“When you attack us, you will see our faces. Not our backs, but our faces.”
The words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hours after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion on February 24, 2022.
They were prophetic. Many analysts expected Ukrainian resistance to crumble in days. But for a year, the Ukrainian military has faced down a much larger force, rolling back the Russians’ initial gains in Kharkiv and Kherson, holding the line in the hotly contested Donbas region.
In the process the Ukrainians have inflicted stunning losses on the Russian army, and laid bare the outmoded tactics, stale leadership and brittle morale of a force more impressive on parade than on the battlefield.
By contrast, Ukrainian units have proved nimble and adaptive, harnessing drone technology, decentralized command and smart operational planning to exploit their enemy’s systemic weaknesses.
And few would have bet that one year into this war, the vintage Ukrainian air force would still be flying.
Perhaps one of the most impressive examples of Ukrainian agility came on the first day of the invasion, when a large Russian helicopter assault force seized an airfield on the outskirts of the capital Kyiv, threatening to turn it into a decisive bridge for the invading force to surge further reinforcements.
The following night, Ukrainian special forces, supported by accurate artillery, penetrated the base, killed dozens of Russian paratroopers and disabled the runway. The Russian concept of operations, so confidently rehearsed on table tops, was crumbling in its first phase.
This action underscored Zelensky’s determination (“I need ammunition, not a ride,” he said as he rejected an offer from the United States of evacuation from Kyiv), as did the defiance of a small detachment on Snake Island with their vernacular retort to a Russian warship, a gesture that became a national meme within hours.
One month later the Russian column that straggled along highways north of Kyiv withdrew, as did battalions to the east of the capital. Moscow described the redeployment as a “goodwill gesture.” But it was the first of many overhauls to Russia’s battle plans, exemplified by the regular changes of command and the equally regular wringing of hands among the military bloggers.
The Ukrainians’ agility has been reinforced by infusions of Western hardware, much of it a generation better than Russian armor. To start with, it was British and US anti-tank weapons and Turkish attack drones that helped halt the Russian drive toward Kyiv by hammering the flanks of exposed columns, ambushing vulnerable points along their telegraphed avenues of approach.
Later came pinpoint accurate HIMARS multi-launch rocket systems, long-range artillery from France, Poland and elsewhere, that enabled Ukraine to degrade Russian command posts, ammunition stores, and fuel depots. Real-time intelligence collection and fusion (supported by NATO), was integrated, creating a battlefield where Ukrainian units detected targets more quickly than the cumbersome Russian force.
Air defense systems have blunted Russian missile and drone barrages and discouraged its air force from conducting missions directly over Ukrainian airspace.
But there has been a regular, and costly, lag between what the Ukrainians badly need and when it gets delivered. As one Ukrainian official told CNN this month, “We need help yesterday and we are promised it tomorrow. The difference between yesterday and tomorrow is the lives of our people.”
The latest iteration of this gap is the scramble to provide tanks after months of obfuscation. Leopard 2s, Challengers and Abrams M-1s have been earmarked for Ukraine and are vastly superior to the Russian main battle tanks. But the numbers are unclear – ranging from a few dozen to 300 – and even with a following wind the first won’t be in the field until April, and must then be integrated into combined formation battle groups, ready to take the fight to the enemy.
‘We need shells’
But on this first anniversary of the Russian invasion Ukraine has more pressing needs than main battle tanks. During a CNN team’s two-week tour of frontline positions, one refrain echoed time and again: “We need shells.”
One Ukrainian soldier appeared on television last week and said: “We need shells, shells, and, once again, shells.”
While Ukraine is absorbing and training on Western hardware, it is also trying to fight a war with Soviet-era armor, scouring the world for large-caliber munitions and spare parts. The “ammo deficit” is its Achilles heel, in the face of the vast Russian reservoir of artillery and rockets systems.
“It is clear that we are in a race of logistics,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg last week.
Ukraine’s shopping list, in order to prevail, might be divided into the now (shells, more air defenses, and longer-range missiles and rockets) and the next (tanks, Patriot batteries, and ground-launched small diameter bombs known as GLSDB with a nearly 100-mile (160-kilometer) range that have been promised by the US.)
The perennial risk is “not-in-time.”
One lesson the Russians have learned is to place logistics hubs beyond the reach of strikes, so the timing of GLSDB deliveries and of longer-range systems promised by the UK to Ukraine is all-important – to defeat mass with precision.
The Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies expects “the first GLSDBs won’t arrive until this fall, likely missing widely expected Russian and Ukrainian offensives that will determine the war’s future trajectory.”
Beyond the now and the next, Ukrainian officials are frustrated by the never category, which currently includes F-16 fighter jets and US ATACMS (Army Tactical) missiles, with a range of 186 miles (300 kilometers).
Ukraine’s allies have consistently refused to provide anything that would enable Ukraine to hit Russian territory, a red line duly noted by Moscow.
Kremlin plots its next steps
The first year of this conflict has thrown up plenty of surprises, but the next few weeks seem likely to bring a still more intense Russian assault at various points along the meandering front line from Kharkiv to Zaporizhzhia – to fulfill the Kremlin’s stated goal of seizing the rest of Luhansk and Donetsk regions.
Some Western officials expect the Russian air force – largely missing in action so far – to become a more important component of the Russian battle plan. “We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week.
As the prelude to the assault gets underway, the Russian high command may not feel encouraged. Repeated attempts to advance in the Vuhledar area (perhaps a laboratory for the wider campaign) have gone badly.
The failure even to deliver Bakhmut as a victory for the Kremlin before the anniversary is a reminder that the Russians are more capable of inflicting destruction than taking territory. Effective combined arms operations have eluded Russian battalions.
Senior US, British and Ukrainian officials have told CNN they are skeptical Russia has amassed the manpower and resources to make significant gains.
“It’s likely more aspirational than realistic,” said a senior US military official last week, with Russian forces moving before they are ready, due to political pressure from the Kremlin.
The Russian chief of general staff Valery Gerasimov was put in direct charge of the Ukraine campaign last month, prompting Rand analyst Dara Massicot to say that the “possibility of the Russians asking their tired force to do something that it cannot handle rises exponentially.”
If this much-anticipated offensive fails, after the mobilization of 300,000 men, what is the next step for the Kremlin?
If past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, Putin will double down. Perhaps there will be an (undeclared) second mobilization, a redoubling of missile attacks aimed at paralyzing Ukrainian infrastructure, even efforts to disperse the conflict. The US has expressed alarm over what it sees as Russian efforts to destabilize Moldova on Ukraine’s southern flank, accusations Moscow has dismissed.
The only playbook that has worked for the Russians in this conflict is to lay waste to what’s in front of them, so there is nothing left to defend. We’ve seen this in Severodonetsk, Lysychansk, Popasna and above all Mariupol.
Were Russia to capture the part of Donetsk still in Ukrainian hands, that would require demolishing an area the size of Connecticut. There are already issues with the supply of munitions to the Russian front lines, according to Ukrainian and Western officials.
A successful counter-attack by Ukrainian forces, especially with a thrust southwards through Zaporizhzhia towards Melitopol, would raise the stakes for the Kremlin still higher.
In September, Putin warned that “in the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us. This is not a bluff.”
Russia considers Melitopol and much of southern Ukraine as Russian territory after sham referendums last fall.
But Ukraine will need time to assimilate tanks, fighting vehicles and other hardware to break through Russian lines, which are deeper and denser than they were a few months ago.
It is possible, perhaps even likely, that after a burst of fury this spring the conflict will settle into a violent stasis, with little ground changing hands amid relentless attrition and high casualties.
The Ukrainian national anthem dreams that “Our enemies shall vanish, like dew in the sun…”
Not in 2023.