When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the conventional wisdom among military experts was that it would all be over for Ukraine in a matter of weeks. Here was Russia, one of the world’s ostensible superpowers, its military five times the size of Ukraine’s, and with nuclear weapons to boot. At the start of the conflict, Russia maintained an advantage of nearly ten-to-one in defense spending and weapons systems. Ukraine, they said, was ill-prepared, ill-equipped, and Russia’s military was simply too powerful.
It hasn’t turned out that way.
Since Ukraine’s counteroffensive began nearly three weeks ago, the country has reclaimed more than 3,400 square miles. By contrast, Russia’s offensive in the east gained only 2,000 square miles in the past five months. Ukraine continues its advance via a successful offensive in the Kharkiv region (in which they launched a massive surprise counterattack to overwhelm unprepared and unmotivated Russian forces) and through its ongoing success in the Kherson region (where Ukrainian forces have basically encircled and cut off up to 20,000 Russians).
Then there is the panic in Moscow. Days ago, Putin announced the mobilization of 300,000 Russian reservists while also threatening nuclear war. The draft—Russia’s first since World War II—will force thousands of Russians who had previously served to report for duty, receive two weeks of refresher training, and immediately deploy into Ukraine. Russian conscripts' time of service has been extended indefinitely, meaning they will not be able to leave the fighting when their time is up. It’s hard to conceive of how much lower the morale of Russian troops can get.
All of this indicates that Putin is deeply concerned about Ukraine’s ability to win this war. He is right to be.
It has now been seven months since the war began, and signs from Ukraine and Russia indicate quite the opposite outcome that most experts predicted. So, how did all this happen?
Success in warfighting is a function of much more than the size of a nation’s military. It is also a function of strategy, allyship, doctrine, culture, and the will to fight, among many other factors. And Ukraine—not Russia—holds the advantage in every category except for military size.
Let’s take each in turn.
Since Ukraine’s victory in preventing Russia from decapitating the capital city of Kyiv in April 2022, Russia’s strategy in eastern Ukraine can best be described as a war of attrition. Russia massed its combat power and conducted large artillery barrages. These battles were temporarily effective, as Russia was able to make incremental gains in the Donbas. But it came at great cost: Russia expended massive amounts of ammunition and soldiers to make those small gains.
By August, the Pentagon estimated that as many as 80,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded. They lost thousands of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and artillery pieces, and have expended or lost tons of ammunition and supplies. They also lost at least a dozen generals and countless lower-level leaders. It will take Russia decades to train, educate, and ultimately replace these people. For Russia’s officer-centric military, these losses are particularly devastating as it greatly impacts their ability to mobilize a coherent fighting formation on the battlefield today. Military analysts were also surprised at the health and order of Russian equipment and positions—many resembled homeless encampments more than military outposts.
Ukraine had a very different strategy.
Over the past several months, Ukraine—being a much smaller military—wisely decided to surrender some territory in the East, pulling back to more defensible positions so that it could maintain the necessary combat power to fight another day. That day came on August 29, when Ukraine launched its massive counteroffensive. This offensive has been successful because Ukraine has a superior military by every measure other than quantity. As the war has progressed, Ukraine has also been able to replace worn down arms and ammunition, while at the same time acquiring new ones thanks to its relationship with the U.S. and other key allies.
Western aid has been critical to Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive. They’ve been able to strike Russian ammunition depots, command and control centers, and supply lines thanks to weapons provided by the U.S., the U.K., Poland, and others. These weapons include HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems), counter artillery and missile radars, HARM (high-speed anti-radiation missiles) air-to-surface missiles, and other superior long-range weapons.
Western aid has not just been about weapons. It has also included battlefield intelligence, planning assistance, and training for thousands of Ukrainian soldiers outside of the country. The Ukrainians have put that aid and know-how to work to immediate effect on the battlefield.
Just as critical to Ukraine’s success was the decision nearly eight years ago to have a professional force designed and trained so it could defend itself from Russian aggression. In 2016, Ukraine committed itself to building a modern military capable of meeting NATO standards. With the help of hundreds of Western trainers and advisers, Ukraine built an army that could execute maneuver warfare involving large-scale combined arms operations by the start of the most recent invasion. One of us was among them, and we were deeply impressed by their commitment to make such difficult reforms.
While Ukraine was adopting a NATO force and doctrine, Russia doubled down on their Soviet-era approach—a doctrine that relies on officer-centric orders and rigid, artillery-dependent formations. As Ukraine built a smaller, more nimble military, Russia continued to adhere to the outdated idea of amassing firepower and armor to overwhelm a stationary force.
In 2014, Ukraine’s military culture was much like Russia’s today: a highly centralized command structure where all decisions flow to the top. Risk-taking and battlefield initiative were not part of its military culture. But Ukraine learned through its experience in the Donbas in 2014—when Russia overwhelmed defending Ukrainian forces to take control of most of eastern Ukraine—that initiative was required when initial battlefield orders no longer fit the changing situation. Now, when the unexpected happens on the battlefield, lieutenants and captains are free to act immediately rather than having to seek permission and receive it after it is too late.
The second important component for Ukraine’s success is a national culture of military volunteerism. Russia’s active military may have been five times that of Ukraine at the start of the conflict, but few anticipated how significant a role volunteers would play in the defense of Kyiv. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens who were civilians on February 23—the day before Russia invaded—went to recruiting stations on February 24, or simply used their own arms to support the war effort. The Territorial Defense Force now numbers in the hundreds of thousands, and these volunteers have allowed Ukraine to commit most of its active duty military to the current counteroffensive.
Will to Fight
When the U.S. offered to evacuate him at the start of the conflict, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is famous for responding, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” The sentiment is common to many Ukrainians. Despite facing what was ranked as the second most powerful military in the world, ordinary Ukrainian men and women have demonstrated a strong will to fight for their country.
There is no greater test of a soldier or a people than war. The story of the Ukrainian people’s heroism is too rich to truncate here, but we are thinking of how thousands of civilians took up arms in February and March 2022, blocked streets, destroyed convoys, blew up bridges, and flooded rivers to prevent the fall of Ukraine’s capital. Or how just a few thousand men and women fought and held down 20,000 Russians for over 80 days in the city of Mariupol, ultimately withdrawing into their own version of an Alamo in the underground tunnels of a steel plant.
The most important difference between a Ukrainian soldier and a Russian one is their determination. Ukrainians prove every day that they are fighting for their freedom, families, and nation. By contrast, Russian soldiers have demonstrated their lack of motivation by refusing to fight, abandoning their positions when in danger, and attacking their leaders.
Despite Ukraine’s recent success, it’s important to remember that wars ebb and flow, and this war has been no different. Ukraine may be able to retake Kherson, but its current counteroffensive is not going to expel Russian forces everywhere. Ukraine’s military will eventually exhaust its capacity to continue this massive counterattack, and the larger Russian military will regroup and establish more effective defensive positions.
Nonetheless, the success of this counteroffensive provides a roadmap for Ukrainian forces: holding where they need to, slowly retreating where they must, and quickly counterattacking when the conditions are right. The ongoing offensive has demonstrated that Ukraine has a superior military that can overwhelm and defeat Russian forces, at scale, when they can achieve more favorable conditions. It has also provided a window into Russia’s military status: Russia cannot sustain their losses in this war.
If the West continues its level of aid and support, while Ukraine continues to build military capability and execute a superior war plan, the path to victory is clear. Under those conditions, it's only a matter of when—not if—Ukraine will win this war.
About the authors:
Liam Collins is the executive director of the Madison Policy Forum. He served as a defense advisor to Ukraine from 2016-2018 and is a retired U.S. Army Special Forces colonel with deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and South America. He is co-author of the forthcoming book Understanding Urban Warfare.
John Spencer is the chair of urban warfare studies at the Madison Policy Forum. He served 25 years as a U.S. Army infantryman, which included two combat tours in Iraq. He is the author of the book Connected Soldiers: Life, Leadership, and Social Connection in Modern War and co-author, with Liam Collins, of Understanding Urban Warfare.
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