Russia’s resort to artillery and missile fire is unsurprising. Indirect fire—hitting a target which is not in your line of sight—has been an integral part of warfare for centuries. But in the 1990s and 2000s, many Western armies began substituting precision-guided munitions for traditional artillery. Russia hung on to its guns. “Artillery has long held pride of place in the Tsarist and Soviet ground forces and [that continues] today,” wrote Lester Grau and Charles Bartles, experts on Russian military power, in a paper in 2018. Russia has almost 5,000 artillery weapons, ranging from field artillery that needs to be towed, self-propelled howitzers like the Msta, multiple-launch rocket systems (mlrs) like the Grad, Uragan and Smerch, and longer-range missiles like the Iskander, which can travel up to 500km.
More importantly, the ratio of artillery to other units in its combat formations is unusually high. An American brigade combat team, of around 4,000 soldiers, would have one battalion of artillery. An equivalent Russian brigade would have two battalions of self-propelled artillery, one of rocket artillery and one of anti-tank artillery (missiles are controlled by higher formations). The idea, as one us Army study of Russian forces puts it, is to produce “mass fires”—a term of art that refers, essentially, to bombardment—“to destroy hectares of enemy-occupied territory”, with the aim of stunning and softening up defenders.
Destroying hectares of open territory—“deleting” a grid square, as the morbid military slang goes—can be useful if the territory in question is a field full of enemy troops and not much else. Wiping out hectares of a city is another matter. Russia’s first assault on Grozny destroyed much of the city and killed 20,000 civilians. Its second attempt, launched by Vladimir Putin in 1999, caused fewer casualties—Russia had told civilians to leave–but the aftermath was described by un monitors as “a devastated…wasteland”. As one young Russian officer told a reporter at the time: “What rules? What Geneva Conventions?…I didn’t sign them, none of my friends signed them.”
With war at its doors, Europe discovers a capacity for action (Charlemagne, March 5, 2022)