Ukraine's 'indirect methods' help it avoid fighting a war it can't win with Russia, top British commanders say

Ukraine troops soldiers RPG sniper rifles Irpin
Ukrainian troops carry rocket-propelled grenades and sniper rifles toward the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, on March 13.Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
  • Ukrainian forces have turned the tide against Russia despite Moscow's military advantages.

  • Ukraine has benefited from international support and from Russia's failings on the battlefield.

  • Kyiv's "indirect" methods also help tilt the battlefield in its favor, top UK military leaders said.

ABOARD HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH — Ukraine has turned the tide against Russia since Moscow launched its invasion in late February, forcing the Russian military to reduce its ambitions and call up additional troops.

Heavy weapons and a strong will to fight, as well as Russia's military failings, have enabled Ukraine's success, but its creative use of technology has also helped shape the battlefield in its favor, two of the British military's highest-ranking officers said at the Atlantic Future Forum on September 28 and 29.

Speaking aboard the Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, which sailed to New York City to host the forum, Adm. Tony Radakin said the war showed the importance of being able to innovate and incorporate new technology quickly.

What's also visible is how Ukraine has "shifted away from being a 'little Russia' fighting a 'big Russia' in a very direct way and is adopting more indirect methods and how they are impacting on Russia's ability to maintain the territory it's gained," said Radakin, who is chief of the defense staff and the British military's highest-ranking officer.

"The direct method is really the classic war of attrition, and you're almost in a symmetry of the way that your enemy's fighting," Radakin added. "I think Ukraine has been adept at recognizing that if it fights as 'little Soviet' against 'big Soviet' or 'big Russia,' then 'big Russia' will win."

Russian tanks roll on the field in Leningrad, Russia.
Russian tanks during military drills in the Leningrad region on February 14.Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Ukraine's military declined in size and quality after the Cold War and was still mostly a Soviet-style force when Russia seized Crimea in 2014. Since then, Kyiv has modernized its forces and trained closely with the US and other NATO militaries.

Early in the war, Ukraine used small, mobile teams with anti-tank missiles to slow Russia's armored forces, which often advanced with little infantry support.

The war then became more static, with elements of a war of attrition such as heavy bombardments by artillery and cruise and ballistic missiles, mostly launched by Russia. In recent weeks, a rapid Ukrainian offensive has retaken vast swaths of territory in eastern Ukraine.

Radakin said that Ukrainian "bravery" in defense of cities forced Russia to limit its operations to eastern Ukraine and that Kyiv's willingness to cede territory in the east "allowed it to strengthen its defenses" and gave it "the capacity to do more in the south" as well as "impose pressure on parts of Russia and what Russia's trying to defend."

Some of those efforts have been narrow in scope but had a broader impact, Radakin added. "If you look at some of those attacks into Crimea, on their own they're tactical attacks, but what they actually do is they put Crimea at risk."

Other Ukrainian successes in the Black Sea, including the sinking of the Moskva and the recapture of Snake Island, "enabled the backdrop to be created for the grain to start flowing," Radakin said, referring to the resumption of grain exports in July.

Battlefield innovations

craashed sukhoi russia jet Ukraine's Defense Ministry.
An image of a crashed Russian Sukhoi jet in Ukraine shared by Ukraine's defense ministry.Ukrainian Defense Ministry

Older weapons of Soviet origin used by both militaries have played an important role in the war, but new weapons and older weapons used in new ways have also had an impact.

At the Air, Space, and Cyber Conference held outside Washington, DC, in September, Gen. James Hecker, the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, attributed most of Russia's aircraft losses to Ukrainian S-300 and Buk anti-aircraft missiles, both of Soviet design.

But Hecker also highlighted innovations, including the modification of a US-made anti-radiation missile to work with Ukraine's Soviet-era jets, allowing them to target Russian radars.

That modification was "no easy feat, but we did it in a couple weeks," Hecker told reporters. "I kind of joked with some of my folks that if we tried to do something like this on one of our planes, it would have taken a year."

Neither Ukraine nor Russia have gained air superiority, but Chris Dougherty, a former US Defense Department official, said during a Defense One event in September that both have substituted low-level drones "for more traditional forms of airpower for tactical targeting and intelligence gathering."

A Ukrainian soldier holds a drone
A Ukrainian soldier launches a reconnaissance drone in the Kyiv region on August 2.AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

"The scale and scope with which both sides in this fight are using small tactical drones as basically forward observers for artillery strikes is really, really something," said Dougherty, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

US military leaders have said that the fighting in Ukraine demonstrates the utility of and challenges posed by drones, and their use in the war has left an impression on US arms makers.

"As someone who's paid to make airplanes for a living, I find the use of drone technology by both sides to be very interesting," Tom Jones, the president of aeronautics at Northrop Grumman, said at the forum.

"Looking at that, as we now are trying to figure out how we better incorporate uncrewed systems into our own force structure and understanding what that family-of-systems approach ought to look like, will be useful," Jones added.

Ukraine has also found military uses for civilian technology. Kyiv has credited Starlink with keeping its troops and civilians online, and it repurposed an app meant to provide government services to take reports about Russian military activity.

Ukrainian troops use cellphones mobile smartphones
Ukrainian troops use smartphones in the center of Kyiv on June 22.SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images

"They had built an app, which was called Diia, which was a passport app," Eric Schmidt, the former chairman of Google and Alphabet, said at the forum.

Ukrainians can take a photo of a tank and submit it through the app to be identified using artificial intelligence, "and then a human makes a decision to target and shoot the tank," Schmidt said. "It's a completely different way of running a war."

Speaking alongside Schmidt, Gen. Patrick Sanders, the chief of the general staff and the British army's highest-ranking officer, said the war offered a glimpse of how new technology and old methods would mix on future battlefields.

"There are elements of it that look no different to what you were seeing in 1916, 1917," Sanders said, "but overlaid on top of that are some foretastes of what you can do to give yourself an advantage when you begin to apply those new technologies."

Sanders echoed Radakin, saying those advantages haven't been decisive but have allowed Kyiv to take an "indirect approach" and avoid "a symmetrical fight" with Russia.

"For me, we can forecast out to what a war with China or a very high-tech peer might look like, but there are clearly some facets that are enduring," Sanders said. "Right now, you're seeing how you can combine that sort of innovation and creativity with the stuff that will never change in warfare — the close combat, attrition, mass, and then maneuver."

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