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How Ukraine Can Win a Long War

The war in Ukraine has just passed the 18-month mark. The country’s people, having fought and won three major offensive campaigns in 2022, are now using a mix of old Soviet and new Western equipment to fight a campaign in the south.

Although severing the land link between Russia is an important aim, so is liberating the large swaths of land containing agricultural and mineral wealth that provide significant revenue for the Ukrainian government.

The offensive has been, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described it, a slow affair. The sluggish pace should not surprise people who have studied military conflicts and the challenges of offensive operations.

But to many observers, ones used to instant gratification (or who want a major resolution before the 2024 U.S. election), the deliberate, steady pace of the Ukrainians can be difficult to appreciate. Some U.S. security officials and policymakers have even suggested that the lack of rapid progress means the counteroffensive will not succeed.

It is, however, much too soon to say which way the conflict will go.By way of comparison, 18 months into World War I, the allies had lost the campaign for Turkey’s eastern peninsula and the Battle of Verdun was still underway.

And after the first 18 months of World War II, most of Europe was occupied by the Nazis, Singapore had fallen to Japan, and the United States was fighting on the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines.

Comparatively, there is much to be optimistic about in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. But as the grinding attrition on Ukraine’s southern front demonstrates, Kyiv faces many challenges before the entire country can be liberated.

Perhaps the greatest one is that the West, although it has provided substantial support, lacks a coherent Ukraine strategy. Given that this war will likely continue into 2024, and potentially even longer, the United States and Europe need to come up with one.

They need to figure out how to better harness their physical and intellectual resources to support Ukraine now, over the coming winter, and in the coming years so that Kyiv can achieve a just and durable victory.

To that end, the United States and NATO need to make clear that their explicit goal is for Ukraine to defeat Russia’s forces in Ukraine—and to silence Russia’s global narrative. They then need to provide Ukraine with standardized equipment and enhanced individual and collective training.

They need to give Kyiv more mine-clearing equipment and help it develop new tactics to push through Russian defenses. Doing so is the best way of ensuring that Ukraine’s fight for freedom ends with an unambiguous victory.

State of Play

The Ukrainian offensives have been underway for just over two months. They began with an initial thrust aimed at rapidly penetrating Russian defensive lines in the south.

But unfortunately, this effort faltered against a competent Russian scheme of defense including extensive minefields; the lack of a designated main effort (at least in the minds of anonymous U.S. officials); and according to the military analyst Michael Kofman, shortfalls in the integration of armor, infantry, engineers, and artillery at higher levels.

The challenges created by Russian defenses have received insufficient attention by Ukraine’s supporters. These obstacles should not have been overlooked: the perils of minefields are well known in Western military doctrine.

NATO states ought to have provided Ukraine with more mechanized breaching and mine-clearing equipment. Their failure to do so is indicative of the intellectual shortfalls that infect many Western military institutions.

Battle is king, and so in many armies, the units that operate the complex equipment required to clear and break through minefields are underfunded.

They are underfunded even though breaching is a high-risk undertaking and even though large amounts of equipment are lost in the process (as the Ukrainians have discovered). More engineering equipment of this type could and should have been provided to Ukraine earlier.

This failure is compounded by the fact that the doctrine and training for combined-arms obstacle and minefield clearance are decades old, and the West had limited time to prepare Ukrainian formation-level combined-arms teams—particularly in newly formed brigades.

The glories of the 1991 Gulf War, in which a U.S.-led coalition quickly pushed the Iraqi military out of Kuwait, are simply not possible in an environment where friendly air control is absent and the battlefield is covered by a dense mesh of sensors that allow Russians to quickly detect and then hit Ukrainian targets.

Despite these challenges, the Ukrainians have adapted—one of their institutional strengths—and adopted a gradual “bite and hold” strategy in the south, minimizing casualties while also gradually increasing the pressure on Russian defenses. As a result, the Ukrainians are making progress in the south, liberating multiple important towns.

At the same time, the Ukrainian high command is managing multiple other campaigns. In the east, it is undertaking another offensive around the city of Bakhmut. Here, without the extensive Russian defensive positions that exist in the south, the Ukrainians are making headway.

And they are no longer fighting Wagner convicts, as they were earlier in the summer. The Russian troops around Bakhmut are higher quality, regular forces, and their attrition will degrade Russia’s future offensive options.

Farther to the north, the Ukrainians are fighting a defensive campaign against a Russian offensive in the province of Luhansk. So far, they are holding their ground. Despite the resources Moscow has allocated to this offensive, the Russians are experiencing no more success here than they did in early 2023.

Concurrently, Ukraine is continuing its defensive campaign against Russian air, missile, and drone attacks and conducting an offensive naval campaign with a constantly evolving generation of semisubmersible and stealthy maritime attack drones.

And on top of all these physical campaigns, Ukraine is carrying out strategic influence operations, which include its global diplomacy efforts—such as Zelensky’s short trips to foreign nations. Ukraine’s operations also include long-range drone strikes into Russia, which are designed to degrade Russians’ will to fight.

It is difficult to objectively measure Ukraine’s progress because only a few of the most senior Ukrainian military and civilian leaders know the actual strategic and operational objectives for the country’s offensives.

But for outsiders viewing the war, the country’s progress might be measured in ground taken, Russian forces destroyed, progress toward placing Russian forces in Crimea at peril, and the extent to which Ukraine has persuaded Western governments it is succeeding. After two months, it might be stated that each of these goals is “in progress.”

The Ukrainian Way of War

Ukraine’s complex and interrelated series of campaigns would tax even the largest and most sophisticated Western military institutions.

For Kyiv, the ability to orchestrate these strategic, operational, and tactical challenges has been normalized over the past 18 months. In improving how they coordinate various levels of war across multiple campaigns under modern conditions without clear air, naval, or firepower superiority, the Ukrainians have blended NATO and Soviet-era weapons and doctrine. In doing so, the Ukrainians have developed their own distinct approach to modern war.

This evolving Ukrainian way of war is worthy of study because most Western military institutions probably resemble the Ukrainian military more than they do the U.S. armed forces, whose doctrine they all inevitably copy. And a central part of the Ukrainian way of war is the ability to learn, absorb new equipment and ideas, and adapt tactics and strategy.

But even the most adaptive institutions have a limit to their ability to absorb new ideas and technologies. The building, sustaining, and evolving of a highly capable military organization—especially one with many new formations—can take months or years.

As Aimée Fox-Godden observed in Learning to Fight, a study of the massive institutional learning and adaptation that occurred within the British Army between 1914 and 1918, the United Kingdom was able to gradually improve its performance thanks to “a combination of its pre-war ethos and increased fluidity in wartime” that created “organizational and cultural flexibility, promoting informal learning and encouraging individuals to innovate.”

The West must accept, as the British did in World War I, that it will take time to carry out the recruit training, technical training, leadership development, and collective training needed to make a military organization like Ukraine’s into a large, integrated, and durable force capable of major offensive maneuvers under its own umbrella of air control and mastery of electronic warfare.

What Comes Next

Both the Ukrainians and the Russians possess the resources and the will for an extended war. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in particular, has sustained his narrative that NATO poses a threat to Russia. He continues to advance the deluded notion of a greater Russia.

On August 2, for example, he gave a speech promoting “the integration of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics and the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions into the common Russian cultural space.”

The West must therefore accept that this will be a long war. Many generations have flirted with the notion that wars between large, populous, and technologically savvy states can be short. At the time each began, for example, analysts argued that World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Iraq war would be brief, only to be proved incorrect.

The same will be true with today’s conflict. It will take time to continue enhancing Ukraine’s ground, air, naval, cyber, industrial, and information capabilities so the country can prevail over Russia. Although the Russians have made many strategic and tactical errors in this war, they have also learned and adapted.

As Oleksandr Syrsky—the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces—put it, the Russians “are not idiots.” Kyiv will need many months to defeat and eject them from the approximately 18 percent of Ukraine they illegally occupy.

The West is now engaged in a generational struggle against big, ruthless, and wealthy authoritarian regimes. In accepting that this will be a long war, the West should make explicit that its goal is a Ukrainian victory achieved through a Russian defeat.

By committing to support Ukraine for the duration of the conflict, the West can undermine Putin’s efforts to outlast Ukraine’s patrons. This commitment also provides certainty to donor countries, which can scale up production and engage in necessary research and development for counter-drone and counter-mine endeavors.

Another element of Western strategy is identifying the key operational and institutional problems requiring support. The United States may need to accept that its doctrine for highly complex air-land warfare is not fully suited to Ukraine. This fact does not mean that combined-arms warfare is not effective. But NATO needs to lead a rapid reevaluation of its doctrine now to develop the tactics and doctrine of combined arms on a shoestring.

That means, collectively, that the states of the West have to find a way to conduct ground combat in an environment where they will be subject to frequent air attacks—something they have not had to do in generations, but that Ukraine must do now.

Such a review must incorporate the effects of the new-era meshed network of civilian and military sensors that is making the Ukrainian counteroffensives some of the most important and deadly battles in the modern age.

The proliferation of drones, connected to modern digitized battle-command networks, allows for both militaries to rapidly identify and target each other’s forces. Current Western doctrine has not adequately adapted to this new environment. Doctrine is the foundation for the training and education of all soldiers, sailors, marines, and aviators.

If this intellectual component of a country’s military is deficient, the overall combat potential of that force is compromised. And although Ukraine is pioneering its own approach to war, it still depends on Western doctrine for many of its operations.

This failing in Western military doctrine is therefore perhaps best exemplified by Ukraine’s current struggle to penetrate Russian minefields in the south. Dense obstacle belts, including minefields, are hardly a new development.

But if this defensive scheme is overlaid with meshed civil-military sensors, assessments, and fires, it makes breaching these belts an order of magnitude more difficult. The technologies and tactics of such breaches have not changed in nearly half a century.

A new-age Manhattan Project designed to discover new ways to rapidly detect and clear mines would help Ukrainian offensives down the line. It would also assist in clearing mines and unexploded ordnance from vast swaths of liberated Ukrainian territory.

A new Western strategy could also promote the standardization of equipment and training support for Ukraine. The menagerie of armored vehicles and artillery provided to Ukraine has been generous, but it is not sustainable.

There is a reason why armies generally have one type of tank or one kind of artillery for each need. The training and logistical burden of holding multiple types of similar systems would be large for a peacetime military. It will become unbearable for Ukraine over time. A more strategic approach to support Ukraine would provide standardized equipment sets for the country’s army.

At the same time, the training of personnel needs to shift beyond training recruits and offering technical instruction on how to use equipment. Collective training is a vital aspect of building effective military institutions, and it is an area where the West should provide additional support.

The development of company, battalion, and brigade leaders and command teams will, over time, give Ukraine the basis of an army that can orchestrate major operations and campaigns across time and space. Informed by Ukrainian battlefield experience and evolved NATO doctrine, collective training would provide Ukraine with a crucial advantage over its Russian adversary.

This kind of Ukraine strategy would let Western governments more rapidly offer Kyiv support, ending the sluggishness that has been one of the war’s biggest issues. “We need speed, speed of decisions to limit Russian potential,” Zelensky said during his 2023 Munich Security Conference address.

“There is no alternative to speed. Because it is the speed that life depends on. Delay has always been and still is a mistake.” Western decisions on tanks, air defense systems, and fighter jets have taken many months. But when received, these new systems have been quickly absorbed into Ukrainian organizations and used in an innovative fashion.

A new strategy must accept that Ukraine is capable of absorbing advanced weapon systems quickly and, indeed, has much to teach the West about their use. Offering Kyiv enduring support may not be welcome news to many Western politicians, given the upcoming elections in the United States and some European countries.

But over the past 18 months, the Ukrainians have demonstrated a will to fight, the capacity to absorb new weapons, and the ability to learn, adapt, and improve their military effectiveness. The next way to help the Ukrainians continue their evolution in quality and endurance is making sure they know the West is prepared to support them in their fight to defeat Russia and to offer this support in 2024 and beyond.

Mick Ryan is a military strategist, retired Australian Army major general, and an Adjunct Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


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