The Ukrainians will win if they keep getting better weapons.
Jan 14, 2023
The war in Ukraine began trending toward the defenders soon after Russia launched its full-scale invasion on February 24. In the summer and fall of last year, Ukraine rapidly recaptured territory that Russia had seized in the war’s early days. Yet the relative stability of the front line in recent weeks has fueled fresh suggestions that Russia may soon go on the offensive again. Many analysts were hypnotized a year ago by what they saw as Russia’s overwhelming firepower, modern weapons, and effective planning and leadership. Although the Ukrainians almost immediately proved far more formidable than nearly anyone had anticipated, lulls in the war play to the expectation that Russia will soon start massing its supposed great reserves and recover the situation on the battlefield. The underlying assumption is that Ukraine has little hope of ultimate triumph over a fully mobilized Russia. In this account, the longer the war goes on, and the more rounds of forced conscription that Vladimir Putin and his military impose on the Russian population, the more decisive Russia’s supposed advantages will be.
In reality, the logistical, planning, and organizational failures that stalled Russia’s advance and allowed Ukraine to recapture territory are likely to keep occurring. As long as its NATO partners keep increasing their support, Ukraine is well positioned to win the war.
Russia’s strategy relies on the mobilization of lots of soldiers. But the sheer size of an army is not in itself a decisive factor in modern war and has not been for some time. Russia’s new soldiers, who up to this point have resisted every attempt to get them to volunteer but also lacked the motivation to flee their country to avoid conscription, are poor raw material for an army. To do substantial damage to an enemy force, soldiers must be properly trained—which takes a minimum of six months and normally requires about a year. Russia’s new army will have no time to practice maneuvers together before being thrown into action.
Crucially, all of these new trainees also need to be given modern new equipment. Quality can be decisive. During World War II, rival armies were constantly improving their weapons systems. But far from upgrading its equipment and expanding production, Russia seems incapable of reversing more than a fraction of the damage it has suffered in the past 11 months.
According to an independent estimate based on photographic evidence, Russia has lost at least 1,600 tanks; the Ukrainian military claims to have captured, destroyed, or otherwise incapacitated 3,100. Before the war, the annual production of frontline equipment was surprisingly small. For example, it made a little more than 200 main battle tanks a year from 2014 to 2021. Now, because of sanctions restricting Russia’s technology imports, plus the inefficiencies endemic in the Russian military supply chain, the country seems unlikely even to maintain its prewar production rate, so Moscow will have to take more and more equipment out of storage. Ukrainian officials believe that even the best Russian units now in action, including
elite airborne troops, are receiving poor equipment. Some Russian soldiers are being transported in vehicles that are decades old, including Soviet-era BMP-1 armored personnel carriers. This materiel is certainly less effective than the frontline equipment that the Russian army had at its disposal on February 24.
In short, Russia is not gathering its strength in a powerful new army. It is assembling an inferior version of the force with which it started the war.
Although Ukraine has suffered substantial military losses and absorbed a series of attacks on civilian targets, its defensive capabilities keep improving. Only 11 months ago, many of the most pessimistic analysts were saying the Ukrainian army should receive no heavy weapons, because it stood no chance against the mighty Russians. Ukraine’s friends limited much of their aid to smaller, handheld systems. Basically all of Ukraine’s artillery and armor, for instance, were legacy Soviet designs.
But because Russian barbarity has shocked the West into action, and because Ukraine’s military successes proved that advanced weaponry would not go to waste, its forces have steadily received more NATO-standard equipment. First came long-range artillery systems, including French CAESAR self-propelled howitzers and American High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS). Next came the promise of a major boost to Ukraine’s air-defense capabilities, via National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems and Patriot missile systems. (Training for Ukrainian forces on the latter equipment is expected to begin soon.) In the past several days, Western governments that had previously been wary of provoking Russian escalation by offering too much advanced equipment have crossed an important threshold. Ukraine may soon be receiving high-tech armored personnel carriers and apparently even main battle tanks, including German-built Leopards and British-built Challenger IIs.
Many NATO leaders now believe not only that Ukraine can outlast the Russian invaders but also that it must. Anything but a complete Ukrainian victory will offer some validation for depraved Russian fighting tactics. It would encourage Putin to test the resolve of other nations that share borders with Russia or were once under Soviet domination. In recent days Norway, Finland, the Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia have all promised continued support for Ukraine. These donors do not believe that NATO membership alone will protect them from Russian military interference; their security now hinges on Putin’s Russia being vanquished.
This kind of pressure should hopefully persuade the Biden administration to let Ukraine have the final pieces of military technology that it needs to force the Russians out. These include advanced vehicles to provide increased mobility as well as the kinds of long-range artillery systems that will allow it to hit Russian forces anywhere in occupied Ukraine. This might eventually include ATACMS guided missiles, which extend the effective range of HIMARS equipment and would allow Ukraine to sever supply chains through large parts of Russian-occupied territory.
In almost every category of equipment, the Ukrainian army is significantly stronger today than it was in February, and it will keep getting stronger. About 20,000 Ukrainian personnel have now completed advanced training in NATO countries, according to a Ukrainian state news agency,
and thousands more will do the same in 2023.
In the coming months, the war could become horrifically bloody if Russian generals continue to send large numbers of poorly trained soldiers into combat. Still, Ukraine has most of the advantages that typically decide a war. Its forces will be better trained, better led, and, with the West’s help, far better armed. And most Ukrainians’ determination is likely to remain strong, in part because they don’t have any choice but to win.
Phillips Payson O’Brien is a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He is the author of How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II.