The war in Ukraine is, geopolitically speaking, two wars in one: the war in the north; and the war in the south. The differences between the two are so great that they remind one of the opening stages of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, when distinctly different conditions shaped Israel’s two fronts, in the Sinai and Golan Heights. A smart strategy requires winning both wars simultaneously. Western attention, however, has been disproportionally focused on the northern front, where no major cities (at the time of writing) have been captured. Russia’s slowness in conquering Kyiv has created the sense that things are going better, in general, for Ukraine than they really are.
In the south, Russia’s advance has been radically more successful. There, Russian forces managed to penetrate deep, exploding north out of Crimea and taking the cities of Kherson and Melitopol, while besieging Mariupol, thereby cutting off Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov and securing a land corridor extending all the way from Donbas to Crimea.
As a result, the way is now open for Russian leader Vladimir Putin to conquer Odesa, which currently stands before a double threat. From the East, the Russian forces are fighting their way toward the city overland from Kherson, through Mykolaiv. At the same time, a huge armada is already positioned offshore, ready to strike. If Putin gives the order to take Odesa and the city falls, the blow to Ukrainian independence will be every bit as great as the conquest of Kyiv, and in some ways even greater.
Of course, Kyiv is the seat of the government and the birthplace of historic Rus. Its independence has deep cultural, political, and symbolic value that Odesa’s independence does not carry. But if Kyiv falls, the government and the military could still move westward to Lviv, where it would enjoy overwhelming international legitimacy and from which it could continue to lead the fight for independence. By contrast, if the Russians conquer Odesa, which is Ukraine’s busiest international port, thorough which most of its exports flow, the blow would be irrevocable. Ukraine would become a landlocked country.
Simultaneously, the power of Putin would increase dramatically. Not only would a revived Odesa become an economic jewel in the crown of the Russian Federation, but Russian forces would control the entire Black Sea coastline down to Romania and Moldova, both of which would become targets of coercive diplomacy. Without Ukraine to counterbalance Russia, the Black Sea would almost become a Russian lake. In sum, a Russian Federation in control of Crimea, much of Eastern Ukraine, the Sea of Azov and Odesa would be a much more powerful and dangerous beast than we have known since the end of the Cold War.
Once the distinction between north and south is drawn sharply in our minds, Putin’s grand strategy comes more clearly into view. He intends to take political control of the country through the conquest of Kyiv, but he also seeks to take geopolitical and economic control, almost certainly through the conquest of Odesa. With these objectives secured, he will work to pacify the entire East of the country from the Russian border to the Dnieper. He does not have sufficient forces to control the country west of the Dnieper. But the domination of the capital and the Black Sea coastline will turn the independent rump of the country into a landlocked and impoverished buffer zone, living perpetually under threat of further invasion.
In this scenario, the Dnieper River will become the new Berlin Wall. West Ukraine will become the new West Germany. If, however, it can retain Odesa, then the future trajectory of the two Ukraines will likely trace the political arc of the two Germanies, with the Russian-backed East Ukraine eager to rejoin its sister at the earliest opportunity. However, if West Ukraine becomes landlocked and economically crippled, then it risks becoming politically insignificant.
The most striking aspect of the opening stages of the war in Ukraine was the departure of the Russian forces from their familiar pattern of action. Doctrinally, the Russians organize their offensives in staggered formations. As observed in recent Russian drills, motorized rifle brigades first rupture defensive lines. Second, heavy armor exploits the breakthrough and widens the path. Finally, the Rosgvardiya, the National Guard of the Russian Federation, mops up any local resistance and protects critical facilities from sabotage. This template is largely built on the Soviet era operational art. Grau and Bartles, co-authors of the definitive study on the Russian military, The Russian Way of War, express the essential continuity as follows: whereas “the Soviet Red Army was an artillery army with many tanks,” the contemporary Russian force “is an artillery army with a lot of combat vehicles.”
But in the opening days of the Ukraine invasion, the generals in Moscow opened their campaign with so-called “thunder runs,” assaults carried out by relatively small detachments of airborne troops and reconnaissance units. With a light touch, they swiftly sought to paralyze or even collapse the government in Kyiv. Breaking with tradition, the Russian generals left their artillery and heavy armor behind at the invasion assembly points. Why?
Generals, as the saying goes, always prepare to fight the last war. For the top Russians military decision-makers of today, led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the last wars have been two: the hybrid campaign in Crimea in 2014, which was led by “little green men”; and the intervention in Syria, where the ground forces were provided by the Syrian Arab Army and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. The Russian General Staff’s most recent experiences have relied heavily on proxies, private contractors, and the deployment of the Russian AeroSpace Forces in ways that did not require close coordination with the Russian ground forces. In their recent careers, Shoigu and Gerasimov have not led a major campaign involving large-scale combined arms warfare in the form of a true inter-state war.
In short, they have stumbled but are now returning to the default, Soviet-style of warfare. This transition back to familiar patterns entails some difficulties for the Russians and, therefore, offers real opportunities for Ukraine and the West—provided they can act quickly and nimbly before the Russian behemoth remasters the art of fire and steel on a massive scale. If the opportunities are real, so are the dangers, and the time to exploit the Russian setbacks is short.
Russia’s opening moves on Kyiv sought to knock out the Ukrainian government with a swift blow that relied on speed and surprise to accomplish its objectives. Airborne forces attempted to take control of the Hostomel Airport (also known as Anotonov), on the outskirts of capital. The plan, it seems, was for National Guard units commanded by the Kremlin’s favorite general, Viktor Zolotov, to follow and pour into the streets of Kyiv to pacify local resistance. A puppet regime would have been installed. Had things gone to plan, the Ukrainian state would have been decapitated in days, and Western observers would have marveled at the new, smart way of Russian warfare. General Gerasimov would be recognized as the Russian Clausewitz in the making.
But the Gerasimov Plan failed—for several reasons. First, the Ukrainian defenders thwarted the initial assault against the Hostomel Airport, displaying skill in mobile defense tactics augmented by critical capabilities such as man-portable-air defense systems (MANPADS) and anti-armor weaponry. The Armed Forces of Ukraine also demonstrated an impressive level of cooperation with the local authorities and their people, who helped run rear-area security operations, thus thwarting Russian infiltrators and saboteurs who were operating behind the lines. Most important of all, the Ukrainian forces maintained their discipline and motivation, their morale buoyed by the example of President Volodymyr Zelenksy, who did not flinch in the face of the Russian assault.
When the “little green men” failed to achieve their objectives in Kyiv, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his generals did not abandon the effort to topple the Ukrainian government with a relatively light force. Instead, they ordered more attacks by airborne troops, now including famously brutal units such as the fighters of the Chechen strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov. Once again, however, the defenders showed surprising pluck, their lethality now boosted by surgical strikes carried out by the Bayraktar TB-2 unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which Ukraine purchases from Turkey. At the time of writing, Kadyrov’s units are still operating dangerously close to Kyiv. While they still pose a very serious threat, they nevertheless failed to deliver the swift knock-out blow that Putin had hoped for, and the time lost has been costly to the Russian campaign.
The failure of what might be called the “thunder run” strategy left Putin and his generals with no option but to revert to the traditional template based on artillery and heavy armor. Keen observers of the Russian military spotted heavyweight weaponry, such as TOS-1 thermobaric multiple-launch rocket systems, moving forward. At the same time, Su-34 tactical bombers were brought into action. The generals began directing overwhelming and indiscriminate firepower into select Ukrainian population centers. Cities such as Kharkiv and Chernihiv, to name just two, came under intensive shelling. The resulting images of the devastation provided a grim tutorial in the traditional Russian way of war.
Although the devastation reveals a shocking readiness to “liberate” Ukraine by reducing it to rubble, Putin’s barbarism does not portend a certain Russian victory. It has had a galvanizing impact on public opinion across the world, including in Russia itself but especially in Europe. If Western political leadership can transform this support into policies that will quickly strengthen Ukraine’s warfighting ability, a Russian victory is not inevitable.
Russia still has numerous challenges which will take time to overcome. To sustain a war of this scale over an extended period, especially a conflict conducted on enemy territory, the Russian forces must rely on the railway system. This need will only grow as they penetrate into deeper into Ukrainian territory. The initial assault, despite its brutality, failed to capture the transport targets, first and foremost the city of Kharkiv, the main rail hub in the country. When forced to move on its own power over roads and fields, the Russian mechanized formations confront very substantial logistical challenges. Thus, especially in the northern sector, the transition from the “thunder runs” based on airborne troops to the stage based on mechanized and armored units has been anything but seamless. Countless videos on social media document combat vehicles abandoned as they run out of fuel or break down, and Russian troops looting supermarkets in search of food to eat.
Logistics is now the Achilles heel of the Russian military—and it therefore has informed the choice of targets by the Ukrainian defenders. A comparison with the Azerbaijani strategy in the Second Karabakh War is instructive. According to Uzi Rubin, an Israeli missile warfare and air defense systems veteran, that war was “the first conflict in which unmanned air vehicles won a war from the air.” The Azerbaijanis used both Turkish and Israeli weapons. The Ukrainians, by contrast, have access only to Turkish TB-2s and only in limited numbers, but early evidence suggests that these TB-2s can help disrupt the Russian logistics during the transition—if, that is, the fleet will be replenished after losses.
Unlike the Azerbaijanis, however, the Ukrainians are in a defensive posture against a stronger adversary with robust combat formations. The utmost priority for Ukraine’s UAVs has not been eliminating the Russian combat platforms, such as battle tanks or artillery pieces, but more prosaic targets such as fuel tankers and supply vehicles feeding the Russian invasion. Of course, the Ukrainians have not refrained from striking combat platforms of opportunity, including mobile air defenses, but the bulk of their targets have been logistical in nature.
While this defensive strategy has failed, in general, to strip Russia of its firepower, it did immobilize large elements of the Russian invasion force, especially in the northern sector, keeping them away from the key targets needed to win the war quickly. If North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries can now manage to come in behind the Ukrainians quickly and adroitly (by deploying necessary forces in nearby allied territories and by resupplying the Ukrainian army directly), then this strategy has the potential to exhaust the Kremlin’s robust war machine. If we define “victory” as forcing Putin to accept a ceasefire and withdraw from most of Ukrainian territory without crippling Ukraine politically and economically, then Ukraine can “win” this war. For Ukraine, “winning” does not mean forcing Russia to surrender or annihilating all Russian combat formations; it means frustrating Putin’s major political objectives: toppling the Ukrainian government, cutting-off Ukraine from the Black Sea access, and installing yet another pro-Russian, puppet government in a post-Soviet state.
Given the power differentials, Russia will never “lose” in the conventional sense of the word. It would be naïve to expect a total Russian collapse. Even if things go extremely badly for Vladimir Putin and he decides that he must bring the invasion to an early end, he will still insist on permanent territorial gains. Thus, the Russian Federation will almost certainly maintain control of Crimea, possibly Kherson and Mariupol (the latter is currently besieged), to say nothing of Donetsk and Luhansk in the East.
That is the rosiest of scenarios for Ukraine, and it will be extremely lucky if it comes away with only those losses. Things will likely get much worse. Even so, the Ukrainians still have a fighting chance of maintaining their independent national life.
How can NATO prevent a debilitating partition of Ukraine? First and foremost, NATO should continue its efforts to strengthen the Ukrainian Air Force. The Russians have yet to claim complete control of the Ukrainian skies, due to, among other factors, a surprising inability to manage friend-and-foe deconfliction between their air force and the air defenses of their ground forces. In addition, while Russian missiles have disabled and damaged many Ukrainian airbases, a number remain in operation. Consequently, the Ukrainian Air Force, with manned and unmanned aircraft, is still operational and scoring kills.
Maintaining this capability and denying Russian air superiority could spell the difference between victory and defeat. Even if Kyiv falls in the coming days, Ukrainian ability to fly manned and unmanned missions will keep large contingents of Russian armor stalled and under constant risk.
The top priority is, therefore, to transfer to the Ukrainians all the Soviet-manufactured aircraft that currently exist in the arsenals of NATO member nations. This is so, because the Ukrainian pilots are trained on Soviet equipment, and learning to fly Western-manufactured aircraft is too time-consuming to be effective in the midst of the war. Slovakia, Bulgaria, and Poland have Mig-29s in their air forces, and Bulgaria also operates a few Su-25 attack aircraft for close-air support roles. The importance of delivering these aircraft, and delivering them fast, cannot be overstated.
Poland is the key to success in keeping the Ukrainian air force alive. Not only does it have the largest fleet of Soviet planes, but, logistically, it represents the best assembly area and supply route. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian aircraft cannot execute combat missions flying back-and-forth from the Polish territory, as this would drag Warsaw into war with Russia, but Poland can offer a haven to the Mig-29 packages before their delivery to Ukraine.
America can help. Russia, however, will certainly direct its ire at Warsaw. The US should therefore come in behind the Poles by helping them to secure their Ukrainian border with beefed up air defenses and with the deployment of American air policing contingents—to deter a Russian aggression during the transfers. All three potential candidates for transferring planes to the Ukrainian Air Force—Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Poland—purchase American planes. The first two are already set to receive the F-16V while Poland will become another NATO nation to fly F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Thus, Washington can incentivize these countries to assist Ukraine by, among other measures, promising to speed up deliveries of equipment. Transferring additional, stop-gap F-16Vs to Poland would also help until the F-35 deliveries are made.
The EU nations, most of which are already sending military aid to Ukraine, can also help with financing the Ukrainian Air Force. Retired pilots have been already returning to service in Ukraine but non-Ukrainians are likely available. The Zelensky government has already established a foreign legion. The EU nations should help to organize and finance an air-contingent for the legion.
The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, boldly stated that “for the first time, the EU will finance the purchase and delivery of weapons and equipment to a country under attack.” Why shouldn’t EU-support also include increasing Ukraine’s pool of capable pilots?
In addition to manned aircraft, allies, especially Turkey, can also supply UAVs. As noted, Turkish UAVs have clearly helped the Ukrainian military repel the attackers. Increasing their supply should be a top priority, especially since Ukrainian teams are already trained in their use. Turkish-Ukrainian defense cooperation remains a pillar of the transatlantic security architecture in the Black Sea region. It’s worth remembering that at a time when the Russian buildup has been intensifying along the Ukrainian frontier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan flew to Kyiv and signed co-production deals for Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The second priority of NATO is to prevent Putin from turning Ukraine into a landlocked country by helping to bolster the defenses of Odesa. The Ukrainian defensive effort should focus on two critical advance routes. The first is the land corridor along the Mykolaiv-Odesa axis. Along this route, elements from Russia’s robust 58th Kavkaz Army and the 7th Air-Assault Division of the Russian Airborne Forces are leading the offensive, while receiving support from the Black Sea Fleet. This is a concentration of tough forces with extensive warfighting experience. Thus, the Ukrainian defenders will need all the manpower and weaponry they can absorb.
Open-source intelligence documents a massive buildup of amphibious forces between Crimea and Odesa. From a military standpoint, the silver-bullet solution for halting an amphibious offensive is to do it before the landing takes place: either by sinking ships and landing craft, or credibly threatening to do so. This requires high-end, real-time intelligence and adequate anti-access and area denial capabilities, such as anti-ship missiles fired from on shore. To be successful, the Russians must ensure that they enjoy at least local air superiority over the landing zone and the route to it. Thus, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems would also be of great value in stopping an amphibious assault.
Ukraine developed the Neptune anti-ship missile program before the war. The shape of the program and the number of available missiles are not available to those of us who rely on open-source intelligence. Nevertheless, the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s Kalibr cruise missiles, as well as the Crimea-based 27th Air Division, can eliminate the missile batteries in a short order, if they have not done so already. Ukraine does not possess a naval deterrent to counter this threat. Likewise, Ukraine has no submarine force, so intercepting the landing party from the silent depths is not an option.
Consequently, we can assume that the Russians do indeed have the available capabilities to conduct the landing, especially when a substantial part of Ukraine’s coastal defense elements, namely the Ukrainian naval infantry, is overstretched due to the additional requirement of defending the besieged Azov coastal city of Mariupol. When Mariupol falls, it would be extremely difficult to send these units, or what is left of them, back to Odesa. In sum, the organic defenses of Odesa, the military and mobilized volunteer formations, will have to defend the city on their own.
For the site of the landing, the Russians can opt either for the main port area, or the Dofinivka beach in the east. After one analyzes the specific capabilities of Russian amphibious assault forces, it becomes likely that a Russian landing will take place together with a simultaneously assault from the air on Odesa Airport, which indeed has already been hit. These operations will be carried out by highly skilled Russian troops, but they are inherently risky, leaving the invaders vulnerable before and during the establishment of the beachhead. Afterward, they will be forced into urban warfare, which is particularly hazardous for ground troops.
A successful amphibious assault must be a blitz conducted with an element of surprise. Given that the force buildup is already in place, the surprise factor will likely, and solely, pertain to the timing of the attack. As important as weaponry to the defenders will be knowledge of when the amphibious assault will begin and where the beachhead will be. Therefore, the most important kind of assistance that NATO members can offer the Ukrainian defenders is real-time intelligence and command and control assistance. In addition, in an assault, the Russian amphibious forces’ light-armored vehicles are susceptible to anti-tank arms, including Javelins, and the supporting air platforms flying at low altitudes are exceptionally vulnerable to MANPADS. When delivering this assistance, NATO should work to ensure that Odesa gets a share of the supplies commensurate with its strategic importance.
Finally, President Zelenksy’s survival on Ukrainian soil is also vitally important, in that he now represents to the world Ukrainian patriotism and resiliency. Western intelligence organs, and if needed special operations forces, should ensure the elected Ukrainian President’s safe evacuation from Kyiv to some other part of Ukraine, if it comes to that.
Ukrainian defenders have inflicted serious losses on the invaders, but these losses should not be confused with victory. The Russians have the upper hand and are poised to grow even stronger. Their vulnerabilities, however, are very real. A swift exploitation of them can undermine Putin’s legitimacy and Russia’s prestige. There is still much the West can do to avert total defeat—provided it acts quickly and with strategic purpose.
Credit: Map by George Barros, Kathryn Tyson, and Thomas Bergeron. © Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project