Now ten days into the conflict, the Ukrainian military appears to be holding firm on all combat fronts. How have they achieved this?
Much of the conversation surrounding the buildup to a possible invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Army dwelt on the assumption that Ukraine would capitulate rapidly. This pessimism was likely informed by the fiasco in Afghanistan, where large parts of the country were effectively handed over to the Taliban with minimal resistance. Ukrainians themselves are used to a long history of corruption and cowardice from their leaders, and had a low opinion of their own chances compared to the might of the Russian bear next door.
However, Ukraine has not capitulated. After one week its army and irregular formations have maintained an effective defence of the country on all fronts, capturing and destroying swathes of Russian armoured vehicles, while repelling repeated attacks against major cities. Morale is high. This is supported by the apparently surprising competence of all arms of Ukraine’s military, combined with regular footage of destroyed Russian assets, and a constant outpouring of support from populations around the world. Frequent reports of questionable veracity from state media that inflate the number of Russian vehicles destroyed each day will also be doing their part to raise spirits. Even in surrounded cities subject to daily bombardment, the anxiety of civilians is easily turned to hatred for the Russians and their unwelcome war machine.
The effectiveness and disposition of the Ukrainian forces has been the subject of much less discussion than that of their enemy. Part of this stems from a media desire to portray the Ukrainian forces as a kind of guerrilla struggle, a pastiche of the French Resistance and the American Revolution. This media fantasy is both wildly inaccurate and insulting, but leads to ample footage of unsupported Ukrainian infantry and civilians touring the internet.
The Ukrainian Army is a conventional one. It has defended the north of Kiev with several combined-arms counterattacks which have driven off Russian airborne troops, and it has operated effective anti-air defences in major cities. Due to the low number of tanks appearing in footage and reports, it would appear that there are Ukrainian armoured units held in reserve, which could potentially launch a strategic counterattack if Russian fronts become overextended.
It is also worth observing that although the Russian military vastly outnumbers that of Ukraine, in terms of the actual numbers of soldiers committed to fight, there is relative parity in most sectors. This is important because conventional wisdom has long held that a 3:1 force ratio is required by the attacker for a successful breakthrough — though the accounting of ‘force’ is rather woolly on a modern battlefield where armoured vehicles and weapons systems constitute ubiquitous force multipliers.
Ukraine benefits from an unprecedented amount of military intelligence. The intelligence arms of NATO and the USA are almost certainly harvesting online footage and combining this with AWACS and satellite data in order to provide an extremely accurate picture of Russian ground and air movements. Even Google Maps indicated a buildup of Russian troops prior to the invasion, presumably by tracking the unsecured smartphones of Russian conscripts. The Russians benefit from no such outsourced reconnaisance, and appear to be fighting a 21st Century war with 20th Century intelligence gathering.
Western aid to Ukraine has given Ukrainian formations a technological edge over the Russians in several areas. Using the NLAW and similar anti-tank weapons, Ukrainian infantry have demonstrated that they can take out any vehicles the Russians operate. Thus, in many areas the ‘underdog’ of the fight may actually be better-equipped, better-supplied, better-informed, and more numerous than local Russian forces. Of course, much of the Ukrainian force will consist of emergency conscripts with minimal experience or training — but the Russians also appear to be sending such troops into battle.
Where Is the Ukrainian Army?
We originally intended to use the same format for this analysis of the Ukrainian Army as our previous analysis of the Russian Army. However, as we spent more time researching, it became obvious that the precise disposition of the Ukrainian forces is neither available nor inferable from social media or the public record. This has important ramifications for assessing the progress of the war.
Commentary and analysis on the war has almost exclusively focused on the Russian military as the instigator of action. This makes sense, since the attacker generally holds the strategic initiative in a war like this. Yet the lack of coverage of Ukrainian movements creates challenges in assessing the progress of the war. When a front moves, is that indicative of a breakthrough, or simply vehicles driving through undefended countryside? When a front is static, does that signify a lull in the attack, or intense fighting in defence?
Following the first few days of the conflict, the Russian high command has likely internalised the fact that Ukraine will not surrender without a fight, or defect en masse. This is no Crimea. This realisation may have resulted in a change in strategy; instead of aiming to rapidly seize territory, they may have moved to an attritional stance where they seek to break the fighting ability of the Ukrainian Army on the existing fronts. This would have the advantage of reducing the supply line length for fighting fronts, as well as lessening the challenge of securing occupied territory against protests, guerrillas, and partisans.
Of course, there are still operations against Ukrainian territory, such as the repeated attempts to encircle Kiev to the west and sever the connection to resupply, or the gradual advance of Russian forces in the south around Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Mariupol. Aside from these types of operations, the static battle fronts are not necessarily indicative of a successful Ukrainian defence.
So where is the Ukrainian Army?
We can assume that there are major force concentrations around Kiev and Kharkiv, since these have been observed in heavy fighting over the past week. We know furthermore that there are sizeable garrisons isolated at Mariupol and Mykolaiv, including probably the bulk of the Ukrainian Naval Infantry (an elite and experienced branch consistsing of 5 infantry brigades, 1 artillery brigade, and several smaller independent formations). The 10th Mountain Assault Brigade and the notorious Azov Brigade are also believed to be surrounded at Mariupol.
There are likely to be many troops along the eastern front where limited fighting has been taking place with Russian-backed separatists for 8 years prior to the conflict, but these forces will be in danger of isolation over the next week or so if the Russians continue to advance in the south; it is also possible that many of the forces here were redistributed to other fronts such as Kharkiv.
The Ukrainian Army’s six tank brigades also remain elusive. A number of tanks have been recorded captured or knocked out in the east near Mariupol, which likely locates a brigade or two in this sector. More tanks are believed to be operating around Chernihiv and Kiev. There may be a brigade or two held as a strategic reserve.
Beyond this, we can only speculate for now concerning Ukrainian force concentrations. This important unknown factor could have a significant impact on the progress of the war, particularly if the next few weeks defy analysts’ predictions.
Finally, the location of Ukraine’s air assets also remains elusive, with some speculating they may be operating from airfields in Poland or Romania. However, the campaign has revealed glaring deficiencies in the Russian Air Force’s ability to mount large-scale air operations, with its sorties consisting of 1-2 planes without precision-guided munitions — so it is also possible that they are simply unable to neutralise Ukraine’s airfields.
Ukraine has enjoyed surprising successes in the air war. Its tiny airforce remains operational, and the skies above Ukraine are largely contested. They are even able to operate the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 combat drone in successful sorties against Russian anti-air systems, despite the drone’s poor speed and low specs. Previous footage has shown the Ukrainians making use of attack helicopters against Russian ground troops. Judging from the number of attack jets in Russia’s arsenal, both of these air assets should be dead meat on the battlefield.
Ukraine’s military intelligence advantage is likely crucial here. The Ukrainians’ aircraft are very similar models to those used by the Russians, which may interfere with the identify friend or foe (IFF) safeguards on Russian anti-aircraft systems; the capture of intact anti-aircraft vehicles such as the Pantsir S1 may also mean that the Ukrainians can fully imitate the signature of comparable Russian aircraft. The intensive surveillance of Russian positions by satellite and online intel enables the Ukrainians to identify gaps in Russian anti-aircraft coverage and strike with attack helicopters or TB-2 drones before the Russians can sortie in response.
Additionally, fighting over Ukrainian-held territory has resulted in several dozen Russian aircraft being downed by MANPADs and other ground-based SAM systems. The Ukrainians are clearly enjoying a home advantage, and leveraging their superiority in advanced Western-made surface to air missile systems.
Without enough footage to allow a detailed analysis of Ukrainian dispositions or tactics, this should provide an overview of some of the considerable advantages that Ukraine enjoys in the current war. While many of Russia’s problems are self-inflicted, Ukraine has beaten the odds in building a competent, well-equipped, and motivated army with which to resist the invasion.
Whether this will be enough to ensure their continued independence remains doubtful, however. Unless the Ukrainian Army demonstrates the capacity to launch effective counterattacks on a large scale, recent strategic developments may result in a negotiated peace or an escalatory NATO intervention over the coming weeks. Until then, concerned watchers from across the world will have to content themselves with sending arms shipments to Kiev and writing ‘Slava Ukraini’.
Photo Credit, Thumbnail: Ukraine Ministry of Defence. CC 2.0.
Photo Credit, Theodolite: military journalist Taras Gren, Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. CC 2.0.
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