Military Affairs Strategic Thinking

War in Ukraine: how Ukraine could keep the momentum and not be halted by winter

Tomáš Iliev

As Ukraine braces itself for another winter amidst a conflict that has lasted nearly two years, the war’s tactics must be adjusted to the upcoming cold months. Crucially, Ukrainians are doing so, and it looks promising.

Since February 2022, Ukraine has been defending its territory against Russian aggression. The initial opinions of some experts and the pro-Russian-oriented public that Ukraine would fall within days or weeks did not take place. It is a miracle for some, but Ukraine has been fighting the aggressor for over a year and a half. The aims of Ukrainian forces have changed over time – from defending Kyiv and attacking long convoys of the Russian army at the very beginning of the invasion to the long-awaited offensive, which still takes place. Ukrainian forces have already used various tactics (western ones included). Still, their use of artillery, combined with attacking Russian positions in small, fast-moving groups, appears to be the most effective. 

Regarding Russia, we can expect the scenario observable during the previous winter. The Russian military will be attacking Ukrainian forces but will also focus on the energetic infrastructure of the country. Russians understand that to prolong the war and undermine Ukraine’s faith in its victory, a ruthless attack on ordinary people would bring at least partial results during the winter. However, as they proved in the previous winter, Ukrainians will not easily allow Russian terror to discourage them from fighting for their freedom. Russia will rely again on the mentioned tactics this winter. 

However, Ukraine must adapt its tactics to the upcoming winter months, as the “summer offensive” might end soon. Ukraine cannot halt its military operations and allow Russians to prepare another line of defence – full of mines, trenches and dangerous fire positions. Ukraine must continue targeting Russian positions and exhaust the Russian units even during the upcoming winter. Crucially, it looks promising for now, so the Ukrainian army will be able to conduct operations in mud and cold, both characteristic of winter in Ukraine, especially in its eastern regions. Winter introduces a unique set of difficulties, but the tactics of small mobile groups could be successful.

The usage of small, fast-mobile groups has its relevance. The tactics when robust companies of infantry and heavy assault vehicles could launch an attack unspotted are over due to the technical amenities used on the battlefields of Ukraine today. Despite heavy losses on artillery, Russia still holds a sufficient number of canons capable of destroying any larger company of the Ukrainian army once spotted by their drones. Therefore, one of the reasons for the persistence of implementing the tactics of small, fast-mobile units is based on the essential factor of every war – preserving soldiers alive. Ukraine cannot lose its personnel in attacks involving vast groupings of soldiers and military techniques, as such an effort usually accompanies increased loss of lives. It could be successful in the end, but an attack of robust armed groupings could lead Ukraine’s military to lose momentum and ability to continue engaging the enemy, as there is a high probability to yield an increased number of soldiers and military techniques.

Ukraine must use small and mobile groups of personnel (20 people maximum) that are not spotted easily and can quickly change positions or carry unspotted and unexpected attacks. Proven on the battlefields in Ukraine, this tactic could be successful when combined with heavy artillery and drones, confirmed by the latest development around the contested town of Bakhmut. According to the Ukrainian military commanders, small assault units are behind the gains of the Ukrainian army around Bakhmut in recent weeks. What is more, units composed of a small number of soldiers brought success to military operations to retake the villages Andriivka and Klishchiivka, both crucial in the Ukrainian effort to retake Bakhmut. Notably, it is the way of waging the war that Ukrainians did not invent but tested and proved to be the most suitable one for the current stage of the conflict. However, it is notable that Russians have also adjusted their strategies, as the initial tactics of massive groupings seeking to break the Ukrainian defence lines were inadequate – as we could observe in the battle for Kyiv, for example. 

Minor, fast-mobile groups favour Ukraine’s chances not to allow the Russians to rest and continue attacking even during the winter. Also, large groupings of personnel and armoured techniques have mobility problems in muddy terrain unique to the battlefields of eastern Ukraine. As soon as October/November starts, the most challenging obstacle is the terrain. However, the mentioned small and fast groupings of soldiers could keep Ukraine in momentum, as their vehicles do not get stuck in the mud easily, compared to heavy tanks or heavily armoured vehicles. Therefore, even this factor makes the proposed tactics more suitable for the winter war. 

On the other hand, more than the tactics where the small grouping of infantry and light armoured vehicles are used will be needed for the success of Ukraine in regaining its territory from Russian occupation. Long-range missiles delivered by Western allies play a crucial role in Ukraine’s ability to expel Russian forces from its territory. Even though small groups of soldiers could create an opportunity to retake the occupied territory, it would not be possible without Kyiv’s ability to neutralize supply lines and military stockings, especially in the occupied territories of Ukraine. 

Small, fast-moving groups need to engage with the enemy whose ammunition and food supplies are restricted, and morale is decreased. Proved by the latest attack on the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Navy (most probably) conducted by UK-made Storm Shadow missiles, Ukraine has the capacity to not only target supplies of ammunition and food but also the targets located deep in Russian-occupied territory. Most importantly, the awaited ATACMS (USA) and Taurus (Germany) missiles and the F-16 jets could significantly improve Ukraine’s ability to target Russian logistics and supplies, as they could hit Russian targets more in-depth in the occupied territory (airfields, bridges, and headquarters), what could lead into the success of the infantry on the ground. 

To achieve the victory, Western allies must continue with military and economic support to Ukraine, imposing additional sanctions against Russia and persisting Kyiv’s diplomatic backing. Putin and Russia are prepared to wage a lengthy conflict. Thus, Ukraine needs stable and continual help from its allies to end the war, retake the occupied territories, and expel Putin’s ambitions on its sovereign territory. 

Author: Tomáš Iliev

This brief is supported by

NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division

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