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Ukraine has the initiative in all dimensions

While Russia still has the advantage, Ukraine is little by little gaining the initiative in maritime, air, and land warfare. And it has not yet peaked.
ukrainian drone attacks russian ship
A Ukrainian naval drone attacks the Russian ship Vasily Bykov. Screenshot from video by Ukraine’s Intelligence
Ukraine has the initiative in all dimensions

Ukraine has the initiative in all dimensions. Having reduced the world’s second-strongest Army to the second-strongest in Ukraine, it advances and continues to shape the battlefield.

Maritime warfare

A country without a Navy, in the conventional meaning of the term, has already sunk and destroyed 20 warships, vessels and one submarine. It has also inflicted damage to several more.

It started with the destruction of an amphibious vessel and damage to two others in the occupied city of Berdiansk on 24 March 2022.

It was followed by the spectacular – and highly humiliating – sinking of the Russian flagship Moskva on 14 April 2022.

Ukraine has continued targeting the Black Sea Fleet using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), Unmanned Surface Vehicles (USVs – SeaBaby) and cruise missiles.

Lately, a large landing ship and a submarine were critically damaged while in docks in the early hours of Wednesday, 13 September 2023.

In three heady days starting on 13 September, the Ukrainian SeaBaby drone struck at least three (possibly four) more warships. On 14 September, the Project 22160-class vessel Bykov just west of Sevastopol. Ukraine claims the patrol boat was damaged in the assault, releasing a video of Bykov engaging the USVs from just yards away.

Simultaneously, USVs struck the missile corvette Samum in Sevastopol harbor and inflicted “significant damage.”

A day later on 15 September, the patrol boat Askold was attacked. According to Ukraine, there was yet another assault on a second Black Sea Fleet Project 22160 vessel. The damages to the combatants are presently unknown. 

Frontline report: Seven Russian warships targeted by Ukraine in just four days, with three destroyed and at least two damaged

Additionally, Ukraine has also recently regained control over the Boyko towers, four gas platforms, effectively removing Russian permanent surveillance capacity over in the Northern Black Sea.

Ukrainian active hunt for the Black Sea Fleet (BSF) is changing the war at sea. Russia is dispersing its warships. Units are being relocated to Novorossiysk. At least three large landing ships were moved to the Sea of Azov, away from their normal base. They remain at a safe distance – outside missile range – from the Ukrainian coastline. High-Value Units are being escorted by the BSF. It has allowed Ukraine to open a shipping lane to its ports, and Russia has been unable – or unwilling – to stop the first civilian vessels arriving to load grain.

Equally important, Ukraine’s maritime operations are impacting Russia’s ability to move weapons, ammunition, and supplies over the Kerch Strait. On 17 July, it attacked and damaged the Kerch Bridge itself with USVs. It was the second successful Ukrainian strike on the bridge. Targeting Russia’s amphibious ships, Ukraine further reduces its ability to supply the occupation forces in Kherson and Zaporizhzia oblasts.

Air warfare

Russian Air Power is superior to that of Ukraine. However, despite its superiority in both quality and quantity, Russia has been unable to establish Air Control over Ukraine. It has not operated combat aircraft over Ukrainian-controlled territory since spring 2022. According to Ukrainian reports, Russia has lost a staggering 315 combat aircraft and 316 helicopters (of which 90 and 105 respectively have been confirmed).

Russia is, however, continuously trying to exhaust Ukrainian Air Defence to achieve Air Control to completely change the nature of the war. It has launched more than 6,500 missiles and 3,500 attack drones against Ukraine since the start of the full-scale war. It is increasing its domestic production of drones to saturate and destroy Ukrainian Air Defence.

Despite its Air Superiority, Russia has been unable to break Ukraine’s will and ability to fight.

While Russia still has the advantage, Ukraine is little by little gaining the initiative. Lacking conventional Air Power, it is using drones and missiles to target Russian strike and Air Defence capabilities. This includes its attacks against Tu-22M3 strategic bombers stationed in Soltsy and possibly as many as 9 Il-76 transport aircraft in Pskov in August.

During the last month, Ukraine has destroyed two out of five S-400 air defense systems in Crimea using domestically produced Neptune missiles. The attacks on the S-400 in Yevpatoriya and near Olenivka on 23 August, might suggest a wider systemic Russian air defence problem. ISW argues that Russian forces were either unprepared or unable to intercept the missiles.

Either way, Russia’s ability to protect the BSF, airfields, bases, and ground lines of communication is weakened, increasing the likelihood of further successful Ukrainian strikes in the future.

Russia’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (or A2/AD) capacity in the Black Sea is being undermined, reducing the risks against NATO aircraft and drones.

Ukraine is not least increasing its number of strikes against Russian deep rear. It routinely launches drones against Moscow, bringing the war closer to the Russian public, fuelling popular discontent, and forcing Russia to redeploy its Air Defence units to better defend the capital. It is also targeting the Russian defense industry and fuel depots.

Ukraine keep crossing the Russian red lines without triggering the worst-case scenarios feared by the West, making it increasingly more difficult to excuse Western inaction for fear of WW3 and a nuclear confrontation.

It will continue to develop its missile and drone capability while awaiting the delivery of modern, long-range, and multipurpose F-16s. While Ukraine will still be numerically inferior to Russia, the transition from Soviet-legacy combat aircraft will increase its ability to project Air Power many times over.

Land Warfare

Russia was at its peak military strength before the full-scale invasion nearly 19 months ago. Today, it is greatly reduced. Its Land Forces no longer consist of elite forces. It has lost almost 80% of its 2021 manpower. Its “elite forces” have been denied the opportunity to regenerate the airborne forces as a highly mobile, striking force for offensive operations. Instead, It is used to fill critical gaps in the frontline to augment over-stretched ground forces.

The Russian Army lacks reserves, is slowly being reduced, and is unable to rotate its exhausted personnel.

It has lost most of its modern heavy weapons and its artillery is actively being hunted by Ukrainian artillery, missiles, and drones. It is lacking counter-artillery capabilities. Its supplies and ground lines of communication are being targeted.

Ukraine, however, is getting increasingly stronger and has not yet peaked. The inflow of advanced weapon systems from the US and Europe is still evolving.

Many Western politicians and analysts have had unrealistic expectations for the Ukrainian counteroffensive, failing to acknowledge that Ukraine is endeavoring to do something none of the NATO countries would do because it runs contrary to our military doctrine: A counteroffensive without air superiority or control, lacking essential capacities like air defense and mine clearance equipment while being forced to preserve ammunition.

Despite the lack of speed and a decisive breakthrough, Ukraine is, however, doing great.

  1. It is engaging Russian forces along a greater part of the frontline, fixing their forces and denying it the opportunity to reinforce existing hotspots.
  2. It has been – and is still – shaping the battlefield. It’s destroying C2, logistics and ground lines of communication. It is targeting crucial capacities like Russian artillery, air defense, and, not least, trucks (the logistic backbone).
  3. It is doing it slowly and methodically, exhausting the enemy and breaking the morale and motivation of its soldiers.
  4. It is conducting offensive operations on its own terms. It is adapting the tactic to preserve personnel and material to ensure the ability to exploit the moment of breakthrough.

Ukraine always knew the offensive would be slow. They not only lack some of the critical tools needed to maneuver but also weapons long pledged to support the offensive.

It is, in a sense, like watching the calving of a glacier. It’s extremely – for lack of better words – dull. Still, extreme forces are gradually building up for the forthcoming calving – at play every minute. When the calving occurs, it is dramatic and explosive. Like the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the forthcoming breakthrough and/or Russian collapse.

Ukraine has the initiative and will continue to develop its capacity to strike Russia’s rear and reduce its numerical disadvantages.

Western support must ensure that Ukraine’s military power increases at the cost of Russia. The trend of a reduced inflow of Western defense support is, therefore, a matter of concern. NATO is not prepared for a protracted war. The Western defense industry is still in the process of ramping up its production. Fortunately, Russia is facing similar problems.

Continuous reports of Ukrainian advances, the liberation of occupied territories, strikes against Russia’s rear, and the destruction of strategic military capabilities motivate immensely.

Grief, however, too often follows moments of joy.

Ukraine is suffering big time. Its armed forces are experiencing high losses. Its casualties – moving forward against well-prepared and fortified positions protected by minefields and heavy weapons – are huge. They are presently at least as big as the Russian casualty rate. Ukrainian brigades have been re-established and regenerated several times already. Despite the level of support, they still lack critical capabilities (e.g., medical evacuation, drones, and not least, counter-drones means.)

Ukraine is still losing its best men and women.

The West has the means to end the war. It only needs to find the courage to act as previous heads of states long agreed.



Hans Petter Midttun is educated at the Royal Norwegian Naval Academy, the Norwegian National Defence Command and Staff College and the Norwegian Defense College, as well as education from the Federal Defence Forces of Germany. He has broad international experience from both operations and postings abroad (NATO, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Ukraine). The service includes seven years in command of frigates and six NATO deployments. Midttun put into operation, tested and verified the operational capabilities of one of the newest frigates in the Norwegian Navy. He served at the Norwegian Joint Headquarters and Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) before being posted to Ukraine as the Norwegian Defence Attache (2014-2018). Based on previous experiences, Midttun is presently publishing articles and analytic works on the security situation in and around Ukraine as a private person.
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