How Russian Forces in Ukraine Are Learning to Fight: U.S. Veteran Trainer

Limited battlefield successes show that Russia's beleaguered units fighting in Ukraine are learning the lessons of a year at war, according to an American special forces veteran now training Kyiv's troops, even if Moscow's learning process is proving more costly than many imagined.

Erik, who didn't wish to share his full name for security reasons, is a 26-year veteran of U.S. Army special forces who has been working in Ukraine for the past 12 months, helping Ukrainian troops sharpen their front-line combat skills. He previously worked for the Mozart Group, and is now coordinating about 20 volunteers through his new Ukraine Defense Support Group (UDSG).

Erik, like many members of the American special forces, spent much of his career training to fight Russian counterparts. Now, he and his multinational team are sharing their expertise with the Ukrainians who are going head-to-head with invading units along the eastern and southern fronts.

Few expected the Russian military to be so reckless with its resources, or to sustain casualties that Ukrainian and Western officials say now run into the hundreds of thousands.

Ukraine artillery firing in Kharkiv oblast
Ukrainian artillerymen of the 14th Separate Mechanized Brigade fire from their position along the front line in the Kharkiv region on March 9, 2023. Russia is having limited battlefield successes at a great cost. ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP via Getty Images

"The thing they say is that the Russians just keep coming in the face of fire, constant artillery fire and machine gun fire," Erik told Newsweek, relaying the experiences of the frontline Ukrainian fighters he has been working with.

"They weren't demoralized, they want to go back, and they want to win, but they were extremely frustrated with the continuous number of Russians that were being thrown at them."

"They're very motivated, but at the same time, it gets overwhelming when you're just constantly having these forces thrown at you."

Russia's year at war has been characterized by defeats, retreats and soaring casualties. Moscow has achieved few significant war goals, though it has managed to establish its land bridge to Crimea and occupy swathes of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts. Now, Russian troops are again grinding forwards in the east, with the current fighting focused on the devastated area around the city of Bakhmut.

Western and Ukrainian military reports, plus Western media coverage, have framed the Russian assaults as desperate human waves of ill-equipped and ill-trained men—and often former convicts recruited as Wagner Group mercenaries—thrown forwards against Ukrainian positions with little support and little thought.

But Erik said the Russian approach is more nuanced than it may at appear. "They'll probe lines to see where the weak points are over and over again," he said, both with troops and with ranged fires. "We call it recon by fire, with heavy artillery, and then seeing where the weak points are and then exploiting them," he explained.

Weeks of intensifying combat in the south and east, Erik added, might yet prove to be the opening reconnaissance stage of Russia's expected spring offensive.

"They probe, probe, probe with high loss of life, and then they'll pull back," Erik said of the Russian approach. "Then they'll probe again with high loss of life. But it's not like waves and waves."

"They're definitely using the forces that they brought forward with conscription as cannon fodder there," he added. "It's not like they're necessarily being smarter about their fighting, but they're being a little bit more deliberate in their actions."

"They're still using their people as if they don't care about loss of life, but they're being a little bit more deliberate in what they're doing rather than just throwing everybody at everything and seeing where it sticks."

The last major Russian retreat—from the city of Kherson in September, shortly before the arrival of Ukrainian troops—was an indication that Moscow is learning, Erik said. "That would have been unheard of at the beginning of the war, but they realized they needed to get into a more defensible position, so they gave ground."

'More Brutal'

On the tactical level too, the Russians are adapting, he said. "When it comes to urban warfare and fighting in the cities, if they are giving up ground in a building or something like that, instead of allowing the Ukrainians to come in and clear rooms and clear the building, they'll rubble the building with thermobaric weapons as soon as the Ukrainians enter."

"They're being a lot more brutal in some cases, but—I hate to use the word 'smarter'—but they have learned."

Ukraine faces its own challenges. Kyiv's troops are currently trying to weather the intensifying Russian offensive, hoping to minimize territorial losses and maximize Russian casualties. NATO armored vehicles—currently in transit to Ukraine—will steel Kyiv's own planned spring offensive, though when and where it will be launched remain to be seen.

Artillery craters in Donetsk Ukraine Russia offensive
This aerial photograph taken on March 10, 2023, shows craters in the ground following artillery strikes during the fighting in summer 2022, in the village of Dolyna, Donetsk region. Russia is having limited battlefield successes at a great cost. IHOR TKACHOV/AFP via Getty Images

Russia's organizational woes have been laid bare, but Ukraine still has its own work to do. Ukrainian troops have been working closely with NATO partners for years to modernize their doctrine and focus on what Erik described as "decentralized execution and giving your subordinates enough initiative latitude within their orders to be able to make decisions on their own and exploit success."

"The overall Ukrainian armed forces sometimes still have that old mentality," he said, referring to rigid Soviet-era hierarchies and centralized mission control. "We still run into, sometimes, the old mentality of needing written or legal orders before they can do something."

President Volodymyr Zelensky has touted 2023 as Ukraine's year of victory, with the leader and his top officials warning that a frozen conflict would sap Ukrainian strength, undermine Western resolve, and only benefit Moscow.

Kyiv has never wavered in its goal to liberate all Ukrainian territory per its 1991 borders. This likely means a long and bloody fight for Crimea and the occupied Donbas. Western officials have repeatedly raised doubts over the viability of plans to seize Crimea in particular, while NATO leaders have urged caution for fear of Russian nuclear escalation.

Even fortified by Western technology, the Ukrainians face daunting tactical challenges. "The Ukrainians still have to fight in the cities, and they're going to have to do some major river crossings," Erik said. "Both of those operations are extremely complex and come with high casualty rates. So those are two major things they haven't quite had to do yet."

"I wish I could say there's going to be some massive breakthrough, but it's going to be a tough slog ahead," Erik said. "What I envision is basically a continuation of the slog. I see this going on, unfortunately, for the rest of the year, if not multiple years."

"Long term, though I see some movement among the lines, I think we're going to see a lot of what we saw between 2014 and 2022: stabilization of the lines, some breakthroughs here and there."

"Unless there are some major changes within the armed forces and the Russian morale dips or their capacity significantly diminishes, I can see things staying the way they are with the lines stabilizing for the most part."

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Defense Ministry by email to request comment.

Ukraine soldier at Bakhmut front line ammunition
A soldier of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army prepares ammunition to fire at Russian front line positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on March 11, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Russia is having limited battlefield successes at a great cost. SERGEY SHESTAK/AFP via Getty Images