Regardless of whether you see the Ukrainian counteroffensive as promising or disheartening, one thing is abundantly clear: Ukraine and Russia are locked in a battle of attrition, drawing comparisons to World War I.
If we must compare World War I to the Russo-Ukrainian War, it is helpful to remember two things:
- World War I ended in a decisive Allied victory, not in an inconclusive stalemate; and
- World War I ended in four years and 106 days, compared to World War II, which lasted six years and one day.
I’ve written this before, but battles of attrition do not imply endless stalemates, or endless deadlocks. They most certainly do not imply wars without end. And one of the most decisive battles of attrition ever fought was the Allies’ gradual and grinding efforts to wear down German defenses around Normandy in late summer 1944, during World War II, before steamrolling the Germans all the way through France.
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Battles of attrition differ significantly from battles of maneuver.
In a battle of maneuver, the attacker ignores and accepts short-term heavy losses to make positional gains. The point is to press the defender into an increasingly compromised position, surrounding the enemy or threatening their lines of supply, to make territorial gains in strategic and operation positions that compromise the enemy.
But in a battle of attrition, the attacker’s short-term objective is to minimize losses while inflicting maximal losses upon the enemy, to degrade their ability to fight by destroying the army. Only in the long term, after the enemy’s ability to resist is decimated, does the victor begin an inexorable march towards its territorial objectives.
Particularly in an age of satellite observation and ubiquitous geolocated drone footage of combat, successful and unsuccessful attempts of maneuver warfare are fairly easy to discern as they happen in real time.
During the Kharkiv counteroffensive back in September 2022, the Ukrainian counteroffensive was easy to see unfolding in real time, as Ukrainian troops advanced deeply behind Russian lines, capturing key logistical strongholds like Kupiansk and Izium, and driving the Russian forces back 100 km in a few weeks.
By its nature, maneuver warfare is defined by territory gained—even if the attacker loses significantly more troops on the offensive than the defender, it is largely beside the point. So long as the territory gained was worth the price paid, the attacker willingly pays the cost.
A battle of attrition is more difficult to evaluate. There is no objective measure like “square kilometers gained” to measure progress. With both sides hiding the extent of their losses, and both sides claiming to destroy huge quantities of the enemy’s resources, how can one judge which combatant is gaining the upper hand, and which side is heading toward collapse?
territory gained is a poor measure of attritional warfare
Claiming the war is currently at a stalemate, The New York Times used territory gained and lost as its primary determinant of progress in the war.
The Times noted that little territory had changed hands between Russia and Ukraine during 2023; owing to gains predominantly around Bakhmut, Russia had made a small net gain of 188 square miles since Jan. 1. The Times was careful to note this was a miniscule 0.08% of Ukraine’s territory, but noted Ukraine had failed to make substantial territorial gains such as late September and October around Kharkiv and Kherson.
Yet as noted above, territorial gains are poor measures of attritional success.
For example, from 1916-1917, Russia launched two major offensives during WWI. The first of these offensives, the Brusilov offensive of June 1916 (named after Russian Gen. Aleksei Brusilov), proved to be tactically and operationally successful, breaching Austro-Hungarian lines and advancing 75 km deep along a 20 km wide front.
In a span of 10 weeks, Russia gained 25,000 sq. km (almost 10,000 square miles) of territory.
However, poor performance and coordination among other Russian commanders prevented Brusilov from capitalizing on these advances to make major strategic gains. Brusilov inflicted such severe damage on the Austro-Hungarian army that they ceased to be much of a military force for the final two years of the war, but Russia was also so weakened that when the Brusilov offensive proved indecisive, the Russian army began to crumble. When Russia attempted a new offensive the following June (the Kerensky offensive, named after Russia’s minister of war, the Russian army all but disintegrated, leading its de facto surrender by December 1917.
The Brusilov offensive initially appeared to be major turn of fortune in favor of Russia; it was the single largest territorial gain from an offensive during World War I. However, when Russia failed to properly capitalize upon that operational success, those territorial gains proved so costly that it presaged the collapse of the Russian war effort.
The Brusilov offensive teaches us that even large and significant territorial gains, should they fail to lead to decisive strategic results, may be ephemeral and meaningless. By contrast, even territorial losses may represent strategic gains, if the territorial losses are
- not strategically decisive, and
- are traded for strategically significant amounts of enemy combat power.
Territory gained or lost is a simple, verifiable, and easy metric to measure progress in war. It just so happens to be lazy and largely worthless as a metric of military progress in an attritional conflict.
Rather, the pertinent question would be “is one side significantly weakening relative its opponent?”
populatiOn comparisons hold almost no value as measures of attritional warfare
To this, some people point to Russia’s relative population: Because Russia can send more soldiers to the front than Ukraine, Ukraine cannot hope to win a war of attrition.
The problem with this argument is that in modern military conflicts, number of soldiers is not a particularly important metric of military strength.
For example, the North Korean army counts 1.3 million personnel. The U.S. Army has 482,000 personnel. Is there a single person on earth who seriously thinks the U.S. Army is weaker than the North Korean army because it’s outnumbered? (Note: Including the other service branches, they are roughly the same size, albeit with the U.S. military deployed across much of the globe.)
Compared to the battlefields of two or three centuries ago, numbers mean far less because military formations are forced to spread out much more thinly. As recently as 70 years ago, groups as large as hundreds of men would charge across fields in massed and concentrated attacks. But even with Wagner and Russian assault battalions reviving old ideas of “disposable” infantry, there has been no revival of true human wave assault tactics.
The accuracy of modern Infantry Fighting Vehicles’ autocannons, as well as modern artillery and mortar systems, have made clustering large groups of infantry entirely obsolete. Even if an army cares little for the human costs, the logistical costs of supporting infantry units at the front preclude throwing them away for no added benefit.
Russian meatgrinder tactics have utilized disposable infantry in probing attacks to expose Ukrainian defensive positions. The disposable infantry advance until they hit Ukrainian defenses, likely getting killed in the process. Thus identified, Russian artillery hits that position until it is compromised, and elite Russian assault units attack—forcing a short Ukrainian retreat to the next line of defense. The process repeats.
Backed by Russian artillery superiority, and paired with well-equipped, elite Wagner assault units, Russia used these meatgrinder tactics to make minor territorial gains in the Bakhmut front in the first half of this year. But they advanced less than 20km in over six months, exposing the limits of that strategy.
It is important to have enough soldiers to cover the front, but having more, particularly when poorly trained, is of dubious benefit.
Russian Troop quality continues to degrade
Moreover, Russian losses in personnel have led to a degradation in troop quality since the opening of the conflict.
For historical, political, and organizational reasons, the Russian military does not have a true non-commissioned officer corps. The U.S. Army, for example, relies on experienced drill sergeants to provide training to new recruits, while young lieutenants first entering the army learn from frontline sergeants with vastly more experience.
By contrast, the Russian army discharges almost all enlisted personnel without promotion to NCO ranks, and the small numbers of NCOs are given non-leadership roles operating more complex weaponry.
Furthermore, the Russian military, particularly during wartime, has provided precious little training to its conscripts and mobilized personnel. Training has amounted to as little as a few days, to at most eight weeks. This is in contrast to Ukrainian regular army personnel who receive 6 months or more of training.
Thus the Russian military is particularly reliant on frontline officers to provide “on the job” training to recruits to make them combat-ready. However, there are two major problems:
Losses among Russia’s elite troops, such as the VDV (paratroopers) and Spetsnaz special forces, have been particularly acute, with some units having been reconstituted as many as six times. Well-connected Russian military blogger Rybar commented on a live broadcast that Russian VDV units had suffered around 50% casualties by September 2022.
Replacement soldiers in these units cannot receive the same extensive training program and on-job training that VDV soldiers regularly receive in peacetime. Many units thus have gradually become “elite” only in fielding better equipment—not in the quality of their soldiers.
Russia committed its last relatively intact elite military unit, the 76th Guards Air Assault Division, to Tokmak in early September. There are no others left. All that’s left are freshly constituted units, and those have been an unmitigated disaster.
Last year, the newly formed Third Army Corps was given some of Russia’s finest remaining military equipment—the most advanced tanks and artillery systems previously used for military parades in Moscow. Although its training was rushed, it was trumpeted as a powerful new 20,000-strong force, arriving in Ukraine to turn the tide of the war. It then was promptly devastated during Ukraine’s Kharkiv Fall 2022 counterattack. As Russia’s primary operational reserves in the area, it utterly failed in its task. Entire units were annihilated.
The Third Army Corps was then deployed to Kherson, where it was subsequently defeated at the Battle of Kherson. Replenished with fresh troops this year, it was tasked with defending southern Bakhmut, where it was again repeatedly defeated, losing the critical heights west of Klischiivka a couple of weeks ago, before VDV reinforcements arrived to try to stabilize the front. Without a core of veterans to hold a unit together, Russian military units simply cannot function.
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Russia recently rushed another new military unit to the front, the 25th Combined Arms Army, arriving at the front understaffed, under-equipped, and with barely any training. To say Russia’s standards of training and staffing have declined is a major understatement.
Russian military hardware has deteriorated
The deterioration of Russia’s armored forces has been well documented, with Ukraine having claimed to have destroyed over 4,000 tanks and 8,000 infantry fighting vehicles). Of those claimed, 2,329 tanks and around 4,000 infantry armored vehicles have been visually confirmed as destroyed. Russia has been reduced to sending 60-to-70-year old T-62 and T-55 tanks to the frontlines. Rather than the relatively advanced BMP3, or the 1980s era BMP2 IFVs, Russia has increasingly turned to the 1960s era BMP1 IFVs to continue equipping its frontline units.
However, crippling Russian losses are beginning to impact other aspects of Russia’s military abilities.
Russian air defense and electronic warfare abilities have been a high priority for Ukrainian forces.
The steady degradation of Russian mid- and short-range air defenses has been revealed to be serious, as Ukrainian Bayarktar TB1s drones (highly vulnerable to well-prepared Russian air defenses) have begun operating near the frontlines again, and Ukrainian reconnaissance drones have been flying freely over much of the frontlines near Tokmak.
Russia began the war by positioning five of its most advanced long ranged S-400 air defense systems in Crimea, partly to help ensure air superiority over southern Ukraine and the Black Sea. In the span of two weeks, Ukraine destroyed two of them. Russia has not been able to replace either one.
But arguably the most devastating has been the degradation of Russian artillery. Russian military doctrine assumes artillery firepower superiority. But Russia’s artillery arms have been suffering devastating losses, losing between three to four artillery systems for every Ukrainian loss since the start of the counteroffensive. Russian miliary bloggers have called it an artillery “genocide.”
Early Russian tactics relied on placing artillery units just 2-3 km behind the contact line for maximal firepower deep into enemy lines, but fiercely effective Ukrainian counterbattery fire from longer-ranged howitzers and HIMARS/M270 rocket artillery—strengthened by modern anti-artillery radar, precision munitions, and DPICM cluster munitions—have pushed Russian artillery back, where it is far less effective. While Ukrainian artillery regularly ventures within 10 km of the frontlines, Russian units must stay 15-20 km behind the frontlines.
Heavy Russian losses have forced Russia to reach for older and older artillery systems to attempt to maintain their firepower.
The Birds of Magyar Ukrainian drone group just released drone footage from a suicide drone attacking a Russian 85mm D-44 antitank gun. Based on the drone group’s past known locations, the attack was believed to have happened somewhere close to the Velyka Novosilka front in south central Ukraine (northeast of Tokmak).
Remarkably, the D-44 is even older than Russia’s ancient T-54s and T-55s. The first prototypes for the D-44 were produced in 1944, literally designed to fight Nazi German Panther tanks during World War II.
it’s difficult to explain just how archaic the D-44 is. As a theoretical light short-range howitzer, it is a rough analogue of the American M119 105 mm howitzer, designed to support infantry close to the frontlines.
However, the D-44’s gun alone weighs over 1,900 kg, which was considered overly heavy for a “light gun”—even in the late 1940s. By contrast, the M119 weighs a third of that, just 630 kg.
The D-44 has a theoretical range of 15 km, but its archaic gun sight can only effectively target enemy units below 2 km. The M119 has a maximum range of 19.5 km with deadly accuracy.
To put it lightly, there have been many advances in artillery technology since the D-44 was first designed. If Russia had any available alternatives, Russia would not be using artillery pieces produced nearly a decade before the birth of its septuagenarian dictator.
Ukraine is more than sustaining ITS losses
Ukraine has not only maintained its number of Western tanks since the start of the counteroffensive, its numbers have grown substantially within weeks.
Ukraine began the counteroffensive with around 85 modern Western tanks, 71 Leopard 2s and 14 Challenger 2 tanks. Since then, only seven such tanks have been visually confirmed lost. (With their own drone coverage, Russia is happy to publicize all their kills.)
Meanwhile, Switzerland has agreed to deliver 25 Leopard 2A4 tanks to German arms manufacturer Rheinmetal, under the condition that they are not sent to Ukraine. However, Germany or another Leopard 2A4 operator can swap out their own tanks for these, sending their own to Ukraine.
Ukraine is also gaining 31 American Abrams tanks, the first of which may have already reached the front. White House officials are already quietly acknowledging a further 30 Abrams are under consideration for Ukraine.
These 56 additional Western tanks should bring Ukraine’s Western tank forces at the front to an operating strength of above 100 tanks, even accounting for tanks presently in repair. Additionally, the first of 178 Leopard 1A5 tanks from Belgium, Denmark, and Germany began arriving in Ukraine this month.
To help Ukraine keep the flow of spare parts for its numerous and varied armored vehicles at the front lines, the U.S. provided seven multi-million dollar Spee3D industrial 3-D metal printers that can replicate rare or difficult to find spare parts of almost any material in short order.
Furthermore, Ukraine has received commitments of nearly 200 Bradleys, 200 Strykesr, 100 Marder IFVs, and 200 Polish Rosomak Wolverine IFVs, of which it is known to have lost just 61. That’s around 700 modern Western IFVs that Ukraine has received since December.
The U.S. Army has over 2,000 M2 and M3 Bradleys in storage. They are obsolete for U.S. use, as they lack sufficient power supply to equip the new active protection systems that have become standard on frontline Bradley models. And with plans to replace the Bradleys with the new XM30 IFV beginning in 2029, there is little reason the U.S. needs to maintain a massive stock of thousands of unused Bradleys that do not meet its requirements for frontline units. As such, there is little reason to believe that Ukraine cannot continue to receive large shipments of Bradleys into the indefinite future.
Meanwhile, Western allies continue to provide invaluable training. Operation Interflex, the largest NATO training program for Ukrainian troops, includes over 1,000 instructors from the UK, Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Sweden, among others, and graduates 2,000 regular army soldiers every month from its five-week training program. This is enough to fully staff an entire Ukrainian brigade every month. Germany, Poland, Estonia, and Sweden host additional training programs.
As such, the quality of Ukraine’s armed forces is increasing, while Russia’s is in continuous decline.
firepower is a direct measure of modern military strength
A reader may note that much of this analysis is subjective. The Russian army may be rushing 70-year-old tanks, and thousands of new ones to the front. Ukraine’s NATO training might so bad or so short that it is qualitatively no better than what Russian conscripts receive. And we certainly don’t know the exact number of destroyed equipment on both sides.
Here is some cold hard objective data confirming Ukraine’s growing advantage.
This chart was compiled by The Economist’s staff, using data from NASA’s FIRMS satellites, which track fires from space, and further analyzed by artificial intelligence. To their graph, I added my own annotations, indicating the time when certain key events occurred. FIRMS was designed to track forest fires, but has been invaluable in observing the intensity of artillery bombardment in the war in Ukraine.
The Economist’s AI sorted military fire data into “military fires on Russian-controlled territory” (in red) and “fires on Ukrainian -ontrolled territory” (in blue). Since Ukraine would be shooting at Russian territory, the red Russian territorial fires effectively represent Ukrainian firepower, while the blue represents Russian firepower. Here is the chart again so you don’t have to scroll up:
The chart is impacted by the arrival of new weapons systems and various major battles, but what emerges is a picture of ever-increasing Ukrainian firepower.
The key inflection point occurred in early August, as we saw an explosive rise in Ukrainian firepower as Ukraine, flush with new cluster munitions, pushed through Robotyne.
A slight lull followed while Ukraine consolidated its gains, before Ukraine breached the Surovikin Line around Verbove with its armored vehicles in mid-September; now we see Ukrainian firepower reaching unprecedented heights.
This data proves two things:
Ukraine’s growing artillery advantage is no mirage. Since August, there is a huge disparity between fires in Russian-held territory compared to fires in Ukrainian territory. Ukraine is throwing several fold greater firepower at Russian positions.
Providing Ukraine with 155 mm DPICM cluster munition shells may have been one of the most important decisions of the war. The first month of the offensive shows Ukraine with barely any firepower advantage at all compared to Russia. After DPICM shells began arriving in mid- to late July, Ukraine’s mass of firepower climbed, and climbed, and climbed.
This makes objective sense. Ukraine had been suffering from a widely acknowledged shell shortage, with new Western production of 155 mm shells falling well short of the 250,000 shells Ukraine said it needed at a time in mid-July when Ukraine was only using 4,000 shells per day.
However, the U.S. has over three million DPICM shells in storage, and has not used a single cluster munition shell in over 20 years.
Even at 140,000 DPICM shells per month (to increase Ukraine from 110,000 to 250,000 monthly shells, or over 8,000 shells per day), it would take nearly two years for Ukraine to exhaust U.S. stocks.
Furthermore, due to their wide area of effect, a DPICM shell requires only an average of 1.7 shells per target struck, vs. 13.6 conventional HE shells required. Thus DPICM shells are dramatically more efficient per shell than traditional shells, further multiplying their effectiveness.
The arrival of hundreds of thousands of DPICM shells freed Ukraine from its ammunition constraints—and this shows up very obviously and apparently in the data.
Ukraine is growing stronger, and russia weaker
There is abundant evidence that Ukraine’s military strength is growing, while Russia’s weakens While Russia rushes 60-year-old tanks and 80-year-old World War II-era artillery guns to the front lines, Ukraine is expanding its Western armored fighting vehicle fleet, and fielding the best battle tanks in the world. While Russia races barely trained new soldiers to the front with minimal equipment, Ukraine receives a continuous supply of better-trained soldiers.
However, Ukraine’s greatest advantage may be the one that is most easily measured: artillery.
An estimated 80% of all combat casualties in Ukraine are caused by artillery, according Ukrainian Supreme Commander Valerii Zaluzhnyi’s staff. While tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, drones, and the old-fashioned assault rifle all have important roles to play in fighting the enemy, artillery remains the overwhelmingly most common cause of human death in this war.
FIRMS data suggests that Ukraine owns a firepower advantage that dwarfs any advantage either side has held to this point. Ukraine’s systematic destruction of forward Russian artillery positions and ammunition dumps will likely make the problem worse.
There is little reason to believe that the fall mud season will slow Ukraine’s offensive, and Ukraine has more than enough artillery ammunition to continue pressing the attack.
Ukraine should be expected to continue hammering Russian positions in the south until next spring. The question is whether Russia’s troops can maintain enough strength to continue to hold their positions.
Victories in wars of attrition happen slowly … then suddenly.