Now, the Russian battle plan is for an extended conflict, while the Ukrainian armed forces are seeking ways to tip the balance, extract themselves from the trap of trench warfare and liberate territories as rapidly as possible.
This state of affairs and the situation on the front lines is dictating the sides’ next steps. The Russian army seeks full conquest of the Donetsk, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. Clearly, it is politics that takes first place here. Putin has declared these Ukrainian regions as his and annexed them in order to make it more difficult for Russia to give them up. Since the start of the invasion, the Kremlin has set its forces political, not military, goals; this has led to it making many errors that have cost it dearly.
The Ukrainian forces on the other hand have fought in a more rational manner and its goal has been more comprehensive: liberation of all occupied territories. This enables it to act in a way that is less linear and predictable. Now, breaking through the front from Zaporizhzhia southward through Tokmak and Melitopol to the Crimean border seems the most attractive option. The goal: to subvert in one blow half the Russian front and to create a threat both against the east and the defense of Crimea.
It is interesting to note how the war has changed following the evolution of the armies themselves. From a technological perspective, the Ukrainian military lagged behind Putin’s forces in several ways. But now, with HIMARS multiple rocket launcher systems, PZH 2000, and CAESAR self-propelled Howitzers. M777 artillery, AGM air-to-surface anti-radiation missiles, Javelin antitank missiles, and air-defense systems such as NASAMS and IRIS-T, the Ukrainian military has more advanced and sophisticated weaponry than the Russian army.
Putin’s forces have also lost many of its modern tanks such as the T-80 and T-90, as well as Su-30 and Su-35 jets, and Ka-52 attack helicopters. Russian industry is unable to rapidly replenish these losses and we are seeing antiquated T-62 tanks and Howitzer artillery pieces from the 1930s appear on the battlefield.
The only area where we are seeing Russian maintain up-to-date capabilities is UAVs. In addition to the suicide drones used by Iran, Russia manufactures large quantities of Lancet-3 loitering munitions and Orlan-10 reconnaissance drones; it also purchases civilian drones such as the DJI Mavic-3.
But here as well, the Ukrainians have a significant advantage. Alongside their Turkish Bayraktar drones, the Ukrainians have filled the skies with numerous UAVs from pocket-sized drones to gather intelligence to long-range bombers that can carry up to eight mortar bombs. Incidentally, it is the Ukraine military that came up with the idea of dropping grenade bombs from drones.
Tactics too have changed beyond recognition. This has had a significant impact on the Russian army, which no longer tries to imitate NATO tactics and has deteriorated to employing the tactics used by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and even World War II-style stormtroopers. We have seen a return to battle of battalions, brigades and divisions instead of universal battalion tactical units. They had no choice but to forget about attacks and breakthroughs and instead of tanks and armored vehicles, the heroes of the Russian campaign are the stormtroopers.
After losing hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers, the Russian army now prefers to slowly gnaw away at the enemy and launch frontal attacks instead of flanking maneuvers. In the summer, the Russians were still softening up their targets with artillery: Thousands of shells annihilated Ukrainian army positions and forced its soldiers to pull back from their defensive lines. But using their newly-acquired HIMARS systems, the Ukrainians destroyed dozens of Russian ammunition depots. The shortage of shells has canceled out the Russian advantage in artillery pieces.
When the Russians tried to change the situation and employed armored units to break through the front and stormed the town of Vulhedar in Donetsk it suffered a major defeat. Some 30 tanks and armored vehicles were in just one battle with the Russians failing to advance more than a mile. The reason: poor Russian intelligence and a strong Ukrainian defense based on minefields and precise fire from modern Howitzers.
The Ukrainian military is moving ever closer to being the “army of the future.” With each month that goes by it is using more sophisticated equipment and its tactics are being based on “the weaponry of the future” – UAVs and precise munitions. The Russian army is an “army of the past” stuck with tactical ideas from the Great Patriotic War (World War II), quite simply because it has no modern alternatives. Instead, it has, at least on paper, the doomsday weapon, which exists only in propaganda films.
But Putin and his generals believe in the success of a long war. They see Russia as the new Soviet Union with a massive defense industry and all the resources required for a huge army. At the same time, however, Russia is incapable of providing its new recruits – even though they are relatively few – with basics like shoes. The Kremlin plans to solve these problems within a few years and believes that Western support for Ukraine will end before Russia’s resources are depleted. The World War I tactics suit Putin’s generals. Their “plan” is for a years-long war; they are in no rush. Their goal is to hold on to occupied territories.
They do not understand that Ukraine has already won. The advantage afforded by the quality of Western weaponry has been doubled by the spirit of Ukraine’s soldiers who are fighting for their homeland. Putin’s soldiers on the other hand are typically mercenaries or people press-ganged into recruitment and thrown onto the front lines. There are ideological zealots, but they are few. Putin may try to recruit Russian industry into the war to build more tanks, artillery pieces, and protective vests, but this plan will fail because of the corruption inbuilt into a rotten system.
Meanwhile, the West is stepping up its 21st century Lend-Lease: as early as March, Kyiv will receive Leopard 2 tanks, Bradley APCs, and other heavy weapons. All of the above will help Ukraine materialize its plans to go on the offensive.
Without a doubt, the Russian military is still strong, first and foremost in the size of its army, and it will try to land a decisive blow. But it will be defeated just as Hitler’s forces were defeated in the Battle of Kursk in 1943 or at the Battle of the Ardennes. The true picture will emerge; Ukraine has already won, but many hard battles lie ahead