What Ukraine Revealed About Military Power
July 27, 2023
The Russian military was fast. So fast, analysts said, that the Ukrainian military stood little chance of resisting it in a conventional war. Moscow, after all, had spent billions of dollars upgrading the armed forces’ weapons and systems, reorganizing their structure, and developing new attack plans.
The Russian military had then proved its worth by winning battles in small states, including during its invasion of Georgia and its air campaign in Syria. Experts believed that if Ukraine was attacked by Russia, Russia would quickly overwhelm Ukraine’s air defenses and launch a sweeping ground campaign that would rapidly envelop Kyiv. They thought that Russia would shatter Ukraine’s supply lines and isolate most of the country’s forces. Ukraine’s inability to resist this onslaught appeared so obvious that some analysts suggested Kyiv might not be worth arming for a standard interstate war. As Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told the British Parliament in early February 2022, Ukraine could not hold off Russia even if it were given very capable Western weapons. If they get into a conventional fight with the Russian military, Lee argued, they are not going to win.
Eighteen months later, it is clear that these expectations were wildly off the mark. Ukraine fought back with determination and smarts against Russia, halting Moscow’s advances and then driving Russian troops back from roughly half of the territory they seized in the last year and a half. As a result, Ukraine’s military looks far more powerful and Russia’s looks far weaker than virtually everyone expected.
In fact, the entire shape of the war is very different from what experts imagined. Rather than the fast-moving conflict led by phalanxes of armored vehicles, supported by Russia’s advanced piloted aircraft, that the analytical community imagined, the invasion was chaotic and slow. There has never been a quick armored breakthrough by the Russians and only one by the Ukrainians—last September‘s surprise advance in the province of Kharkiv. Instead, almost all of the war’s gains have come gradually and at great expense. The conflict has been defined not by fighter jets and tanks but by artillery, drones, and even World War I–style trenches.
Ukraine’s successes and Russia’s losses have prompted experts to intensely reevaluate both countries’ military prowess. But given the unexpected shape of the conflict, military analysts must also reconsider how they analyze warfare in general. Defense experts tend to think of conflicts in terms of weapons and plans, yet the invasion of Ukraine suggests that armed power is as much about a military’s structure, morale, and industrial base as it is about armaments and blueprints.
Russia, for instance, fell down not because it lacked sophisticated weapons but because it could not properly operate its systems. The country faltered because its military logistics—the process
by which an armed force equips itself with the materiel needed to conduct attacks—were poor, and because its forces have low levels of motivation.
These lessons are important for thinking about the future of the Russian-Ukrainian war. But they are also critical for thinking about other conflicts, including the one that might erupt between China and the United States in the Indo-Pacific. Many military analysts have tried to game out such a war by looking at the weapons and strategies that China, Taiwan, and the United States deploy.
But if Ukraine is any guide, a battle over the region would have as much to do with logistics and people as with guns and plans. And these factors suggest that a U.S.-Chinese war would be neither decisive nor quick. It would, more likely, be a global catastrophe even greater than what is happening in Ukraine.
SYSTEMS AND SHOCKS
One of the main reasons experts believed that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be fast is that they focused mostly on what would happen when the Russian and Ukrainian armies exchanged fire on the battlefield. In doing so, they put a huge emphasis on the weapons that each side had at its disposal—an area where Russia had a clear advantage. Moscow’s firepower exceeded Kyiv’s in quantity and, before the conflict began, in quality. The Russian military had world-leading electronic warfare capabilities, modern aircraft, and advanced armored vehicles: all weapons considered much more capable than most anything the Ukrainians possessed. As the military analysts Michael Kofman and Jeffrey Edmonds wrote in Foreign Affairs, just days before the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia would attack Ukraine with hundreds of bombers, masses of missiles, and other systems that would provide Russian forces with overwhelming firepower.
Russia, they said, would have the advantage along every axis of attack. Indeed, some analysts indicated that Russia’s military was a near-peer to that of the United States. Particularly after Russia’s success in Syria and in Ukraine’s east in the years after it annexed Crimea in 2014, Russian troops were thought capable of undertaking operations that were similar to the ones American forces had carried out. The U.S. government itself repeatedly described Russia’s military as a near peer and close competitor to its armed forces.
But rosy assessments assumed that Moscow was honest about the quality of its weapons and that Russia would operate its systems efficiently. Neither premise proved true. Rather than being in top shape, many of Russia’s weapons systems were poorly maintained or stripped down by corruption.
According to Ukrainian observers, for example, Russia may have sold off the reactive armor that is vital to protecting many military vehicles, making it far easier for Ukrainians to destroy its enemy’s tanks. The country also did not do enough to train its troops in proper tank warfare.
Russia has made mistakes in almost every military domain. But it might have been in its inability to operate advanced systems where it failed most. For instance, Moscow has done a particularly bad job of using airpower. Russia’s aircraft perform decently as individual pieces of equipment, and in theory they should have been capable of establishing air superiority and helping Russian ground troops advance. Its commanders could have done what the U.S. Air Force does and begun their campaign by targeting its adversary’s antiaircraft systems. As the U.S. Air Force would have, Russia could then have gone about enforcing control over the area of battle by flying missions that destroyed, disrupted, or otherwise harassed enemy units.
The Russian air force has struggled to do any of this. It could not operate its planes as part of a complex system by using various military capabilities to quickly locate, prioritize, and then attack Ukrainian antiaircraft systems. As a result, it did not eliminate Ukraine’s defenses. In fact, the Russians have done such a bad job of protecting their aircraft or operating mutually supportive systems that most of the time their planes fly far back from the frontline in order to stay far away from Ukrainian defense rockets. As a result, with a few rare exceptions, Ukrainian forces behind the frontlines have been able to move freely on open roads in broad daylight.
It makes sense that analysts failed to predict Russia’s aerial shortcomings, as well as many of the country’s other military failures; it is hard to say how forces will perform until they are put to use. But defense scholars could have done a much better job. Military analysts like to say that amateurs discuss tactics whereas experts discuss logistics, but compared to the amount of time spent chronicling the quantities of Russian airpower and armor, there was little talk among experts about whether Russia could properly supply, maintain, and regenerate these forces in war. In fact, some detailed reports that explored how a Russian invasion of Ukraine might progress almost entirely neglected to consider logistics. Instead of discussing how far and to what extent Russian supplies could be transported and maintained in the face of Ukrainian fire, experts seemed content to study what Russian systems could do in battle.
Ukraine‘s talents have defied expert predictions.
Analysts also spent little time considering how each side would regenerate lost resources. It has proved to be a critical question, particularly when it comes to ammunition. Both Russia and Ukraine have used far more ammunition than reports predicted, and so both have been left trying to source bullets, shells, and rockets from outside states. Russia, for instance, has turned to Iran and North Korea for supplies. Ukraine, meanwhile, has become reliant on NATO countries. As of April 2023, the United States alone had shipped 1.5 million 155-millimeter shells to Ukraine, prompting Washington to begin increasing its own military production. The European Union has also drawn down its stockpiles, and on July 7, it announced plans to invest over $500 million in ammunition manufacturing. But for now, no outside party can sate Kyiv’s or Moscow’s appetites.
Ammunition constraints are not unique to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. In virtually every large interstate war, the demand for bullets, rockets, and shells vastly outstrips prewar estimates, and countries run low after, at most, a few months. During World War I, for example, all the combatants found themselves facing an acute shell crisis by the end of 1914 as artillery systems consumed much more ammunition than prewar analysts expected and as soldiers struggled to hit targets inside trenches. Yet despite this history, analysts did not account for stockpiles and production when making predictions about Russia’s invasion. Moscow, they assumed, would win so quickly that ammunition levels would not matter.
Military analysts also neglected to account for the broader industrial, technological, and economic strength of the warring parties. They didn’t, for instance, take note of the fact that Ukraine has traditionally been one of Europe’s biggest weapons producers, or that despite its size Russia‘s economic and technological base is not one of a major power. (Russia’s economy is smaller than Canada’s.) Conventional interstate wars have never just been tests of militaries;
they also always involve entire economies. Experts, then, could have at least acknowledged that Russia was not economically powerful and better worked that fact into their calculations.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
The invasion of Ukraine has made it clear that states need good logistics and strong economies if they want to defeat large adversaries. But to win a major war, those two factors are not enough. States also need their militaries to be staffed by highly motivated and well-trained soldiers. And Ukrainian troops have repeatedly proved that they are far more determined and skilled than their Russian opponents.
As with the rest of the war, Ukraine’s talents have defied expert predictions. Even though Ukraine was the country being invaded, many analysts believed that the Ukrainian people would be divided and that Ukrainian resistance would be compromised from the start. Plenty of Ukrainians, experts argued, were pro-Russian, because they were educated in the Russian language, came from ethnically Russian families, had many personal contacts in Russia, or some combination thereof.
Some experts even thought that these connections meant that Ukrainians would struggle to mount an insurgency against Moscow. (It is easier to conduct an insurgency than to win an interstate war.) In a February 2022 article for The Week, for example, Lyle Goldstein, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, argued that because the Russian and Ukrainian cultures are rather similar, any Ukrainian rebellion would struggle to succeed. Observers seemed especially skeptical that Ukrainians in the country’s east would fight hard, particularly once Russia’s military had shocked them into submission. By contrast, few analysts argued that Russia’s military lacked the morale needed to carry out a full-scale invasion. In fact, they rarely probed the motivation of the average Russian soldier.
It is difficult to say exactly how much Ukrainian skill and high morale—and Russian disenchantment—has shaped the battlefield. But these factors have clearly made a difference. Motivated Ukrainians quickly learned how to use a vast array of newer, NATO-standard equipment and then integrated it into its military, despite the fact that they had little or no previous experience with such weapons. Ukrainian determination has also allowed the country’s military to trust and frequently empower its forces. Moscow, by contrast, has been stuck with a rigid, dictatorial method of military control, making its units far less flexible. Its troops also tend to lack initiative and keep their heads down.
High morale is not enough to win the war for Ukraine, and low morale will not lose it for Russia; weapons do matter. When determined Ukrainians attempted to break through Russian defenses in mid-June, their tanks and other vehicles proved vulnerable to a range of Russian systems, including mines, handheld air-defense systems, artillery, and unmanned aerial vehicles. As a result, after weeks of trying, the Ukrainians stopped these direct vehicle-led assaults.
But the country’s superior talent and dedication is allowing it to degrade Russia’s fighting strength. The Ukrainian armed forces, for instance, have figured out how to integrate drones, artillery, and rocket systems so they can strike Russian military installations. To identify a target, Ukraine sends out scouting drones or conducts an infantry assault that triggers Russian artillery systems and therefore expose their positions. Ukrainian analysts then determine whether the Russian installation is worth hitting, and if so, what system they should use to attack it. This process would be difficult under the best of circumstances, and Ukrainians must execute it while under heavy fire. But despite the complexities and obstacles, they have destroyed countless Russian artillery launchers, ammunition depots, and command posts—damage that could enable
Ukraine to advance later in the summer. Clearly, Ukrainians’ training, dedication, and talent is one of the reasons Kyiv retains the advantage.
The war in Ukraine has been a learning experience for the Ukrainian military, which has had to study how to operate new weapons systems in rapid order. It has, to a lesser extent, also been a learning experience for Russia, which is figuring out how best to fortify its positions. But it should be a learning experience for defense analysts as well. The conflict shows that many variables determine whether complex military systems function properly, and that the odds of failure are very high. The invasion, in other words, indicates that states need more than good weapons for their operations to have a chance of succeeding. Experts must therefore think twice before predicting that a war will be fast, or that one state will have an overwhelming advantage.
This lesson applies to almost any conflict. But it is especially important as analysts ponder a war between China and the United States over Taiwan, easily the most concerning potential global conflict. A war in the Pacific involving the two powers might seem like it would end relatively quickly, with either a successful Chinese seizure of Taiwan or a devastating rebuff. But when looking at how complex the operations would be and accounting for human variables, it becomes clear that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely be protracted. For the Chinese, attacking Taiwan would mean attempting, with no experience whatsoever, a major air-sea campaign and even a historically large amphibious assault, arguably the war’s most difficult operation. They would do so in the face of some of the most advanced defensive systems in the world and against a population that, as with the Ukrainians, would be galvanized by a desire to save its country.
It would be so difficult, in fact, that the Chinese might very well opt for an extended air-sea blockade around the island. Whether it went for a blockade or an outright invasion, the fighting then would likely extend over large amounts of the Pacific Ocean, and the logistical challenges would be immense on all sides. The war would be as difficult for Washington as it would be for Beijing. The United States would have some of the longest supply lines in the world, stretching across the entire Pacific Ocean, making them difficult to protect. American forces would have to operate relatively closely to China’s mainland, making U.S. troops vulnerable to attack. And the United States would be battling against an enemy that could not be conquered and that has the industrial and technological resources to keep up a fight for years and years.
A U.S.-Chinese war, then, would not be fast or straightforward. It would not be decided by a battle here or a battle there, or by which country has the fanciest weapons. Instead, it would be decided by the ability of each side to operate complex military systems and staff its forces with well trained and motivated personnel, potentially for a very long time. Any state contemplating military action in the region should realize these facts, and then think twice before launching a conflict.