While it is folly to draw conclusions from a war before it’s over, there are lessons to be learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine so far. Even though reports of blunders and heroism, and loss of life and matériel, must be taken with a grain of salt, if not dismissed outright, Russia’s conduct of the war lays bare a number of inconvenient truths about the power and capabilities of its armed forces.
Some analysts are using the term “paper tiger” to describe the Russian forces. This is incorrect. Rather, they are like a blunt instrument that was inadvisably tasked with making a deft, surgical strike into Ukraine to replace its government in Kyiv with one friendly to Moscow. No amount of propaganda can conceal that Russian President Vladimir Putin failed in this project and is now left with bludgeoning Ukraine and grinding relentlessly forward, producing great losses on both sides. The Russians are quite capable at this form of warfare. The only question is: Can the Ukrainians hold out longer than the Russian economy or Putin’s political fortunes?
Oddly, Putin seems to have believed his own bluster about how modern and effective Russia’s forces have become since the post-Soviet nadir in the 1990s. He has committed roughly 75% of his available ground troops (around 190,000 out of 270,000 total land forces) to the invasion. Certainly, there was reason to believe that their weapons were leaner and more agile and, indeed, constitute a threat to Western Europe. But the weapons are not the problem. The real problems are leadership, logistics and training.
Reportedly, Russia had initially planned a much less ambitious operation aimed at establishing a land corridor between Crimea in the south, which it annexed in 2014, and the Donbas separatist region in the east, with an additional attack against the northeastern city of Kharkiv. The attacks were to be launched from Crimea toward the northeast and from Donbas toward the southwest. The additional attack on Kharkiv was aimed at dispersing the Ukrainian defense and capturing this important industrial center near Russia’s border.
The attacks in the south have been the most successful, with significant gains of territory. The southern cities of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk are reportedly now in Russian hands. This was clearly the most well-planned part of the invasion.
On the other hand, the offensive against Kyiv appears to have been added at the last moment. The two-pronged thrust from Belarus down the west bank of the Dnieper River and from Russia down the east bank shows every sign of being improvised. Two early air assaults failed to capture the city and ended in disaster when Ukrainian air defenses shot down two large Il-76 transport planes laden with Russian paratroopers. Fierce resistance and a shortage of supplies are stalling the ground effort, illustrating a lack of logistics preparation.
Despite 10 days of military operations and the advantage that the Russian air force enjoys—it boasts two to three times more combat planes and helicopters than Ukraine—it still has not achieved full air superiority. The losses of Russian aircraft are mounting, with scores reported downed.
Poor Air Support
Poor reconnaissance failed to notice that Ukraine had redeployed its fighter forces and air defense systems and so the initial Russian air strikes did not destroy Ukrainian air power and air defenses. Of course, Ukraine’s air force has also suffered heavy losses but it continues to fight. As a result, Russia has cut back its air campaign to avoid more heavy losses, leaving its troops to fight with inadequate air support and reconnaissance.
For Ukraine, TB2 Bayraktar unmanned combat aerial vehicles from Turkey have emerged as a standout weapon in its arsenal. Similar to a scaled-down Predator, the Bayakrar, which has seen service in the Libyan conflict and elsewhere, has enabled operators to launch missile attacks on armored vehicles, fuel tankers, command vehicles and even air-defense vehicles. Turkey is reportedly shipping more of these drone systems to Ukraine.
The inadequate prewar planning, logistical preparation and air campaign have exposed Russian ground forces as poorly coordinated and unable to make dramatic progress on their own. Russian columns advance in disorder, with no scouts deployed to the front to check the roads and to their flanks to detect ambushes. The armored and soft-skin vehicles are mixed together, probably to keep the most needed supplies with the combat units.
Russian units become lost every now and then because of poor navigation, and the mixed outfits mixing with one another add confusion. No real combined arms tactics have been observed, with tanks moving without supporting infantry, and artillery, when firing, causing more in collateral damage and less in providing support for its own side.
Civilians Under Fire
The artillery fire is ineffective militarily and is not directed by unmanned aerial vehicles, which are rarely used. Often, artillery fire, especially from multiple-rocket launchers, ends up striking civilian targets with no military value. Our sources suggest that artillery and air strikes are often deliberately directed at residential areas by frustrated and furious Russian commanders.
At the same time, the situation in Kharkiv demonstrates that the Russians are quite prepared to hold back from a city and pound it with artillery fire. The idea is to induce it to surrender without requiring bloody street battles. This avoids sending inadequately trained and motivated attackers into stiff urban defenses, but the cost is increased civilian casualties.
Logistics was never a trademark of the Soviet or Russian armed forces and planning for the Kyiv push was especially sketchy. The logistics convoys carrying fuel and ammunition are often stuck in traffic jams, unable to find their designated units to resupply in combat because those units are not in their expected places. Some of the Russian troops were issued rations with use-by dates of 2015! Then there’s the 40-mile-long armored column north of Kyiv that has been idling all week. While frontline troops are engaged in a deadly fight on Kyiv’s outskirts, the column is paralyzed in the rear. It looks like it’s blocked by other Russian vehicles on the only available road.
The lack of planning is also responsible for the many Russian vehicles abandoned when they ran out of fuel or broke down. This has served to dampen Russian morale, which reportedly was not high to begin with.
Three Important Lessons
Putin has made a hash out of his bloody Ukraine adventure. However, it’s likely that Russian forces will prevail. They will do so by resorting to the time-honored technique used by industrialized armies since the dawn of the 20th century: Pound the enemy with artillery and then advance into the rubble. Despite calls for NATO to intervene in the conflict, in which case Ukraine’s misery would become the world’s, nobody is coming to the rescue.
What may be learned at this point?
- You cannot launch a war without meticulous planning and stockpiling of war matériel of every kind. Improvisation on the battlefield may be the key to winning battles, but at headquarters it is an invitation to stalemate or worse in the war.
- Modern weapons are extremely destructive and can be expected to inflict heavy casualties on each side. Militaries run through their expensive aircraft, helicopters and tanks very quickly on the modern battlefield, along with stocks of advanced missiles and munitions. Defense industries cannot be counted on to provide rapid replacements.
- You cannot take a well-defended city by storm. The best way to capture a city is by seizing it quickly before defenders dig in or by maneuvering them out and leaving it to you. Otherwise, you must strangle it and pound it with artillery. There is every prospect that the Ukrainian cities holding out will end up like Grozny in the Chechen wars, which the U.N. in 2003 called the most destroyed city on Earth.
Meanwhile, China is surely observing the progress of Putin’s war with great interest. If he is smart, President Xi Jinping will learn the critical lesson that invading Taiwan will be the most difficult military operation his nation has ever attempted. An attack on Taiwan will carry all the costs of the land war in Ukraine but after a 100-mile amphibious assault against a storm of missiles.