So to recap, Russia invaded Ukraine, supposedly to keep NATO off its borders, even though Ukraine wasn’t in line for membership.
As a result, there are two new powerful NATO members—Finland and Sweden, and Ukraine is all but guaranteed NATO ascension after the war is over.
Great job, Vlad.
Hi all. I’m back after an adventurous two weeks in my native El Salvador, visiting corners of the country that I had never seen before (previously inaccessible because of either war or gang violence). The country went from being one of the most dangerous at-peace countries in the world to one of the safest after its current president, Nayib Bukele, eliminated most civil liberties and locked up over 100,000 violent gang members. It’s a reminder that people want to be safe and will embrace those who deliver it, regardless of the cost (whether it’s in lives lost during war, or the shredding of a Constitution). The increasingly autocratic Buekele is enjoying approval ratings of over 90%. It certainly was amazing being able to travel without fearing for my life or that of my partner’s, and we were there for just two weeks. For those living there? It’s been nothing short of life-altering.
But that’s a topic for another day. I will say that while I aimed for a full digital detox, I failed. But when I did have WiFi (which was about half the time), I watched videos teaching myself some new music software. I did no work. I spared myself videos of death and destruction and despair. I deleted Twitter and Slack from my phone. So I have little idea about what was written here by Mark Sumner or my amazing stand-in, RO37. Heck, I’m still not fully caught up on the last two weeks of war drama.
But what I did see immediately upon my return was people fretting about the pace of Ukraine’s counteroffensive, with many blaming it on the lack of aircraft deliveries to Ukraine. All that is freaking obnoxious. Breaching those lines, despite the unwarranted premature triumphalism of many, was never going to be easy. Yet even then, the current pace is well in line with what we should’ve reasonably have expected. Let me explain.
While there’s no official counteroffensive start date, we know Ukraine ratched up offensive operations in the first week of June and launched its first attacks on June 8. It is now July 9, so we’re talking barely four weeks in. In that time, Ukraine has notched several hundred square kilometers of gains, wiping out Russia’s gains from the entire last year.
But really, cry the critics and Putin apologists, at this pace, it will take decades for Ukraine to liberate all its territory! In many ways, this mirrors the ways we taunted Russia’s meager gains around Bakhmut the last eight months. But there’s a huge difference.
As RO37 noted yesterday, Ukraine still hasn’t committed the bulk of its forces. And I would add that even where we’ve seen its Western-trained storm brigades, we’re seeing small detachments in action, not full brigades. What Ukraine is clearly doing is probing lines, looking for weakness, goading Russia into ill-advised local counteroffensives to retake lost territory—allowing Ukraine to kill Russians out in the open rather than in protected bunkers and trenches. It is destroying Russia’s biggest asset, its artillery, and it’s doing so in droves.
In short, not much has changed since I was last here. Russia is still fighting ferociously in front of its defenses rather than in them, and Ukraine is still degrading Russia’s artillery to the tune of dozens of systems per day. I could’ve written those two stories yesterday and they would’ve been topical. Just update the dates.
This is called “shaping the battlefield,” and it’s part of every single competent major offensive in the history of warfare. The attacking army will always look to create the conditions that will maximize its chances of success.
During the Gulf War, the U.S. and its allies spent 42 days using airpower to soften up Iraqi defenses. They flew over 100,000 sorties and launched thousands of cruise missiles at key defensive targets before the first tank or infantryman crossed into Kuwait. During the Iraq War, the CIA shaped the battlefield by buying off Iraqi commanders and engaging Iraqi Kurds. Different wars require different strategies.
Ukraine doesn’t have air superiority and thousands of cruise missiles. And Russia’s main advantage isn’t poorly trained infantry—its artillery and the millions of mines it has strewn across the entire front line.
So to properly advance, Ukraine has to both degrade that artillery advantage (currently underway), and breach those minefields (also underway).
Both these shaping operations take time, and Ukraine is methodically managing it. All the while, it’s harassing Russian forces along the line, looking for those weak spots, and goading them into those bizarre counter-counterattacks outside of their defensive positions. It’s a veritable shooting gallery.
So it’s stupid to take stock of this counterattack by measuring the square kilometers of liberated territory. The key is to degrade Russian capabilities to the point that when Ukraine finally pushes hard, there’s little Russian resistance left.
One final note on this: There is no aircraft the allies could have sent Ukraine that would’ve changed the current battlefield calculus. None. For all its shitty equipment, the one Soviet-era system that has performed well for both sides is air defense.
It makes some sense; NATO doctrine is predicated heavily on air superiority, so the Soviet Union invested heavily in countering that threat. Even before it was reinforced by NATO systems, Ukraine’s air defense network effectively grounded the thousands of Russian aircraft from the first days of the war. And their air defense network is nowhere near as dense as Russia’s. So no, sending a few dozen F-16s would not suddenly allow Ukraine to provide close-air support to advancing Ukrainian forces, it wouldn’t allow them to fly over Russian lines targeting enemy artillery, and it wouldn’t do anything about those minefields.
At best, those F-16s, fielding long-range air-to-air missiles, would make it harder for Russian aircraft to engage from behind their lines, but that would be, at best, a minor improvement in the current situation.
Furthermore, Ukraine does have air power in its modern form: drones and rocket artillery.
With air superiority, NATO aircraft could penetrate enemy lines and target enemy artillery or troop concentrations. With the power of reconnaissance drones, HIMARS has managed to do both.
Here’s HIMARS taking out artillery much more cheaply and safely than any aircraft could ever do:
And HIMARS has been taking out Russian barracks since it arrived in theater.
Meanwhile, suicide drones are also working from the air:
Airpower is expensive. A modern F-35, the newest NATO-standard aircraft, costs around $110 million per copy, including its ground support equipment; $7 million per year in basic maintenance; and $42,000 per hour to fly.
Just that $42,000 would buy 100 kamikaze drones, able to hit far more targets than that aircraft in a one-hour sortie (plus the cost of the ordinance, which would run tens or hundreds of thousands more).
Yes, Ukraine wants F-16s, and it will eventually get them. Armed with anti-ship missiles, I’m excited at what they could do to the Russian Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol in occupied Crimea. I suspect Russia would abandon the base and move its fleet to its mainland Black Sea bases, under protection of a denser air defense network. The F-16s could also prove helpful in defending against drone and missile attacks.
What they wouldn’t do is make an appreciable difference on the ground, retaking territory on the front lines. For that, Ukraine already has the weapons systems it needs, it just needs more of them.
With thousands of M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and other such systems sitting in storage, I’ve long suspected that the bottleneck isn’t the United States’ ability or desire to deliver such systems, but Ukraine’s ability to train the personnel to operate them.
The last two presidential drawdown announcements (June 27 and July 7) have collectively announced an additional 62 M2 Bradleys and 57 Stryker armored personnel carriers for Ukraine.
Looks like it's the makings of yet another new Ukrainian brigade. All that’s missing is the tanks, but maybe they’ll be paired with the 100 Leopard 1s currently arriving in Ukraine? Once the M1 Abrams main battle tank spigot opens up, with thousands more of those in storage, Ukraine will have all the battlefield hardware it needs. The challenge will be training the personnel to operate that gear.
These are American foreign legion troops, speaking English. Note the size of the explosion—that’s an anti-tank mine taking out a humvee … yet all the soldiers inside survive. Western gear emphasizes crew protection. Equipment can be replaced. People cannot. And even from a utilitarian standpoint, it’s expensive and time-consuming to train soldiers. You can never get that back.
Honestly, seeing stuff like that makes me feel better. My son is currently deployed to the Middle East. Things are quiet now, but I like knowing that if things heat up, he’ll be well protected by his equipment.
Did you hear the one about Turkey promising to hold Azov commanders until the end of the war, then breaking the deal by returning them to Ukraine?
Putin has never looked weaker or more ineffective. Russia is left whining that Turkey didn’t even bother giving them a heads-up.
I’m seeing reports that Turkey may continue guaranteeing the safety of Ukrainian grain ships despite Russia’s insistence that it won’t renew the grain corridor agreement. Russia clearly cannot target Turkish ships lest it draw NATO into the war. It further highlights Russia’s growing impotence. Fingers crossed that the reports are true.
This is a great video of Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy bringing those Azovstal heroes home.