Ukraine has proven that it can counter Russian military tactics and strategy. To continue to do so, the country will need greater support from the West.
By Denys Davydenko, Margaryta Khvostova and Olga Lymar*
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has been going on for almost six months. Enough time has passed that policymakers in the United States and the European Union are now able to pinpoint the weaknesses of the Russian military. And they will have to if they want to determine the best way to help the Ukrainian armed forces. The recent explosions at Saki air base in Crimea – a facility 225 km from the front line, in an area the Russians have said is protected by their air defense system – show that Ukraine has found new means of exploiting the flaws of the Russian army. machine. So what should the West have learned about Russia’s motives, tactics and strategy?
President Vladimir Putin’s use of inaccurate data often undermines his decisions. Putin’s wishful thinking about the might of the Russian military is reflected in his apparent expectation that it could conquer Ukraine with just 150,000 troops. This is significantly less than the 250,000 soldiers of the Ukrainian armed forces and far from the ratio of offensive forces to defensive forces traditionally necessary for a successful campaign – 3:1. Putin seems to have decided to launch the invasion thinking that Ukrainian citizens would surrender without a fight and their political leaders would flee. Clearly, the data he relied on was deeply flawed. Several publicly available studies conducted shortly before the full-scale invasion showed that Ukrainians would resolutely take up arms in defense of their homeland. But the Kremlin – like many Western experts – had to simply ignore them.
Therefore, in supporting Ukraine, the West will have to take into account Putin’s biases and the imperfect data at his disposal. Repeated threats of military aggression by Russian politicians against NATO countries – especially the Baltic states – could turn out to be more than just propaganda. However, since such aggression would be suicidal for Russia, Ukraine can use these threats against it.
Russian army relies on massive artillery strikes. At the start of the full-scale invasion, the Russian army entered Ukraine in marching columns rather than in battle formations. The Russians’ assumption that they would not face resistance caused them to suffer huge losses in the early days of the war, forcing them to withdraw from the Kyiv, Chernihiv and Sumy regions. The inadequate training and incompetence of Russian military personnel – combined with the strict hierarchies within which they operated, which left officers unable to act on their own initiative – meant that they were unable to quickly coordinate deep advances in enemy territory.
The Russian army responded to these setbacks by reverting to barrage-based tactics: it launched massive artillery strikes on Ukrainian positions that lasted several hours, paving the way for offensives involving infantry and armored vehicles. The Russians mainly used this tactic – which resulted in more territorial gains than any other approach – in eastern Ukraine, where they concentrated more than half their forces.
But the situation changed after the United States supplied Ukraine with the M142 HIMARS – mobile multiple rocket launchers that the Ukrainian armed forces used to destroy more than 50 Russian ammunition magazines in just a few weeks. This severely inhibited the delivery of ammunition to Russian artillery units, thereby reducing the intensity of shelling in several areas and slowing the Russian advance into eastern Ukraine. However, the missiles Ukraine has received from Western states only have a range of between 15 km and 92 km, which means they cannot reach many key Russian munitions depots and other infrastructure. .
Logistics is a weak link in the Russian army. All military campaigns rely on logistics. A tank without fuel is of little use – as the Russians showed at the start of their full-scale invasion, when they abandoned many vehicles and other equipment due to lack of supplies. The episode revealed that Russian army logistics were so poorly organized that many units simply couldn’t reach their destinations. The causes of such disorganization are multiple: the operations of Ukrainian forces to disrupt Russian logistics, the corruption and negligence of the Russian army, the indolence of Russian generals, etc. But the fact remains that this is a flagrant weakness of the Russian campaign.
The concentration of Russian army forces in eastern Ukraine reduced the length of the front it was fighting on while shortening its supply lines to Russia and occupying Luhansk and Donetsk. But, as we have seen, Ukraine’s subsequent use of HIMARS and other systems again disrupted Russian logistics.
The Kremlin will allow the Russian army to suffer huge losses. The Pentagon estimates that up to 80,000 Russian soldiers have already been killed or injured during the war. That’s more than the Soviets lost in ten years of fighting in Afghanistan. Russia also sacrificed a colossal amount of equipment, including more than 1,700 tanks (equivalent to 65% of its pre-war inventory); 4,000 armored vehicles; and 200 aircraft. For example, in a single battle at Bilohorivka in May, Russia lost nearly 1,000 troops and nearly 100 pieces of equipment while attempting to cross the Siverskyi Donets River.
One of the main reasons why Russian forces have suffered huge losses is that the Kremlin prioritizes political goals over military ones – as seen in Izium and Severodonetsk. The capture of Severodonetsk became a political objective simply because it was the last city with a large population in the Luhansk region. The Kremlin wanted to take over the city as proof that they controlled the whole region. However, the operation had limited strategic value and forced the Russians to weaken their positions on other fronts. The Ukrainian army evacuated civilians from Severodonetsk before using the city’s political importance to attract large numbers of Russian soldiers, who were forced to fight in an area where they could not use all their artillery forces.
Unless Russia announces a general mobilization (which would be politically costly for Putin), these personnel losses will erode his combat capabilities. Nevertheless, Russia has already begun to draw on its large reserves of Soviet systems such as Grad multiple rocket launchers, T-62 tanks, MT-LB armored personnel carriers and 2S7 Pion self-propelled guns. Although this equipment is far from new, it poses a tangible threat in large quantities.
Terrorism against civilians is part of the Kremlin’s strategy. Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Russian shelling has killed more than 5,000 civilians and injured at least 7,000 others. Russia has deliberately targeted civilians to intimidate them, using cluster munitions and multiple rocket launchers, air strikes and missiles (including with S-300 anti-aircraft systems), torture and rape.
The Kremlin employed a similar strategy in the wars in Chechnya and Syria. As with the Russian military’s massive and indiscriminate bombing campaign in Aleppo in 2016, these attacks on civilians are also designed to provoke a migration crisis in the EU and thus force the Union to negotiate with Moscow as soon as possible, under unfavorable conditions for Kyiv. So far, however, the strategy has only made it less likely that Western states will try to force Kyiv into concessions. Moreover, the brutality of these attacks on civilians provides justification for toughening sanctions on Russia and declaring it a state sponsor of terrorism (a step some countries have already taken and others, including the United States, are considering). ).
How the West should support Ukraine
The West can help Ukraine counter Russian military tactics and strategy in all of these areas. It should do it like this:
- Increase the supply of counter-battery radars with self-propelled guns, notably the American M109A6 and M109A7 Paladin (Ukraine currently has the less advanced M109), the German PzH 2000 and the French Caesar. Together, these systems would bolster a Ukrainian counter-battery capability that has already proven its worth in combat.
- Continue to supply Ukraine with HIMARS and M270 multiple launch rocket systems, as well as additional ammunition for them, in particular ATACMS, which have a range of 300 km. This would allow Ukraine to further disrupt Russian logistics by destroying ammunition depots hundreds of kilometers from the front line.
- Continue to improve Ukraine’s missile defense capability by equipping it with NASAMS anti-aircraft systems capable of intercepting cruise missiles. These authors estimate that Ukraine will need at least ten NASAMS batteries to effectively protect Ukraine’s largest cities and the civilians living there from terrorist bombing by Russia. Another option would be to supply Ukraine with MiG-29 fighter jets from Slovakia (a topic under discussion for several months). Ukrainian pilots have repeatedly proven that they can shoot down incoming missiles if they have the aircraft to do so.
- Strengthen Western sanctions against Russia, which reduce its ability to carry out offensive operations. Western countries’ designation of Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism would be a crucial step in this process, as it would sever all official ties between Moscow and Western capitals – thus making it even more difficult for the Kremlin to secure economic support. or other from elsewhere in the world.
- Increase deliveries of armored vehicles to Ukraine. As the Ukrainian army is still under intense barrage of Russian artillery fire, it will only be able to reinforce vulnerable parts of the front line and react to Russian breakthroughs if it has the armored vehicles and tanks it needs. , including infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers and main battle tanks (systems that allow it to transport infantry and destroy targets on the battlefield).
- Finally, Western states should not be intimidated by Russian escalation threats if they supply Ukraine with more advanced technology, such as ATACMS. Given the Russian command’s tendency to rely on inaccurate data, indulge in wishful thinking and pursue political goals at all costs, its attempts at escalation risk backfiring.
Western support remains a decisive factor in Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian aggression. And Ukraine has demonstrated its ability both to resist the Russian army and to use Western weapons effectively. Ukrainian forces will need such support if they are to continue protecting Europe by crushing the Russian military machine.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take a collective position. ECFR publications represent the views of their individual authors only.
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Source: This article was published by the ECFR