Learning the Ukrainian Way of War

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Ukraine

Ukraine's approach to the offensive is likely to be intelligent and precise.

Ukrainian Border Guard soldiers participate in a military exercise in central Ukraine.
Ukrainian Border Guard soldiers participate in a military exercise in central Ukraine. Credit: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue / Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo

Analogies between the current Russian War against Ukraine and the First World War a century ago are striking. After an initial phase of manoeuvre, where Russian forces sought to envelop Kyiv, the invaders were forced to withdraw to regroup. German armies in 1914 had also sought to march in a concentric arc to seize Paris, but, having been checked, they were compelled to consolidate. Russia has tried to punch through Ukrainian lines, maximising its superiority in artillery, and has been drawn into costly assaults at Bakhmut for little appreciable gain. In the First World War, Germany was sucked into the fighting at Verdun, having assumed that artillery would destroy the French defenders. The grand offensive plans of the Russian leaders in 2022, like their German forebears, have degenerated into trench fighting along a static front.

The acquisition or loss of small sections of territory, slight prominences, or an isolated village, require herculean efforts at the tactical level. For weeks, Russian conscript troops have been rushed through rudimentary training, sent to the frontlines, or, if they are lucky, organised into labouring units to construct field defences. They are not told that their own country is the aggressor. German troops of the First World War were informed that they were fighting against the aufmarsch (offensive) of the imperial powers, even though it was Germany that had invaded France and neutral Belgium.

Russia’s armies have now ‘culminated’; that is, they are no longer able to make the progress they did in 2022. Resources are stretched, missile stocks are diminished, and ammunition expenditure is much lower. Nevertheless, Russia’s generals know that Ukraine has been building up for a counter-offensive. Western armour, munitions, artillery, and missiles have been flowing in, and training packages have meant that Ukrainians have been learning how to conduct Western-style combined arms operations. Russia has been trying to delay the coming Ukrainian counter-offensive with missile and drone attacks on infrastructure. In 1917, Germany made similar calculations. Knowing that the United States would bring the Western Allies vast new resources, the German High Command redoubled its efforts with submarine warfare, air bombardments, and preparations for a vast, pre-emptory offensive in the spring of 1918.

There have been high expectations in the Western media of a Ukrainian ‘spring offensive’ in 2023. This has generated some confusion: why did it not materialise? The history of the First World War reminds us that preparation, training, and deployments for large operations take time. Planning for an offensive to take place at the junction of the British and French armies on the Somme began in the autumn of 1915: the attack took place nine months later. For the Ukrainians in 2023, there is also a deception element in play. By keeping Russia constantly in expectation of a large attack, the Russians are forced to hold back their reserves to plug any potential gaps that might occur.

Ukraine may conduct its offensive differently from Russia. The Russians use Soviet doctrine, which privileges probing attacks on multiple axes, then overwhelming fire to neutralise any strong positions, before bypassing them and continuing to advance into depth. Such attacks are usually accompanied by aircraft conducting ground attack missions. This approach can be derailed when resistance is tough at all points, attacked along the line of march from the flanks, when its rear echelons are destroyed by long-range fire, or when the attacking columns get caught in an urban area. All these vulnerabilities have been exposed since February 2022. Similarly, the grand Allied offensives of 1916 suffered most when they relied on saturating ‘area fire’ rather than precision or coordination, when there was no air supremacy, and when insufficiently trained troops were ordered to conduct attacks without use of ‘fieldcraft’ (such as using cover, or making synchronised attacks). Russia, which measures success in terms of territory and force, has repeated these errors, too.

The Ukrainian approach is likely to be far more intelligent, precise, and ‘pulsed’. Instead of one great blundering charge, the Ukrainians may opt to use their long-range firepower to neutralise specific points, such as command posts, logistics depots, individual batteries of artillery, or electronic warfare units. Smaller formations, preceded by drones, may be expected to infiltrate through Russian defences and get into depth. The psychological effect on the Russian soldiers when Ukrainians appear unexpectedly in their rear or overrun positions far behind the front lines could be considerable. This is cognitive and intelligent warfare.

In 1918, the German Army had some success with this sort of ‘breakthrough’ tactic, although, lacking air superiority and sustaining resources, their attacks petered out with heavy losses. By contrast, the Allied counter-offensive of the summer of 1918 was a great success: it combined airpower, armoured units with infantry in intimate support, and coordinated fire from artillery, while communications were maintained in an efficient flow from the sub-tactical to the strategic level. Moreover, the Allies were able to conduct a sustained offensive over weeks because of the organised and abundant logistical systems behind the fighting front.

There were always high expectations of each ‘Push’ in the First World War. That war was a gruelling struggle lasting four years. Marshal Pétain, who had defended Verdun, stated in 1918 that what the Allies had achieved that year was ‘a truce for twenty years’. It is not yet known how the Ukrainian counter-offensive will play out, but there is a chance that we are only seeing the first overtures of a very long conflict indeed.


Rob Johnson