Eight months into Russia’s invasion, Vladimir Putin remains committed to the territorial conquest and destruction of Ukraine. Ukrainians have had successes, such as the recent counteroffensive around Kharkiv and now Russia’s ordered pullout from Kherson. Still, the future is uncertain, with winter approaching and the outcome of Putin’s mobilization in play. The West must stop “shooting behind the duck” regarding its military aid to Ukraine.
Ukraine has shown it can defeat Russian forces and deter future Russian aggression, but it requires Western leaders to recognize what Russia is doing militarily and what is needed to defeat it. It’s time for the West to send a strong message to Putin and his generals that come spring, their military will meet a worse fate if they renew the offensive.
Russia’s strategic approach to the war is neither haphazard nor representative of a military power grasping at straws. Russia is pursuing a war-of-attrition strategy meant to slowly wear down the Ukrainian military while relentlessly destroying civilian infrastructure. Putin is playing the long game and, predictably, has fallen back on traditional Russian military strategy and doctrine.
After its defeat in the initial phase of the war and the battle for Kyiv, Russia shifted its military strategy to seizing the Donbas. The shift represented a definitive return to Russia’s traditional doctrinal approach of attrition warfare. It quickly became evident that Ukraine needed weapons to offset Russian firepower advantages, more than simply Javelins and Stingers. Withholding heavier weapons contributed to the destruction of Ukrainian cities such as Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. From May to July, many observers opined that Ukrainian military losses were unsustainable, and in an effort to avoid the destruction of its Donbas forces, the Ukrainians retreated from their last positions in Luhansk Oblast, allowing the Russians to occupy roughly 25 percent of Ukrainian territory.
Wars of attrition go both ways, however, and the Russian strategy of attrition effectively exhausted their own army. As Russia paused to reconstitute its forces, Ukraine began to field an influx of Western artillery systems, including HIMARS, to destroy Russian command-and-control and logistics hubs and key infrastructure such as the bridges, robbing the Russians of the operational pause they needed and setting the stage for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
While the Russians prepared for the counteroffensive around Kherson, Ukraine’s biggest successes came by exploiting the weakened Russian defenses around Kharkiv. With the momentum again swinging in favor of Ukraine, the Russian military responded by shifting their strategy — again in line with Russian military doctrine. The shift to an air and missile campaign with the aim of decimating Ukraine’s civil and military infrastructure is central to attrition warfare. However, the West once more found itself shooting behind the duck and scrambling to bolster Ukraine’s air defenses.
While rightfully characterized as a “terror campaign” against Ukrainian civilians, we are witnessing the execution of well-known elements of Russian military doctrine — strategic aerospace operations against critical infrastructure meant to disorganize and undermine an adversary’s war effort. It’s a rough version of Russian strategic aerospace operations (SAO) and strategic operations to destroy critical infrastructure targets (SODCIT), two of the four Russian military strategic operations developed for war with NATO. With a new Russian commander in Ukraine — Gen. Sergey Surovikin, the former aerospace commander who employed this strategic operation effectively in Syria — it should be no surprise that the Russians returned to this element of their military doctrine.
The recognizable shifts in Russian military strategy provide Western leaders with a guide for future security assistance efforts that might deter and defeat Russian forces. With this in mind, it is likely the aerospace campaign will be followed by a return to major ground offensives. Now is the time to stop shooting behind the duck and proactively provide the Ukrainians what they need to continue to alter the course of the war.
Of course, this will require more of the same weapons that have forced the Russian military to change its strategy — artillery, HIMARS, Guided Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (GMLRS), and armored vehicles — as well as new ones that we have been reluctant to provide. Some will require training that can be undertaken during the winter; others can be transferred now to ensure the Ukrainians can both keep the Russian military on its heels and remain ready come spring.
The arrival of NATO air defense systems is welcomed, but it is time to revisit the strike-fighter debate and provide modern aircraft. Russia’s response to the West’s earlier self-deterrence regarding the transfer of MiG-29 aircraft has been continuous escalation using air and missile attacks on Ukraine’s cities. In addition to drones, Iran reportedly now may provide Russia with advanced missile systems to replace its depleted inventory. This cannot go unanswered. We should no longer deny the Ukrainians armed combat drones such as the MQ-1 Predator/Gray Eagle and MQ-9 Reaper.
The attack on the Black Sea Fleet on Oct. 29 should be just the beginning. The West should continue to provide such systems, as the strategic implications of Russia’s ability to wage unrestricted drone and missile strikes on NATO’s Black Sea periphery and project maritime power from southern Russia are obvious. Empowering the Ukrainians to impose losses on Russian air and naval platforms (and their sanctuary operating areas) will impart to Putin what he will incur if he continues the war.
There are also short-term answers to meet the next shift in Russian strategy, likely to springtime ground offensives. Ukraine needs Army Tactical Advanced Missile Systems (ATACMS) with greater ranges to destroy Russian logistics and C2 nodes and drone bases. GMLRS and 155mm cluster munitions, specifically the Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM), are needed. These munitions are compatible with current systems, bring efficiencies, and can be provided immediately. The Ukrainians understand the risks associated with these weapons and we should honor that. For naysayers who rebuke the idea of transferring cluster munitions because the United States has a moratorium on providing them, or for fear of escalation, we have failed to get out in front of the Russian military strategy to date and, as a result, the Ukrainians have been unable to set conditions for negotiated conflict termination.
This is no ordinary time. The West has acknowledged the stakes that Putin’s war presents to the European security environment and international order. If we continue to shoot behind the duck, allowing the Russians to reconstitute their forces and launch springtime offensives, we will be confronted with these same decisions again, after more Ukrainian lives and territory have been lost.
Putin has responded to Western self-deterrence with escalation, reinforcing his belief that he is winning and the West is weak and strategically inept. Shifts in Russia’s strategy aligned with their military doctrine provide us with clues to where they are going. These trends may be imperfect, but they are still evident — and the West must send a strong message by providing weapons for not only today’s fight, but also tomorrow’s. That could irreversibly alter Putin’s strategic calculus and level of risk, and thus the course of this war.
Retired Capt. Garrett I. Campbell directed the U.S Navy’s Staff OPNAV N5 Russia Strategy, Policy, and Engagement Branch, and served as a federal executive fellow at the Brookings Institution.