The drone attacks on Moscow which began last week represent a change in the strategic approach of Ukraine to the war. For the first time, it appears to be targeting civilian areas, mirroring – albeit at a far smaller scale – Russia’s current approach. There are two clear reasons behind this. First, to demonstrate to Russians that their vaunted air defenses cannot protect them. Second, here is a closely-connected message to the Putin regime: not only are you not immune from attack, but we are now on the offensive. These operations are part of a much larger campaign, which is commonly known as the “counteroffensive” – Ukraine’s summer operations to retake its territory. Along with the incursions of various evidently Ukrainian-sponsored Russian armed-groups to Belgorod, these are intended to “shape” the informational and military space to assist the offensive – destabilizing and deceiving Russian forces. There has been some comment as to whether Putin’s regime will “escalate.” This raises the next question as to what options are available to do so? The answer is simple – few, if any. Further, the decision to supply effective fighter aircraft to Ukraine represents an inflection point in the balance of military power, from which Russia will find it difficult to recover.
What options are available for Putin's regime to escalate? The answer is simple – few, if any.
Let's start with the ground war. On the battlefront itself, Russia stands on the defensive. The taking of Bakhmut was a classic example of Pyrrhic victory. This relatively insignificant town cost Russia tens of thousands of lives, and consumed vast resources over a period of eight months. More widely, its armored forces are eviscerated, with clear and reliable information available of it having lost over 2000 tanks, about half its original inventory, and as The Insider reported two weeks ago now reduced to drawing from stocks of 1960s vehicles. Tanks captured from the Russian army constitute the largest single supply to the Ukrainian army. Armored vehicles are not being manufactured at anything like the rate required to make good the losses sustained. Efforts to recruit and train men to replace the huge casualties have, not perhaps surprisingly been largely unsuccessful. The consequence is that there can and will be no options available for offensive action on the part of Russian ground forces in the foreseeable future.
Moving into the air domain, Russia is already firing dozens of missiles every day into Ukraine. About 90% of these are shot down by Ukraine’s air defenses. Those few that get through kill and maim hundreds of civilians every month. It has become clear that virtually no Russian missile system is immune from destruction by Ukraine’s western supplied systems, notably the Patriot 3, which regularly shoots down the much-vaunted Kinzhal “hypersonic” missiles. It is clear that Russian supplies of precision-guided missiles are dwindling, with recently assembled missiles now being used – but so are the older Ukrainian-operated Soviet era S-300 and Buk anti-aircraft missiles. It is highly likely that the purpose of recent and frequent attacks on Kyiv have the purpose of using up Ukrainian supplies of this form of defensive weaponry. However, with western-supplied modern systems flowing in, it is unlikely that this particular objective will succeed. In the medium-term (over the next year), Ukraine will transition entirely to western systems such as the successful IRIS-T, NASAMs and, of course, the Kinzhal-killing Patriot 3.
The chance for Russia to destroy Ukraine's air defenses was during the first week of the war, when the AFU was unpractised in avoiding destruction from the air. Now they are masters of doing so.
What about the VKS – surely they are in better shape, and offer options for Russian action? Save for acting as launch platforms for the aforementioned missiles directed at civilian targets, the Russian Air and Space Force (VKS) has played a relatively small role in the conflict over the last year. The same, by the way, is true for the Ukrainian Air Force, and for the same reason. The very capable ground-based air defenses of both sides have acted to provide what air power experts call “mutual denial” in the air over the battlefield. In other words, neither side can reasonably safely deploy aircraft to support ground forces. For NATO, undertaking any kind of ground battle without first establishing control of the air by destroying an enemy’s air defenses is anathema. The chance for Russia to do this was the first week of the war, whilst Ukrainian forces were unpractised in avoiding destruction from the air. Now they are masters of doing so. It is too late now for the VKS to do this, as to put it bluntly, they have shown themselves incapable of operating the kind of sophisticated Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) operations required to do so. The reason for this is that Russian doctrine (method of operations) did not focus on air power in the same way that NATO’s does. To be fair, without US assistance, European air forces would be almost equally incapable of this SEAD function. However, that is academic, since European air forces do have the support of the US Air Force.
Reliable assessments indicate that despite the losses it has sustained (about 10% of its force), VKS operational effectiveness and potential is still high. However, VKS commanders are keen to ensure that they retain some kind of air defense, and indeed offensive capability, in case NATO becomes involved in the war.
This, essentially, is the reason that the war has devolved to the kind of artillery-centered tactics last seen really in the First World War. When airstrikes are not available – due to effective ground-based defenses – the only way to strike at your enemy remotely is through artillery of one form or another. Ukraine’s acquisition of long-range precision-guided artillery systems, such as HIMARS, has enabled them partially to offset their inability to use air power to strike behind Russian lines. The result has been that Russian logistics has attempted to move further away from the front lines, causing even more logistical problems, as supplies now have to make their way across ground under Ukrainian missile fire.
We have looked so far at the land and air domains. The third traditional combat environment, the sea, whilst significant, is not decisive. Russia, of course, could attempt to close the grain supply from Ukraine off completely. In that event, however, the West would certainly offset any losses.
So, are there any “aces up the sleeve” that Russia could deploy to retaliate? The answer is no. Russia has no options for escalation against Ukraine in the three conventional military domains. All arrows in the quiver, so to speak, have been fired. Ideas that certain “new” weapons systems such as the vaunted but largely useless Armata tank, or the rather rare Su-57 fighters, might save the day, are misconceived. Even if they were deployed in large numbers, they would not be able to save the day.
Russia has no options for escalation against Ukraine in the three conventional military domains.
There is, of course, the option of some form of action against western forces, such as an attempted shootdown of a NATO intelligence gathering aircraft. This was tried against a British Royal Air Force reconnaissance aircraft in October last year, although it is not clear whether the attempt was authorized at a high level. Fortunately for everyone concerned, the attack failed. It is reasonable to assume that in the aftermath, warnings were delivered to the effect that any repeat would be considered an act of aggression and result in devastating and decisive conventional retaliation. Whilst Russian air defenses are strong, in principle, they have no effective answer to the increasingly numerous and effective F-35 stealth aircraft, which form the backbone for most major NATO air forces that might be deployed against Russia. Few western air power analysts would disagree with the argument that in a fight against NATO, Russia’s air force and indeed, its defenses more widely, would be devastated by such a response. The prospects of such a conflict, of course, give rise to a whole new conversation involving nuclear threats and even the use of nuclear weapons.
In themselves, the F-16s are highly unlikely to be “game changers.” They will make little difference on the battlefield itself. More than tanks, or missile artillery systems, they constitute a visible token of long-term, high-technology commitment to the defense of Ukraine by the West as a whole.
Russia’s conventional military situation relative to Ukraine is only likely to get worse from here, barring some disastrous defeat of the upcoming counteroffensive operations. The inflection point was the announcement of the US removing its objections to the delivery of F-16 jet aircraft. In themselves, they are highly unlikely to be “game changers.” For a start, there will be an insufficient number to make a significant difference to the overall situation. Secondly, they will face exactly the same problems as the VKS jet fighters – and indeed the Ukrainian MiG 29S – face now, an effective and at the moment intact enemy air defense system. They will act to supplement Ukraine’s air defenses, but they will make little difference on the battlefield itself. The aircraft themselves, then, are not the important feature here. What is vital is what they represent. More than tanks, or missile artillery systems, they constitute a visible token of long-term, high-technology commitment to the defense of Ukraine by the West as a whole, and the US in particular. What we are seeing is the rebirth of Ukrainian air power, which with NATO assistance over the medium-term (i.e. the next two to five years) will – in due course – make a decisive impact on the overall balance of power.
Cover photo: Ukrainian soldiers on a tank ride along the road toward their positions near Bakhmut on Tuesday. Source: Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press (AP)