Outgunned Ukrainian forces are winning the war so far against the invading Russians with unique tactics, effective use of weapons and fighters who have exhibited a fierce commitment to defending their nation, military analysts say.
In particular, the anti-tank missiles supplied to Ukraine in advance of the month-old war played a major role in thwarting the advances of Russian tanks and armored vehicles, and the anti-aircraft systems denied Moscow control of the skies.
Ukrainian military forces moved most of their air defense missiles shortly before the start of hostilities last month, blunting the impact of the first wave of Russian missile strikes.
The action prevented the Russians from taking key air bases inside Ukraine, and the invasion force wasted bombs on empty spaces where Moscow’s intelligence mistakenly believed air defense batteries were located.
“The Ukrainians are doing a really nice job of staying mobile and agile,” said a senior military officer familiar with Ukrainian tactics, with surviving mobile air defense missiles inflicting heavy losses on Russian jets and helicopters.
The Ukrainian military also has leveraged its familiarity with home territory to stymie the invaders.
Several bridges leading from the northern part of the country toward the capital, Kyiv, were destroyed to make it more difficult for tanks and artillery to reach firing areas.
Poor tactics by Russian tank columns also have slowed the attack. Ukrainian forces armed with precision-guided Javelin anti-tank missiles immobilized many columns by blowing up the first and last tanks in a procession, making it difficult for the others to advance.
“It was like [Russian tanks] were driving into a pencil sharpener,” the military officer said. “It was a total miscalculation on their ability to maneuver on the battlefield.”
New tactic: Bomb civilians
With the initial assaults bogged down, the Russians now seem to be digging in for siege warfare.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and others on Sunday accused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces of committing war crimes by deliberately targeting civilians.
“He’s taking these kinds of steps because … his campaign has stalled,” Mr. Austin said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation.”
Mariupol, a crucial port city on the Azov Sea, has been encircled by Russian troops for weeks. City leaders said on social media that a local art school where about 400 residents — mostly women, children and the elderly — had taken shelter was bombed Saturday.
“The building was destroyed, and peaceful people are still under the rubble,” city leaders said Sunday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the siege would go down in history because of the war crimes being committed.
The information battlefield
Russia’s missteps in Ukraine extend well beyond the conflict on the ground. Moscow’s failure to disrupt communications infrastructure in its neighboring target provided a major boost to Mr. Zelenskyy, who emerged as a powerful, inspirational figure, bolstering military morale and fueling the hopes of an embattled country.
Mr. Zelenskyy appears regularly on Ukrainian and international media as a voice of opposition to the Russian invasion.
Retired Adm. James G. Stavridis, a former NATO commander, said Mr. Zelenskyy has been a major factor in the Ukrainian successes.
“The key to the Ukrainian resistance is clearly their fighting spirit,” Adm. Stavridis said. “It is without question the center of gravity in the conflict, personified by the extraordinary leadership of President Zelenskyy.”
Moscow also has largely failed in its efforts to use disinformation to disrupt Ukrainian resistance. A video supposedly showing Mr. Zelenskyy ordering troops to surrender was quickly exposed as a deep-fake attempt at disinformation.
“It should be obvious by now that the Kremlin’s Active Measures/disinformation machine, which supposedly took control of U.S. (and maybe Western) politics, 2016-20, isn’t quite as awe-inspiring as Twitter told you it was, since they’re getting bested in Ukraine by kids with TikTok,” former intelligence official John Schindler said in a tweet.
Every missile counts
Geography and weather, along with the anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles supplied to Ukraine, combined early to blunt much of the Russian military advantage, said Adm. Stavridis, now with the Carlyle Group.
The Ukrainians expertly marshaled limited domestic and international military resources — fuel and ordnance — better than the Russians. Ukraine’s stock of missiles, arms and equipment have been carefully expended on key targets at optimum times, a senior Pentagon official said.
“They’re hitting the Russians very effectively and not trying to defend everything at once,” the official told The Washington Times.
The Ukrainians also are using drones to deadly effect to pinpoint artillery and guide multiple rocket attacks, according to reports and videos.
The Russian military failed to launch a shock-and-awe-style military operation when the invasion began. Instead, it relied on lesser-equipped and poorly trained national guard troops to be the lead forces in some locations.
Russian military doctrine and the apparent battle plan for taking Ukraine were said to call for accepting large numbers of killed and wounded troops. Estimates of the number of Russians killed in fighting is about 7,000.
Even with those losses, though, the invasion force is substantial. “We assess that the Russians still have approximately 90% of their assembled combat power still available to them,” a senior Pentagon official said Friday.
Russian forces continue to target the capital of Kyiv and have been trying unsuccessfully to advance into positions from the north and northwest, and from the east.
“As you have seen, they are facing heavy resistance from the Ukrainians,” the official said.
The Ukrainian military is beating the Russian army through the use of what the U.S. military calls “mobile defense-in-depth.”
Ukrainian ground force units armed with anti-tank weapons succeeded in attacking Russian columns deep into their advancing lines.
After the strikes, the Ukrainians retreat and allow the reformed tank columns to drive forward before hitting them again with more attack-and-retreat strikes.
Because of weather and ground conditions, Russian armor units in some areas have been forced to stick to roads rather than venture cross-country. On unfrozen terrain, tank formations have been seen stuck in mud, and reports reaching the Pentagon indicate that Russians abandoned significant numbers of immobilized tanks and armored vehicles in fields with soft ground.
Better supply lines
Military logistics also favored the Ukrainian military in the early stages of the conflict.
While Russian advances were frequently stalled because of vulnerable supply lines stretched thin across the country, Ukraine’s internal supply system has shown an ability to rapidly obtain and employ internationally supplied weapons and ammunition to its forces. As soon as the weapons arrive in Ukraine from outside the country, mainly through Poland, the arms are moved rapidly to front-line units battling the Russians.
The Pentagon regards this feature as a critical element of the Ukrainian military success.
Success on the battlefield is surprising because Ukraine’s armed forces are significantly smaller than those of the Russian military.
Kyiv’s total active-duty troops number around 196,000, far fewer than Russia’s 900,000 active-duty troops.
The Russian military also has nearly 16,000 tanks and armored vehicles to Ukraine’s 3,300. Russian artillery includes more than 4,800 pieces compared with 1,800 Ukrainian artillery pieces.
Despite the disparities, the Ukrainian military has prevented the Russian force of more than 100,000 troops from taking any major cities.
Nate Barrick, a former military officer and specialist on the Russian military, said the “extremely effective resistance by Ukrainians” contributed to the successes to date.
The Russian army, he said, is struggling because its forces, as with most other militaries, are better at fighting in defensive operations than offensive attacks.
Mr. Barrick said the initial advance largely failed because the Russians deviated from established military doctrine that calls for using overwhelming force.
Instead, the battle plan appears to have involved relative restraint. In a bid to correct the early errors, Moscow has switched to escalating the conflict with heavier air and artillery strikes that target more civilians.
Russia fired a hypersonic ballistic missile for the first time during the conflict last week. The ultra-high-speed weapon can be used for both conventional and tactical nuclear strikes.
“Putin wants Ukraine’s government to cave; he doesn’t want to own it or occupy it, [and] he might end up with an unplanned occupation due to Ukrainian resistance,” said Mr. Barrick, a former strategist with U.S. Special Operations Command. “His plan is being frustrated by Ukrainian resistance.”
The remarks indicate that the Russian leader is continuing a military campaign of gradual escalation and pressure and does not regard the setbacks as a sign of failure.
The resistance goes on
The Ukrainian general staff, in a Facebook post on Friday, called the military’s efforts “the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian people to the Russian military invasion.”
The statement said Russian military leaders plan to transfer more forces from a military base in Armenia and that some Russian troops are refusing to fight after clashing with the Ukrainian forces.
About 130 Russian troops from the 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division surrendered, according to the statements.
“The enemy personnel [are] demoralized, suicides and self-mutilation became more frequent,” the statement said.
The battle over the southern Ukrainian port of Mykolaiv is one example of a surprisingly decisive Ukrainian victory.
According to a Wall Street Journal report, Russian artillery fired on the city for weeks until the Ukrainian military launched an effective counteroffensive that drove them out.
The city, a strategic gateway to the main Black Sea port of Odesa, was bombarded since the earliest days of the conflict.
Fierce resistance from the Ukrainian military and local defense teams prevented the city from being taken, although not without heavy casualties on both sides.
Mykolaiv Gov. Vitaliy Kim told The Journal that the Russians expected an easy victory and would be welcomed, but instead were driven back.
Placed on the defensive outside the city, the Russians are preoccupied with defending their positions and are using fire against the Ukrainian military rather than firing at targets in Mykolaiv.
“Some of the Russian infantry vehicles and tanks are just lost, wandering around. They don’t have communications, they don’t know where they are,” Mr. Kim said. “Sometimes they appear in our rear and start firing at any civilian car they see because they are afraid someone will jump out of that car with a rocket-propelled grenade and blast them.”
Another key battle for the Ukrainians took place in the early days of the operation when the Russians failed to take control of the military airfield at Hostomel, about 20 miles from Kyiv.
Had the Russians controlled the airfield, it would have permitted large numbers of additional forces to be flown into the country for an assault on the capital.
The Ukrainians recognized the urgency of preventing the airfield from falling. The military launched a multipronged attack that was able to defeat hundreds of Russian paratroopers dropped in the area and prevent further aerial drops, according to Ukrainian government reports of the battle.