There is an old joke about someone unfamiliar with Test Match Cricket asking about who is winning the game. This is of course a question almost impossible to answer, particularly in the early parts of a match. Determining which side is currently winning the war in Ukraine presents a similar challenge. On social media platforms, the amount of footage showing the death and destruction of Russian forces is almost overwhelming; however, despite these losses, the areas occupied by Russian forces continue to expand. This all happening as the value of the Ruble plummets under the pressure of international sanctions against Russia.
While the war in Ukraine is an unmitigated human tragedy, it is currently providing an example of how the different levels of war interact with each other and it is indeed possible to be winning and losing at the same time. Currently, the Ukrainians appear to be winning tactically while Russia is having success at the operational level, and finally at the strategic level it is a finely balanced situation.
The first weeks: the tactical success of the Ukrainians
A scene that has been captured many times on social media is a destroyed Russian column on a narrow Ukrainian road. Many vehicles are burning, other vehicles are abandoned, and dead Russian soldiers are scattered in between. Wheeled vehicles have had their tyres shot out, while tanks have their turrets blown off. This being a tell-tale sign that the improvised armour retrofitted by the Russians has done little to prevent the top-down attack mode of the Javelin missile, igniting the ammunition supplies within.
The fact that all of this is captured in high definition and rapidly shared around the world, is a sign that Ukraine is succeeding both in tactical engagements as well as within the information domain. From the first day of the war, the Ukrainians have demonstrated a strong will to fight and have been able to exploit poor Russian tactics, the geography of the country and advanced anti-armour systems to have a number of successful engagements. The Russian military on the other hand has had a difficult start to their campaign.
While much has been made of the logistic issues plaguing the Russian forces at the tactical level, some poor initial assumptions and the lack of synchronisation between forces is as much to blame for their tactical ineffectiveness so far. The Russians appear to have counted on achieving a swift victory, choosing to deploy light Airborne forces, the Vozdushno-desantyne voyska (VDV), to rapidly advance under an umbrella of air power and precision strikes. It was assumed that Ukrainian resistance would collapse and Ukrainians of Russian heritage would greet the invaders as liberators. The failure to properly synchronise these effects and correctly assess the Ukrainian resistance has prevented a key victory for the Russians.
From the north towards to Kyiv, from the east towards Kharkiv, and the south out of Crimea towards Kherson, all forces appear to have VDV integrated with armoured columns. While the idea of mixing highly trained forces with regular units in order to provide an overall uplift of morale and competency has some merit, the light armour that the VDV is equipped with seems to be a key weakness in their approach. Ukraine is a country of limited highways between main cities. It has been relatively easy for the defenders to anticipate the approach of these vehicles and set anti-armour ambushes. With little protection, images of BMD armoured personnel carriers or Tigr armoured cars either in flames or abandoned have appeared on many occasions online.
The success against the VDV also has had a significant impact in the information domain, destroying some of the mythology around Russia’s ‘elite’ forces. If the Russians had been welcomed as liberators, these forces would have been well suited to a swift encirclement of cities and seizure of key infrastructure; however, these assumptions have cost the VDV dearly.
The initial attempt of the VDV to seize Hostomel Airport, north-west of Kyiv, is another example where poor planning assumptions and a lack of synchronisation led to a defeat. With echoes of Operation MARKET GARDEN of World War II, it appears the Russians sought to use airborne forces to secure a distant objective and then rapidly advance armoured elements on a narrow frontage, link up and have a firm base for subsequent operations to encircle Kyiv. While the element of surprise allowed the VDV to initially seize Hostomel, a failure to provide meaningful air support nor achieve air superiority to allow reinforcement via air landing, led to a defeat.
A rapid Ukrainian counter-attack was able to rout the light airborne forces, well before the arrival of any Russian armoured columns. As we have seen play out in recent days with reports of ’40 mile’ Russian convoys in traffic jams, even small logistical issues or fleeting attacks by the defenders can significantly delay the advance. Unfortunately, Hostomel was subsequently lost and remains in the hands of Russian forces.
The failures of the Russian forces is only one factor that has contributed to the early tactical success of the Ukrainian defenders. While the will of the Ukrainians to defend their homeland cannot be understated, the employment of advanced anti-armour weapons has been significant. The UK supplied Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapon (NLAW) and US-supplied Javelin have been responsible for the destruction of many Russian armoured vehicles.
Man portable anti-air systems also have been crucial in preventing Russia gaining dominance in the air. While the tallies published by the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence or those recorded by observers on social media cannot be completely verified, the losses appear to be in the hundreds as a minimum. Alongside those completed destroyed vehicles, there are many instances of seemingly untouched vehicles abandoned alongside them. While reliability issues may have caused their abandonment, the pure psychological impact of seeing a lead vehicle be eviscerated cannot be discounted as a cause for Russian crews to flee. There is potential of course that legacy, Soviet designed RPGs have also contributed to these Russian losses; however, they haven’t captured the imagination of Ukraine’s defenders, with many odes to ‘St Javelin-Defender of the Ukraine’ appearing online.
The initial engagements have taken place in both the open, relatively flat terrain of the Ukrainian countryside and the lighter urban terrain. As the war enters the more heavily urbanised cities, it remains to be seen how this impacts the effectiveness of these weapons. This will be particularly evident in Kyiv, where there are narrow streets and many buildings above three stories high. The defenders will need to carefully employ obstacles and develop engagement areas to ensure these weapons can be used with good standoff in the urban battle.
There is a risk that Russia chooses to rely more heavily on offensive support as the battle moves to the cities and there are unfortunately many signs that this is already the case. Prioritising the targeting of Multi Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) and artillery (or their logistic chains) by Ukrainian Special Forces may need to be required to preserve Ukraine’s tactical advantage.
Despite the success the Ukrainian forces have had delaying and degrading the Russian forces, we must take a step back and consider the progress the war at the operational level. Tactical success does not guarantee that Ukraine will be able to prevent the Russians from achieving their objectives.
Operational success: within reach for the Russians
While we don’t know for sure the operational objectives of the Russian forces, we can make a confident assessment based on their actions so far and the statements of the Russian President. It seems that the two main objectives of the Russian invasion is to seize Kyiv in order to replace the Ukrainian Government with a puppet regime and seize eastern Ukraine in order to destroy the majority of Ukraine’s military. Unfortunately, despite the tremendous tactical success Ukraine has enjoyed so far, Russia is well on its way to achieving these two operational objectives.
Although Russia made numerous missteps and poor assumptions in the first week of the invasion, the encirclement of Kyiv appears almost inevitable. From the north west, after many delays, Hostomel is now secure, and it is likely this Russian grouping will seek to cut off Kyiv from the west. From the directions of the encircled cities of Chernihiv, Konotop, and Sumy, Russian columns are approaching on the eastern part of the capital. While some commentators have predicted the Russian forces will commit themselves to urban conflict within Kyiv, there is a distinct possibility that the Russian forces will not commit and seek to achieve their aim through encirclement. Once effectively in defensive positions around the city, the Russian forces can slowly apply pressure to those remaining within. Despite the delays and tactical failures, Kyiv will be isolated and Russia will have regained the initiative.
Although the encirclement of Kyiv is likely the primary objective of the Russians, their advances in the south and east of Ukraine threaten the destruction of much of the Ukrainian Army. Since 2014, a great deal of the Ukrainian Army has been forced to be deployed to the southeast of the country around the disputed Donbas region. In a ‘Catch 22’ situation, any withdrawal of Ukrainians forces from the ‘Line of Control’ to a more defendable position prior to the invasion would have provided an opportunity for the rebel forces in the Donbas to advance and seize territory.
These forces are now at risk of being encircled and cut off. While Kharkiv, Kherson and Mariupol have proven difficult battlegrounds for Russian forces, Russian success in the South of Ukraine has opened up an opportunity to advance north, on the eastern side of the Dnieper River towards Dnipro. If Russian forces elect to bypass Kharkiv, effectively any Ukrainian military forces in the east of the country will be cut off and unable to be re-supplied. Although the West will no doubt continue to push forward military materiel, it will be of little comfort to those Ukrainian forces east of the Dnieper River.
While not an immediate objective of the Russian military, an amphibious attack against Odessa cannot be discounted from occurring in coming days, given the largely uncommitted Russian amphibious forces operating in the Black Sea. Capturing Odessa would not only have a symbolic effect, as it is one of Ukraine’s largest cities, it would enable these forces to link up with the Russian Garrison in the disputed area of Transnistria in the neighbouring country of Moldova. Expanding the conflict into Moldova may be a bold move by the Russians; however, it would provide an opportunity to commence advances into the west of Ukraine, threatening vital resupply lines. It remains to be seen how effective the Ukrainians can be tactically if their stocks of advanced anti-armour and anti-aircraft weapons are cut off.
It is of course important to consider what the Ukrainian operational objectives may be. Quite simply it must be to avoid the encirclement and capture of Kyiv. Retaining the freedom of the capital and the presence of the President, along with the Government, provides many intangible benefits both domestically and internationally. Currently the Ukrainians are fighting the Russians everywhere; however, hard choices may have to be made to both avoid the destruction of their forces in the east of the country and reinforce the defence of the capital. While there is a risk of a perception of ‘abandonment’ of areas of the country, retaining the capital and supply lines to the west must take the priority. Preservation of forces will also allow opportunities to counterattack once Russian supply lines become even more stretched.
With Russian achievement of operational objectives a distinct possibility, it is critical these early Ukrainian tactical successes aren’t squandered and are translated into operational and ultimately strategic success.
The strategic picture: how does this end?
It is difficult to clearly understand President Putin’s strategic objectives for this conflict. If he was seeking to weaken NATO, this war has had the opposite effect, with NATO arguably more united than ever and more countries considering membership. If not a focus on NATO, the other consideration is the establishment of a ‘buffer’ state in Ukraine, aligned to Russia much like Belarus currently is. As a minimum, the recognition of Crimea as a part of Russia and a land bridge from the Donbas are potentially strategic outcomes that Russia is aiming for.
For Ukraine, it is a much simpler equation, they are in a war of national survival and must seek to minimise the damage on the country and its people. To achieve this, Ukraine has generated tremendous support from the international community, with President Zelenksy leading a clear and consistent strategic narrative. Millions of dollars in aid have flowed to Ukraine; however, no country is prepared to commit its own forces due to fears of escalating the conflict. Ukraine is supported but still militarily alone in its defence against the Russian invasion. The other form of support that Ukraine has enjoyed of course is the tremendous international sanctions that have been placed on Russia’s economy. The best hope for Ukraine is to delay Russia achieving its operational objectives until a point is reached that Russia cannot continue its war of aggression due to the cost of the sanctions. This being supported by continuing Russian battlefield losses and efforts within the information domain.
You only need to look at the value of the Russian Ruble to see the effect that economic sanctions are having on the Russian economy. With ejection from the SWIFT banking system and many companies ceasing their operations, Russia is indeed facing unprecedented sanctions. It must be noted though that many of these measures were threatened prior to the conflict and Russia still chose to invade. Whether Russia underestimated the impact of these sanctions or felt prepared to weather the storm is unclear. Regardless, at this stage, economic sanctions have not appeared to have shifted the Russian position. While it is hard to get an understanding of the sentiment of the Russian people, albeit some anti-war protests appear to have occurred, as we’ve seen with countries like Iran, sanctions can have the unintended consequences of uniting people against a common foreign ‘enemy’.
Effectively, there is almost a race playing out between the ability of Russia to achieve its operational objectives versus their ability to continue to wage war under the pressure of sanctions and battlefield losses. If Russia is able to achieve its operational objectives, it may be able to go on the defensive and achieve concessions in order to end the war. Regardless of the costs of sanctions, Russia may present this as a strategic success.
To prevent this strategic defeat, Ukraine must find a way to raise the cost for the Russian invasion and translate tactical success into operational and ultimately strategic outcomes. The international community needs to continue to increase sanctions and go beyond those that were threatened and ignored by the Russians when deciding to invade. Preventing Russia achieving its operational objectives is only the first step, Ukrainian forces must be preserved to be able to conduct counterattacks. While battlefield losses will have an accumulative effect, significant counter offensives will prevent Russia attempting to negotiate from a position of power and ending the war on their terms.
While some have advocated for the Ukrainians to focus on preparing to fight a long running resistance as a strategy, the Ukrainian military has shown it has the capability to match the Russian forces at the tactical level. Moving to a resistance approach would mean larger portions of the country would be occupied, leading to an even greater cost on the Ukrainian people. In order for Ukraine to continue to match Russia at the tactical level, an uninterrupted flow of advanced anti-armour and anti-air weapons to the Ukrainian forces from the international community will need to continue.
While the lack of conflict in western Ukraine has allowed this to precede relatively unhindered, there is a risk that this begins to be targeted by the Russians. Methods to import these weapons into Ukraine need to be developed from multiple countries, as do more discreet methods to ensure the continuity of supply. These systems need to be developed now to ensure resilience over the coming weeks and months.
After less than two weeks of war in Ukraine, it is a conflict that is finely balanced. Ukraine has achieved great tactical success but appears to be unable to prevent Russia achieving its operational objectives. Rather than trying to fight the invader everywhere, tough choices must be made to conserve forces and put pressure on Russia’s will to fight.
As members of the ADF, we must learn from the tactical success that Ukraine is having against the Russians; however, we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture. As military professionals we instinctively know that the operational and strategic levels matter far more than the tactical level. The war in Ukraine provides an excellent example of how a country can be winning and losing at the same time. If Ukraine is to weather this storm, it is critical they do not squander their initial successes and ensure Russia does not achieve their operational objectives. The longer it can do that, the more chance it will have of ultimate strategic success.
1. It is not evident that the Ukrainian manoeuvre forces are fighting everywhere, as opposed to the territorial defence forces who by definition should be. Only the Ukrainians know where their operational-level priorities are.
2. One invalid premise at the operational level. The argument assumes the Russians are capable of successful long-distance manoeuvre, which clearly they are not. This means the Ukrainians are not (currently) at risk of losing at the operational and strategic levels.