The Crucial Difference in How Russia and Ukraine Wage War

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On Saturday, Ukraine showed why it is winning its war against Russia. On Monday, Russia showed why it is losing. Those two days revealed sharp contrasts between the two militaries. One is clever, well prepared, willing to undertake complex operations, and focused on maximally damaging its enemy’s ability to fight. The other is prone to bursts of rage and is open to committing any crime possible, but its actions are ultimately self-defeating.

The Ukrainian attack on the Crimean Bridge was typical of how the Ukrainian high command has waged war. Also known as the Kerch Bridge, the span was a legitimate military target. The road link between Russian-occupied Crimea and Russia itself has been helpful to the invaders’ war effort, but far more important are the railroad lines that run across it. The Russian army depends on trains for its supply of heavy equipment and ammunition. This reliance is a major liability. Especially after the Ukrainians have captured or destroyed so many Russian vehicles, the invasion force lacks enough trucks to ship supplies to locations remote from working rail lines. Though the level of damage to the tracks on the Crimean Bridge is unclear, their capacity to carry freight was reduced at least temporarily. Another attack might rupture them completely.

Earlier Ukrainian attacks against Russian rail capacity, most notably the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System strikes that started in July, have cut Vladimir Putin’s forces in Ukraine into two separate supply zones that do not support each other. Russian forces in the east, based around Donetsk and Luhansk, can draw their supplies from directly over the Russian border. But the Ukrainians have essentially cut the rail lines from those areas to Russian forces in the south and west. So everything needed by the Russian soldiers trying to hold off Ukrainian counteroffensives in the Kherson region must be shipped by rail over the Crimean Bridge and up through the Crimean peninsula. If the Ukrainians could sever that rail line completely, Russian stockpiles at the front would soon run down, food and medical equipment would likely grow scarce, and already tired Russian soldiers would eventually lose the ability to mount sustained operations.

Russia’s dependence on this one supply line has been a constant source of worry for Putin and his generals. Its evident vulnerability is one reason they supposedly went to great lengths to defend the Crimean Bridge from attack. This is what made Saturday’s operation so crucial: The Ukrainians identified a logistical target of potentially decisive importance, secretly developed a plan to eliminate it, kept word from leaking out, and then executed the plan with considerable success.

The operation came as a huge shock in Moscow. Unnamed Ukrainian officials have told media outlets that their country’s intelligence services had used a truck bomb on the bridge, but Kyiv still has not officially taken responsibility for the attack, much less disclosed its methods.  The uncertainty allows Ukraine and its supporters to troll the Russians, circulating multiple theories about what happened, including the possibility that the bridge explosion was an act of sabotage by an anti-Putin political group in Russia. (Earlier today, Russian domestic-intelligence officials announced the arrest of eight people, including five Russian citizens, in connection with the incident.) The operation and subsequent propaganda efforts are bound to make Russians fear that the Ukrainians will attack the bridge again.

On Monday, the Russians responded in a manner that was both homicidal and pointless. Starting early in the morning, they fired almost every type of missile in their arsenal—including their supposedly accurate Kalibr cruise missiles; repurposed, less accurate S-300 anti-aircraft missiles; and Iranian kamikaze drones—against civilian targets in major Ukrainian cities. For two days they used this motley collection of expensive weaponry to show Ukraine their anger and muscle and to mollify nationalist hard-liners incensed over Russia’s recent defeats. Yet Russian officials are inadvertently revealing their powerlessness over much of Ukrainian resistance. The total cost of this Russian operation will be enormous. One advanced missile can cost more than $10 million—and Russia has fired many of them. Moreover, because of sanctions that keep it from obtaining high-tech equipment such as advanced microchips, Russia will have great difficulty replenishing its shrinking supply.

And what has it gained from this extraordinary expenditure? The Russians have hit little of military value. The missiles and drones that penetrated Ukrainian air defenses hit a bizarre assortment of mostly unthreatening targets—residential districts, public parks, a tourist bridge, some government buildings, and a few infrastructure facilities of modest importance. Far from damaging Ukraine’s ability to fight off the invasion, this week’s strikes have probably increased it in three distinct ways. First, they have provided the Ukrainians with more experience shooting down Russian offensive equipment. The defenders have learned to adjust to new equipment with impressive speed. So far, Ukraine has credibly claimed to have shot down at least half of the missiles Russia has targeted at the country since Monday, a sign that its armed forces are getting better and better at what they do.

Also, instead of weakening Ukrainian resistance, these Russian attacks will likely turbocharge it. Little historical evidence suggests that military atrocities against civilians weaken the morale of a country under attack. Such violence typically deepens the desire to resist the attacker. Already convinced that they were in an existential conflict with Russia, Ukrainians will now be even more skeptical of any deal Putin offers. They know that this is an enemy they can never trust. Russian soldiers in their weakened position on the front lines, and recent conscripts being hastily trained for deployment, will find themselves fighting an even more implacable and determined Ukrainian foe.

Finally, Ukraine’s allies are responding by providing more aid—including the vital air-defense equipment that President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government has been eager to procure. Just yesterday, for instance, the German government announced that it had delivered an Iris-T air-defense system to Ukraine. The United States also says it intends to speed up the shipment of National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems. Going forward, Russia’s attacks will likely increase the pressure on other NATO countries to hasten the transfer of advanced weaponry to Ukraine.

So although Russia’s sadistically eye-catching missile campaign might play well on Russian TV, it is an expensive strategic disaster for Russia’s military goals.

Events since Saturday illustrate why the war has unfolded as it has. One tightly targeted, carefully planned, and well-executed operation opens up the possibility of great strategic gains for Ukraine. In contrast, an expensive, showy, brutal campaign by Putin’s military forces has only made Russia’s task harder. The Russians have misunderstood the fundamental dynamics of this war from the start, and their inability to adjust continues to be a great advantage for Ukraine.

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