The wages of hubris are dear. Four months into Ukraine’s vaunted counteroffensive—which, at a massive cost in men and materiel, has made minimal territorial gain—support for Kyiv is openly eroding. Frustration flows from the growing economic burden of war and continuing corruption scandals in Ukraine. But it is aggravated by the backlash against the overconfidence and arrogance of the Western, especially American, foreign-policy establishment. For months, skeptical voices were sidelined while the media contrasted Western military-technological prowess with Russian backwardness and disarray. NATO brains would defeat Russian brawn, experts confidently predicted in June, thus making the disillusion and distrust of October all the greater.
Who isn’t aghast at over 20,000 casualties for a gain of 100 sq. miles, evoking the carnage of WWI? Since Russia occupies 40,000 sq. miles of Ukrainian land, the unsustainability of such a campaign is evident. Yet officials in Brussels and Washington insist that Kyiv’s counteroffensive is succeeding, cheering minor advances and illusory breakthroughs. At the same time, a chorus of retired military officers exaggerate Russian weakness and see victory as just one more “game-changing” weapons transfer away. Why haven’t NATO-supplied armaments, including hundreds of modern tanks, worked as expected? Because of minefields and trenches, they lament, neglecting to admit that Russia is fighting fiercely with both tactical and technological prowess—from devious electronic warfare to devastating anti-tank drones. But weren’t we told that Russian technology lagged far behind the West’s? And that Ukraine had an army of drones while Russia’s demoralized draftees were poorly armed, poorly led, and perpetually on the brink of desertion?
The brutality of war sparks passions—admiration for Ukraine, hatred and derision of Russia—that inflame public debate and impede objective analysis. The latter, by definition, must be dispassionate. If think tanks become partisan and the media act as cheerleaders, then we see only what we want to see. With Ukraine, the cheerleading mirrors that of our Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. As a result, we underestimated the adversary, leading to flawed tactics, failed operations, and now flagging public support. What next? As always, the default choice is escalation—providing Kyiv with more armaments and munitions. But will a few squadrons of F-16s and a few hundred ATACMS be enough to defeat Russia?
One morning in mid-June, Russian president Vladimir Putin awoke to bad news. In a pre-dawn raid, Ukraine struck the bridge linking Crimea and the Russian mainland. If he had followed U.S. media, Putin would have been truly distressed; experts described how the attack dealt a severe blow to Russia’s war because the bridge was the vital supply line for the front. But while pundits hailed this as a triumph for Kyiv, Putin merely shrugged while predicting Moscow’s victory. Was he in denial, or did he know something crucial about Russian resilience? In fact, notwithstanding initial hyperbole, only road traffic was disrupted while supply trains continued unimpeded. Moreover, Ukraine attacked the same bridge in 2022, and repairs quickly restored full operation despite similar predictions of doom. Indeed, the Crimean Bridge has symbolized Russian resourcefulness in the face of Western scorn for a decade; many initially sneered that Russia lacked the know-how to build Europe’s longest bridge, with some even predicting that it would collapse under its own weight. As such, this sturdy engineering marvel invites us to reconsider our stereotypes.
“Russia is running out of ammunition.” A Google search of this phrase yields almost ten million hits, as versions of it appeared in Western headlines for a year. CNN, Newsweek, The Economist, Forbes, and Foreign Policy all joined the chorus, echoing assessments from U.S. and UK defense officials. In June 2022, the Washington Post predicted that Russian munitions would soon be depleted and Russia would “exhaust its combat capability” within months. Yet by June of 2023, all of these outlets reported that it was actually Ukraine that was critically low on missiles and artillery. How low? Russia now fires over 10,000 artillery rounds per day, while Ukraine manages just 5,000. It takes the United States weeks to produce what Ukraine expends in a few days, while NATO allies have reached “the bottom of the barrel” in donating their reserves to Kyiv. Meanwhile, Russia is still outproducing the West despite “crippling” sanctions that were supposed to strangle its war effort. Likewise, Russian missiles continued to strike Ukraine a year after reports that production would soon halt because arms manufacturers were reduced to cannibalizing computer chips from home appliances. And still, we scoff at Russia’s claim that it will increase tank production by 1,500 next year—three times the number of Western tanks provided to Ukraine.
“So what if Russia makes more tanks? Ukraine will just destroy them with missiles and drones.” This follows the narrative of how Kyiv nullifies Russian quantity with superior quality, especially their hi-tech “army of drones.” Thus, we pay scant attention to news that belies this narrative, namely Russia’s adoption of new systems and tactics. Ukraine now loses up to 10,000 drones per month to Russian counter-drone weapons and electronic warfare. Russia also jams GPS signals to sabotage the guidance systems of U.S.-supplied armaments such as JDAM glide bombs and HIMARS artillery. And Russia is deploying a new line of unmanned aerial vehicles, such as the Lancent “kamikaze” drone, that have destroyed or disabled dozens of just-delivered Western tanks and armored vehicles—thereby thwarting the rapid breakthrough that was supposed to follow billions in NATO armor and months of NATO training.
The Fog of War
The Ukrainian battlefield is broad, flat farmland criss-crossed by strips of forest. It is covered by extensive air defenses, continually monitored by both Russian and Ukrainian ground and air-based systems, and blanketed by both sides’ surveillance drones. With night-vision capabilities as well, the “fog of war” has finally lifted—at least within a band of fifteen kilometers along the battlefront. Little can move far without being detected, and to be detected is to be targeted—by attack drones, by artillery, by rockets (such as the HIMARS), and by air-to-surface missiles (such as Russia’s LMUR). The Russians experienced this in the war’s first phase, suffering grievous losses as their drive on Kyiv was repulsed. Moscow’s last major advance, capturing the city of Bakhmut in May, came at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. But now Kyiv is suffering as its counteroffensive—meant as a blitzkrieg through Russian lines—instead advances at a bloody crawl.
It’s true that the Ukrainians and their NATO advisers underestimated the density of Russian minefields. But while mines take a direct toll, they also work indirectly by restricting vehicles to secured routes and narrow paths where they are easier targets for Russian artillery and drones. In June, Russia decimated an entire column of Ukrainian armor—including just-acquired German Leopard tanks and American Bradley infantry fighting vehicles—in a clash on the Zaporizhzhia front. This morale-boosting victory for Moscow saw the site memorialized as “Bradley Square.” The lesson is that any large concentration of armor is quickly detected, and any major convoy of troops is similarly seen and targeted.
With layers of surveillance, including swarms of drones providing real-time detection and targeting to Russian artillery, a grand Desert Storm-style offensive became impossible. Another problem is Ukraine’s inferiority to Russia in the air and its consequent inability to pave the way for its armor and infantry units by pounding Russian defenses from the skies. Even battalion-sized operations are problematic, much less the brigade-level blitzkriegs that many imagined. Ukrainian activity confines itself to company or platoon-level operations where a few dozen troops, supported by a handful of vehicles, advance stealthily under the cover of forest lines. Backed by drones—and supported by artillery fire—they seek to degrade the enemy enough to storm Russian trenches.
Clumsy, Cowardly Russians?
Sometimes, they succeed. Sometimes, the Ukrainians are detected early, and the Russians ambush them with artillery fire. Snipers and stormtroopers contest every trench, with deadly drones buzzing above. The Ukrainians press on, their courage under fire reverently detailed in the media. But that of the Russians—also fighting fiercely and taking heavy losses—is nowhere to be seen. After numerous stories about disarray in command and desertion in the ranks, the fact that the Russians are fighting with discipline and cohesion has left those who predicted otherwise silent. The first direct acknowledgment of dogged Russian resistance in major U.S. media came only recently from CNN. This admission did not come from Western experts but from Ukrainian soldiers themselves. Frustrated that their NATO backers had faulted their meager progress, they lamented, “We expected less resistance. They are holding. They have leadership. It is not often you say that about the enemy.”
Such observations are notably absent in U.S. media. Yet, is the aim of war reporting to celebrate one’s allies? Or is it to present a balanced assessment, regardless of whether the good or bad guys have the upper hand? This partisanship over the prowess of soldiers is also seen in coverage of the weapons they wield. Following the narrative of “Ukrainian brains over Russian brawn,” a succession of upgrades to Kyiv’s arsenal have been touted as wonder weapons. These include HIMARS artillery, Leopard tanks, Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, Storm Shadow missiles, and DPICM cluster munitions—“game changers” all. But these high hopes have been frustrated, in large part because of the weapons the Russians use to counter them. Moscow’s arsenal includes electronic warfare (EW) systems that down Ukrainian drones by the dozens and GPS jamming of U.S.-made HIMARS artillery and JDAM glide bombs. Untested on such a vast scale, their effectiveness has been a nasty surprise. Also unexpected was Russia’s introduction of new systems, such as the Lancet drone, which wreaks havoc on Ukrainian armor thanks to its expanded range, payload, and anti-jamming features. Others include new FAB glide bombs and the improved LMUR missile, whose range puts the helicopters launching it beyond the reach of Ukrainian air defense. These Russian weapons are blunting Ukraine’s advance, yet mainstream analyses rarely mention them. After all, Russia was said to be running out of precision munitions, not developing and deploying new ones.