit various force qualities. While criticized for its disregard for human life, this approach, infused with cynicism, has proven effective in holding the line against Ukraine’s counteroffensive.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.