The pro-Ukraine media space is furious at a New York Times story that seems to pin the blame for slow counteroffensive advances on Ukraine itself, absolving its allies who slow-walked aid for so long. The premise is this: Ukraine received Western weapons and training, but that didn’t work, so they’re back to Soviet-style tactics of massive artillery barrages and small-unit advances, and that’s slow, which is bad.
Ukraine’s decision to change tactics is a clear signal that NATO’s hopes for large advances made by Ukrainian formations armed with new weapons, new training and an injection of artillery ammunition have failed to materialize, at least for now.
It raises questions about the quality of the training the Ukrainians received from the West and about whether tens of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nearly $44 billion from the Biden administration, have been successful in transforming the Ukrainian military into a NATO-standard fighting force.
Interestingly, the facts of the story aren’t wrong, but the analysis is sophomoric at best.
The idea that anyone thought four to six weeks of combined arms training would somehow mold an effective combined-arms fighting force up to NATO standards is so ridiculous, I can’t imagine anyone thought it was true. I wrote about it repeatedly, noting that combined-arms maneuvers—in which armor, infantry, artillery, engineering, electronic warfare, aviation (drones), logistics, and intelligence all work in concert toward an objective—are incredibly hard even for the best-trained, best-drilled armies. I still remember a Ukrainian infantry platoon assaulting a tree line, screaming into a phone wondering where the engineers were at. That was just combining two elements in a small-unit-sized operation and they couldn’t pull it off. At scale, it’s infinitely harder.
That said, that has nothing to do with the effectiveness of the $44 billion in military aid Ukraine has received so far from the United States. That $44 billion literally saved Kyiv and drove Russia out of Kherson city and Kharkiv oblast. It stabilized the lines, forcing Russia to move to the defensive, where it hopes to freeze the conflict, clinging to its illegal territorial gains.
In fact, just a small percentage of those billions has been allocated to vehicles and munitions that could be directly attributable to the current counteroffensive, or the idea of crafting a “NATO-standard fighting force.” And really, there’s a simple explanation for that: Ukraine’s allies have vacillated time and time again in delivering the necessary weaponry Ukraine has needed to wage this war.
I’ve made clear that I don’t think any single weapon system, including F-16 fighter jets or ATAMCS long-range rocket artillery, are the silver bullet that would lead Ukraine to victory. But let’s imagine an alternate world, where the allies rushed absolutely everything Ukraine needed to win the war.
We’re 17 months into the war. The first two months, it was rational for Ukraine’s allies to assess whether Ukraine had the will and means to fight. We had just seen the Afghan government collapse overnight, even before American troops were fully withdrawn from the country. There was no guarantee Ukraine wouldn’t follow suit.
Two months in, it was clear Ukraine could win. In fact, it had already defeated Russia’s war aims. At that point, the question was how to best oust Russian forces from occupied territory.
If Ukraine’s Western allies really had sought to craft Ukraine into a “NATO-standard fighting force,” this would’ve been the time to do it. And that would have meant fully equipping Ukraine with the kind of gear and training that NATO-standard fighting forces get.
F-16s: They wouldn’t be a dominant feature on the battlefield, but by now, they would have chased Russia’s Black Sea Fleet away from Sevastopol, preventing them from launching punishing missile strikes against Ukrainian cities, and in particular, Odesa’s port and grain infrastructure. There isn’t a lot of Russian air activity over the Zaporizhzhia front, but deterring that with long-range air-to-air missiles would certainly help.
Long-range rocket artillery and other missiles: Ukraine’s first counteroffensive was a resounding success for two reasons: 1.) Russia didn’t have the extensive network of defenses it has today, and 2.) GMLRS shorter-range rocket artillery absolutely decimated Russia’s supply depots close to the front.
Well, Russia learned its lesson. It built those defensive lines and it moved its supply depots outside of GMLRS range (around 80 kilometers). It wasn’t until very recently that Ukraine was able to hit those more distant targets with newly supplied British and French cruise missiles, including ammo depots, command and control centers, and bridges.
It certainly would’ve been nice to have more time to degrade those supplies over the winter and spring. And even now, the total number of British and French cruise missiles are only around 100. Only the United States can significantly bolster that supply, and only the United States has longer-range missiles able to hit the Kerch Bridge, connecting mainland Russia to the Crimean Peninsula—one of the most important supply routes of military equipment into Ukraine.
But the United States still isn’t sending ATACMS, and that is giving Germany an excuse not to send its version of the cruise missile that the U.K. and France have already sent.
Tanks: Ukraine began asking for main battle tanks from nearly the start of the war. We have subsequently found out that Europe’s supply of Leopard tanks is woefully small, and what exists was in terrible working order. Only the Turks and Greeks seemed to have properly working gear, and that’s because they’re pointing those weapons at each other.
The logistical footprint of American M1 Abrams battle tanks is immense, and the challenges huge. That means that getting them to the battlefield was going to take time. But had that process begun early last year, we’d be there already. We’d have those behemoths storming Russian trenches today. And while I can’t say whether they’d be more effective than Leopards or Soviet-era tanks have been, at least we know the U.S. has thousands in storage.
Yes, most of them have depleted uranium armor, which the U.S. cannot, by law, export. But laws could be changed if there was a will, and that armor can be swapped out. It takes time! Unfortunately, “it takes time” was used as an excuse to do nothing.
The overarching argument against sending those weapons at the time was sound: The U.S. and its allies were prioritizing shipments of the stuff Ukraine needed immediately. At the start, that was anti-tank guided missiles, anti-ship missiles to deter an amphibious assault on Odesa, shoulder-fired air-defense missiles to ground the Russian air force, vehicles to launch GMLRS rockets (HIMARS and M270s), air defenses for cities, and so on. But that didn’t mean that preparations couldn’t be made to deliver things like tanks and aircrafts in the future.
And the equipment the U.S. sent was lacking, like woefully obsolete M113 infantry personnel carriers instead of still-old but far more modern and powerful M2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles. Again, some of the rationales made sense—the M113 wasn’t just a simple machine to maintain mechanically, but the U.S. and other Western allies had thousands in stock. By my rough count, Ukraine has received around 1,300 of them, which have real value. But that shouldn’t have stopped us from sending the better kit.
Anyway, tying the value of the $44 billion in military aid to the current counteroffensive is patently absurd. The U.S. dictated what weapons it would prioritize and send, which for the most part were old and defensive weapons. Regardless, Ukraine has accomplished incredible feats with that gear. By all objective metrics, that aid has been fabulously successful.
Thankfully, both Michael Koffman and Rob Lee—fresh off their visits to the front lines—make an appearance in that New York Times article.
“The counteroffensive itself hasn’t failed; it will drag on for several months into the fall,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who recently visited the front lines. “Arguably, the problem was in the assumption that with a few months of training, Ukrainian units could be converted into fighting more the way American forces might fight, leading the assault against a well-prepared Russian defense, rather than helping Ukrainians fight more the best way they know how.”
That assumption was certainly shared among lay people, the kind that love to argue that, “Ukraine can do anything and do it faster than normal people!” while ignoring the immutable laws of physics and war. Take the Patriot air defense system, for example. In the U.S. Army, learning to operate it requires a one-year school. Ukrainians learned it in half that time. Huzzah!
But sitting in a room behind a computer and making software decisions is different than trying to remember complex doctrine while under artillery, mortar, and machine gun fire on a battlefield where any wrong step hits a mine. We don’t even know how good those Patriots crews were at the start! Who knows how many times they screwed up before they became proficient in their systems. A Russian drone or missile hits its target? Well, you can’t get them all! A commander f’s up on the battlefield, and Russia gleefully distributes the video of the burning vehicles and Ukrainian corpses.
Biden administration officials had hoped the nine Western-trained brigades, some 36,000 troops, would show that the American way of warfare was superior to the Russian approach. While the Russians have a rigidly centralized command structure, the Americans taught the Ukrainians to empower senior enlisted soldiers to make quick decisions on the battlefield and to deploy combined arms tactics — synchronized attacks by infantry, armor and artillery forces.
Dear god, I hope no one really thought four to six weeks of extra training in Germany would “show the American way of warfare was superior,” because there’s absolutely no way that was going to happen. That ridiculous notion is attributed, by link, to a previous story these authors wrote, and that story makes the same claim, but with zero attribution. The only Biden administration official quoted is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and he’s talking about something else. It really seems to be some kind of fantasy invented by the authors, and they loved it so much they used it a second time.
“They were given a tall order,” said Rob Lee, a Russian military specialist at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia and a former U.S. Marine officer, who has also traveled to the front lines. “They had a short amount of time to train on new equipment and to develop unit cohesion, and then they were thrown into one of the most difficult combat situations. They were put in an incredibly tough position.”
Those quotes are good. The rest of the article is less so.
The article keeps hitting on “the American way of warfare,” which is just stupid framing. For one, the United States hasn’t had a near-peer war since the Korean War. Second of all, Ukraine can’t fight American-style because NATO doctrine relies heavily on air power. Yes, I’ve noted how drones have replaced war planes to some extent over the Ukrainian battlefield, but NATO doctrine requires the establishment of air superiority. That’s why Russia has invested so heavily in air defenses: to counter NATO’s greatest strength. We’ve seen how few tanks and artillery shells the NATO allies have, and that’s because they aren’t supposed to need them. The U.S. Air Force and Navy have no shortage of munitions for their roles in an American war.
Ukraine isn’t NATO, and does not have the equipment or training for it. It is important that their forces are trained up and better equipped. But they have to fight their war their way, because they don’t have the option to do it any other way.
Ukrainian soldiers aren’t superheroes able to assimilate and integrate every major weapons system immediately and at maximum efficiency into their operations. But they are incredibly smart, innovative, and properly motivated to take the tools they are given, utilizing them in ways that will, with time, become effective against entrenched Russians.
Things would look different today had the allies not delayed aid, but they are at least moving in the right direction.
Voice of America talks to Ukrainians who liberated Staromaiorske.
Troops at the spearhead of Ukraine's counteroffensive say a battle last week along the front in the southeast proved to be tougher and bloodier than expected, with plans going awry and an enemy that was well-prepared.
"The Russians were waiting for us," said a 29-year-old soldier using the call-sign Bulat, from a unit sent into battle in armored vehicles during last week's assault.
"They fired anti-tank weapons and grenade launchers at us. My vehicle drove over an anti-tank mine, but everything was OK, the vehicle took the hit, and everyone was alive. We dismounted and ran towards the cover. Because the most important [thing] is to find cover and then move on.”
This keeps showing up time and time again:
"Our mission was planned to take two days. But we couldn't drive in during the darkness at the right time, for a few reasons. So, we drove in later and lost the right moment," said Bulat.
One of the biggest advantages of Western gear is the night-vision capabilities of their optics. And time and time again, we see Ukrainians attack in broad daylight.
The Russian defenders had set up "pre-sighted zones" in anticipation of the attack, said a 24-year-old Ukrainian marine with the call-sign "Dub."
"They methodically destroyed the roads. They made pits that prevented driving in and out of the village, even in dry weather. Even walking was quite hard. You can't use flashlights at night, but you still have to advance.”
This is a small settlement. Ukraine will have to repeat this time and time again as it drives south, unless Russian lines fully break. We had so much hope that Russia’s fighting spirit would break, but that’s not happening. And the harder it is for Ukraine to advance, the more that bolsters Russia’s morale.
News from the front is scant right now. Russia has cracked down on its war bloggers delivering bad news, so they’re suddenly quiet about everything. Ukraine is being quiet out of a need for operational security.
I can safely say that while the lines might’ve moved a few hundred meters here or there, nothing of significance has happened over the past several days.
My god, there is something seriously wrong with Russia. Let’s start with this poor immigrant taxi driver, who asked his Russian passenger not to drink beer in his cab.
And then let’s go to this supposedly cheerful broadcast celebrating VDV Day—the national holiday celebrating Russia’s airborne troopers.
And this is just nuts:
On the other hand, I do like this Russian:
And this one: