Over the last two weeks, Ukrainian sources on Telegram have been increasingly gloomy. That’s not because Russia has made major advances. Ukraine has maintained its position across the Dnipro River at Krynky, northeast of Kherson. It has pushed back Russian attempts to recapture Robotyne on the southern front, held open the critical salient at Avdiivka, and completely squelched Russian attempts to capture Kupiansk at the far northern end of the line.
By most accounts, Ukraine is continuing to do what it has done since the fall: hold position against near-continuous waves of Russian assaults, extracting a heavy toll on Russian forces. Russia has lost another 20,000 men since DailyKos took our last detailed look at the state of the front lines in December. Russia continues to lose a lot of tanks and troop carriers, its assaults are no better organized than before, and its forces continue to take inexplicable actions (Warning: Russian forces sitting in an open vehicle in the middle of no man’s land and … you can guess the rest).
What has changed is that there are increasing reports that Ukrainian forces are just bloody tired. That operations are running on superhuman efforts that can’t be sustained. That Ukrainian artillery units are being forced to retreat, or are incapable of halting a Russian advance because they are too low on shells. And that some Ukrainian units are unable to fill their ranks because Ukrainians are all too aware of conditions at the front.
As an example of what’s circulating among Ukrainian military bloggers, here’s a (translated) post from earlier in the week. Warning: It’s a bit confusing because it’s the product of translation software. I’m sure if I spoke Ukrainian (and by now, I really should have learned), it would be better. But I’m barely monolingual, so … sorry about that.
This message is fairly typical of what’s circulating at the moment: a general expression that too much is being asked of those on the front line and that filling gaps has become increasingly difficult. This fits with stories centered around how the average age of Ukrainian soldiers has been increasing throughout the war and reported efforts to remove age limits for those already in service who want to stay.
But what that older army does not represent is any effort by younger Ukrainians to evade service. Right now, Ukraine’s age of conscription is set at 27. There is a proposal to lower that age to 25. For Americans who watched generations of young people dragged off to Vietnam or Korea, it may sound strange that Ukraine is conscripting older men while leaving the younger ones alone (though volunteers are allowed down to 18, and there are a lot of them). But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made it clear that this is the plan: Protect the seed corn.
Ukraine, like all nations in Europe, has seen what it means to come through a devastating war in which a huge percentage of young men were lost. They are trying to avoid that. They don’t want to just win the war; they want to win the war with a nation that is poised to win the peace that follows.
In December, Ukraine’s military proposed mobilizing up to 500,000 more Ukrainians in response to increasing numbers of Russian forces at the front. That’s the reason for the proposal of dropping the age of conscription by two years. Ukraine isn’t dragging kids out of school and sending them to the front lines. It’s not drafting pensioners. You’ll have to look elsewhere for that.
However, repeated accounts of troop shortages among Ukrainian forces, and of select units being required to hold their positions while hugely outnumbered again, and again, and again, are more than concerning. They suggest that, in what has become a war of attrition since at least the fall, Ukraine’s losses, while they may be much lower than Russia’s, may still be more than Ukraine can sustain long-term.
Ukraine has been winning this war day after day. But their long-term ability to do so has never been a guarantee.
The reports of a shortage of artillery shells are also extremely concerning. It’s not a surprise that this could happen. Despite efforts to increase production in many Western countries, it’s been clear from almost the first day of the invasion that if it came down to matching the unbelievable number of shells Russia was expending, Ukraine could not keep up—even if bolstered by every shell the West could provide. The reason for this wasn’t some superb industrial base cranking out those shells in Russia. It was simply that Russia was sitting on a massive heap of ammo resulting from decades of planning just one kind of war: using artillery to crush opposing positions before advancing with infantry. That Russia is now using decades-old shells in Ukraine is just a symbol of how it’s waging a kind of war it’s been planning since the Cold War.
Western strategy was based on combined arms operations that were more dependent on air power and the proper mix of equipment than on artillery. Since the strategy didn’t lean heavily on artillery, Western nations didn’t stockpile nearly as many artillery shells as did Russia.
If the war comes down to a straight-out artillery slugfest, Ukraine is not prepared to win that fight. Not even with every nation in the West at its back.
Fortunately, Russia cannot sustain the level of artillery fire that it displayed when capturing locations like Severodonesk in the summer of 2022. At that time, Ukraine estimated Russia was burning through up to 60,000 shells a day. Those numbers had dropped by two-thirds a year later. They may be down by 90% now.
Russia has clearly burned through much of its old stock of artillery ammo, including some that were less than reliable. In recent days, additional stocks have begun to arrive from another country that has spent the last 60 years focusing on a tactic of simply deploying enough ammunition to turn everything ahead of them into powder: North Korea.
Kim Jong Un’s restock of Vladimir Putin’s artillery cabinet has been estimated at up to 1 million shells. Even so, that would only be a few weeks of firing at the rate that Russia established earlier in the invasion.
But things have changed. They’ve changed for both Russia and Ukraine, and the single word that best describes how they have changed is simply … drones.
Drones are performing two roles in the war right now: 1) They are taking the place of artillery, directly attacking equipment and groups of personnel with a precision that allows each drone to substitute for many dumb artillery shells; and 2) they are providing precise, real-time positions of equipment on both sides, which makes artillery systems much more effective than they have been in the past.
Here’s one of open-source analyst Andrew Perpetua’s most recent compilations of losses for both Russia and Ukraine.
Some of the losses on the Ukrainian side are unusual because this reflects one of Russia’s recent heavy missile attacks hitting a gathering of Ukrainian fuel trucks (and honestly, that may have been sheer bad luck). But the bulk of losses on both sides come from the same source that has dominated the list for months. It’s drones, and especially inexpensive FPV drones, that are out there taking down equipment.
That doesn’t mean artillery doesn’t still have a role. On the Ukrainian side, artillery and cluster munitions are being used very effectively against attempted advances by Russian “meat waves” of poorly-protected infantry. Russia is using artillery to do what it always did, crush buildings containing Ukrainian artillery positions. Only now Russia is doing that with the assistance of drones that help them both target positions and perfect firing arcs.
While artillery systems are being lost at a high rate (the Ukrainian General Staff reports 30 Russian guns taken out on Friday), artillery is still playing a large role.
Back at the beginning of the counteroffensive, there were reports that U.S. and Ukrainian generals had gotten into a fight over the proper strategy for an attack on Russian positions. The U.S. generals wanted Ukraine to adopt a more Western approach that leaned heavily on combined arms. Ukrainian generals were convinced that lacking both air superiority and adequate training, they weren’t prepared to pull off Western tactics. They moved toward the familiar artillery and small unit tactics of Russia.
Since then, everyone has been searching for the winning formula against the drone/artillery combo. No one has found it.
Unfortunately, Ukraine may not be capable of carrying out a long-term war of attrition in which drones and artillery are the center of power. That’s especially true of North Korea and Iran supplying missiles so that Russia can resume its regular program of just shooting the shit out of civilian infrastructure, homes, and other structures far from the front. Germany, the U.S., and other allies have provided Ukraine with a large amount of air defenses over the past year, and going into the fall those air defenses, along with Russia’s shrinking stockpiles, had greatly decreased the number and effectiveness of combined drone/missile attacks. But Russia is now testing those defenses using the sheer numbers made possible by fresh shipments of weapons. It’s not clear how long they can sustain that attack, but it’s seriously disheartening to see a return of these events at this point in the war.
For months, we’ve been telling you about Russia’s massive losses and Ukraine’s success in defending positions against unbelievably wasteful and poorly planned attacks. That’s still true. But for Ukraine to win the war as it stands now, the West needs to step up and see that it can at least come close to matching Russia’s capacity on both drones and artillery—hopefully, with a dash of more effective electronic warfare on the side.
Otherwise, the question of whose well will run dry first seems more uncertain than it did six months ago.
No matter what else is happening, it’s nice to know that T-72s still go up like dropping a match on a dried-out Christmas tree.
Before I give you the impression that the dissatisfaction is all on one side…