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A new phase in the war of attrition. What’s holding back the Ukrainian counter-offensive? Will mobilization help the Russian side? What are the air strikes on Kyiv and Belgorod all about? Our analysts explain.

Source: Meduza
Anna Kudriavtseva / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

The war in Ukraine has moved into a new phase. While both armies are struggling in the autumn mud, each side is covertly preparing for serious action in the winter. These preparations are not limited to mobilization, training new conscripts, and creating new military units. Without an air advantage on either side, the war threatens to devolve into a stalemate. In pursuit of that kind of advantage, both sides — and Russia particularly — are trying to overwhelm the enemy air defense systems, forcing them to waste ammunition, and trying to destroy as many aircraft and air-defense units as possible. This is probably why Moscow is bombing Ukrainian critical infrastructure, including power plants and substations, which the AFU simply cannot fail to protect with all available means. The West has responded to the change in Russian tactics by stepping up supplies of air defense equipment. The outcomes of the coming winter and spring campaigns will largely depend on which of the sides will ultimately gain that coveted aerial advantage.

Has mobilization in Russia affected the combat situation?

For the Russian army, the mobilization clearly marks a new phase in the war. Until now, it largely made do with the potential accumulated prior to the invasion. Although there aren’t any precise open-source figures, it can be assumed that the replenishments of “volunteers” that got to the front before September could not have compensated the Russian army’s losses. By fall, the depletion of pre-war ground forces led Russia to a heavy defeat in the east of the Kharkiv region, and another, local defeat in the Kherson area. This finally forced the Kremlin to call for mobilization.

But increasing the sheer number of the Russian troops in Ukraine (even the manifold increase afforded by 300,000 new troops, which is their official number) is not enough to guarantee any cardinal change in the disposition of forces. There are three factors to consider:

  • First of all, new conscripts do not turn immediately into combat-ready formations — this takes extra work, and time;
  • Second, new units need to be armed, equipped, and uniformed. Russia has problems here, too. There’s an obvious shortage of personal protective equipment, medical kits, and even up-to-date arms for all the mobilized conscripts. Supplying enough collective armaments, combat vehicles, and even experienced officers (in case a large number of new formations is suddenly created) may all present further problems. Under-equipped brigades and divisions are certain to stay inoperable for quite some time.
  • Third, Ukraine, too, is continuing to mobilize people. Despite the fact that it had already drafted around a million troops as of late summer, its human reserves are far from depleted.

Ukraine has already mastered the method of forming new combat-ready units out of yesterday’s civilians. At the start of its mobilization, faced with problems similar to Russia’s own, Ukraine opted not to create dozens of new brigades out of hundreds of thousands of new conscripts. Instead, its command increased the number of battalions within existing brigades — for example, by creating light infantry battalions moving around in civilian vehicles.

Kyiv has also deployed territorial defense brigades, not as independent combat units but as donors for the regular army brigades. (In theory, the Russian Defense Ministry could try to replicate this approach. Russian formations were understaffed before the war, and suffered losses during it. As of today, many of them cannot be considered combat-ready.)

The flow of weapon supplies to Ukraine from the West is unlikely to dry up. U.S. and NATO leaders have stated repeatedly that they will do everything to ensure that Ukraine does not lose the war, and so far they have kept their promise. As a result, the AFU will probably maintain its numerical advantage in the winter and spring (though perhaps not as overwhelmingly as in the fall). Ukraine is also likely to lead in the number of combat-ready formations. In places, Russian forces will have a firepower advantage — while at a disadvantage in the sheer number of precision-guided weapons, as well as in situational awareness. If there’s one thing that this fall has made clear, it’s that firepower alone is not enough for covering the entire front.

Given these factors, the Russian command (now headed by General Sergey Surovikin) seems to have understood that Russia will not win this war without disrupting the Ukrainian weapons supply.

Why doesn’t the Russian army disrupt the AFU weapons supply?

Moscow obviously doesn’t have enough forces to conduct an offensive that would cut off Ukraine from the West. (The AFU command anticipated that such an offensive might proceed from Belarusian territory.) Nor can supply be disrupted by missile strikes. Long-range missiles can only be used against stationary targets. Meanwhile, the particular missiles used by Russia lack the accuracy and warhead power that would be needed to destroy bridges over the Dnieper, which link the eastern and western parts of Ukraine.

To stop transports by railroad trains and military convoys, Russia needs aircraft and drones capable of both independent reconnaissance and immediate attack on identified targets. But the Russian command doesn’t want to use aviation deep inside Ukraine, reasonably fearing that this would lead to high casualties.

In the first 10 days of the war, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) tried to strike deep into the Ukrainian defense — and suffered heavy losses from Ukrainian air defense fire. Since then, Russia has mainly used aviation to support infantry. That support has not been the most effective. Low-altitude strikes, usually with unguided missiles, and from long distances, do help the Russian aviation avoid being hit by portable anti-aircraft missiles. Still, this approach rules out the possibility of air reconnaissance and immediate attack.

The bottom line is that the AFU is presently receiving uninterrupted arms supplies from the West. It also doesn’t have to worry about air strikes when sending reinforcements to the front. This has enabled Ukraine to deflect the Russian offensives, and to conduct many of its own.

If Russia is doing so poorly, why isn’t Ukraine advancing faster?

Partly, Ukraine’s advancement has been hampered by the fall weather. In the past weeks, Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk areas have all seen heavy rains. This affects road conditions and makes the terrain harder to traverse. (Of course, weather has been better in the Kherson region, but the AFU has still made no progress there in a month.)

It’s possible that the arrival of Russian reserves at the front — including the first units comprised of new conscripts — is also beginning to make a difference. Still, judging by the available videos of failed Ukrainian attacks, the AFU’s main problem is the Russian artillery advantage.

In August and September, the Ukrainian army was able to disrupt the Russian artillery supply by attacking dozens of munitions depots in the nearest Russian rear with HIMARS rockets. In recent weeks, though, there have been fewer successful attacks. At the very least, there are hardly any new videos of buildings exploding from secondary shell detonation. The Russian command must have been able to distribute its ammunitions storage, making the depots more difficult to find and destroy. At the same time, there are dozens of videos showing Ukrainian advancing units being thwarted by artillery fire. Many of those videos are from the right-bank Kherson region — the main goal of the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

What gets in the way of the AFU’s disruption of the Russian weapons supply is Russian air defense. Though it’s not all that effective, it still manages to down Ukrainian reconnaissance drones and missiles. This is why Ukraine doesn’t use planes, helicopters, or Bayraktar attack drones against the Russian artillery — even though, in 2020, Bayraktar drones had been very effective against Armenian artillery in Nagorno-Karabakh.

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How are the sides trying to shift this balance?

Beginning on October 10 — two days following the Crimean Bridge explosion — the Russian command launched a strategic bombardment campaign targeting the Ukrainian power plants and substations with cruise missiles and Iranian suicide drones. Later, it became clear that this campaign had been planned long in advance of the incident on the bridge, which became a mere pretext for the massive strikes. Their targets, meanwhile, were chosen in such a way as to force the AFU to concentrate air defense and aviation on protecting them.

Until then, the Ukrainian air defense relied on ambush tactics, which allowed it to counter Russian aviation while keeping its own losses down. This was done by only enabling the radars (which unmasks the air defense equipment) at the moment of a Russian plane’s passing, probably following an intelligence alert. Ukrainian aviation also tried to avoid losses: until recently, it was mainly used to support ground forces, and at low altitudes.

With the beginning of massive missile and air strikes, the AFU was forced to revise its tactics. Air defense had to enable the radars; aviation began to intercept cruise missiles and drones. As a result, both of them became accessible targets, from the Russian standpoint. Consequently,

  • during cruise missile salvos and drone sorties, Russian Air Force fighters with long-range air-to-air missiles, which have rarely been used before, lift into the air;
  • Lancet and KUB drones are deployed en masse against Ukrainian air defense positions. Videos of drone attacks on Ukrainian radars and SAM launchers have emerged.

In the very first days of massive strikes, the AFU lost three fighters in the Poltava region (one, according to official Ukrainian data, due to the nearby explosion of an Iranian Shahed-136 drone used by the Russian side). In addition, the need to intercept dozens of drones and cruise missiles forces the Ukrainian military to waste its already scarce Soviet-made air defense ammunition.

As a result, Ukraine needs the West’s urgent assistance with air defense systems supply. NATO did promise Ukraine systemic assistance in creating a new, echeloned air defense system. Still, actual deliveries may have to clear some obstacles. NATO countries traditionally consider the air force to be the basis of their air defense system. So far, NATO has declined to supply Ukraine with aircraft. Missile systems are scarce, and it’s been decided not to deliver the Patriot surface-to-air system to Ukraine. Other systems will come from different countries piecemeal, according to their means. Some of the systems have yet to be produced; obsolete ones (such as the the Patriot’s predecessor, the Hawk) might be reactivated. 

All in all, the Russian decision to attack Ukrainian air defense positions seems rational, since the West will have a hard time replacing disabled systems in a timely manner.

The AFU are also beginning to change their tactics. Towards the end of last summer, they received American long-range airborne anti-radar HARM missiles, adapting them for launch from Ukraine’s Su-27 and MiG-29 aircrafts. The missiles were used simultaneously with HIMARS multiple-launch rocket systems. When a Russian air defense system tried to intercept a HIMARS salvo, it would be targeted by HARM missiles. Visual evidence of the destruction of several Russian air defense installations and radars (including those in the Belgorod airport) is probably just a a skimming of what must have been an even greater number of successful attacks.

The depletion of enemy air defense is a necessary step to gaining at least a localized advantage in the air, which could pave the way for deploying the air force, or even drones, to attack the enemy’s artillery and to rupture its defenses on the ground. At present, though, neither side has enough power for the swift and massive disabling of the enemy air defense. This is why the struggle for an air advantage is turning into a war of attrition.

Russian drones in Ukraine

Unmanned and lethal Meduza's field guide to the drones being used in Ukraine

Russian drones in Ukraine

Unmanned and lethal Meduza's field guide to the drones being used in Ukraine

What will happen next?

No compromise seems likely to end the war in the near future. The Kremlin’s idea of such a compromise involves large territorial concessions by Ukraine. This cannot satisfy either Kyiv or its partners in the West. Ukraine is not currently inclined towards any kind of compromise — perhaps, Kyiv doesn’t think too highly of Russia’s ability to benefit from mobilization.

Strategic bombardments are unlikely to alter Kyiv’s basic position. Attacking civilian infrastructure rarely helps demoralize the defenders. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s military and technical potentials lie, almost in their entirety, safely outside of the country itself. The Kremlin, on the other hand, cannot negotiate over the annexed regions for the sake of ending the war, since it’s promised to “stay” with those territories “forever.”

It follows that the Russian command will have to find new ways of exploiting its remaining advantages (like its greater aviation numbers, and the greater power and range of its missiles) — to achieve, if not victory, then at least a lesser goal of securing some of the occupied territories. Until the Kremlin — or, less probably, Kyiv and its Western partners — are confronted with a real threat of outright military defeat, the war will continue.

Translated by Anna Razumnaya.

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