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How to beat Russia: Here’s what Ukraine is doing right on the battlefield

Winning — or at least the perception of winning — is changing the narrative of many naysayers in the national security sphere who had previously been saying that Ukraine’s counteroffensive had stalled or even failed.

Similarly, the Biden administration appears to be changing course as well. Notably, a senior State Department official told reporters last week that, “It’s very important that Ukraine win this war. And by ‘win,’ I mean as President Biden said, Russians leave all of Ukraine.” 

Just like that, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Kyiv to “assess how the counteroffensive is going” and to announce a new package of “U.S. wartime assistance worth more than $1 billion,” words like “winning” have become fashionable again.

Or have they?

In a change of tone, the administration recently supported Ukraine by stating, “President Biden has been clear that any decisions about a negotiated settlement to the war are going to be up to Ukraine and President Zelensky. We have been clear about the principle of ‘nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine’.”

This is all good, but substantive commitments and actions must back up such words. Otherwise, they risk being hollow, narrowly intended merely to placate critics.

Unfortunately, White House actions up to now have pointed in that direction. The Biden administration has been secretly working behind Zelensky’s back with the Kremlin for a political solution “about Ukraine, without Ukraine.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley foreshadowed this in November 2022 when he said, “When there’s an opportunity to negotiate, when peace can be achieved, seize it.”

Biden’s administration has a history of negotiating bad deals, seemingly just to put them in the rear-view mirror and be done with them, without adequate regard for the consequences. Afghanistan and Iran come to mind. 

Kyiv must win, and that means the complete restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Crimea, and the removal of all Russian troops. Russian President Vladimir Putin is unlikely to accept such an outcome, so Zelensky will have to physically expel his army from Ukraine.

As the Ukrainian counteroffensive gains momentum in Zaporizhzhia, Bakhmut and elsewhere in the Donbas, the Biden administration is slowly climbing aboard the victory bandwagon. Yet unless the next tranche of aid translates into a precision deep strike capability — namely ATACMS, an expedited F-16 pilot training and fielding plan, cluster munitions for its rockets, more artillery and engineering assets — Ukraine will be forced to continue fighting its own deliberate timeline.

That is not necessarily all bad. The U.S. and NATO need to give Zelensky and his generals their due — maybe even learn a lesson or two from them, then modify and strengthen their support to Ukraine’s fight.   

Despite Washington-imposed limitations, Ukraine has masterfully orchestrated a Multi-Domain Operation strategy against Russia, to which the Kremlin has no answer. Russians are forced to react to conditions imposed upon them throughout the depth of the battlefield, including the Russian mainland. 

Ukraine’s relentless pressure across the entire spectrum is forcing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and General Vasilyevich Gerasimov out of their comfort zone. The Russian way of fighting — mass — is succumbing to the Ukrainian way, and that is contributing to an erosion of confidence.

It also led to mistrust between Shoigu and Wagner PMC CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin, resulting in a failed mutiny. Nor is it limited to within Russian inner circles. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan recently told reporters that his country’s reliance upon Russia to guarantee its security in its current conflict with neighboring Azerbaijan had been “a strategic mistake.”

Armenia is a member of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, along with Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. But the alliance is now on shaky ground, and the Kremlin is struggling to hold it together.

Uncertainty in Ukraine could refuel revolutionary aspirations in Kazakhstan. Moscow had to deploy security alliance troops there in January 2022 to suppress protestors and keep President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in power. Then in September 2022, border issues between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan reignited fighting between the two countries, forcing Russia to intervene and take “urgent measures to bring the situation on the border between the two countries back under control.”

There is a domestic effect as well. In Ukraine, the counterbattery fight; interdiction of Russian supplies; deep strikes into Crimea and mainland Russia; partisan and Special Forces fighting; anti-Putin activities behind Russian lines; and destruction of critical infrastructure all serve to erode Russian confidence in Putin and his regime. 

Zelensky’s Multi-Domain Operation strategy can be thanked for Russians’ frustration, which extends from to the soldiers in the trenches, to the generals managing the war, to civilians watching the destruction of military targets from their front porches, and even to the propagandists endlessly grousing about the progress of the war. The ongoing collapse of the ruble is also making elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg war-weary.

There are several positive lessons from the war in Ukraine. The biggest is that technology and advanced weaponry beat mass. HIMARS, the Javelin, drones, unmanned surface vehicles, dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, and air-launched cruise missiles have all rendered far less effective the Russians’ method of massing artillery fire and soldiers. Ukrainian ingenuity and innovation has contributed to drones with extended ranges up to 700 kilometers, allowing them to penetrate Russian air defenses and strike facilities such as Kresty Air Base in Pskov Oblast

Notably, Ukraine has focused on targeting artillery — specifically the individual weapon systems and the ammunition they fire. Hunter-killer drone teams work together. Reconnaissance drones seek out the weapons systems and ammunition storage areas, and attack drones deliver munitions to their geo-location coordinates to destroy them. 

The Ukrainian counterbattery effort has also significantly degraded Russia’s ability to support its front-line troops. This was validated by Russian Major General Ivan Popov, the relieved commander of the 58th Army in the Zaporizhzhia region. In a farewell speech to his soldiers, he called out the “shortage of radars tracking enemy artillery, which resulted in massive Russian casualties.”

Winning the close fight — the main effort — will not win the war if Ukraine cannot exploit the breakthrough. The introduction of dual-purpose improved conventional munitions has expedited the battle in the trenches, but the deep fight for interdiction sets the conditions that are necessary and essential to maintain momentum and achieve the breakthrough.

Successive defensive fortifications must be concurrently neutralized, supply lines disrupted, and supporting artillery destroyed. The supporting effort is equally important, as the Ukrainians have demonstrated with their masterful employment of Multi-Domain Operation.

Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer and led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012 to 2014. Mark Toth, an economist and entrepreneur, is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis.

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