Why the new conventional wisdom that the war is a stalemate favoring Russia is wrong.
By Rose Gottemoeller and Michael Ryan
January 8, 2024
Ukraine’s daring attack on a major Russian warship in occupied Crimea in the small hours of Dec. 26 was one more episode in Kyiv’s strategy to deny Russia control over the Black Sea. With most of its ships driven out of its home port in Sevastopol, the Russian Black Sea Fleet can no longer find safe haven anywhere along the Crimean Peninsula. All ports there are now vulnerable to attack.
The Institute for the Study of War tells the story with data, showing that Sevastopol saw a steady decline in the number of Russian naval vessels in port between June and December 2023; by contrast, Novorossiysk on the Russian mainland farther east showed a steady gain. While Russia has been going all-out to attack Ukraine’s infrastructure, its risky move to deploy ships and submarines armed with Kalibr missiles in the Black Sea is exposing them to potential Ukrainian attack. It is a tacit acknowledgment that Russia can no longer depend on Crimean ports and launch sites.
Ukraine’s success has been due to domestically produced missiles and drones, sometimes launched using Zodiac boats or jet skis. But its most potent attacks have come from the air, where Ukraine has used its Soviet-era fighter aircraft to launch both domestically produced and NATO-supplied missiles. These attacks have taken place with the protection of Ukraine’s advanced air defenses—including newly supplied foreign ones—which are regularly shooting down the majority of Russian missiles and drones destined for Ukrainian targets.
Ukraine thus has made significant strides denying Russia control of both the sea and airspace over and around its territory, thereby preventing the Russian Navy and Air Force from operating with impunity. But is that enough for Kyiv to win? To many Western observers, victory doesn’t seem possible in the face of wave after wave of Russian troops grinding down Ukrainian defenders. Ukraine’s strategy to deny Russia free use of its sea and airspace may be working, but as things stand, it cannot defeat the Russian army on the ground, nor can it defend against every missile striking civilian targets.
Indeed, the current conventional wisdom in large parts of the West is that Ukraine is losing the ground war, leaving no pathway to victory for the country as Russia pounds Ukrainian civilians into submission. Kyiv might as well call for a cease-fire and sue for peace.
The trouble with this scenario is that it spells defeat not only for Ukraine, but also for the United States and its allies in Europe and Asia. It would embolden both Russia and China to pursue their political, economic, and security objectives undeterred—including the seizure of new territory in Eastern Europe and Taiwan.
But is the conventional wisdom right—or does Ukraine’s clever success at sea and in the air suggest that a different outcome is possible? Perhaps the Russian army can be defeated by making use of Ukraine’s willingness to fight in new ways. If you asked a U.S. military professional, the key to dislodging the Russians is to subject them to relentless and accurate air attacks that are well synchronized with the maneuver of combined arms forces on the ground. While the Ukrainians are admirably using the weapons at hand to strike Russian forces both strategically, as in Crimea, and operationally, as in hitting command and logistics targets, success at the tactical level has remained elusive. To achieve a tactical breakthrough on the ground front that leads to operational and strategic success, they will need to be more effective from the air.
For power from the air to be decisive in 2024, the Ukrainian Armed Forces must create temporary windows of localized air superiority in which to mass firepower and maneuver forces. Given the Ukrainians’ success in denying their airspace to Russia at points of their choosing, such windows are possible using the assets they already have at hand. More and better weapons tailored to this scenario would make them more successful across the entire front with Russia.
Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, acknowledges that to break out of the current positional stalemate—which favors Russia—and return to maneuver warfare, where Ukraine has an advantage, Ukrainian forces need air superiority, the ability to breach mine obstacles, better counter-battery capability, and more assets for electronic warfare. Specifically, he argues for three key components. First, armed UAVs that use real-time reconnaissance to coordinate attacks with artillery (which could include properly armed Turkish-built TB2s, MQ-1C Gray Eagles, MQ-9 Reapers, or bespoke cheap and light UAVs capable of employing the necessary weapons). Second, armed UAVs to suppress enemy air defenses, as well as medium-range surface-to-air missile simulators to deter Russian pilots. And third, unmanned vehicles to breach and clear mines.
Although the technologies are new, this combination of capabilities recalls the method U.S. and allied NATO forces practiced during the Cold War in West Germany to confront numerically superior Warsaw Pact ground forces protected by layered air defenses. The Joint Air Attack Team (JAAT) was developed to synchronize attack helicopters, artillery, and close air support by fighter planes to ensure a constant barrage of the enemy in case of a ground force attack. Pooling NATO assets in this way was designed to give the alliance’s forces the mass, maneuverability, and flexibility needed to overcome superior numbers, avoid a war of attrition, and escape the type of bloody slugfest that characterizes the current stalemate in Ukraine.
In Ukraine’s case, a modernized JAAT would encompass, among many things, armed UAVs carrying Maverick and Hellfire missiles, loitering munitions, precision-guided artillery shells, and extended-range standoff missiles fired by aircraft. These systems would be coordinated in an electromagnetic environment shaped by Ukrainian operators to dominate the local airspace, saturate the battlefield with munitions, and clear mines to open the way for a ground assault. This updated JAAT—let’s call it electronic, or eJAAT—would create a bubble of localized air superiority that would advance as the combined arms force advances under the bubble’s protection.