Weathering the Storm: Western Security Assistance on the Defensive in Ukraine

Heat of battle: Ukrainian soldiers fire artillery at Russian positions near Bakhmut. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

Evolving Russian tactics and sustained pressure along the frontline have pushed Ukrainian forces onto the defensive in 2024. If the West wants to keep Ukraine in the fight, it must adapt its security assistance accordingly.

A Javelin anti-tank missile costs almost $200,000 and will destroy one Russian tank. The average battlefield drone – with upgraded sensors and other modifications – costs around $2,000 and is equally effective under most circumstances. Hence, $200,000 would enable the Ukrainians to buy and deploy 100 drone systems and cause a commensurate amount of damage to Russian vehicles. While presenting this disjuncture at an irregular warfare conference in Washington about the growing problems of cost, scale and benefits of weapons systems in December 2023, a Ukrainian Colonel approached one author of this article to express agreement that their military needs to shift towards cheaper and more sustainable approaches to defeating the Russians. The Ukrainian Colonel noted that early in the war, more expensive systems such as the $5 million Turkish TB2 drone were highly effective and useful. However, the Russians have adapted to this system, limiting its impact over the past year. Likewise, the Colonel mentioned that the Ukrainians no longer use Javelins as much because Russian armour tactics have changed.

Such developments point to a concerning trend. Since August 2021, our US Department of Defense Minerva team has interviewed hundreds of NATO, US and Ukrainian military personnel and policymakers across Europe and in Western capitals. Recent interviews paint a picture of a war that is shifting to a more dangerous phase as frustration grows between Western leaders and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Security assistance efforts are presently at risk for a set of political reasons we review below. Policymakers, planners and operators we speak to also tell us of a growing mismatch between this assistance and Ukrainian needs – often the product of slow bureaucratic processes, risk aversion and organisational resistance to the valuable lessons of two years of intensified combat against rapidly evolving Russian forces. They tell of a reality – which several of us have seen firsthand – of a battlefield increasingly littered with drones and electronic warfare, requiring a major shift in tactics that no Western military is prepared for. At the heart of the problem is a tendency for Western assistance to reflect the war that Western policymakers and planners would prefer to fight, rather than the war Ukraine’s military is fighting. Our project’s key purpose and the reason for this article is to illuminate this reality and point to a better path.

As the Russo-Ukrainian War drags into a third year, Western capitals have become increasingly concerned about providing open-ended assistance to Ukraine, particularly as initially strong public support for this assistance has waned and aid to Ukraine has become wrapped up in various domestic issues such as debates about border controls in the US and agricultural subsidies in Poland. Leaders in Kyiv are frustrated with Western expectations and constraints on how they are supposed to conduct the defence of their country against Russian aggression. Many Ukrainian soldiers we speak to complain about their Ministry of Defense (MoD) not properly equipping and supplying them on the front. This problem has led to the emergence of informal security assistance; most Ukrainian units rely on volunteers, charities and non-governmental organisations for lethal and non-lethal aid and training. Despite such pessimism, one cannot ignore the fact that over $100 billion in military aid from Western backers has translated into Russia losing over 350,000 troops and over 6,000 main battle tanks during the war.

Ukrainian forces have skilfully compelled the Russians to extend their supply lines and complicated their logistical operations. This situation makes it more difficult for Moscow to win a war of mass, firepower and attrition. Innovative upgrades to weapons, extended ranges of air and sea drones, and novel tactics have enabled the Ukrainians to seriously degrade Russian combat operations in the Black Sea, along the eastern contact line and all the way down to Crimea. In fact, one commentator has come to the conclusion that Ukraine’s military is at least three times more efficient than Russia’s. Adroit Ukrainian strategic communication has helped establish pro-Ukrainian narratives to counter Russian propaganda. This ability to convey successful Ukrainian military operations has been an important tool in hammering home the importance of Western security assistance in achieving a Ukrainian victory.

In this article, we assess the last year of the war and what lies ahead in Ukraine regarding Western security assistance. We highlight the difficulties, shortcomings and impacts of US ‘strategic dithering’. We soberly assess Ukraine’s situation and forecast what Ukraine needs in 2024 to fend off a painful Russian offensive. Ukraine’s future requirements centre on five issues: Ukrainian overall resilience; a focused and effective security assistance plan; preparing a robust Ukrainian defence in the face of an unrelenting Russian offense; espionage operations against Russian military-related infrastructure; and scaling up the use of cheaper and smarter autonomous weapons.

2023: A Year of Strategic Dithering

As Eliot Cohen has noted, ‘Western diplomats need to stop whining about Ukraine. Allies can be exasperating. But try being invaded by your neighbour and lectured by everyone else’. Similarly, Phillips P Obrien has identified how the US micromanages the war in Ukraine by reluctantly providing needed weapons systems at a much slower pace relative to the Europeans. For example, the US provided Ukraine with 31 Abrams tanks, but it only sent downgraded variants out of fear that the technology would be captured and exploited by the Russians. However, the UK provided 28 Challenger 2 tanks, and various European militaries and the Canadians sent Ukraine over 100 Leopard 2 tanks with their best kit (sensors, software and so on) to maximise their combat effectiveness for the Ukrainians. The US approach to Ukraine is best described as strategic dithering: doing enough so Ukraine doesn’t lose, but not enough to help it win.

External pressure on Kyiv to produce results with the tens of billions received in military aid has pushed it into a paradoxical position of using Western equipment and training against under-equipped and under-trained but well dug-in Russian troops. The tension caused by external expectations and pressure to perform against Russian forces likely put Zelensky in the position of having to dismiss the head of Ukraine’s ground forces, General Zaluzhny, just to appease Western capitals. Additionally, Russia has the benefit of airpower, with significantly more helicopters and attack aircraft. Within months of the summer 2023 counteroffensive, the Ukrainians gave up on Western battle tactics because they lacked sufficient airpower to counter Russian air forces and defences. The critical factor, however, has been the persistent inability to mass forces without detection. This reality – a product of technological innovations and organisational adaptation that was not difficult for our team and certainly not for Ukrainian forces to detect early in the full-scale invasion – doomed the offensive from the start.

There is a tendency for Western assistance to reflect the war that Western policymakers and planners would prefer to fight, rather than the war Ukraine’s military is fighting

Unfortunately, even with Ukraine slated to receive some F-16s in early 2024 out of the total of 60 pledged, these US-made fighter jets will not be a ‘silver bullet’, primarily because it will take Ukrainian pilots hundreds of hours of flight time to become proficient in combat. Much like the downgraded Abrams tanks, the Ukrainians will receive older F-16 variants (last upgraded between 2003 and 2005) which lack advanced avionics, software and sensors, and the most advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles will not be supplied until 2026. Thus, even with the addition of more airpower, the Ukrainians will not be able to field enough F-16 sorties to deter or shoot down Russian Tu-95s that attack Ukrainian cities with hypersonic air-launched ballistic missiles from a considerable standoff distance. If Washington wants improved outcomes, the dithering on properly helping, arming and training leaders in Kyiv should be unshackled from crossing Russia’s imaginary ‘red lines’. Not providing appropriate aircraft squanders the opportunity to achieve strategic ends after the decision to equip Ukrainians with F-16s sent the political signal to Russia’s leadership that Western leaders were at least willing to test that Russian red line.

The lack of Western airpower is only one of the failures of security assistance. Much of the equipment sent to Ukraine lacks crucial components. For example, over 40 US Bradley infantry fighting vehicles arrived on the front with bad batteries and poor wiring. Ukrainians near the front relayed to us that many M777 155mm howitzers arrived without the prerequisite aiming equipment. The lack of adequate maintenance and repair parts compounds the difficulties, with some Ukrainian troops telling us about US-made M-4 rifles breaking down after a week of use in the trenches. Many of these issues could have been avoided if there were sergeants doing a common-sense check of equipment before it was sent across the border into Ukraine.

The first two years of the war have involved a scattered and uncoordinated, yet rapid, equipping of the Ukrainian army. The Ukrainians put an abundance of faith in Western equipment and training, delaying the summer offensive until its arrival. Not only was the training not specific to the Ukrainian theatre, but it gave time for the Russians to enhance their ‘Surovikin Line’ of defences.

A Winter of Change – What We See Now

A UK artillery officer who had trained Ukrainians on AS-90 self-propelled artillery told us the Ukrainians are fighting a ‘cyberpunk war’: First World War-style trench warfare and defence in-depth but with a kill chain dependent upon 21st century technology like drones and Starlink communications. The sort of combined arms manoeuvre being conducted in Ukraine is a potpourri of doctrines and tactics borrowed from Wikipedia, YouTube, social media like Telegram, video games like War Thunder, and US/NATO/Soviet training manuals. Recent footage of the smaller Bradley fighting vehicle defeating a much newer Russian T-90M main battle tank showcased Ukrainian ingenuity, as the victorious Ukrainian gunner said: ‘But as I played video games, I remembered everything. Both how to hit and where. I could stop him at any cost’.

The lack of a unified theory on the Ukrainian way of warfighting has the benefit of flexibility and quick adaptation. But without specific Ukrainian tactics, techniques and procedures, the effectiveness of each combat unit becomes dependent on personalities and interpretations of how much mission command (that is, flexibility) to empower subordinates with to execute missions according to their own initiative. The lack of properly trained Ukrainian staff officers hinders the planning and conduct of combat missions. Western professional military education programmes could scale up to train staff officers on the US Military Decision-Making Process or the UK’s 7 Questions combat estimate method.

Innovation and adaptation in the cyberpunk era of warfare makes the battlefield perilous for high-value weapons systems and more dangerous for the concentration of forces that needs to be massed for effective (counter)offensive operations. For instance, one Ukrainian officer mentioned that ‘bad weather is a bigger problem for assaulting Russians’ but the ‘lack of ammo is the biggest problem’ around Robotyne, where the average brigade can only shoot about 80 mortar and artillery shells daily. Because of Russian electronic warfare capabilities, most Western-donated smart artillery rounds are degraded because of highly proficient Russian electronic warfare jamming abilities. Such Russian jamming also prevents communications between Ukrainian units, reducing command and control abilities and undermining their ability to conduct the sort of combined arms manoeuvre that Western military advisors taught them previously at bases across Europe.

The rise and proliferation of First-Person View (FPV) drones (known as ‘suicide or kamikaze drones’) with improved sensors has caused both the Ukrainians and Russians to emphasise their use to overwhelm localised positions. The threat of FPV drones is so high that the Ukrainians are ‘trying to spread the practice of hitting UAV operators’. As relayed to us by one Ukrainian FPV hunter, ‘FPV drone is cheap, FPV pilot is months of training… we call it “killing smart Russians”’. This suggests an alternative approach to attrition, as Ukrainian forces are compelled to target Russian mass less, and smarts more.

The ultimate course of the war depends on which side masters a new technology at scale, creating enough mass to break the ‘will to fight’ of the opponent’s forces

Two years of war have exhausted front-line Ukrainian troops. More experienced troops like the 47th Mechanized Brigade have fought intense battles without respite. In June 2023, the 47th – one of the ‘Western-equipped’ brigades – fought a terrible battle at Mala Takmatchka, notably losing a number of Bradleys and Leopard tanks. When the Russians began their massive offensive in Avdiivka in mid-October, the 47th were sent to defend against this Russian surge. The Ukrainian MoD sent these soldiers, who were supposed to be recuperating and reconstituting from a summer of combat, to defend against what may become the largest Russian offensive since the beginning of the war. Many of the civil society actors volunteering to help these Ukrainian units on the front are also increasingly exhausted, getting hurt and/or running out of money.

Many in the West mistakenly think that Russia has a stunted, top-down, Soviet-style army. Legacies matter, but so does a capacity to adapt and an eye for innovation. The Russians are doubling down on ‘meat attacks’ akin to Soviet General Zhukov’s human wave doctrine during the Second World War, pressing continuously on large swaths of the front and simultaneously attacking in Adviivka, Kupyansk, Lyman and Bakhmut. For example, Russia is using paratroopers to pressure the Ukrainian special forces’ nascent beachhead across the Dnipro near the village of Krynky. It is likely that Russia senses Ukrainian fatigue and is slowly building pressure until something along the front gives. Russia absorbs troop losses, doubling down on its strategy of attrition. To make matters worse, as the Kremlin pursues an aggressive attempt to mobilise force including a partial reserve mobilisation, crypto-mobilisation, prison recruitment and mercenaries from Africa and the Middle East, Ukraine is hurting for troops. Attempts by Kyiv to increase recruitment have been contentious, but are needed, as one interview indicated that the Ukrainians may have lost over 70% of their combat experienced personnel since 2022.

New Year, New Battles

A renewed Ukrainian offensive campaign in 2024 is unlikely. Ukraine must first recruit and train enough fighters, and the MoD would need to properly equip and arm them for successful defensive operations, including enough 4x4 vehicles for Ukrainian forces to get around on the front. Many Ukrainians tell us that MoD-supplied 4x4 vehicles never arrive, leading to reliance on vehicle donations from volunteer groups like NAFO. Western armaments would need to increase alongside Western training that accommodates the Ukrainified way of war and rapidly shifting Russian battlefield tactics. Currently, Russia is firing five times more artillery shells per month than Ukraine, and is firing massive missile barrages against Ukrainian factories producing ammo, shells, gunpowder and drones. However, it is not a given that the Kremlin will continue to send thousands of Russians (and mercenaries) to their deaths in meaningless frontal assaults. Even if these ‘meat attacks’ continue, exhausting as they are in this battle of attrition, the more professional elements of the Russian military are not committed to fighting this war with reckless abandon.

Ukraine’s success in 2024 and beyond rests on overall resilience, a streamlined Western security assistance plan, and the development of defensive positions capable of withstanding Russian meat attacks and increasingly innovative hourly drone attacks. The following are some practical ways to help reach these goals:

  • The infrastructure and institutions that are susceptible to continued kinetic and non-kinetic Russian attacks need to be identified and made more resilient to attacks to ensure that people and processes can weather continued Russian bombings, cyber attacks and information warfare. Without such resilience, Ukrainian citizens and leaders may lose the will to resist, and Western backers may reconsider economic and military assistance.
  • The outdated Western way of training the Ukrainians in combined arms manoeuvre and the provision of stale Cold War-era weapons systems need to be modified considerably. The 51-member coalition supporting Ukraine should want more bang for its buck – as do the Ukrainians. This means Western trainers and advisors should constantly update and modernise programmes of instruction for the battlefield that Ukrainian soldiers face. The West should provide more professional military education to Ukrainian officers and senior enlisted personnel to help them out-think and out-fight the Russians. Current Western efforts to educate Ukrainian forces are too little, too late.
  • Ukraine’s forces need to invest in a resilient defensive posture, and would benefit from Western help to do so. This means barricades, trenches, minefields and counter-drone capabilities to resist Russian assaults while Ukraine regenerates a more capable and rested military.
  • Ukraine should continue espionage operations that punish Russian critical infrastructure such as the Trans-Siberian Railway and energy infrastructure to undermine Russian military-industrial production. Indirect Western support for these operations will involve challenges in escalation management, but they should offer opportunities to disturb the equilibrium of Russia’s frontal approach in a manner that minimises Ukrainian casualties.

The ultimate course of the war depends on which side masters a new technology at scale, creating enough mass to break the ‘will to fight’ of the opponent’s forces. To break the stalemate in favour of Ukraine would require a cheap and innovative way of clearing hundreds of meters of Russian minefields, and simpler and less risky ways of clearing Russian trenches and layers of defensive positions. Given our numerous discussions with those involved in the fight, doing this effectively requires producing and fielding at least 10,000 autonomous air, land, and sea drones per week with the requisite sensors, AI and firepower to punch through Russian lines and break morale. Such AI would effectively allow drones to be unjammable as they would autonomously decide who and what to target.

Some may find the suggestion of helping the Ukrainians field cheap autonomous drones to be unethical. Critics should be reminded that if Russia masters the employment of thousands of cheap ‘slaughterbot’ drones that use AI for targeting on the battlefield, as it is now attempting to do, the Ukrainians will pay the high price of losing the war and ivory-tower moral hubris in Western capitals and universities will be complicit in this strategic failure. Either way, this war is letting the ‘cat out of the bag’ when it comes to battlefield innovations and the rise of ‘smart weapons’. The West must stop dithering and commit to helping Ukraine to ensure that Russia doesn’t master cyberpunk warfare first.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense (DoD), the US Government or RUSI. No DoD funding was used for visits to Ukraine. This article was supported by Levy Chair funding at the US Naval War College and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research under award number FA9550-20-1-0277.

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