Eight months after Russia’s invasion, Vladimir Putin remains committed to the territorial conquest and destruction of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have won victories such as the recent counteroffensive around Kharkiv and now the Russians have ordered their withdrawal from Kherson. Still, the future is uncertain, winter is approaching, and the effect of Putin’s mobilization is playing out. The West must stop “shooting the duck in the back” regarding military aid to Ukraine.
Ukraine has proven capable of defeating Russian forces and deterring future Russian aggression, but Western leaders need to recognize what Russia is doing militarily and what it will take to defeat it. It is time to send a strong message to Putin and his generals come spring that their military will face a dire fate if they renew the offensive.
Russia’s strategic approach to war is neither random nor representative of a military power grasping at straws. Russia is pursuing a war strategy of war with the intention of slowly wearing down the Ukrainian military while constantly destroying civilian infrastructure. Putin is playing the long game and, predictably, has fallen back on traditional Russian military strategy and doctrine.
After losing the early stages of the war and the battle for Kyiv, Russia shifted its military strategy to the capture of Donbass. This shift represents a definite return to Russia’s traditional doctrinal attrition warfare. It quickly became clear that Ukraine needed weapons beyond javelins and stingers to overcome Russian firepower advantages. The interception of heavy weapons resulted in the destruction of the Ukrainian cities of Mariupol, Severodonetsk, and Lysychansk. From May to July, many observers noted that Ukrainian military losses were unsustainable, and in an attempt to avoid the destruction of its Donbas forces, the Ukrainians withdrew from their last positions in Luhansk Oblast, allowing the Russians to occupy about 25 percent of Ukrainian territory. .
The battles go both ways, however, and the Russian offensive strategy has effectively crippled their own forces. As Russia paused to regroup its forces, Ukraine launched a barrage of Western artillery systems, including the Himar, to destroy Russian command and control, logistics hubs, and key infrastructure such as bridges, robbing the Russians of a much-needed pause in operations. It also set the stage for Ukraine’s counter-offensive.
While the Russians prepared a counterattack around Kherson, Ukraine’s greatest successes were exploiting the weak Russian defenses around Kharkiv. With momentum again in favor of Ukraine, the Russian military changed its strategy – again responding in line with Russian military doctrine. Central to the war of attrition is the shift to an air and missile campaign aimed at destroying Ukraine’s civil and military infrastructure. However, the West once again ducked behind and strengthened Ukraine’s air defenses.
In what has been rightly described as a “campaign of terror” against Ukrainian civilians, we are witnessing the implementation of familiar elements of Russian military doctrine – strategic aerospace operations against critical infrastructure intended to disrupt and undermine an adversary’s war effort. Two of the four Russian military tactical operations developed for war with NATO, it is a rough version of Russian Strategic Aerospace Operations (SAO) and Tactical Operations to Destroy Critical Infrastructure Targets (SODCIT). With a new Russian commander in Ukraine — former aerospace commander General Sergei Zurovikin, who used this tactical operation effectively in Syria — it is not surprising that the Russians have returned to this element of their military doctrine.
Perceived changes in Russian military strategy provide Western leaders with a guide for future security assistance efforts that will deter and defeat Russian forces. Given this, it is likely that the aerospace campaign will be followed by a return to major ground attacks. It is time to stop shooting behind the ducks and give the Ukrainians what they need in advance to change the course of the war.
Of course, it will require the same weapons that have forced the Russian military to change its strategy—artillery, Hummers, guided multiple launch rocket systems (GMLRs), and armored vehicles—as well as new ones that we have been reluctant to provide. Some will require winter training; Others can now be moved to ensure that the Ukrainians can keep the Russian army on its heels and be ready in the spring.
The arrival of NATO air defense systems is welcome, but it is time to revisit the strike-fighter debate and provide modern aircraft. Russia’s response to the self-defense of the West in connection with the transfer of MiG-29 aircraft is a continuous escalation with air and missile attacks on the cities of Ukraine. In addition to drones, Iran may now supply Russia with sophisticated missile systems to replace its depleted supplies. This cannot go unanswered. We should no longer deny Ukrainian armed combat drones such as the MQ-1 Predator/Gray Eagle and the MQ-9 Reaper.
The attack on the Black Sea Fleet on October 29 was to be just the beginning. The West must continue to provide such systems as the strategic implications of Russia’s ability to launch unprovoked drone and missile strikes along NATO’s Black Sea perimeter and the project of naval power from southern Russia become clear. Empowering the Ukrainians to inflict losses on Russian air and naval platforms (in their areas of sanctuary operations) would give Putin what would happen if the war continued.
There are also short-term answers to countering the next shift in Russian strategy, which is likely spring ground offensives. Ukraine needs Army Tactical Advanced Missile Systems (ATACMS) with longer ranges to destroy Russian logistics, C2 nodes and drone bases. GMLRS and 155mm cluster munitions, specifically Dual Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM), are required. These munitions are compatible with existing systems, bring efficiency and can be delivered immediately. Ukrainians understand the risks associated with these weapons, and we must respect that. For the naysayers who rebuke the idea of transferring cluster munitions because the United States has a moratorium, to date we have failed in the face of Russian military strategy, resulting in the Ukrainians being unable to set the terms for a negotiated end to the conflict.
This is no ordinary time. The West has recognized the stakes that Putin’s war presents to the European security environment and the international order. If we continue to shoot ourselves in the back by allowing the Russians to regroup their forces and launch spring offensives, we will face the same decisions again after losing more Ukrainian lives and territory.
Putin has reacted aggressively to Western self-defense, reinforcing his belief that he is winning and that the West is weak and strategically incompetent. Changes in Russia’s strategy, consistent with their military doctrine, provide clues as to where they are headed. These trends may be imperfect, but they are still evident – the West must send a strong message by arming not only today’s fight, but tomorrow’s. That would change the course of this war without changing Putin’s strategic calculus and risk.
Retired Capt. Garrett I. Campbell headed the US Navy’s Staff OPNAV N5 Russia Strategy, Policy and Engagement Branch and served as a Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution.