Ukraine’s vaunted counteroffensive is not going well. In the months leading up to its launch, proponents said it would be “decisive.” Former American general David Petraeus predicted “the Ukrainians [would] achieve significant breakthroughs and accomplish much more than most analysts are predicting.” But, instead, the front lines have barely budged, and Ukraine has lost enormous numbers of men and equipment.
This debacle provides important lessons for the United States and students of warfare more generally.
NATO Doctrine Runs Into Reality
Ukraine is using new tactics, equipment, and operational plans for its shock brigades after months of intensive training by NATO. NATO built these units in its own image, prioritizing offense, maneuver, and combined arms tactics.
Unfortunately, what looks good on paper does not always work in the field.
Extensive minefields, drone-sighted artillery, and entrenched defenders mean Ukrainian forces can barely advance into “no man’s land.” They are being stopped at the skirmish line and have gotten nowhere close to the second and third echelons of Russian defenders. Dozens of Leopard II tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles—NATO’s state-of-the-art land warfare equipment—have been blown up and set on fire by mines, kamikaze drones, and artillery during the stalled offensive.
In spite of much bragging in recent months about its superior training, equipment, and operational art, the NATO-trained brigades have not performed particularly well. Well-choreographed combined arms tactics were supposed to provide a significant advantage, but they neglected mine-clearance and air defense. Thus, Russian attack helicopters have had a field day blowing up Ukrainian armor at leisure. Judging by the barely avoided friendly-fire incident shown here, the Ukrainians are not maneuvering their equipment with a lot of panache, even when they’re not under helicopter attack. A lot is going wrong.
While NATO devoted a lot of energy and money to training, it has little recent experience with this kind of warfare. NATO training was based on an elaborate theory of how conventional wars would go, but experience is necessary to refine and modify such doctrines. It is telling that the one brigade making any significant advances during the counteroffensive was not one of the new ones, but rather one made up of veteran Ukrainian soldiers using ex-Soviet equipment.
Finally, as with the initial stages of the Russian invasion, the Ukrainians have neglected the principle of mass. Their brigades are advancing here and there, but the only way something could conceivably be achieved is by massing a dozen or more brigades in a narrow and vulnerable part of the front.
The whole affair has been oversold. I imagine Ukraine and NATO thought the blitzkrieg through the poorly defended Kharkov region in the fall of 2022 would repeat itself, but in Kharkov there were unique circumstances—most importantly, a lack of Russian manpower. Indeed, that defeat had much to do with Russia’s decision to mobilize 300,000 additional men shortly thereafter.
After all the hype, at the strategic level Ukraine looks like it is just mailing it in. Perhaps its leaders know the war is over, they know their western funders have been demanding action, and they believe a quick failed assault will permit a turn towards the negotiation stage.
Of course, conducting an offensive under these circumstances would be shockingly cynical behavior, as the men on the ground are going for broke and paying the price.
Does Modern Warfare Favor the Defender?
The ill-fated offensive seems to illustrate a broader change in warfare. If World War I was a stalemate, and World War II featured significant amounts of maneuver, one must ask whether current conditions favor the attacker or the defender.
The Israeli Six-Day War and the American Gulf War suggested modern wars would be fast-paced, airpower and tank heavy, and characterized by “big arrow” offensives.
For both campaigns, there are even more recent counterexamples. Israel’s wars in Lebanon, both in 1982 and 2006, bogged down significantly. In the first, the requirements of urban combat favored the defender. In the second, Hezbollah’s anti-tank missiles imposed significant casualties and interfered with the attacker’s momentum. This was not an entirely new problem; difficulties with Soviet surface-to-air and wire-guided anti-tank missiles caused the IDF significant trouble during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
While the Gulf War was an impressive victory—and it resembled the Six Day War in its speed—Americans fought against an extremely unmotivated enemy. Ever since, American military leaders have treated the war as a vindication of western doctrine and the harbinger of a technology-based “revolution in military affairs.”
This has proven both premature and risky, because the Iraqis could not have been more cooperative in refusing to maneuver, surrendering en masse, and conducting de minimis air defense. The Iraqi military was similarly unmotivated, disorganized, and incapable during the 2003 American invasion. In both cases, the enemy did not put American doctrines and technology to a serious test.
The United States has not had a significant conventional fight against a near-peer opponent since the Korean War. In Korea, despite some large movements in the early years, the war bogged down into a low-mobility war of attrition between heavily entrenched opponents.
The Ukraine War also illustrates the difficulty of conducting a war of maneuver. During the initial stages of the invasion, Russia deviated from its own conservative doctrine and conducted deep thrusts into the Sumy, Kherson, and Kiev regions, and avoided the entrenched defenders opposing Donetsk. These under-manned assaults, while they penetrated deep into Ukraine and caused a degree of panic, proved to be highly vulnerable to ambushes of their supporting units. These ambushes, in turn, left the tanks and armored personnel carriers leading the assault stranded without gasoline and other supplies far from friendly lines.
Images of destroyed and abandoned equipment fueled an outpouring of western propaganda dismissing the Russian military as incompetent and incapable. Russia’s “shock and awe” tactics turned out to be either a major mistake or a gamble that failed. Russia has since returned to a more conservative, plodding attritional strategy along the heavily-fortified frontline.
These changes suggest Russian leadership has adapted to the difficulty of offense. These adaptations also reinforce Russia’s broader concept of operations: while Ukraine is highly concerned with maximizing territorial control, Russia prioritizes the destruction of Ukrainian manpower, equipment, and morale as the true center of gravity for its campaign.
Can Anyone Today Conduct a War of Maneuver?
After the long and costly Russian victory in Bakhmut and the apparently failing Ukrainian offensive in the Zaporozhye region, an important question presents itself: how can military power be used effectively on the offense? This question is particularly important for the United States, because our entire foreign policy is devoted to power projection, and Ukraine is using our equipment, ammunition, doctrine, and intelligence. In other words, Ukraine’s results are a test case for the American way of war against a conventional opponent.
If Ukraine is incapable of imposing its will offensively—or only able to do so after long, grinding campaigns of attrition—that would presumably apply to the United States as well, whether in a direct NATO confrontation with Russia, but also in any future war with China, Iran, or some other conventional opponent.
The Ukraine War is the largest conventional conflict since World War II. It has little resemblance to the low-intensity guerilla wars that characterized American, NATO, and Russian conflicts during the preceding 75 years. There is much to be learned.
The most important emerging lesson from this war is that the defender is strongly favored, because defensive strategies leverage modern technology—particularly drone, mine, and missile technology—better than offensive strategies. As Clausewitz observed, “the defensive form of war is in itself stronger than the offensive.”
This is not, however, a permanent condition. It is likely some new technology will provide attackers an advantage and permit maneuver to resume. This happened in earlier wars, with the tank providing a way through the trenches of World War I, and the helicopter allowing vertical envelopment in Korea and Vietnam.
But, presently, the antidote to massive numbers of artillery, mines, trenches, surface to air, and anti-tank missiles has not emerged, save for nuclear weapons. And if either side resorts to those, everyone loses.