More than nine years after the war started, strategic messaging from politicians and high-ranking officers advising them on military matters is still not fully aligned.
When Minister of Defence of Ukraine, Oleksii Reznikov says “that Western partners have told him that they now need another example of success because we need to show it to our people” ankzid that “expectations of our counteroffensive operation are overestimated in the world” …”partly due to Ukraine’s previous victories on the battlefield” he proves my point.
There is a huge gap between political – and therefore, public – expectations and the expectations of the military community.
The first is based on Ukraine’s success – and Russian failures – during the initial part of the full-scale invasion. A kind of euphoria has descended over the West, and many have already concluded that Ukrainian victory is inevitable. It is not.
Military communities, however, see beyond the initial success. The reasons for Ukrainian success and Russian failures are understood. Russia’s efforts to close some of the lessons identified and improve its tactics and strategy are continuously being evaluated. It has turned the war into a protracted war, exploring the main weakness of the West: “The lack of focus and resilience disorder.”
Russia has adapted both its distributed command and control system as well as its logistical support system to Ukraine’s ability to deliver precision strikes (up to a certain range). They withdrew all their command posts, fuel depots, and ammunition depots, out of range. Russia is also developing countermeasures to some of the Western weapons provided, including HIMARS and Stinger. Its ability to deny Ukrainian drone operations is improving. The number of men under arms is – despite its enormous losses – higher than in years. Most importantly, it has retained its Air Power out of harm’s way while it is depleting Ukraine’s air defence.
Western military communities are also analyzing Ukraine’s fast-evolving military power. As previously argued, the Ukrainian Security and Defence sector has, in some respects, never been stronger than today. It has received modern Western main battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery, MLRS, mortars, anti-armour systems and munitions, short, medium and long-range air defense systems, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, AGM-88 HARMs, Laser-Guided Rockets, drones, precision-guided 155mm artillery rounds, weapon-locating radars, satellite communications, and more. Much more. Equally important, many of its men and women have been trained in NATO countries.
Unfortunately – and partly due to limitations imposed by the West – some of its enduring weaknesses not only persist but have also increased during the last 16 months.
It lost nearly a quarter of its Air Defence systems when Russia occupied the Crimea Peninsula. Parts of its remaining Soviet legacy air defense systems have been destroyed during 16 months of high-intensity warfighting. According to Oryx, 98 Surface-To-Air Missile Systems have been documented lost.
The real numbers are higher. According to the Pentagon leaks, Ukraine’s air defense network, weakened by repeated barrages from Russian drones and missiles, could collapse unless supported by a huge influx of ammunition. If Ukraine loses its air defence in depth Russia will soon be able to deploy its combat aircraft against Ukrainian Ground Forces and landlines of communication, cutting further defence aid from the West. It will completely change the course of the war.
Ukraine has also lost at least 66 aircraft, including 17 MiG-29, 12 Su-27, 16 Su-25, 16 Su-24M and 1 Su-24MR combat aircraft. They were all a part of its dwindling Soviet legacy Air Force that is being denied modern Western combat aircraft. Even more important, it is losing its best and most experienced fighter pilots.
When the politicians say Ukraine is receiving everything it needs to conduct a successful counteroffensive, their military advisors know that this is not the case.
None of them would have executed a major military operation without ensuring air supremacy and the ability to provide air support to their ground forces. Western military communities know that Ukraine is being set up to do just that: Execute an offensive against fortified defense lines – three in-depth – protected by a high density of minefields, artillery, anti-tank traps, anti-armor missile systems, and not least, Russian Air Power operating over Russian controlled territory.
Ukraine is about to start doing what Russia has failed to achieve for 16 months while suffering enormous casualties. Ukraine suffers, however, a handicap: It lacks Air Power and Air Defence because the US and Europe fail to provide them.
When politicians express high expectations for the forthcoming Ukrainian offensive and argue that Ukraine must succeed for them to maintain public support for continuous defense aid, I fear the politicians demonstrate the enduring disconnect between politicians and military advisors.
This is the reason most NATO members do not have Armed Forces capable of defending their territorial integrity or sovereignty; why NATO has been forced to reduce its level of ambitions and walk away from past commitment; why the West is already running low on weapons and ammunition it can provide Ukraine; and why US and European defense industries – nine years after a war in Europe started – have not yet been mobilized to sustain an industrial war.
I find it increasingly hard to populate the “support” chapter of the report with lists of new weapons supplied to Ukraine. The West is slowly running out of weapons and ammunition. At the same time, countries squabble over who should benefit economically from the joint production of ammunition to Ukraine (while the latter is fighting and dying protecting European security and stability).
In my opinion, the Ukrainian offensive – when it takes place – will be the first in a series of offensives designed to liberate all of Ukraine.
Ukraine’s ability to uphold its fight for its independence and sovereignty “as long as it takes,” however, depends on the West’s ability and willingness to supply the means Ukraine desperately needs – both in quality and quantity.
However, a Ukrainian victory is not given due to the disconnect between politicians and their military advisors. Several leaks suggest otherwise. The military advisors have concerns. Highly classified leaked Pentagon documents offer a more pessimistic US appraisal of the war in Ukraine, predicting a stalemate for months to come. They fear the Ukrainian counteroffensive might end in carnage. As the Washington Post wrote,
“In private, US officials have determined that Kyiv’s counteroffensive will probably yield only “modest territorial gains” and the bloodshed will extend well into 2024 with neither side securing victory.”
Unfortunately, the West will not act decisively until it fully grasps that it is in its interest to do just that. That means we need to continue discussing the potential outcome of a Russian victory and a prolonged war.
I have highlighted many of them for years. Ironically, due to Ukraine’s success – and Russian failures – during the initial part of the full-scale invasion, a kind of euphoria has descended over the West: We have stopped discussing the worst-case scenario. That is a mistake.
We cannot close the door for a Russian victory. I have long argued that Russia continues fighting not only for lack of options but also for the belief that victory is within grasp. I don’t believe the war will necessarily be decided on the ground, but rather as a cumulative effect of the hybrid war — a protracted war, in which the Ukrainian economy is effectively destroyed by both non-military means as well as military power from the sea, air and land. Russia is waging a protracted war, knowing that support from the West has a “best-before date.”
The West needs to stop fearing the unknown. It needs to fear the potential outcome of the ongoing war in and against Europe. Not least, it needs to start taking advice from its military advisors.
Ukrainian initial success is partly a result of Ukrainian politicians taking advice from its Armed Forces. The US and Europe should follow Ukraine’s example.
The consequences of anything but a Ukrainian victory are dramatic to European security and stability.