Editor’s Note: Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for outlets including Popular Mechanics, The National Interest, NBC News and Forbes.com. He holds a master’s degree from Georgetown University in conflict resolution and served with the Peace Corps in China. He tweets @sebastienroblin. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
The beginning of the much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive against Russia seems not to have been a resounding success for Kyiv. On Friday, Russia shared footage of an engagement days earlier in which it apparently disabled 16 new US-provided Bradley fighting vehicles in Ukraine’s 47th Brigade and several German Leopard 2 tanks from the 33rd. To add insult to injury, Russia’s defense ministry released a video showing its troops picking over abandoned vehicles they claimed as “trophies.”
The losses sting and are by no means trivial, as Ukraine only received 109 Bradleys and 85 Leopard 2s total so far. It’s a sharp reminder that the superior capabilities of Western weapons cannot by themselves roll back Russia’s occupation quickly or easily.
But they don’t mean that all is lost for Ukraine – or even that Ukraine is now losing. The counteroffensive’s ambitious objectives to liberate large parts of Ukraine always meant it would likely face a tough, long, casualty-filled slog. The defeat does show, however, that for all of Russia’s shortcomings last year, it still presents a serious threat with some capacity to adapt from past mistakes.
Though we are only seeing glimpses carefully selected from both sides of a much larger conflict taking place, we do know that Russia is making better and more extensive use of drones for artillery spotting and kamikaze strikes than before. It has also implemented a variety of tactics, including jamming satellite navigation signals, to reduce the effectiveness of Ukrainian drones and weapons the US has supplied, like HIMARS rockets, glide bombs and Javelin anti-tank missiles.
Most importantly, Russia’s military has built up a multi-layered line of fortifications across southeastern Ukraine including trenches, concrete tank obstacles and minefields. Each fortified line runs many miles deep, intended to at first delay and ultimately defeat Ukrainian attacks.
On the other hand, Russia’s forces are beginning the battle in worse shape than the new brigades trained by Kyiv over the winter. During those months, numerous newly mobilized Russian troops were wastefully exhausted in grinding assaults with few gains, with some treated as cannon-fodder. Russia’s artillery ammunition, missile stockpiles and most-modern ground combat vehicles were gravely depleted, so 60-year-old tanks have been withdrawn from storage. Putin himself admitted the loss of 54 Russian tanks the same week the Bradleys were knocked out.
Having failed at offense during the winter, the Kremlin seems to be counting on the tried-and-true strategy of defense via the miles-deep fortified positions, most famously used by the Red Army in the Battle of Kursk in World War II. It was while attempting to breach a path through one such fortified minefield that the 47th Brigade’s vehicles bogged down last week.
Nonetheless, Ukraine has already claimed some advances. Ukraine’s military leaders are correctly attempting to draw out and wear down Russian reserves and artillery until a weak spot emerges for launching an all-out effort. Notably, a parallel drive toward Mariupol at the same time as the 47th’s failed attack last week has made fast gains, compelling Russian forces to withdraw from several settlements.
Ukraine has until now been holding back the majority of its armored brigades, and both sides will undoubtedly commit more forces in the coming weeks. Ukraine may also open additional fronts to further confound Russian planning.
Ukrainian forces, however, cannot avoid a brutal melee as they attempt to drill through the Russian fortifications while repulsing counterattacks from Russian reserves — a process that could take weeks or months, as Ukrainian forces have yet to penetrate Russia’s main line of resistance.
Recall that Ukraine began its Kherson counteroffensive late in August but only forced Russia to retreat in November. This campaign is likely to last roughly that long. And the current, even more difficult and costly attempted breach of Russian fortifications, requires superb coordination of armor, infantry, air defense, artillery and engineers to pull off.
The best comparison is the battles of World War II, which showed that offensives against well-prepared defending forces often start out messily with heavy losses even when ultimately successful.
After the bloody D-Day landings in Normandy, for example, Allied forces spent several weeks advancing slowly at great cost. Finally, the British attempted a massive tank assault to punch through German defenses only to lose hundreds of tanks in rapid succession. But a week later, American forces succeeded wildly, as the Germans had used most of their reserves containing the British.
If Ukraine does prevail in this counteroffensive, it has a chance to liberate economically vital coastal ports like Mariupol and Berdyansk that Russia occupied last year, as well as cut off the “land bridge” between mainland Russia and the strategically significant Russian air and naval bases in Crimea. Crimea itself would also fall within range of many Ukrainian weapons.
That’s why the Biden administration has been right to move ahead with its latest aid package worth $325 million to help Ukraine sustain the ambitious campaign it has spent many months preparing for — including delivering 15 more Bradleys to replace those lost.
Though the 47th Brigade had a very bad day, its experience still demonstrated the importance of Western-donated equipment. The superior vehicles did help because video footage appears to show that most of the soldiers in the vehicles survived — a less likely outcome had Ukrainians used their more lightly protected Soviet infantry vehicles.
The video footage reveals another advantage the Ukrainians possess over Russia: strong morale and professionalism. The Ukrainian troops at the forefront of the fiasco fell back in good order, supporting each other with covering fire and smoke grenades rather than panicking.
While Russia’s troops are exhausted, the new Ukrainian brigades are inexperienced but fresh and have received better training than Russian conscripts — particularly the 12 brigades trained by NATO prior to the battle. Ukraine’s other strengths include the production and more effective use of small drones in greater quantities than Russia, and its arsenal of Western-supplied precision-strike artillery and missiles that can threaten Russian units deep behind the front lines.
For now, it’s far too early to tell whether Ukraine’s offensive will achieve that breakthrough. As NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg noted, “It is still early days and we do not know if this will be a turning point of the war, but we see that the Ukrainians are making advances and liberating more land.”
Putin’s current bet is that the longer he drags the war on, the more Western willingness to aid Ukraine will diminish, eventually leaving it vulnerable. The best way to convince him he’s wrong is to give him persuasive evidence that doubling down on his invasion will actually make his position worse. That means not only supporting Ukraine’s current counteroffensive but continuing to adapt to Russia’s own adaptations and planning ahead for long-term assistance that makes clear to Putin his optimism is ill-founded.