For two months Ukrainian forces have been endeavouring to fight their way through densely fortified Russian positions to breach the so-called Surovikin line in an attempt to liberate their territory. Fighting has been exceedingly hard, with heavy losses of equipment and personnel on both sides. Irrespective of how much progress is made over the coming months, Ukraine’s international partners need to focus their assistance on preparing Ukrainian armed forces for the next fight.
It is important to understand the challenge the Ukrainians are trying to overcome. Russian troops are fighting from successive layers of concrete-hardened positions, each behind 120-500 metres of complex minefields. They are backed up by significant artillery and attack helicopter support and protected by dense electronic warfare and air defences. Although Ukrainian troops tend to win when they get into close combat with the Russians, getting there without taking unsustainable losses is not always possible.
The Russians are also facing difficulties. With up to 50,000 troops on the southern front, they have around 25% of their forces committed to the fighting positions at any one time. When one removes support troops and those necessary for holding the flanks, this leaves them thin on reserves. The impact of a narrow margin for troop rotations, however, will take weeks to be felt at the front.
The Ukrainians also have longer-ranged, more accurate, and more plentiful heavy howitzers, limiting Russian counter-battery fire. The US decision to provide cluster munitions will extend the duration of Ukraine’s artillery advantage. Although western support has enabled Ukraine to gain serious advantages over Russian forces, it is also important for Ukraine’s international partners to appreciate what they got wrong over the past few months and to correct these mistakes.
A couple of months before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, I was lying on a hilltop watching a US mechanised battalion thundering down a valley, tasked with breaching a set of obstacles. The obstacles were less formidable than those in Ukraine, and the enemy in the exercise comprised a single company backed by limited artillery. Nevertheless, the US troops made a mess of things. Their reconnaissance troops failed to screen their vehicles, they went static in sight of the enemy and they were severely punished.
The fact that well-trained US troops struggle to conduct combined-arms obstacle breaching under more favourable circumstances underscores how difficult it is. Moreover, the US troops I was observing may have performed poorly, but they did so in training. If ever they have to do it for real, they will have had repeated opportunities to learn and improve. Ukrainian troops have not had that luxury.
What the Ukrainians would need in order to conduct successful offensive operations was clearly communicated to western capitals from July to September last year. The priorities were: artillery, engineering capability, tactical air defence, protected mobility, and collective and staff training. Of these, Ukraine’s partners have provided sufficient artillery and protected mobility. Engineering and tactical air defences have been less forthcoming. Collective and staff training have been slow to be set up, with Ukraine’s partners prioritising training individual Ukrainian soldiers.
There was a shift to training Ukrainian units after the decision to give Ukraine western tanks and IFVs (infantry fighting vehicles). But despite the requirement being identified in September 2022, the decision to proceed was not taken until January 2023 and has only been partially implemented. Months of delays gave Russian forces time to build their defences, significantly complicating the task for the Ukrainians. The upshot is that Ukrainian forces had around two months to master a panoply of western systems in varying states of repair, and to take new troops and try to prepare them for some of the hardest tactical tasks that can be demanded of a force.
Another problem is that much of the training provided has been poorly designed. Individual soldiers can be trained in Ukraine. What cannot be easily done there – with Ukraine’s training grounds targets for Russian strikes – is unit training above the company. For this reason, collective training has been organised on European training grounds for some Ukrainian units. However, western forces have a mantra that you should ‘‘train as you fight’’. Ukrainian troops have been clear that they have not been able to do this on western training areas. They have not been able to fly their UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) because of regulatory constraints, or use their own fire control software because it is not certified by Nato.
Perhaps the biggest problem is that regulations have been rigid in requiring us to teach Ukrainians how we do business, without there being adequate time to actually deliver all the relevant modules. Instead, courses need to be adapted to best amplify existing Ukrainian strengths. But to do that requires permissions to trainers to be relaxed to adapt what is taught, and a collaborative approach with Ukrainian staff to course design.
These bureaucratic constraints highlight a serious problem for Ukraine’s partners. While not actually fighting a war, the future of European security depends upon the outcome of Ukraine’s struggle. And yet western capitals continue to be process-driven and slow, applying peacetime approaches to much of their activity. Western militaries have made progress in adapting their practice since the start of the war. The rest of government has been slower to realise what must be done.
Nowhere is this more acute than in industrial policy. Although the strain on Nato stockpiles has been evident from July of 2022, Nato countries have been sluggish in expanding munitions production, let alone the production of replacement artillery barrels. Yet if this is not solved then advantages currently enjoyed by Ukraine will fade, while Nato will struggle to meet the readiness targets agreed in Vilnius. The future of European security, therefore, depends upon western capitals being able to take a longer view and making timely decisions. We are reminded every day of the cost of delay by the footage of the carnage in eastern Ukraine.
Jack Watling is a senior research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute